I had the pleasure of reading Abbi Waxman’s first book, THE GARDEN OF SMALL BEGINNINGS, when it released in 2017, and I was an instant fan. (I wrote about in the blog here.)
Last month, she released her third book, THE BOOKISH LIFE OF NINA HILL, which is delightful, and I took a minute to have a phone call with her to dive into her mind.
Part of the reason for this—which you’ll understand if you’ve read all of her books—is that Garden and Nina Hill are very similar in tone, yet book 2, OTHER PEOPLE’S HOUSES, is decidedly different, and I was fascinated by that. That an author, in her second title, would write such a completely different book, especially after the first one was so well-received. I loved all three books and highly recommend them all, but one of these things was not like the others, and I wanted to know more. (I wrote a little bit about the difference between Garden and Houses last year.)
“It would certainly be a lot easier,” Waxman mused, “if I kept to one sort of storytelling, but I can’t seem to help what comes along. I kind of get caught on an idea and then I write it out, and I don’t seem to have any control in how it gets written, in terms of voice or tone. It all just happens.”
Let me say here that Abbi Waxman has a lovely English accent, a rather whimsical perspective on life and writing, a sweet, intense yet slightly amused love for her three teenage daughters, and an obvious affection for her LA neighborhood, Larchmont, which she has brought to colorful life on the page in each of her books (though she assures me that the bookstore is much more financially stable than the one in Nina Hill).
Waxman talks about her writing as if it somehow magically happens, and a book is born. She talked about plotting being hard work, “sometimes totally confounding,” and how she blithely writes the first fifteen thousand words, then finds herself “in the darkness, flailing, in a complete blind panic.”
She wishes that it were easier for her, this book writing thing, because “it’s in no way effortless or elegant. I think of myself as the elephants and giraffes dancing past in Fantasia.” I’m sure you can see where I get the whimsy from, but there is something so refreshingly perceptive yet cheerful about her that it makes perfect sense that she would write these charming books that explore widowhood, the explosion of a neighborhood due to an affair, and a bookseller who suffers from anxiety but somehow manages to stand up to all sorts of disasters and a few triumphs when they come her way.
Waxman comes from a family of writers. Her mother was a popular mystery writer and her grandfather wrote books as well, so she’s written stories for as long as she could remember, and when she decided to stay home with her kids, it made sense to become an author. It worked for her mom, anyway. You can almost feel her shrugging nonchalantly through the phone, yet there’s always a sense of gratitude, too. That effervescence you feel when an author loves their job and feels like one of the luckiest souls on earth because they get to do this amazing thing—even when they tell you that they don’t do it well. (And by that I mean the inelegant writing every day part, not the writing a great book in the end part.)
For Waxman, the job and the excitement come from curiosity. “I love people, I’m interested in people, and I’m always curious about them. I’m a little nosy, and I look around and see a little sliver of something happening and then I wonder what’s going on. Who are they? What are their internal lives like? And then I take those questions and that tiny little sliver and I fill it in. I make up all the rest.”
She tells me that she wrote about her first main character being a widow because when she had small children, she wondered what it would be like to raise children alone, if she murdered —er, if something happened to her husband…
She wrote about how a neighborhood might be affected by an affair, because she was fascinated by the tiny glimpse of a family’s life one gets when they drive carpool, and see a child walking out of a home, polished and put together, when you’ve just battled to get your own children to brush their hair and put their clothes on right side out.
And she wrote about Nina Hill because she was so taken by young female booksellers.
In the promotional materials for Nina Hill, the copy referred to how inspired Waxman was by the young booksellers on her last book tour, and, curious myself, I asked her to expand on that a little. “They’re just brilliant,” she gushed, "and I was struck by these similarities I discovered in a lot of them. They’re in their mid to late twenties, a little geeky but in a cool kind of way. Super charming, a bit awkward, but completely helpful and oh, do they live for books. I loved them! They were just so cute, I can’t even…”
It feels like a perfect introduction for Nina Hill, obviously the main character of Waxman’s most recent book, THE BOOKISH LIFE OF NINA HILL.
The author of Other People’s Houses and The Garden of Small Beginnings delivers a quirky and charming novel chronicling the life of confirmed introvert Nina Hill as she does her best to fly under everyone's radar.
Meet Nina Hill: A young woman supremely confident in her own...shell.
The only child of a single mother, Nina has her life just as she wants it: a job in a bookstore, a kick-butt trivia team, a world-class planner and a cat named Phil. If she sometimes suspects there might be more to life than reading, she just shrugs and picks up a new book.
When the father Nina never knew existed suddenly dies, leaving behind innumerable sisters, brothers, nieces, and nephews, Nina is horrified. They all live close by! They're all—or mostly all—excited to meet her! She'll have to Speak. To. Strangers. It's a disaster! And as if that wasn't enough, Tom, her trivia nemesis, has turned out to be cute, funny, and deeply interested in getting to know her. Doesn't he realize what a terrible idea that is?
Nina considers her options.
1. Completely change her name and appearance. (Too drastic, plus she likes her hair.)
2. Flee to a deserted island. (Hard pass, see: coffee).
3. Hide in a corner of her apartment and rock back and forth. (Already doing it.)
It's time for Nina to come out of her comfortable shell, but she isn't convinced real life could ever live up to fiction. It's going to take a brand-new family, a persistent suitor, and the combined effects of ice cream and trivia to make her turn her own fresh page.
As I mentioned, I’ve loved all of Abbi Waxman’s books, and if you haven’t picked her up yet, I sincerely hope you will. She is one of my favorite new writers, a must-read for me. Like Waxman herself, and her newest main character, this book is funny, wise, astute and insightful—a simply delicious read. The Kirkus reviewer (full review here) says, “Waxman has created a thoroughly engaging character in this bookish, contemplative, set-in-her-ways woman. Be prepared to chuckle.”