Jennifer Close on How Politics, Pasta, and 90’s Cover Bands Informed Her Hilarious New Novel About a Family in Crisis
For nearly thirty years, the Sullivan cousins—Teddy, Jane, and Gretchen—have found solace in their family restaurant, JP Sullivans, a cozy establishment in Oak Park, Illinois. But in the fall of 2016, the cousins find themselves unmoored when their grandfather unexpectedly dies, their beloved Cubs finally win the World Series, and Donald Trump is elected President. Jane suddenly questions whether her husband’s newfound obsession with CrossFit is just an innocent hobby or an indicator that something is amiss in her once-stable marriage. Her younger sister, Gretchen, is unsure whether her popular 90’s cover band, Donna Martin Graduates, still has a chance at rock and roll stardom when the majority of their income comes from playing wedding receptions. Their cousin, Teddy, struggles to get his aunts and uncles to take him seriously as the new manager of JP Sullivans, all the while trying to figure out why his snobbish ex-boyfriend is suddenly frequenting the restaurant so much. What follows is a delightful comedy of manners as the three Sullivans navigate the unexpected twists of life, fortified by family and the restaurant’s phenomenal grilled cheese sandwiches. As she has done in her previous books, Jennifer Close depicts the complex of family and romantic relationships with a graceful charm and easy wit. Critics have raved about Marrying the Ketchups, with The New York Times singling out Close’s “merry sense of humor…[and] the knack she has of inventing story lines that have the feel of extremely good gossip told across a hightop table over a beer with an old friend.” Author photo courtesy of Michael Lionstar.
We see the world of the bar through the three Sullivan cousins and they all are going through very specific crises in their love lives and careers. I wanted to know what your entry point for the novel was, whether it was a particular character or the restaurant itself?
There’s so much drama in restaurants. It’s such a great setting. But the first character that came to me was Gretchen. It’s funny because I’ve thought about it later. Obviously I’m not a singer, I’m a writer, but I think I’ve always had this fear of “how long do you keep trying at this thing you want to do, making art?” I feel like I put a lot of my stuff on her, where she had some success, but then it sort of evened out. Was she going to keep doing it? I had her as this singer in a cover band, so that was the first thing-just that idea of making the decision of “I’m done trying to do this dream, and I’m just going to go home.” That was really the first part. Then the rest of them just came naturally. I knew the other two were already in Chicago. I knew she was the one who returned home and started it all.
The book is set in the aftermath of the Cub’s win and Trump’s election. What was it like exploring the lives of the characters in such a particular time period?
Honestly, it was kind of awful. I started writing the book before 2016, so it was not originally supposed to have any of this in there. After 2016, it just started creeping it’s way in. I honestly didn’t want to write about Trump, but I couldn’t help it. I actually don’t know if the line is still in there, but I put his name in the book, and I thought, “I don’t even want it in the book.” I felt like I couldn’t not write about it. It was kind of dark (laughs), because I knew what they all felt like.
I’m a huge Cubs fan, and obviously the election is more important than the Cubs, but it was such a weird whiplash of events. Then I thought, “Lets add one more thing to this family, so they just feel like, ‘What has happened?’” It was kind of hard to write about, especially because I was writing as it was still happening. It’s not like it was five years in the future. (laughs) But I think it was something I clearly had to work through. I couldn’t write in the before times and ignore it. That would have been a really big choice, but I think I would have been avoiding what I was thinking about every single day. It definitely took a lot longer, because it shuffled around a bunch of different stuff in the book. It kind of took over in a way I didn’t plan for.
Even though the book takes place right after a big death in the family and so many of the characters are struggling with huge problems, the book is very funny. How did you arrive at the almost effervescent tone of the book, while also grappling with these big issues?
When I was in grad school, all I did was try to write in a way that wasn’t actually playing to my strengths. There was a point when I realized that no matter what I was writing, I was always trying to be funny. Finally, I just leaned into that, because I do think that in the worst and most crazy times, there’s still funny stuff that happens. That’s sometimes how I think that grief comes out. That’s so much of the book. There’s all this stuff happening and life just goes on. It feels like the world’s ending and you’re still going to work. I love pointing out the absurd in things, even really emotionally fraught situations. Those are my favorite books to read, when they’re both funny and sad. I think that actually that gets at the other emotion in a better way, when you can point out the funny parts of the situation and then you’re taken by surprise by the sadness or the grief that’s also on the page.
It’s funny, because a lot of them are a little bit different. For years I was trying to be George Saunders, which I’m not. But he is really good. He is so funny and still just shocks you all of a sudden. He’s really good at that balance, and I love his writing. This is not someone who’s an influence, because I read it after my book was done, but there’s this book called Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Goodman. It’s such a good example. It’s about mental health and somehow you’re laughing and then on the next page you’re crying. It’s just a really good balance. I just love books that do that. I don’t know if you read Less, by Andrew Sean Greer? That book was so funny, but I just remember at the end being like, “Oh my God, I felt every emotion.” I’m drawn to books like that.
A lot of the action of the book falls between Oak Park, where the restaurant is, and Lake Forest, where Jane and her family live. How did you land on those two very specific—and different—places to set the book?
I am not from either of those places, but one of my best friends lives in Oak Park, so I’ve spent a lot of time there. It’s diverse and accepting. It’s a really special place. They were so happy when they first moved there, because on their street, no family looked the same. They felt like, “I’m so happy that our kids will grow up like this and think nothing of this.” It was just one of those places where you feel like, “Oh, this is amazing.” It was different from where I grew up. I wanted to write about it because it feels like this special place.
I knew I wanted to write about that place, and then I was trying to think of the opposite. (laughs) Because I grew up in the north suburbs, I know them a little bit, so I felt like, “Let’s use Lake Forest.” I have friends who were living places like that after the election—not Lake Forest, but suburbs like that—where they knew a lot of people they saw everyday who were happy with the outcome. I think that because I didn’t live in a place like that, I was obsessed with it. “How are you even going to the store? How are you even talking to your neighbors, knowing that?” That sort of got into my head, and that’s how I set Jane there, in a place where it was going to change the way she looked at where she had lived before and before that, not really having much of a problem with it. I wanted there to be a switch in the way she saw it after the election.
This is a big food novel and all of the characters have such specific relationships to food that’s so fun to read. What was it like exploring each person’s relationship with food?
I gave Teddy everything I think about food. He’s for sure my favorite. He has that rant at the beginning about how he loves heirloom tomatoes and Oreos equally. He’s the one who likes to cook. I was interested too in the idea of a restaurant family probably not wanting to cook—they’re used to other people cooking for them. I love reading about food. Heartburn is one of my all-time favorite books. That’s actually something I kept coming back to in this book, because I love how she talks about it. Rumaan Alaam writes really lovingly about food. It’s always just worked into his books in a way that feels natural, but also it’s a page describing carbonara, and you’re like, “I have to go make carbonara right now.” (laughs)
I liked Teddy’s chapters a lot, because I gave him all of my stuff. He has a chapter where he makes something he calls “Bad Day Pasta,” which is not what I’ve ever called it, but it’s one thousand percent what I make. It’s what I make on Sunday nights with a glass of red wine, and you’re like, “This makes you feel better. Carbs and cheese and red wine.” I just loved the idea too that they all had these different relationships to what it meant. They all like gathering, but it’s just a little bit different what each of them thinks about it.
The book takes place mostly in 2017. What was it like writing about your characters’ lives in the time period right before the pandemic hit?
I just felt awful for them. When I wrote that last scene, it was like, “Good luck.” I had to try not to think about it, because they had no idea. I just felt really sad for them, because it’s like, “You think you guys have problems now, but you don’t even know what’s coming.” The last scene is supposed to feel hopeful, but I just felt really bad knowing what was coming. I can’t change it, and they don’t know, so I’m going to let them have this moment. I never understood this before I started writing, when authors would be like, “I don’t know what happens next.” And I’d think, “Yes, you do!” But I really don’t. I mean, I have a guess what happens to them, but I don’t know for sure. They could do something amazing during the pandemic and really thrive. It’s one of those things where I don’t know how things turn out after that last scene. I wish I did. When I read my characters, I’m like, “Oof, we’ll see.”
And finally, what role have libraries played in your life?
I love libraries. When I was younger, the trip to the library was my favorite thing, which I feel like is common with writers. The Glencoe library was great. I mostly remember it as mostly as a place where I realized I loved to read. I loved going to the library as a child and having the librarians talk to me very seriously about what I should read next. That was my first step into being like I just want to talk about books and be surrounded by books. I can remember the conversations because I felt like an adult when they were talking to me. It was very serious, they loved to read and I loved to read. That’s what I really remember, the conversations and they led me to a lot of different books that I probably wouldn’t have found otherwise. I always loved our trips there, but before we went on vacation we made a big trip there. That’s when we got the most amount of books. I just remember feeling like you were getting away with something. It’s such a gift, you get all these books. What’s a better feeling than that? I credit the library with a lot of my childhood reading and voracious reading. I loved that I knew I could finish a book and bring it right back and get another one.
This interview has been edited and condensed for publication