Laura Zigman’s New Novel is a Family Tragicomedy

Family trauma and its echoes through the years are the themes of Small World (Ecco, $27.99) a breathtaking new novel in which two grown sisters make for unlikely roommates. Author Laura Zigman talks to fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the myriad ways the past continues to inform and shape the present.

YZM: You’ve said that aspects of this novel are autobiographical—can you talk about which things were based in your family’s actual history, which were fictionalized and how you made these decisions? 

LZ: I grew up in a family that had lost a child. From as young an age as I can remember, that was part of how I identified myself and where I came from—a somewhat sad family that had suffered a tragic loss, but a loss that hadn’t involved me directly. I was 3 and my older sister was 5 when our oldest sister Sheryl died at the age of 7 from a very rare bone disease. She’d been institutionalized at the Walter E. Fernald School, a state hospital outside Boston, for most of that time, and so what we knew of her as siblings was limited to our vague memories of a few visits to Fernald and the years of watching the home movies my father had taken of those visits and of her early years when she still lived at home. It was less our direct loss than experience that loss through my parents’ prolonged grieving process which, for the most part, didn’t involve us. 

I’d always wanted to write about our family, about what it was like to grow up that way, inside parental grief, much like many children of Holocaust survivors do — you absorb all the sadness that’s there without any of the direct loss and trauma — and I even tried writing it as a memoir. But after about 75 pages, I realized there just wasn’t enough of a compelling story if I told it that way: so much had happened off-stage to my parents, before I was even aware of it, and there was only so much I felt I could say about that.

When I came up with the set-up to have two middle-aged divorced sisters move in together as adults, I could instantly see the potential for comedy. Who doesn’t regress with their siblings, reverting to all the old arguments and issues from childhood? But then I realized that would be the perfect way to mine their serious childhood issues — and mine. Through fiction. I changed the way their sister’s life and death had played out and with those changes I could explore so much of what I wanted to while creating a dramatic narrative arc. 

YZM: Looked at from one vantage point, Louise is a fiercely devoted and loving mother; from another, she seems detached and at times neglectful. Can you talk about where she succeeded, and where she failed? 

LZ: Part of the parenting issue in the book is that we’re talking about the 1970s — anyone who was raised in the 1960s and 1970s knows how different parenting was then! — a certain level of benign neglect was just the way it was then. But of course there is more to it here than that alone: Louise Mellishman, who becomes an accidental activist, part of a movement of parents who advocate for the rights of their disabled children, ends up being so focused on Eleanor’s inclusion that she ends up inadvertently excluding her other two children, Joyce and Lydia. Louise may have the  best of intentions, putting all her energy toward the child of hers who needs her the most, but she ends up being blinded to the fact that her “healthy” children need her, too. Joyce and Lydia admire Louise for what she accomplished, becoming a powerful activist in the decades after Eleanor dies, but they are forever affected by the sadness and anger at always being on the periphery of her attention; of being invisible; of not having their needs taken into account, too.

YZM: The relationship between the sisters Lydia and Joyce is reshaped and maybe even redefined during the course of the novel; can you say more about the shift? 

LZ: Like a lot of siblings who live in different cities and parts of the country in the years and decades after they move away from home after high school and college, Joyce and Lydia don’t know each other well. Sure, they’ve visited over the years, flying back and forth from both coasts for holidays and short trips, but living so far away from each other has made them almost strangers. When Lydia finally decides to move back to the East Coast, Joyce can’t help the instant fantasy she has that they’ll finally be close — in a way they’ve never been. Inviting Lydia to live with her seems like the perfect way to faciliate a new relationship.

Which it does, but not in the way she expects it to. Because very soon after they move in together, they start dealing with the difficult neighbors upstairs, and the differences in how they approach that situation is a window into the fault lines of their relationship. Before they can find a new peace as adults, they have to face and resolve a lot of painful issues from their childhood.

YZM: How would you describe the change in how children like Eleanor are viewed and treated now versus during the years in which the novel was set? 

LZ: The most obvious difference is in the language we use to describe children, and people, with disabilities. Back then, the “r” word was used, and it isn’t now. That’s a level of respect and understanding that has changed for the better, and, with that heightened sensitivity comes an understanding that there are a wide range of intellectual and developmental and physical disabilities and that all deserve to be included in the world no matter what special needs we might have. I think parents have always wanted the best for their special needs children, no matter what, and the biggest change is that there is less shame now surrounding those issues of difference and far more acceptance and celebration of them.

YZM: Let’s talk about the title, which seems to have more than one meaning; what were you intending when you chose it? 

LZ: I wanted to pick a name for the online neighbor site (that is based on the Nextdoor app) that would communicate that sense of community and connection that Joyce is hungry for, not just when she eavesdrops on the day-to-day questions that people post on that site, but a phrase that would echo Louise’s mission whenever she led the parent activist groups in their living room: Small world, big deal. Yes, our world might feel small, but the things we want and need for ourselves and our families are important.