Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman on Co-Writing a Novel, Google Doc Etiquette, and Creating the Most Unexpected Relationship of the Summer
Ava Simon has insulated herself from the trauma of the death of her girlfriend by throwing herself into her job at STÄDA, a minimalist Scandinavian design company in Brooklyn. Her ordered world, however, is thrown into tumult when her charismatic new boss, Mat Putnam, wiggles his way into her personal life. Overconfident and gregarious, Mat appears to be everything Ava is not, a Golden Retriever in human form. The two strike up a surprising relationship, and for the first time since her girlfriend’s death, Ava surprises herself by developing romantic feelings for another person. Yet Mat contains secrets of his own, and as Ava begins to pull at the threads of his facade she threatens to unravel her hard-won happiness. Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman’s A Very Nice Box is a gleeful satire of relationships and start-up culture, as well as an incisive examination of grief and male entitlement, one that has earned plaudits from critics. The New York Times Book Review raved about the book, stating “the book’s authors, Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman, are linguistic magicians, and their sparkling debut manages to expose the hollowness of well-being jargon while exploring, with tender care and precision, how we dare to move on after unspeakable loss.” Blackett and Gleichman talked to us about their unconventional writing process, creating the richly detailed world of their novel, and creating one of the most unanticipated relationships of the summer.
I’m curious about writing a novel with another person. Can you talk about your process?
Eve Gleichman: Maybe it helps to know how we met. In 2013, we moved into the same apartment building, on the same month, I think. Laura lived upstairs from me. I think our apartments maybe even shared a footprint?
Laura Blackett: Yeah, I was two or three floors directly above you.
EG: I had seen who I thought was Laura’s roommate, this person who was in the building and I thought lived in Laura’s apartment. I wanted to be friends with this person, so I invited him to my housewarming party. And as it turned out, he was just couch surfing on Laura’s couch.
LB: Yeah, he was my friend who was spending a lot of time hanging out on my couch, like I had a dog or something. (laughs)
EG: But he came to the party, and so did Laura, and that was the first time that we met, I think. Our friendship really blossomed from there. We were neighbor friends, that was the context. We shared dinners together. Even down the line, if one of us moved, the other one would inevitably move—not to the same block, necessarily, but really close by. I really think of Laura as my neighbor. We were really good friends, but she’s really my neighbor. (laughs) I got my MFA at Brooklyn College—which was why I was in Brooklyn, and I just felt like I wanted to write a book together. It took us a little while to figure out what that book would be about, and convincing Laura to do this with me, but I just felt like it was going to work out.
LB: The way we did this was we would pass it back and forth and we would each take turns on a chapter. Once we decided what world we wanted the book to be in and we knew a little bit about the characters, Eve wrote the first chapter and sent it to me. I was like, “This is really cool. I want to know more about these characters, I want to know what’s going to happen.” So I wrote the second chapter. We passed it back and forth in a Google Doc. It’s kind of funny, despite writing it collaboratively in a Google Doc, we had this unspoken rule that we weren’t allowed to be in the doc at the same time. If it was my turn, and I would open it up and see that Eve was editing, I would be like, “I’m sorry but you have to leave. I can’t write under these conditions.” (laughs) It was really fun. Receiving Eve’s chapter became a total highlight for me in my month. Eve would write a chapter and pass it to me, I would edit it, and write my own. We went along like that until we had a first draft, and then we did some really major revisions. At this point, we’ve cut and moved and performed so much surgery on it that the chapter breakdown doesn’t really work anymore. Sometimes people will pull out particular lines and ask, “Which one of you wrote this?” Sometimes we know, and sometimes we really don’t.
EG: I feel like more often we don’t know. For many of the sentences, I can’t remember if I edited the sentence or wrote it myself.
Laura, you’re also a woodworker. How does your background in woodworking influence your writing?
LB: Woodworking has been a big hobby of mine since I was in early college. I started in set construction, and then designing and building pieces of furniture. That is definitely something that I brought to the novel. Professionally I’ve been working in the tech industry for the past ten years, so a lot of the STÄDA world is inspired by my experience in tech. A lot of the parts of the novel that feel mechanical or specific or technical I think I may have brought some of my experience building things into that.
EG: Definitely. From the point of view of someone with no woodworking experience, anything that seems remotely skilled in a woodworking way comes from Laura. (laughs)
LB: But we’re both really interested in design. Ava’s attraction to simplicity and minimalism is something that I think we both really share.
The story is so elegantly constructed. Finishing it, I had the feeling that this is something Ava would have designed herself.
EG: I’m glad that it worked that way. One funny detail is that there are forty-nine chapters in the book. We sort of struggled with that and thought, “Man, it should really be an even fifty.” I actually like that about the book. It’s off-kilter a little bit. But we thought of the book as an object. I think part two comes almost exactly midway through the book. That was a real pleasure, to think about the book as a design.
LB: Even Ava’s name. We chose Ava for its symmetry and the strength of the letters as shapes.
The book is a very funny set-up of modern office culture, but also a moving exploration of Ava working through her grief and trauma. I was wondering what was the starting point for the novel — the character or the world?
EG: For me, it was through the character of Ava. That was where I started chapter one. I thought it would be fun to write somebody as regimented as she is, somebody who was highly organized, closed off, and completely uninterested in this hyped-up world around her. In fact, in an earlier draft she was even more extreme in that way than she is in this iteration.
LB: And I think we knew a little bit about Mat too. We were interested in seeing how somebody like Ava would interact with a man who’s energy is polar opposite to hers. He’s charming and winning the affection and attention of everybody around her, but not her—at least, not right away.
A lot of our dinner conversations leading up to when we started writing the book were about interactions we’ve had with men like Mat. Men who seem to take sixty percent and leave forty percent; we were trying to understand our own relationship to characters like that. I think that’s what we knew when we got started. Eve visited me at my office, which kind of inspired the STÄDA offices. That was the catalyst to get the first chapter out. We had already done a lot of talking about what Ava and Mat’s relationship might look like at first, and then seeing the kind of decadent tech industry really launched the first chapter.
You talked about how she was more regimented in earlier drafts. Ava’s so precise and craves the beautiful order and symmetry in life. Can you talk about how you arrived at her as the vehicle to explore this world??
EG: I really related to her. I guess I have different feelings now than I did at the beginning of us first drafting the book. There was something about that controlled world that she craves. I just really related to that desire to keep everything perfectly uniform and controlled and protected. I think that she feels a little bit like a hybrid of the two of us.
LB: I would say the same thing. When we were writing her, at times I would be like, “This character is so you Eve,” and Eve would be like, “It’s so you.” (laughs) She really is, in some ways, a combination of the two of us. The things that soothe her are the same things that soothe me. She imagines a screw turning perfectly [to calm herself]. Eve may have even come up with that idea, but that’s something that really speaks to me. I also can relate to her position within her workplace, just in terms of how she sees things changing quickly around her, but she’s just very focused on her work, a little bit heads down, a little bit immune to the circus, for lack of a better term.
EG: I think we’re both outraged by the same things that she is, the way people speak in corporate settings. Maybe that’s where the satire comes from too. Her observations are not too far from ours.
The book has a rich pop culture world that itself is very fun to read about—the shows that Ava and her co-worker Jaime watch, the podcasts that Mat and Ava listen to, plus the many apps that Mat uses to improve his life. Can you talk about what went into creating the world of the book and why you chose to make up these things rather than use existing pieces of pop culture?
EG: The lawsuits were really scary. (laughs) When we were writing the book, I was commuting to work every day, from Brooklyn to midtown, and I just could not get enough of subway ads. Some of them were really smart, some of them were absurd. They often felt satirical to me. I could not tear my eyes away from them. Casper, the mattress company, was doing these little puzzles—I think they’re called pictograms? Their ad campaigns were those, and the final results was something like “daydream.” I could not help but stare at these ads instead of the book I should have been reading at the time. I just thought these are so fun and so stupid sometimes, so that’s where those fake ads came from.
LB: In terms of making it up versus using the companies that we were seeing, I don’t know if we ever really talked about it, but at least for me, I guess I assumed we would have to make them up. Now that I’ve thought about it a little bit, all these companies [that advertise] on the New York City subways, it’s probably just because the ad contracts and how long they’re going to run for, but it seems like there’s this constant renewal and spattering of new Millennial tech start-up companies that you’re seeing. I kind of feel like, “These companies are made up, but they basically could be real and they might be real tomorrow.” But also making up the podcast, “Thirty Minute Machine,” was one of my favorite parts of the book. I would absolutely listen to that podcast. We also had a podcast called “The Feel” in the book, which is all about how knobs feel, rating a volume knob. I was like, “Yeah, I would be one of seven listeners for this podcast.”
The book is a really great dog book. Ava and Mat’s dogs are big characters who play a critical role in the book. How the dogs make their way into the story?
EG: The dog is based on a dog Laura had for a little while. But what comes to mind about Ava, we had to find a way to make her fall for Mat in a credible way. There was just no way that someone like Mat was easily going to wind up with her. We had to find a way for him to make a dent with her. Her love of dogs turned out to be a really helpful aspect of her character because that’s the way he sort of wriggled his way into her life, by having his own dog.
LB: In writing a character who’s so isolated and regimented and rigid, I think having her have a companion and seeing her affection for something helps you like her. Dogs are how adults make friends, kind of. I feel like it’s a really good way for people to meet each other.
And finally, what role have public libraries played in your life?
EG: I would say that public libraries have created a place for queer books and for queer people looking for queer books. That, maybe above everything else, is what I’m most thankful for about libraries. Being a safe place for queer literature and all sorts of literature. In our case, as queer writers, that’s really important to us.
Tags: Eve Gleichman, Laura Blackett