In her delicious novel The Most Fun We Ever Had (Doubleday), Claire Lombardo has taken on a huge challenge: Making a (basically) happy family interesting. Anchored by David and Marilyn Sorenson, still crazy about each other after a long marriage and four daughters, Lombardo’s debut novel begins in the 1970s, and is told from seven different perspectives. Generous, empathetic, and witty, Lombardo’s compulsively readable family drama reflects the cacophony of life as the fractious sisters zigzag to adulthood. As one sister puts it about her family life: “It’s a vast hormonal hellscape. A marathon of instability and hair products.” Lombardo spoke with The National about fiction-writing, families, and the power of Post-Its.
Q: What a radical idea, Claire! A novel anchored by a happy four-decade marriage of David and Marilyn Sorenson. In this “Pretty Little Lies” world, how did you come to write about a happy marriage?
A: My jokey answer is that I’m conflict-avoidant by nature and that finds its way into my fiction. But truthfully, I took rendering David and Marilyn’s happy marriage as a kind of challenge. It’s so often in fiction that you see the opposite—the divorce, the mismatched pair, the infidelity—and I wanted to see if I could propel a story forward with something good and genuine at its core.
Q: Did you realize how unusual that was when you were writing? Any other novels that inspired you to dive into these waters?
A: I really didn’t. It was a running joke when I was in grad school that I wrote really long stories about really happy people, but it didn’t occur to me that I was venturing into relatively unchartered waters. The trickiest thing about writing happy people is trying to maintain a palatable level of narrative tension, but I helped myself to offset that by having David and Marilyn’s children misbehave, effectively allowing David and Marilyn to be the constant, the steady branch on which the plottier stuff hangs.
Q: Your novel is narrated by seven members of the Sorensen family and told from shifting perspectives. How did you keep them all straight?
A: I wouldn’t be surprised if I was singlehandedly responsible for the bulk of Post-It sales in the last few years. I do a color per character, and a Post-It per scene, and I map out my narrative that way, so I’m able to visualize the arc of different plot lines—and I’m able to see, easily, “Huh, we haven’t heard from Grace in a while” or “Violet’s gotten a little too much stage time.”
Getting the voices to be distinct was a little murkier. I’ve been called a “voicey” writer, and I’m in the same age range as the four Sorenson daughters, so it took work to make sure each of their voices was distinct and didn’t just sound like extensions of my own. I took a class with the novelist Allan Gurganus when I was working on this book and he recommended that I keep Post-Its (see?!) above my computer screen with little details about each character that I could look at to remind myself how certain scenes would play out. I’d bear in mind that Wendy swears a lot, or that Marilyn is a militant grammarian, or that David has a certain degree of outward emotional reticence, and that helped distinguish their voices.
Q: Did you so go through periods of favoring one sister or another? You come from a big Chicago family, so wonder if you identified with one in particular.
A: I do! And I have, consistently! I’ll give the diplomatic mom answer that I love all of the Sorenson girls the same amount—but that doesn’t mean I like them all the time. Right now, I’m on Team Violet, I think in part because she’s the hardest to love—she’s prickly and tightly wound and not immediately, visibly sympathetic, but that makes me love her even more! I also had the most fun (pun acknowledged!) writing Wendy, because she’s the filter-less pot stirrer who’s never afraid to state the obvious or offend anyone. Any scene with her in it was a blast to write. And I relate to Liza and Grace as well—Grace as a young woman trying to answer that big, terrifying, “what-do-I-want-from-life” question; and Liza as a woman who makes what she thinks are all the right decisions and still ends up hurting.
These characters aren’t based on my real-life sisters, but I do think there’s a universality to them in certain ways that absolutely comes from my space in a family of five children. We all struggle to make decisions, to find the right people to be with, to find fulfillment in our days, to find lasting friendships, to reconcile the narratives we want for ourselves versus those we’re actually living. So depending on the day I see myself more in one daughter than others, but I consistently relate to each of them in a variety of ways.
Q: Jonah, the son relinquished for adoption by one of the four Sorenson daughters, appears quite early in the novel and upsets the family’s equilibrium. That classic story prompt – ‘a man comes to town’ – comes to mind. How did you decide to bring the Jonah story into the novel?
A: Yes, Jonah is very much the man who comes to town, isn’t he?! He always existed in this story as a character, but it wasn’t until my final thesis meeting that I decided he had to be a major character with his own narrative POV. He now functions as a kind of through line for the novel, his life brushing up against those of the various Sorensons and throwing things into relief.
I remember an early reader telling me that spending so much time pressed against the Sorensons could feel a bit claustrophobic, and I think Jonah provides some distance in that respect—he’s allowed to comment on them in ways they would never comment on themselves; he’s able to more accurately take note of strangenesses because he’s coming in clear-eyed. But I also have a great deal of affection for him as a character, and I wanted him to have his own story—and the dignity that comes along with that—so giving him a narrative voice was really a delight.
Q: Before grad school, you worked for Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. What do you bring to your writing from that experience?
A: My work at the Coalition helped me to become a better listener, which I think is a critical element of storytelling. But it also gave me the real privilege of interacting with clients and helping them tell their own stories—which can be a hugely powerful thing for people, to be given the opportunity to own and share their narratives, and it also increased my capacity for empathy by about 4,000%. I think empathy is the single most important element in fiction writing—if you can tell the writer feels for her characters and is treating them with care and clarity, you’re likelier to become invested yourself as a reader.
Q: You arrived at Iowa with a draft of the novel that would become The Most Fun We Ever Had. How different is this version? Did you have a title?
A: This version is about 200 pages shorter and a whole lot less structurally confusing (I hope!). I came to the Writers’ Workshop with an 813-page draft of the book, and a couple of weeks after I graduated (so—two years later), I had my final meeting with my thesis advisor, during which we had this wonderful epiphanic moment of “This is the best way to tell this story!” And I spent that whole summer totally reworking the draft.
The novel, at that time, was called The Year We Were Born, but that proved cumbersome, so my editor and I finally landed on The Most Fun We Ever Had, which still features that first person plural that I love so much but feels more universally applicable to the book as a whole. This is a book about a family—hence that we—and it’s also about how life isn’t always as it appears on the surface—hence the line, borrowed from a young and overwhelmed Marilyn, newly a mother of two, who is trying to convince herself and others that parenthood is a blast.