Drawing a novel from a seatmate's story
The writer Edmund White once told Nell Freudenberger it takes maybe 15 or 20 years to write about an experience. “So in terms of writing about marriage, I’m definitely jumping the gun,” says Freudenberger, laughing, during a call to her home in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
Freudenberger, author of The Dissident, a highly praised debut novel, and Lucky Girls, a collection of stories, was engaged but not yet married to architect Paul Logan when she began ruminating about the narrative that would eventually become her thoroughly captivating second novel, The Newlyweds.
“I was just thinking the other day that I will have had two children in the course of writing this book,” says Freudenberger, who was just days away from the birth of her second child when she spoke with BookPage and just weeks away from the publication of her new novel. “It’s a little discouraging how much longer the gestation of a book is than the gestation of a human. Of course there’s a lot more that you do afterwards with children. With a book, once you’re finished with it, you pretty much let it go.”
Freudenberger is about to let go of The Newlyweds, which explores the life of a middle-class Muslim woman from Bangladesh who meets an American electrical engineer on an international online dating site, then travels to Rochester, New York, to marry him.
The seed of the novel, Freudenberger says, was a conversation on an airplane. Freudenberger was on her way to Rochester to help her father, screenwriter Daniel Freudenberger, clean out the house of her grandmother, who had recently died after living there for more than 40 years. She took a seat next to Farah Deeba, who was returning from New York City to Rochester with her fiancé. The two struck up a conversation about their grandmothers, among other things.
"Farah gave me an enormous gift: telling me the stories and allowing me to make them into something different."
“I was curious about her, just because I’ve spent a lot of time in South Asia, and I assumed, wrongly, that she was Indian,” Freudenberger says. “And then I was interested that a middle-class Muslim woman would choose to meet somebody online and get married, because it’s a really unconventional choice. The prohibition about marrying outside the faith is even stronger for women than for men.”
Freudenberger and Deeba remained in close contact after the flight. “Farah loves to tell stories and I love to listen to them,” the author says. By the time Deeba invited her to visit her grandmother’s village in Bangladesh, Freudenberger had already asked for and received permission to use her experiences as the basis for a novel.
“I always start with the germ of something real, usually a second-hand story about somebody that I don’t know. This gives you a structure that you then make unrecognizable in the end. But this process was different. This was five years of conversations—not interviews, conversations. A lot of times the book seemed to be moving along a parallel track; the things that happened in the book weren’t the things Farah was telling me about, but without her stories, I wouldn’t have been able to imagine the place the way I did. Farah gave me an enormous gift: telling me the stories and allowing me to make them into something different.”
The central character of The Newlyweds, Amina, shares a few of the events of Deeba’s early life—her formal education ended at 13, but studying on her own she managed to pass her O levels and become fluent in English. The events of Amina’s later life, however, are Freudenberger’s invention—Amina’s struggle to find her bearings as an immigrant in Rochester, the ups and downs of the marriage, her husband’s hidden past and the temptation she feels to abandon her American marriage when she returns to Bangladesh to bring her parents back to Rochester.
“As I wrote the book, I was more and more aware of how much Amina is my own creation and is not Farah. The person I was making, in spite of her life looking so different from mine, has many similarities to me. I’m much less brave than this character, but certainly her weaknesses, like her drive to succeed maybe without enough forethought, wanting to get a gold star from the teacher, are something I share. . . . There’s always some part of fiction that’s confessing or writing about yourself. It’s a way, I think, of tricking yourself into being honest.”
The drive to be honest is equally apparent in Freudenberger’s crystalline prose, despite the fact that she feels largely unconscious of her sentences during composition. “When I’m writing, I’m inside somebody’s head, trying to see a situation as someone else would, so I’m not really thinking about the sentences. I think of sentences in terms of rhythm and balance and sound, but that’s a part of writing that’s almost athletic. It’s something that feels like exercise, like habit—in a good way. That’s why you do it every day. Otherwise, you get creaky.”
Freudenberger certainly did not get creaky while working on The Newlyweds. “I took so many wrong turns that needed to be scrapped,” she says. “I would always think of my father, who is a screenwriter. He would have a big bulletin board with Post-it notes pinned up with all the different scenes. The project was incredibly well organized before he started. For whatever reason I don’t think fiction works like that. I need to write a thousand drafts.”
Freudenberger adds, “I remember the day I sat down at my computer and wrote the first few pages in Amina’s voice, and I knew then that I could write the book. I didn’t know what was going to happen in the book, but I felt as long as I stayed inside the characters, as long as the characters felt right, I could have faith that what happened to them would resolve itself.”
But the book also had to garner Deeba’s approval. “Having Farah read the novel was definitely a precondition for publishing the book. I was the most nervous when she was reading it. I was so afraid she wouldn’t like it or that it wouldn’t seem true to her.”
Deeba seems to have liked the results of Freudenberger’s work on The Newlyweds—and the rest of her readers will, too.