By Daniel Ford
It’s Writer’s Bone policy to talk to authors who feature a vinyl record on their book covers or have been involved in “Car Talk” in any shape or form. Cambridge-based author Louie Cronin checks off both boxes with ease!
Cronin’s passion for storytelling and bubbly optimism is infectious, and translates to every page of her fun debut novel Everyone Loves You Back (which comes out Oct. 21, 2016). Her main character Bob Boland, a “sarcastic, jazz-loving radio engineer working the night shift,” is faced with every city dweller’s nightmare: “urban tree-huggers and uppity intellectuals with designer dogs.” The back cover really sets the tone of the novel: “Sex. Wine. Jazz. Existential dread.” We’ll have what she’s having.
Cronin recently chatted with me about growing up in a storytelling family, her fond memories of “Car Talk,” her publishing journey, and what inspired Everyone Loves You Back.
Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to become a storyteller?
Louie Cronin: I grew up in a storytelling family. We would sit around the kitchen table at night, drink tea, and talk. My father, in particular, was a great storyteller and very funny. And he never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn. Even now I have to stop myself when I am quoting him and ask, could that have really happened?
I always loved to read and dreamed of becoming a writer from the time I was a kid. I took several stabs at it in high school and college. I even took an early retirement from an audio engineering job to write a novel. But I didn’t have the first idea of how to start.
I didn’t really get down to it until I had moved to New York in my 30s. I remember one moment in particular. I was working at NBC and doing the sound for an interview with the novelist Robert Stone. I didn’t know his work then, but I felt such an affinity for him, I wanted to crawl through the glass wall that separated the studio from the control room and sit in his lap! What was I doing on the wrong side of that wall?
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
LC: The librarians at the Belmont Public Library, in the town where we moved when I was 10. I worked my way through the entire young adult section there. I read pretty indiscriminately and finished every book! I thought that if a writer had put the time in, I had to finish it, out of respect. I wish I could keep that practice up now as an adult, but I’m afraid I start and stop lots of books.
I loved J.D. Salinger’s books, and read them all, several times. When I finally got to high school and found out the nuns had banned Catcher in the Rye, I laughed. I had read and almost memorized it years before!
I turned to books for answers when I had problems. When I started having doubts about my faith, I couldn’t turn to my family or the nuns. Instead I found Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham in the young adult section. I felt like I had this secret, liberating resource at the library.
When I first started writing seriously in my 30s I was reading a lot of Barbara Pym, Alice McDermott, Raymond Carver, and Martin Amis. Recently I’ve enjoyed all the Edward St. Aubyn books and Lily King’s Euphoria. I just finished Zadie Smith, White Teeth, which I loved. I don’t know why it took me so long to get to it.
DF: “Car Talk” remains one of my favorite shows. How did you end up working there, and was it as much fun as it sounded?
LC: I worked at WBUR for years and got to know Tom and Ray and some of the “Car Talk” staff there. When a job at “Car Talk” came open, I tried out for it. I had to pick callers for the show and write funny promo material. I spent a whole weekend working on the promos and still had nothing to show. Someone else I knew was applying for it too and I asked her how she found the writing test? “Easy!” She said. I found it excruciatingly hard, but I got the job! I think there’s a lot of truth in the Thomas Mann quote: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
Working there was so much fun, but also lots of plain old work. Any time I spent with Tom and Ray was fun. You could hear them laughing as they rode the elevator up to the radio station. After the show we’d have lunch in the cafeteria and they’d entertain us and anyone else who happened to stop by. They are exactly like they sound on the radio—funny, smart, free-spirited, totally original—but maybe even kinder and deeper in person. I love them both and miss Tom a lot.
I picked the calls that got onto the show and wrote material for the breaks and the ending, like the funny names, the fake funding credits, and Bugsy’s gastronomical exploits. My first week on the job I found Picov Andropov, the show’s Russian chauffeur. I knew it would be all downhill from there.
DF: In addition to being a novelist, you’re also a short story writer. We’re huge fans of the short story genre here at Writer’s Bone. What is it about the format that appeals to you?
LC: I love short stories and for many years that is all that I wrote. I love the economy of the form, the precision of the language, the ability to focus in on one event. There is something so concentrated and potent in short stories. I also like that you can read one in one sitting! And that you can write one in a relatively short period of time, unlike the novel, where you have to commit to years. In grad school we had to produce a short story every two weeks. I’m not saying mine were great. But it was doable. I would have two going at once. When I got stuck on one, I would turn to the other one. I also have been a member of a wonderful writing group that was started by the late short story writer Andre Dubus. Getting to know Andre and his work deepened my appreciation of short stories and in a way, broadened my sense of what they can do, where they can go.
DF: What inspired your debut novel Everyone Loves You Back?
LC: The novel was inspired by a rant, that came to me in the voice of Bob Boland, the main character. I was living in Cambridge at the time, watching my neighborhood transform before my eyes. People like me were disappearing. Super wealth was flowing in. Every house on the street was renovated and dripping with copper! There was an intense pressure to keep up with the Joneses. Neighbors would offer to lend me their gardening tools to encourage me to keep my yard up. They had landscapers. I was doing it on my own.
DF: How much of yourself, and your experiences, ended up in your characters and your plot?
LC: A lot. The main character, Bob Boland works in radio as a sound engineer, which I have done off and on my entire career. He lives in Cambridge, my hometown, and has my kind of sarcastic voice. He also had bits of my brothers and father in him and bits of people I grew up with, went to school with, worked with, or even dated. But in the process of writing, he morphed into someone entirely apart from me or anyone I knew, so much so that in the end I really admired and loved him. I thought of him as a real hero, who could act in a way that suited him and the story, and not be constrained by my limited life. It was really a liberating experience, to start from what you know—Cambridge, radio—and through the fictional process watch this other being and story emerge.
Similarly the plot is a mash up of things that happened and things that are totally made up! But I drew from previous jobs, people I knew, things I read in the news, stories I heard. What’s really strange is how many things I made up that later came true! Long after finishing the novel, for example, I got a job at a radio station that was getting rid of its jazz shows!
DF: I feel that Cambridge is an untapped literary landscape. Why did you decide to base the novel there?
LC: Simple. I was living there; I was born there. Cambridge is kind of a character in the novel. I have always wanted to express what a wild place it was to grow up in. My block had Nobel Prize winners, garbage collectors, cops, and psychiatrists living cheek by jowl. It was a very eccentric, quirky, and open-minded place, but there was always this tension between Harvard and the natives, town and gown, the haves and have nots.
DF: How long did it take you to write the novel, and what was your publishing journey like?
LC: It took me five years to write it. I was working full time at “Car Talk” for most of that time and since it was my first novel, I was learning how to do it as I went. And then of course, I had to go back and rewrite it. My publishing journey was hard, much harder than I expected. I had so much positive feedback along the way, I thought it would be easy. But when I sent it out into the publishing world, I got lots of positive rejections!
DF: Now that you have your first novel under your belt, what’s next for you?
LC: I am writing my second novel. I’m 100 pages into the first draft. And I’ve been writing some short stories and essays.
DF: We always end here, and being a first-time writer yourself, I’m sure this is something you’ve thought about while promoting Everyone Loves You Back: What is your advice for aspiring authors?
LC: There’s the writing life and the joy it brings, the immense satisfaction. And you can give yourself that joy. No one else holds the key to it. No one can take it away from you. No matter your success or your failure, you can give yourself that gift. For years I worked as an engineer and knew something was missing. Starting to write was a revelation to me.
Then there’s the whole publishing world. You need a thick skin to brave it. Everyone told me that, but I thought somehow I would sneak by and have an easy time of it. I thought I would be the exception.
So I guess my advice is, believe everyone when they say how rough it is out there, but never deny yourself the joy of writing. It is such a relief to do what you love.
To learn more about Louie Cronin, follow her on Twitter @louiecronin.