“A Challenge You Have Overcome” is about a high-school senior, Nate, and his parents’ attempts to get him to write his college-application essays. When did you first start thinking about this as the subject for a story?
I began with the subject of Steve and Andrea’s marriage, and the college applications sprang from that. Steve and Andrea are stressed financially, professionally, emotionally—and, at this moment, their younger son is applying for college. My plots emerge from characters and their interactions—so the fun of writing was in developing Steve and Andrea’s response to this latest challenge.
Nate’s mother, Andrea, is working as a private-college counsellor, giving her teen-age clients advice on how to tackle their applications, including a list of what not to write about (death of pet, divorce of parents, a challenge you have overcome). Is Nate oblivious to the help that she might be able to offer, or determined to reject any?
I would never generalize about eighteen-year-old boys, but I can say that some who have the chance to benefit from their parents’ professional expertise and anxious desire to help might respond with horror, or run to their girlfriend’s house, or do the opposite of whatever their parents advise. In my opinion, Nate is remarkably tactful for his age.
Andrea and her husband, Steve, find themselves bickering over their attempts both to help Nate and to give him sufficient space. Do you think Steve finds this more or less stressful than his fear that he’s about to lose his job in educational publishing?
Ah, well, now we get into the question of what bickering is really about—and it’s about everything, isn’t it? It’s about their lives.
Nate is facing failure for the first time. What do you think the better outcome is—failure or success?
I think I’ll skip this one just to avoid spoilers.
You wrote “A Challenge You Have Overcome” before the pandemic hit. The normality of Steve, Andrea, and Nate’s daily routine is one that we’ve lost this year. How do you think they will have coped this year?
This is such a strange time. One of the ironies of the story as published now is that the difficulties Steve and Andrea and Nate face seem dwarfed by what they would have faced a year or so later, during COVID. And yet their challenges are real enough as they experience them.
You’ve written several short stories about this extended family, among them “F.A.Q.s” and “Apple Cake.” Do any of the characters’ trajectories ever surprise you? Did you know that Andrea would start to be haunted (in a surprisingly gratifying way) by the voice of her late mother-in-law, for example? Are you going to gather the stories together into a collection?
It’s not a surprise, exactly, when characters begin to speak or haunt each other, or come up with their own ideas. It’s more like riffing or improvisation. I set the stage; I bring the people together and then I play with them—and let them play with me.
I am indeed gathering these stories into a collection—and together they build a larger narrative. Years ago, I wrote a story cycle called “The Family Markowitz.” (Many of those stories were also published in The New Yorker.) My writing has evolved, and the world has changed as well—so, in addition to my novels, I am writing a new story cycle about a Jewish-American family living now. This story is part of that new work.
We never find out what Nate did write about in his essay. Do you know?
Once I choose a point of view, I stick with it, and so I can’t know anything my protagonists do not. In this case, I choose the points of view of Steve and Andrea, the mystified parents.
Anxious though they might be, they have no idea what Nate is writing, and so my reader can’t know, either. The story is in part about the mystery adolescents become to their parents—so I let Nate close the door.