by Alice Stephens
All is not well in the once-idyllic Washington, DC, suburb of Willard Park. Newcomer Nick Cox has built himself a gaudy house next door to mild-mannered Ted Miller’s quaint Sears kit home. A lifelong resident of the close-knit neighborhood, Ted finds his resentment turning into anger when Nick buys the property on the other side of Ted’s house and builds a McMansion that won’t sell (the eponymous White Elephant), and then to rage when Nick cuts down a beloved tree in order make the property more attractive to prospective buyers. When Ted starts a petition to put a moratorium on building houses in Willard Park, the neighborhood splits into two and it’s neighbor-against-neighbor in this witty, lively tale that will resonate in communities across the country.
Alice Stephens: Tell me about the path to publication for White Elephant. How long did it take you to write? How did you get your agent and how did the submission process go?
Julie Langsdorf: I started White Elephant in 2005, nearly 15 years ago now. I finished writing it in 2008 or 2009, and started working with an agent soon after. She couldn’t sell it—perhaps because the bottom fell out of the market, and everyone stopped building monster houses for a while. The manuscript went back into the proverbial drawer for several years while I worked on other things. I dug it out again in 2017, polished it up, and sent it to a few other agents, including the amazing Suzanne Gluck at William Morris Endeavor, who got it into the hands of the equally amazing Megan Lynch at Ecco. It was quite a journey: first a very slow one, and then very fast. A dream come true, in any case!
AS: Wow, I love hearing stories like that, where persistence wins the day. The long and winding road to publication is much more common in publishing than all those articles about MFA wunderkinds would lead you to believe. What made you persist with this particular manuscript? What inspired you to dig it out again?
JL: I was at a turning point. I had recently moved to the city [Washington, DC], and I wasn’t writing very much. I decided I would give publishing a book one last try, telling myself that if no one was interested, I would stop writing and put all of my energy into teaching yoga. I’d always liked White Elephant, and decided it was the most viable of my book babies, so I sent it out into the universe…
AS: Does yoga help your writing? Are there similarities between writing a novel and doing yoga?
JL: There are so many similarities. Both take internal motivation, which waxes and wanes, of course. To get the job done you have to show up and do the work, even on the days you don’t feel like it. Especially on the days you don’t feel like it. While yoga is a moving meditation, I find writing to be a seated one. They both take me out of the clutter of life and into a world where my mind moves at its own pace.
AS: Besides being a yoga instructor, what other work did you do before becoming a novelist?
JL: Before I became a published novelist, I was an unpublished novelist. I’ve been writing fiction since 1990—nearly 30 years now! I also raised two terrific kids, who are now in their 20s, and I was a tutor at an after-school tutoring center for a few years.
AS: Do you have any other finished manuscripts in that drawer of yours that you might resurrect?
JL: The only one I can see myself digging back into is a novel based on my family history. My mother was a child survivor of the Holocaust who survived a shipwreck and escaped from Holland only hours before Germany invaded. It’s a wild story that’s very close to my heart.
AS: I would love to read that story!
In White Elephant, neighbors turn against neighbors when a developer moves into Willard Park, a picture-perfect Washington, DC, suburb, and builds a McMansion that does not fit in with the modestly sized Sears kit houses. What inspired the plot?
JL: The book was inspired by a series of articles in Washington papers, both the Post and regional publications, about local neighborhoods in crisis. People were tearing down the smaller, older homes in established communities, and their neighbors were fit to be tied. Town residents were egging each other, yelling at each other in the street, and taking each other to court. What a nightmare! It fascinated me to think about what had led neighbors to go from welcoming each other with cookies to wanting to kill each other. What was going on in their heads? I decided to create my own community to have a peek inside…
AS: Did you draw a map of Willard Park?
JL: I did not, but I have an image in my head. I did draw up house floor plans (based on the renderings in Sears Modern Homes catalogues) so that I could map the action within and between houses accurately.
AS: The book is set in the DC area and deals with deep divisions within a community—and yet has nothing to do with national politics. In this era of Trump, that’s almost subversive. Was that deliberate on your part?
JL: I wrote it long before the Trump era, but the funny thing is that the book seems to have become more of the moment than less in the intervening years. The events in the book have come to feel like a microcosm of what’s going on in our country: people are so afraid of the ‘other side’ that communication seems to have broken down entirely. I hope to show, by revealing the thoughts in my characters’ heads, that we are more alike than we think. Maybe, if we keep that in mind, we can begin to talk to one another in a meaningful way again, not just in our neighborhoods but on a wider scale.
AS: There are so many plot threads and characters, and it seems that every resident of Willard Park is keeping a secret. Did you have a list of characters and the plot outlined before you started to write the book or did the story develop as you wrote it?
JL: I generally imagine a situation and its inherent problems, find my characters and let them have at it. I had no idea how things in Willard Park would resolve themselves when I started writing this book. I enjoy discovering where the story will go as I write. Okay, sometimes that scares the heck out of me, but it keeps things exciting, and I honestly don’t know how else to do it.
AS: So, you’re a seat-of-the-pantser! That’s impressive because it seemed to me that you didn’t leave any loose threads, even with all the various plot lines you were weaving together. At some point did you draw up some sort of cheat-sheet to remember each character’s particular traits, background, and narrative arc or did they just live inside your head?
JL: Thank you so much! I was able to keep their stories going in my head, but later I went through each character’s chapters as a group, to make sure I accomplished everything I’d set out to do.
AS: You created a large cast of your characters, from stoner Grant to typical teenager Jillian to the bubbly and somewhat shallow housewife Kaye to the intellectually disabled Terrance. Which character did you find most challenging to write? Which character did you have the most fun with? Which do you feel the most affection for?
JL: I’d have to say Nick was both my most challenging character to write, and among my most fun ones. I loved writing from his often obnoxious point of view, as well as from the point of view of his daughter Lindy, for the same reason. At the same time, I wanted to figure out what made Nick tick, and that meant digging through the layers to find the early damage that led him to be the way he is. My hope is that Nick will grow on you, whether or not you agree with his outlook on life.
I have the most affection for Terrance, the disabled twin of Ted Miller. Ted is determined to keep the big houses out of Willard Park for his brother’s sake—or so he says. Terrance is the one character who is modeled after someone I know: my brother Kenny, who is one of the kindest, big-hearted people I know.
AS: Yeah, my heart just melted for Terrance. How does Kenny feel about being a character in a book?
JL: He is excited! I even have a few lines he is famous for in the book. He’s very happy about that.
AS: Being a resident of a Maryland suburb myself, I think I recognize Willard Park as the suburb next to mine. Did you base it on one particular neighborhood?
JL: I based Willard Park on four Maryland neighborhoods—one of which I grew up in—choosing the aspects I liked of each of them. It was so much fun to create a model town with not-so-model citizens! So far, people in Maryland, Tennessee, New York, and California have told me it sounds like their neighborhoods. Neighborhood change is a country-wide issue—and not just in the suburbs. It’s happening in cities, too, as I have learned since moving to DC from Maryland. The neighborhood I live in has issues similar to those in Willard Park. Instead of mansions, people are upset about pop-ups and pop-backs—row houses that build upwards and toward the alleys. We lament the smaller, older buildings in our business district that are being knocked down so condos can go up.
AS: Do you prefer the anonymity of big city life or a close-knit community like Willard Park where everyone knows everyone else? What’s your ideal neighborhood like?
JL: You’d think city life would be more anonymous, but oddly, it’s not really. I live in a co-op with six other apartments, which is my immediate neighborhood. We have to work together to keep the building up and running, and we help each other out, walking each others’ dogs, taking in packages, like suburban neighbors. I know the people in my neighborhood who have dogs, and who I teach yoga to, and where I go to get coffee. My DC neighborhood is my ideal neighborhood! Its population is interesting and diverse, we have great shops and restaurants and I can walk to nearly every other part of the city.
AS: Sounds ideal and idyllic. Obligatory final question: What are you working on now?
JL: I’m working on another comedic neighborhood story. I can’t talk about it quite yet, but if you like White Elephant, I think you’ll like that one, too!
Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People.
Homepage photo credit: Robin B. Langsdorf