Having grown up and currently living in a small town in suburbia, where over time, modest houses are knocked down and replaced by mansions, trees are removed so yards can have more sunlight, and neighbors have disputes over fences, branches, mailboxes and plowing, I have witnessed communities caught up in grievances surrounding property lines, barking dogs and early morning leaf blowing. Author Julie Langsdorf creates Willard Park, a small town outside of Washington DC where amidst the community craziness we meet well meaning, imperfect characters living their lives to the best of their abilities. Those of us living in suburban areas outside of cities will relate to this slice of life, entertaining debut, White Elephant where neighborly tensions run high and add to the stress of everyday life, tired marriages and over exposed mortgages.
In this satirical debut that is a slightly exaggerated reality and consistently humorous, we are given a peak into suburbia and all the secrets. Julie Langsdorf digs deep to uncover the real people in the neighborhood, their lack of communication and honestly with themselves and each other, their insecurities and private affairs along with their hopes and ideas of what it means to achieve the American Dream. White Elephant is an enjoyable snapshot of Anytown, USA where crazy things happen and it’s just another day!
Q & A with Julie Langsdorf
Q: How did you come up with the idea to write a book about neighborhood tension stemming from the presence of a big new house, nicknamed the White Elephant?
A: I was inspired to write the book in 2005, when a series of articles in The Washington Post and other D.C. publications detailed the chaos that was going on in some of the area’s older, established communities. People were moving into these towns and tearing down the older houses and building new, often enormous houses, much to the older residents’ chagrin. Neighbors were egging one another, yelling at each other in the street, and suing each other. It was such a big, juicy mess I couldn’t resist writing about it.
Q: Did you grow up in suburbia and are any of the characters based on people you know?
A: I grew up in a small town that bears some similarities to the fictional town of Willard Park. There’s a children’s library and houses that range from gracious Victorians to 1960’s split levels. The only character who is based on someone is Terrance, Ted’s twin brother, who is modeled after my own brother, Kenny—one of the sweetest people I know.
Q: Willard Park seemed familiar to me and I am sure to many who read White Elephant. Do you think people living in many suburban towns experience similar disagreements?
A: I think it’s a widespread problem. I’ve heard from people all over the country who say it feels like their neighborhood! We all have different ideas about the American Dream; sometimes it’s hard to reconcile those concepts within a community.
Q: As I was reading I was thinking the characters belong in a soap opera and then again, this small town outside of DC is an example of so many upper middle class towns…from the dispute over the trees and new houses, to the intimacy issues and infidelity, pot smoking, truancy, illness, wannabe artists, small business owners, coffee shops, town festivals, and even a community theater performance of Annie Get Your Gun…it all rings true and seems like a microcosm of the country today! So many things happen yet the story keeps moving forward smoothly as if all the craziness is just the norm. The satirical storytelling with a window into peoples’ lives was a joy to read. Where did you get all your ideas?
A: Thank you for saying that it’s a microcosm of what’s going on today! It really feels that way to me. Willard Park is dealing with the intense stratification we are all confronting these days. It’s so hard for people to see the ‘other side,’ and we are at risk of vilifying those who have a different perspective. There is a lot of craziness in this book, but I’m not sure it’s that much crazier than things that are going on in real life! I love the way community theater pulls a town together. There’s something so sweet about townspeople singing and practicing lines together just for the joy of it; it’s an interesting contrast to the divisiveness they are all feeling. My daughter was in Annie Get Your Gun when she was a child, so I picked that one. It’s such a wonderfully over-the-top show. I never really know where my ideas come from; I like to give my mind plenty of space to wander so oddball ideas can surface when they are ready to.
Q: You portrayed this slice of life humorously and with great insight. There are plenty of secrets between neighbors, friends and family members and open communication is minimal. Most of the characters do bad things but they all have their reasons and although I felt frustrated at times, I forgave them. True feelings are revealed and obstacles are faced, all the while everyone is on their solo journey, searching for their own happiness. Things get so messy and the characters are deeply intertwined…how did you organize the web of neighborhood relationships…did you draw it out on paper first or did you just write and it grew together?
A: Yes, communication is an enormous problem in the book—not just among those who dislike each other, but even among those who love one another. I think it’s a problem in real life as well. I hope readers will feel they understand why the characters make the choices they do even if they disagree with them, and will feel that they are all human, despite their flaws. I don’t map it out, but I did carefully track each character’s journey toward the end of the writing process to make sure everyone’s story hangs together with the characters with whom they interact.
Q: Was there anything in the story that didn’t make the final cut?
A: I cut Nina, the realtor, as a narrator. She was a fun character to write, but in the end I didn’t think her voice added enough to the story.
Q: How long did it take you to write White Elephant and what are you working on now?
A: I wrote White Elephant in about three years, between 2005 and 2008. A long time ago now! When I finished it, the bottom fell out of the market, so it wasn’t the book’s time—but things have come full circle in recent years. I recently finished another suburban comedy set in a different kind of Maryland town. It, too, is told from multiple points of view, and is very topical. I can’t reveal any more about it just yet, but I will as soon as I am able to!
Q: What three books have you read lately that you recommend? And what is on your nightstand to read next?
A: I loved Daisy Jones and The Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid, which I listened to as an audiobook; I highly, highly recommend readers experience it in that way. I also highly recommend Angie Kim’s debut novel Miracle Creek, which will be published this Tuesday. It’s a courtroom drama you do not want to miss. I’m currently reading Oksana Behave!, by Maria Kuznetsova, which is a complete delight. She has such a fresh, fun voice. Next up is Mandy Berman’s Perennials.
I enjoyed and recommend White Elephant. For another humorous book that gives you a behind the scenes look – this time in politics and journalism in the newsroom, check out Amanda Wakes Up by Alisyn Camerota.
About the Author:
Julie Langsdorf has received four fiction grants from the Maryland State Arts Council and her short stories have appeared in several literary magazines. White Elephant, her debut novel, was named a new book to watch for and an editors’ choice by The New York Times, a book not to miss by USA Today, a highly anticipated debut novel by The LA Times, a best new book by Southern Living Magazine and Real Simple, and a Library Journal best debut.