The Very Nice Box
Authors: Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Interview by Columnist Diane Slocum
Ava was already devoted to her work designing boxes for a home goods company – but she had Andie. When Ava’s parents and Andie died in a car wreck that she barely survived, she closed down her world even more. About the only thing, she cared for outside work was her dog, Brutus. Even her home was practically a STÄDA showroom – she appreciated the simple, functional qualities of the STÄDA products (even everything for Brutus). When Mat Putnam became the new head of product, he was eager to be friends with Ava, even though they had little in common. But he did have a dog.
AUTHORLINK: How did you get an idea to write a novel together?
“We had the idea in our back pocket for a long time.”–Gleichman
GLEICHMAN: We had the idea in our back pocket for a long time. We met as neighbors and really bonded over the small outrages and mysteries of our everyday lives; from the perplexing ways people behaved to the incomprehensible ads we’d see on the subway. Ultimately, we felt that these conversations could have a bigger audience than just the two of us, and we started putting pen to paper (or whatever the Google docs equivalent of that is).
BLACKETT: Looking back, we had some experience with collaboration even before we started writing– cooking dinner together and designing little furniture pieces for Eve’s apartment are two examples that come to mind. I can’t remember the exact moment we decided to give writing collaboratively a try, but I know that once the idea was out there it felt too exciting to ignore.
AUTHORLINK: Where did the idea for the story originate? How did it get to be about a box-designing engineer at a home-goods company?
GLEICHMAN: We didn’t know much about the story when we began writing it. We only really knew about Ava— our closed-off, neurotic, smart main character. It seemed like the perfect job for her would be to design storage boxes, because of her rigidity (her days are broken into 30-minute units; she doesn’t have a social life; she’s mired in grief). Then we thought: OK, a neurotic, closed-off, grieving storage box designer. Where can we put her? And who can we make her interact with? That’s where we came up with STÄDA, the over-the-top furniture company that essentially demands extroversion from its employees, and Mat Putnam, who shakes Ava out of her trance.
BLACKETT: Yes, and Ava’s character led us to Mat. We knew we wanted him to be her opposite– for him to be an extroverted, easygoing, golden boy who both irritates her and attracts her. The rest of the story grew from there.
AUTHORLINK: How did you work together to develop the story?
GLEICHMAN: It felt a little like driving in a heavy fog. And to extend that metaphor, we were in the passenger’s seat, and our characters were driving. We only could see what was directly in front of us. So, we’d get together for dinner and plot a few chapters ahead, then we’d alternate writing the chapters. The best part about this was that no matter what we had planned, the characters often had other ideas, so the book constantly took us by surprise, veering left and right. It was crucial to be flexible about what we planned versus what was actually going to work for the book.
“And it was so fun to be surprised by our characters and by each other!”–Blackett
BLACKETT: And it was so fun to be surprised by our characters and by each other! I think we placed a lot of trust in one another, so surprises and deviations from the outline felt like exciting opportunities rather than roadblocks.
AUTHORLINK: Without giving anything away, did you know the relationship between Ava and Mat before you started writing?
GLEICHMAN: We knew vaguely where their relationship was headed. But there was so much about their relationship we didn’t know; how they’d behave together, what their chemistry would look like, what Ava would think of Mat, or how he would get her to open up. Discovering those answers was really exciting.
BLACKETT: I think that’s perfectly put!
AUTHORLINK: Again, without giving it away, did you have plans early on for how the box would ultimately be used?
GLEICHMAN: Actually, no. One thing we knew early on is that we didn’t want to use the box as a symbol, which is funny in hindsight because of course there is a lot of compartmentalization of grief in the novel. But we really wanted to deal with The Very Nice Box as an object, not an idea. Ava cares deeply about this box. It’s simple, it’s beautiful, it’s useful, and she understands its function better than anyone–us included.
BLACKETT: I remember in the beginning, when we first started writing, wondering how we would get readers to feel excited about this simple object. It’s kind of a small running joke in the book that other characters don’t totally get it. But since Ava loves The Very Nice Box, so do we.
AUTHORLINK: Tell me more about how you worked your way through the book together?
“We alternated writing each chapter in a Google Doc.”–Gleichman
GLEICHMAN: We alternated writing each chapter in a Google Doc. Laura would text me and say “I just dropped my chapter.” I’d stop everything I was doing to read the chapter. It was always the highlight of my day. Then I’d sit down, edit it, and write my own chapter, then text her when it was ready for her eyes. Once we drafted the book, we both edited it countless times. Whole chapters were cut, others were added. And we were constantly rewriting and sanding down sentences. At this point, it’s impossible for us to tell who first wrote which chapter, passage, or sentence.
BLACKETT: Receiving Eve’s chapter was also a major highlight for me. It was my favorite thing to read at the time! I loved seeing their ideas come to life, feeling surprised, and seeing what our characters were getting up to without my supervision. It was also nice to have some built-in writing breaks, which I really think helps in the editing process. One fun fact is that we broke Google Docs. Apparently, there is a limit to the number of comments a doc can have, and once you reach it, you get locked out. We finished our first draft and then got locked out of the doc. It was a very scary moment!
AUTHORLINK: What do you think it takes for two people to write a novel together? What advice would you give to other would-be writing pairs?
GLEICHMAN: If you can’t let go of an idea that you think is ingenious but your partner isn’t crazy about, you’re going to have a hard time. On the flip side of that, it’s really important to say yes to your writing partner; “no” tends to shut things down quickly. Laura and I had collaborated for years before we started writing together—on cooking, on building furniture, you name it. We knew we had the chemistry to build something together. Also, Laura has a good idea that has to do with ordering pizza that she can tell you about.
“If you’re wondering if you should collaborate with someone, try ordering a pizza first.”–Blackett
BLACKETT: Yes! If you’re wondering if you should collaborate with someone, try ordering a pizza first. How did it go? Were you able to come to an agreement quickly? Did one of you insist on anchovies? Did the other resentfully agree? The task is really to pay close attention to how you share ideas and make decisions with one another– it will tell you a lot about your ability to work collaboratively.
AUTHORLINK: When you went to find an agent and a publisher, was there any reaction to the fact that the two of you wrote the story?
“…our agent (the incredible Faye Bender at The Book Group) was unfazed; she just loved the book.”–Gleichman
GLEICHMAN: We thought there would be, and it’s possible it scared away would-be agents, but our agent (the incredible Faye Bender at The Book Group) was unfazed; she just loved the book. When we submitted it to publishers, we used a pseudonym, thinking that we should keep the collaboration quiet. But our editor, Pilar Garcia-Brown, urged us to put both our names on the book, and I’m really glad she did–so many people are fascinated by the collaboration, including writers interested in trying it themselves.
BLACKETT: This was possibly one of the most surprising parts of the experience. I thought we might have to keep our collaboration a secret. I wasn’t sure whether being different in this way would be seen as a positive thing. But people seem to be really interested in the collaboration, which I’m so happy about!
AUTHORLINK: Will you be doing another project together?
GLEICHMAN: Yes! I just dropped my chapter into the Google Doc yesterday…
BLACKETT: And I love it! I can’t wait to get started on mine.
AUTHORLINK: Do you have separate projects you’re working on?
“Right now, the joy is in the collaboration, so that’s where you’ll find us.”–Gleichman
GLEICHMAN: At the moment, no. Right now, the joy is in the collaboration, so that’s where you’ll find us.
BLACKETT: What Eve said!
About the authors: Laura Blackett is a woodworker and a writer. Eve Gleichman graduated from Brooklyn College’s MFA fiction program. Her short stories have been published in a variety of places including the Kenyon Review, the Harvard Review and BOMB Dailey. This is a first novel for the authors. They both live in Brooklyn.