The Sweetest Debut: Nadja Spiegelman on Her Mom, The Fashion Icon, and Her Ideal Writing Environment


The Sweetest Debut is a regular Flavorwire installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.

This week we hear from Nadja Spiegelman, whose memoir I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This details the conflicting-seeming family histories of her mother and grandmother. Nadja, whose dad is graphic novelist Art and mom is Françoise Mouly, the art editor at The New Yorker, comes from a storied family whose experience she waded right into. As Slate’s Katy Waldman wrote: “Four generations, four matching sets of Freudian grievance. With this fiercely female chain of stories, Spiegelman has decided to plunge right into the most intimate and radioactive psychic material most women have on hand.”

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

It changes every time I answer the question! Today I suppose I’d say: “It’s a memoir about mothers and daughters over four generations, and how we construct ourselves and each other in our memories.”

This may be a particularly tricky one for you, but what you tell your relatives it’s about?

With my relatives, I stress that this is only my interpretation of our shared past. It’s already such a contentious topic in my family: whose version of reality is the most real. It’s not easy for them to see themselves rendered as characters in my work.

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

I wrote the first draft seven years ago – but I’ve also, in some way, been working on it my whole life. It’s a story about coming of age, and the process of writing it was my own coming of age.

What’s a book or other piece of art that influenced this project?

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, Transparent, Maus.

Do you have a favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

I loved the first season of UnReal. And Girls, The Good Wife, Broad City. Pretty much anything with complex female leads has me hooked.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

Divines by the Franco-Morrocan director Houda Benyamina. It’s a story about two best friends coming of age in the isolated and impoverished banlieues of Paris, and the ways they rebel against and capitulate to a world that leaves them few options. It’s funny and tragic and inspiring and despairing and one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. I love the range of international films that play in French cinemas. I wish there was access to that in America!

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind? Oh man, this is embarrassing. I listen to the same two artists, on a loop, whenever I write, and I have for years: Philip Glass (usually the soundtrack from the Hours) and Ratatat (usually the album Classics). It makes anyone who tries to work in the same room with me a little crazy, but for me it’s become necessary, comforting white noise. If anyone has any suggestions of wordless repetitive music to expand my repertoire, I’m all ears.

Who is your fashion icon? My mother! She’s never followed trends, and her look — mini skirts over leggings, leopard-patterned pants, high heels — is entirely her own. She manages to look feminine and powerful at the same time – that balance is what I aspire to.

Do you prefer working in a buzzing coffee shop or silent library?

I like white noise, so I often sit in coffee shops with foam ear plugs in my ears. It serves a dual purpose: the roar of the coffee shop drowns out into something soothing, and I look crazy enough that people don’t talk to me.

Do you write at a desk, bed or couch?

I often convince myself that I’m about to do some really great writing while lying in bed, but it never works. I need a stiff chair and a desk and sometimes fluorescent lights and no windows and basically…the closer my writing environment can be to a prison cell, the more likely I am to actually work.

Morning writing or late-night writing?

I write best and most fluidly in the middle of the night, right before dawn. I love feeling of the city around me sleeping, everything finally gone quiet. But it’s impossible to live a normal life and keep that schedule, so I reserve it for the moments when I’ve really lost myself in a project, and the rest of the time try to keep regular hours in the late afternoon.

Do you tend towards scribbling it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

Something in between. I write slowly, and I edit as I write. I learned to write on a computer and it informed my process: I cut and paste and move things around as I go. But editing later, with fresh eyes, is also crucial to me – I make myself delete anything that doesn’t feel earned or fully true, no matter how much I like how it sounds.

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

I’m still trying to figure that out. Until recently, I worked in a gallery, but I took some time off to finish my book. I was incredibly lucky to receive an advance that allowed me to do so. Now, I need to figure out how to keep working. I have a few freelance editing/teaching jobs that I can do remotely. I’d love to support myself on writing alone, but it feels impossible.

What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?

I find it so difficult to write, and so much easier to do everything and anything else. It’s hard not to allow any other activity I take on to funnel away all my time and energy. I remind myself often that “inspiration is something that happens while you’re working.” I make detailed schedules for each day where I block out at least four hours to write, and do my very best to stick to them. But it’s still something I struggle with constantly.