Julie Langsdorf’s social satire White Elephant might be about a straight-and-arrow, quaint neighborhood, but the road she took to publishing it sprawled across decades and iterations. In the dark comedy, a quiet Washington, D.C. suburb is disrupted when a mammoth white house – the titular white elephant – begins construction. The new home pushes the suburbanites out of their boring slumber and into action.
The story follows an intricate cast of characters who were first conceived in the mid-aughts and had to be updated for the modern world. Though this seems like it fits perfectly well in the Trumpian world, Langsdorf will quickly admit that she didn’t need to change much of the political lens from when she first conceived it to its publication.
We spoke about the decades-long journey White Elephant took to publication and how much the world has and hasn’t changed since she first conceived her book.
How and when did you begin writing?
I wrote as a kid and when I got out of college, I wrote for a local newspaper and a magazine in Delaware. I’m from the Washington, D.C. area and when I moved back in 1990 is when I started fiction. I’m 55-years-old. I’ve been doing this a very long time. I started writing in 1990 and I’ve been writing ever since.
I wrote this book between 2005 and 2009. I revised it in 2017.
Let’s go back to 1990. What was the writing world like then? Now, a lot of published literary novels come out of MFA programs. Short stories and collections are almost like calling cards. What was it like for you then?
At that time, I was writing short stories. It was so different than now. We had to print it out and mail it out. It was so primitive. You included an envelope for them to send it back to you. I did go to a year of an MFA in 1993 to American University. I got pregnant with my son and had to be on bedrest, so I did not end up going back to finish the program.
Then at the time I wrote this book, I did have an agent in 2009 when I first finished it. At that time, the market collapsed. That may have been one of the reasons the book didn’t sell.
How did White Elephant unfold in the 2000s?
In 2005, there were a lot of articles about different communities and classic, old neighborhoods where people were moving in and tearing down houses. People were egging on neighbors and yelling at each other while taking them to court. It was such juicy material. It was horrible for the people living it, but as a novelist, I just couldn’t resist it.
You’re creating Willard Park and the inhabitants. How did the world come together?
I based Willard Park on several different Washington-area neighborhoods. There are pieces of different ones – including one I grew up in. Once I could visualize the neighborhood, I was able to envision a character. Once I envisioned their lives, I could picture the neighbors around them within the story. I definitely like to dive in and see what crops up. I write it out, then go back to reshape it.
What enticed you about suburbia?
Now that I live in D.C. I find it fascinating. There are rules about how you live and how people interact with each other. It’s so particular. It’s so interesting to see how a world comes to be and how a neighborhood functions. I love trying to figure out how everyone ticks and why they feel so strongly about the things they feel like.
The suburbs are so much easier. The city has everything right at your fingertips.
There’s a boringness that fascinates me about the suburbs because there isn’t that much to do. Of course there are interesting things to do, but it doesn’t have the vibrancy the city does. In my city, we have issues we are upset about but it’s diffused because there is so much going on.
In a suburb, issues can come to a head because those are the issues that are important to the community. Sometimes even more than what is going on nationally.
It reminds me of that Gatsby quote: “And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”
That’s so perfect. In the city, you can get away from an issue. In the suburbs, there is nowhere to go. People are often judging each other depending on what the issue is.
With this novel, after you spent so much time exploring Willard Park and it didn’t sell in 2009, did you shelve this completely? Or was it a decade of tinkering?
I did. I shelved it and worked on other books including one that is a fictional version of my family story. My mother is a child Holocaust survivor and I did a lot of research on my family and discovered all types of relatives. That is one I would like to go back to eventually. I also wrote another book, but I don’t think it’s the time for that.
I worked on a lot of things but didn’t look at this one at all.
Why go back to this book, specifically?
I was at a turning point. I became a yoga teacher but didn’t have a literary agent. I was at a point where I was going to decide to stop calling myself a writer and fully dive into a yoga teacher. I decided to revise something and felt this was one that was the closest to being finished. I decided to send it around and if the universe chose that I was going to be a writer, then I was going to go full into it. It’s hard to say if I would have become a full-time yoga teacher. I tried to quit writing once before.
How different is White Elephant as the world will read it versus how it was when you first wrote it?
What’s being published now is somewhat different than the book I was trying to sell then. It is a fair amount different. I did some revisions before I got it to my agent, but not a huge amount. I had to modernize it. There are teenagers in the story, so what was cool in 2008-2009 is not really cool anymore. I had my kids, niece, and nephew help with how things changed in the intervening years. Then no one had a cellphone, but if a teen didn’t have a cellphone now, they would be really weird.
Now we’re in the Trump Era, and this book was created long before he became a political figure. Were you conscious of that as you were getting the final edits completed?
You know, it’s weird. I really don’t reference Trump; there is one reference to the 2016 election. It was really striking how the book is really more relevant now than when I wrote it. The country is so much more divided now. I actually think the book speaks so much more to this climate than the one that existed when I wrote it.
The book is very modern and after learning it was written in the mid-aughts, it really made me questions just how much actually changed.
It was much less divided. The book really felt like the story of that specific neighborhood then. Now it feels like a microcosm of everything that is going on in our country.
It was such a simpler time in Bush’s America, and obviously through Obama’s two terms.
We never would have dreamed of President Trump at that time. One thing I tried to do in the book was to explore how difficult it is for people to communicate. Whether it’s with people they love and want to communicate with or like in the story they’re going to view whatever the other person does as against them.
One thing I’m interested in is how people perceive themselves and how they think others view them. I think it’s a fascinating thing that happens. When things are more divided, we just look more into our own stories. Now, in the climate we’re in, we just have our own news feeds. It was never like that before and it just makes us more divided.
An event will happen and I’ll see it one way and everyone inside my bubble will agree. Sometimes it will take days or weeks for me to even see what someone who disagrees with me actually thinks outside of memes on the internet.
When there are more conversations when the bubbles intersect and we begin to listen to each other is the only way we can make any sort of progress. Increasingly, the bubbles are separate and we’re not involved with the other perspective. We’re afraid of what the other side has to say. We are very protective of our side.
My roommate for a few years was on the opposite side of the political spectrum. Yet we still were able to talk about things and not yell at each other.
That’s probably because you felt safe. If we safe we’re able to interact with one another.
Earlier, you mentioned being a yoga instructor. I took yoga only a few times, but it definitely felt like a safe place that was super cathartic for me. Do you find a correlation between yoga and writing?
I do. Both are so internally driven. They’re both practices. You have to keep showing up. Some days it is going to suck and other days it is going to go well. You just have to keep showing up. They are both forms of meditation for me. Sometimes you’re in it and some times you’re not as much. It will pay off if you keep working at it.
A little bonus question: I know you and Kate Hope Day are friendly and are big supporters of one another. If people loved White Elephant, what will they love about her book If, Then?
Tom Perrotta is one of the writers who has influenced my work, and both of our novels are different sides of his work. Mine is more of his humorous side and hers is more like The Leftovers. She balances sci-fi and the literary world so well. She really trusts her narrators. You really believe her characters are who they are. She is very masterful in how she writes and it is a very compelling story.