Julia Claiborne Johnson’s Be Frank With Me, “a comic novel about a prickly writer, her unusual young son, and their beleaguered caretaker,” as our reviewer puts it, was published on Feb. 2. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s novel, The Nest, about “dysfunctional siblings in New York [who] wig out when the eldest blows their shared inheritance,” as another of our reviewers puts it, was published on March 22. Both writers live in Los Angeles, once lived in New York, are publishing their first novels in their mid-50s, and are married to comedy writers. The similarities don’t end there: because both writers have spent more time observing the world than the average debut novelist, they have priceless, deliciously funny insights into the lives of writers.
Mimi Banning, that prickly writer at the heart of Be Frank With Me, wrote a beloved novel when she was younger—a book so popular it’s taught in high schools around the country. It’s been a while since then, and she now desperately needs cash, which her publisher is happy to give her if she’ll just write another novel. She contemplates leaving her expensive Bel Air home in L.A. that has glass walls but a very steep driveway to discourage fans. “If you were still married to a movie star, your privacy might be a concern,” her realtor told her when she bought the place. “But nobody cares about writers. You’ll be fine.” Years later Mimi realizes that “not that many people care about writers, but for the ones who do—no driveway is too steep.” When I ask Johnson abou t this scene in the novel, she points out that “in Hollywood, screenwriters make a lot of money and they get a lot of respect and writers kind of do.” Deep down, screenwriters want literary respect, and novelists want the kind of money screenwriters make. Johnson mentions a successful TV writer who found out that Johnson got a book deal for Be Frank With Me. “Julia, you’re living the dream!” the writer told Johnson, who thought, “I don’t know, having a lot of money and living in a mansion sounds really nice too!”
One of the four adult siblings in Sweeney’s arresting novel is a writer who was the talk of the publishing industry when she was young. She hasn’t published anything since then; at a party that other writers are attending, she overhears two hypocritical women bad-mouthing her, so she steals a tray of cookies from their party. It’s a hilarious, sharp scene. But how many writers really want to bite the hand that feeds them? “Believe me, when I started to query agents, I thought, ‘What have I done?’ ” Sweeney tells me about the satire of publishing evident in the novel. “Satire also comes from envy,” she acknowledges. “I wanted to be part of that world, and I thought for many years that that boat had sailed. And I don’t think it was until I got out to L.A. that I felt like this was a safe place to try because nobody would notice me doing it.”
Claiborne Smith is the editor-in-chief.