One of the hottest books on the market right now is The Fallback Plan, a story about a Northwestern theater major who, after graduating, moves in with her parents. How comforting! After applying to Pet Co, student Esther Kohler finally finds a job babysitting, which ends up teaching her more than she had thought possible.
Leigh Stein is the 27-year-old author of the critically acclaimed novel. Stein, who did not attend Northwestern, is currently working on her Bachelor’s degree at Brooklyn College as she prepares to write her second novel. Stein spoke with North by Northwestern over the phone while she navigated the streets of New York (we could hear the horns honking) about why sadness and humor are so inextricable, the importance of creating an online presence and why Cinnamon Toast Crunch tastes so good.
What was the first “seed” that planted The Fallback Plan?
I wanted to write a book about a babysitter. I’ve done a lot of babysitting and I felt that it was a topic that wasn’t getting addressed in literature. You know, there’s The Babysitter’s Club and The Nanny Diaries. There’s a real hole there. The cultural phenomenon of the twenty-something moving in with their parents—that wasn’t my first intention. That’s just what people have picked up on, since it’s gotten so culturally relevant after the recession.
Though The Fallback Plan is incredibly funny—it also gets very dark, specifically through Esther’s sexual experiences. Did you have a certain tone in mind when you first started writing, or did it just come out organically?
I think some of the funniest people are some of the saddest people. Some of the greatest comedians die young—that definitely says something. Esther makes jokes to cover up how sad she is. She’s so troubled and unsure, and humor is a way to deal with that. Some of the negative reviewers complained that the tone has discrepancies—“Is it a funny or sad book?” They want to pigeonhole it, and it makes some people uncomfortable that you can’t. Her worldview, though, is colored by her depression. I couldn’t write it with her “just” being funny or “just” being depressed. It doesn’t work like that.
What is your writing process like?
I was in New Mexico when I wrote the book. I write mainly in coffeeshops or at home. I set word limits for myself and try to write every day. Where some writers have the problem of being too wordy and have to cut a lot, I tend to underwrite. I set word minimums for myself each day and make myself write to that word count.
Why did you decide to have Northwestern as the school from which Esther graduates?
I didn’t go to Northwestern. I went to acting school in New York when I was 19. My own experience is so disjointed, and I wanted to make Esther’s more simple and accessible. I wanted the backstory to be as simple as it could be. Graduating and moving home directly after seemed like the simplest entrance into the story. I chose Northwestern because it was logistically easy that she could just stay in Evanston, where her parents lived, after graduating. I also have a friend who went to Northwestern for theater.
Do you have any advice for theater majors so they don’t end up living in their parents’ basement?
What’s worked for me is that I’ve been flexible in finding jobs that are outside the normal trajectory. Now I don’t act, but I teach theater to kids, which I love. I’d advise people to be willing to try what you’ve never considered doing before. I did a lot of voiceover work, stuff like that.
What advice do you have for aspiring novelists to get their books published?
It’s important now to create an online presence. I was lucky in that my agent found me through my blog. I had poetry published online, and on my blog she saw that I was writing a novel. She contacted me before I even finished the book, so I was incredibly lucky. We spent a year sending The Fallback Plan out, and it got rejected by all of the major publishing houses. A lot of them were “glowing rejections” that said they liked it, but didn’t know how to market it.
The Class of 2009 hadn’t graduated yet, so I don’t think it was timely enough yet. We ran out of places to send it, then my friend had an internship at Melville House in Brooklyn and she gave it to someone there who loved it. I’m so glad to be with an independent publisher. They’re so nimble and caring. I got a big book tour. I’m so happy I went with them, even though it wasn’t really a choice at the time.
Do you think your next project will feature a woman of the same age and background as Esther or do you think you’ll do something completely different?
I’m working on a second novel and am actually self-conscious that it will be “Esther grown up and gets a job.” I’m trying to be more ambitious in its form. It’s about two girlfriends living in New York.
Do you like Cinnamon Toast Crunch as much as Esther does?
It’s the cereal I loved as a child! I have to say though, I can’t remember the last time I ate it. It’s funny you say that, because on a recent book tour a mother told me that her daughter used the book as an excuse at the grocery store to buy Cinnamon Toast Crunch.