Unlike most first-time authors, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney didn’t start writing fiction until her mid 40s. But that’s not the only thing that makes Sweeney and her debut novel stand out.
As of press time, The Nest, which was published in March, has spent 13 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Ecco, which paid a seven-figure advance for the manuscript, has printed 275,000 copies and sold rights in 22 countries; meanwhile, the novel has been optioned for film with “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway (who is also a friend of Sweeney’s) as a producer. Clearly, this story of four adult siblings, who lose an anticipated inheritance thanks to their eldest brother’s big mistake, is resonating in a major way.
We asked Sweeney, who lives in Los Angeles, a few questions about her breakout debut.
How did it feel to see your first novel hit the bestseller list?
Like everything else that’s happened in my life this year, it was a completely surreal experience. I think the morning I was at a hotel with my husband and the New York Times Book Review was delivered to us—the week my book was at number 2—along with room service breakfast was the most out-of-body moment. I’m still not sure I’ve processed the whole thing.
Early on, you considered going into publishing. How do you think your writing career would be different if you had? What do you think your years as a marketing copywriter brought to this book?
The first question isn’t one I can really answer. I don’t look back and try to reimagine decades of my life on a different path—it’s too vertigo inducing. I also try to find value in my past decisions, even the ones that I quickly regretted or realized I had to undo. My years as a freelance writer were incredibly important because I grew into a very disciplined and focused worker. I understand that writing is a job, and you need to show up for work every day. I believe that some days are easier than others, but I don’t believe in waiting for inspiration to strike.
Now that The Nest is in the hands of readers, have there been any reactions to it that surprised you?
I always described the book as being about family. It’s surprised me to hear it described by other people as a book about money. The plot centers on money, of course, but I don’t think it’s what the book is about, per se. We don’t talk a lot about money in this country—I think the book has given people the opportunity to talk about something that is important in everyone’s life but rarely discussed in public.
This book really delves into the relationships between adult siblings—the deep connection, but also the way that the family you create can sometimes be a point of conflict with the family you were born into. Why did writing about adult siblings appeal to you?
I grew up in a very Irish-Italian Catholic environment and almost everyone I grew up with had lots of brothers and sisters. I’m the oldest of four, and I always described our family as “small”—and it was small compared to most of my friends’ families. I’ve always been interested in sibling dynamics and how those relationships become more intense as everyone ages.
Again, from a plot perspective The Nest is about four adult siblings fighting over money, but I believe the book is really about the one thing we all inherit simply by being born: our place in a family narrative. We just become the youngest or the oldest and often are assigned other convenient labels—the smart one, the pretty one, the funny one—that may be rooted in truth but are still reductive and hard to shake off.
I’m also interested in the idea that because you share DNA and a history with people, you will necessarily share values or a common vision for the future. Sometimes you will and sometimes you won’t and either way is okay!
The characters in The Nest are struggling with something we all have to face—to differing degrees depending on circumstances—but all of us, eventually, have to reconcile the story we inherit with the one we want to write for ourselves. It’s hard to claim your own desires and take responsibility for your own choices—and mistakes. The Nest is definitely a book about making mistakes and discovering who in your life will forgive you and help you when things are tough.
Do you agree with Warren Buffet’s maxim that “a very rich person should leave his kids enough to do anything but not enough to do nothing”?
I am the worst financial adviser on Earth, but that sounds like a wise plan! I mainly believe that it’s a very complicated, personal decision and depends on the people involved.
You’ve lived on both coasts. How do you think attitudes about money and wealth are different in Los Angeles vs. New York City?
New York City is a much older city than Los Angeles and so it has layers of old money, which is a very particular and exclusive kind of club. Los Angeles money is newer and it’s a little flashier, but more inclusive. If you can pay, you belong! There’s plenty of that in New York City, too, but there is also plenty of the “who are your parents and grandparents and Yale or Harvard?” kind of exclusivity that doesn’t really exist in Los Angeles, a place where people can reinvent themselves week to week if they choose.
What would you blow a huge inheritance on?
An apartment in New York City, and if there was any left over, a little place in Rome.
What are you working on next?
I hope I’m working on a new novel, but it’s a little too soon to tell.