Photo Credit: Micheal Kushner

Growing up between Lake Forest, Illinois, and Long Island, New York, debut novelist Emily Neuberger dreamt of the Broadway stage. She began voice lessons early, at age twelve, and, throughout her adolescence, starred in numerous community and regional productions. She went on to study musical theater at NYU, along with creative writing and French, and, despite protests from Lila, her doglike cat, she sings to this day. I sat down with Neuberger in her apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn this February to discuss her novel,  A Tender Thing (Putnam 2020), her writing process, and her love of musical theater. Among her favorites: Les Misérables, the sung-through musical based on the novel by Victor Hugo, which Neuberger calls a masterpiece of historical fiction. (During our interview, I spotted an earmarked copy of the tome on her coffee table.) 

What she admires most about musical theater, Neuberger says, is its ability to “explore important social ideas in a publicly palatable way.” The same could be said of her novel, which is at once a quick, compelling read, and also a serious one, examining the interrelations of race, gender, and sexuality in the theater industry. Set in the 1950s—a decade wedged between the Second World War and the American civil rights movement (also known as Broadway’s “golden age”)—the novel follows Eleanor O’Hanlon, a young woman from rural Wisconsin who is cast by renowned composer Don Manheim in a transgressive new musical about interracial love. 

Let’s start with your relationship to musical theater.

I’ve loved musicals my entire life. Growing up, I was sure I was going to be a performer, so sure. It was the only thing I thought about, the only thing I talked about. I sang for hours every day. I was devoted, absolutely in love.

But then I moved to New York and was cast in this professional theater company, and I discovered that what I’d always dreamed would make me happiest was actually making me miserable. I was running for like, 90 minutes a day; eating like, a thousand calories a day… The daily aspects of being in a production didn’t actually fulfill me.

I’d fallen in love with the dramatic elements of musicals—the characters, the stories. But being in a chorus is so technical. It’s about being on your mark. And even if you’re as successful as you can possibly be, that means doing the same show eight times a week for a year or two—that’s the dream scenario. Which to me was less fulfilling, when I had other artistic impulses I wanted to explore. 

Impulses that were better explored through writing?

Yes—and I had always been a writer, and a reader. Aside from the music, what I loved about musicals was the construction of the story. Still, I think of my decision to leave [the profession] behind as my first big break up. I was in such a dark place afterwards; for a while, I just didn’t know where to go.  

It’s amazing how common it is for writers to have these pasts in other art forms. There’s a video of Zadie Smith talking about her training in jazz. She paraphrased David Foster Wallace who—to paraphrase her paraphrase—said something like: [“every writer is someone who could do something else very well, but not quite well enough.”]

Yes! You can see Eleanor has a similar journey in the book. She loves musicals, but she doesn’t actually love performing. She wants to be a performer because she’s a young woman in the 1950s, and in the 1950s, that’s all young women could be. She couldn’t be a composer or director, couldn’t be in control of the story—she had to be inside of it. 

Do you think this tension for Eleanor—loving the narrative aspects more than singing—relates to her idolization of Don? 

Absolutely. That’s why she idolized men like him growing up—the brilliant composers, rather than the brilliant performers. And because her imagination is so limited by society in terms of the life a woman can lead and the way a woman can connect to a man, her feelings for Don manifest, at first, as romantic.

And Don capitalizes on her feelings; he sort of uses her as a prop, to conceal his sexuality. 

At the parties? Totally. He uses her as a beard, and it’s not a consensual arrangement. She’s naïve about sexuality, and he takes advantage of that. But those moments don’t negate the fact they have a real connection. That connection means more to Eleanor than to Don, though the end of the book complicates that a bit. 

He goes from treating her like the character he was writing her to be, to treating her like—well, I don’t want to spoil the end.  

Yeah! [Laughs.] Don’t!

Can you talk about the other power dynamic in the book?—Namely, across race? 

With Eleanor, I wanted to address a sort of neglectful racism. The kind of racism that a person who doesn’t harbor hateful feelings can still come away with, by virtue of being a white American. People like to think of themselves as good, so they can be resistant to acknowledging their prejudices. 

Eleanor extends this to the character she plays in the musical, Molly. She can’t imagine that Molly would ever have any discomfort about choosing to be with the man she loves. If she loves him, she thinks, she will choose him. But the reality is much more complex—even if you love someone, does that mean you want to live a much more difficult life? In the musical, the characters decide that it is worth it, but this isn’t not an easy choice. In Don’s early version [of the musical] it is easy, which is why it feels so false.  

And it takes Charles [Eleanor’s black co-star] to move Eleanor to move Don to revise the musical.

Yes—Charles understands the societal cost by actually living it. His wife is black, but by being in the musical, he really is kissing a white woman on stage every night. 

And even though he isn’t in interracial relationship in his actual life, he, as a black man, can probably imagine of how race factors in to the situation, whereas a white person might struggle to do the same. 

A white person like Eleanor doesn’t have to imagine those stakes to stay safe. He does. So he knows what he’s getting into, in that scene where he takes Eleanor to a jazz club. He wants her to understand the lived experience of what it would mean to be the white girlfriend of a black man—not to show her that their characters shouldn’t be together, but to help her understand what the characters are giving up by choosing each other. That makes the choice more romantic, really. It’s not a meaningful choice if it comes from some fantasy that love will conquer all. The consequences have to be understood.

The other major friendship in the book is with Rosie, Eleanor’s childhood friend who comes with her to the city. 

Rosie and Eleanor are almost like sisters. They love each other. They have a shared history, but not a whole lot in common. Rosie wants a more traditional life, whereas Eleanor, as her career takes off, realizes she wants even less of a traditional life than thought. Rosie’s goals don’t change by moving to New York. She wants to be a wife, she wants kids. Eleanor dismisses these wants, thinks they are not important things to want. 

Interesting—So, basically, because Eleanor has to risk so much to go for what she wants, she sees her desires as somehow more noble [than Rosie’s]?

Right. She thinks Rosie has a smaller inner life than she does. But of course that’s not true.  

You and Eleanor have similar backgrounds. You’re both Midwesterners who came to New York to pursue singing. And A Tender Thing is a coming-of-age story; would it be accurate to say that Eleanor’s coming of age mirrors your own? 

No. The one thing I’ll say is that I am an intense person [like Eleanor]. If I like a movie, I’ll watch it five times. If I feel like knitting, I’ll knit all month. The quality about myself that I’m most aware of, that has been most present throughout my life, is my determination. And until I realized that Eleanor shared this quality, I struggled to move through the writing of the novel. I was finally driven to write when I realized the character was driven to move through the two spaces I was creating: all that fun, historical, 1950s genre stuff; and the deeper social questions I was interested in. 

Can you expand on your writing process for this book? 

I’d been thinking about this book—writing scenes, researching, and taking notes—for about a year and a half, but I wrote the first draft in basically three months. 

That’s fast!

It is! I guess because I didn’t have to do as much research beforehand. I had studied the era pretty extensively in music history classes in college. And the musicals from that era are the ones that have always suited the more classical tone of my voice; they also happen to be the ones that I love most. So, in a way, I’d been researching all my life. 

I also grew up listening to my grandmother’s stories about that time. The first scenes of the book that I wrote were actually inspired by those stories. You know Tommy [a secondary character]? He’s based partially off of my grandfather, who was a yeoman at the Great Lakes Naval Station outside of Chicago. Apparently the pilots had to let my grandfather fly a certain number of hours out of the month for training, so whenever he got the chance, he would go to Maine in the morning to get lobster and bring it back to my grandmother for dinner. 

He’d fly to Maine?—For lobster?!

Not super ethical, I know. 

[Laughs.] That’s not what I meant!

They had no money, so for them it was just so exciting. 

And that’s the seed of this book. 

Kind of. I knew I wanted to write about musical theater, and those stories helped me ground it in the time, with the right tone to capture this era, when musicals were at their height. 

What else were you up to while churning out that first draft?  

I was working at Penguin Random House at the time and had just started my MFA, which was so enriching. 

So, from 9 in the morning to whenever class got out—

Eleven pm!—

So until you fell asleep, everyone you interacted with was either someone who cared about fiction or a fictional character.  

Yes. I’d write for 50 minutes during my lunch breaks, and on the weekends, and before class, for an hour. I finished writing on Christmas Day, I remember, after opening presents. 

We’ve talked in the past about how the act of writing can feel removed from the world—self-indulgent, at times. Has working at a middle school helped balance that feeling out? 

Yes! Quickly on the selfishness of writing, though. It’s funny, I think most people become writers out of the opposite impulse: to empathize and connect with other experiences. But then the act of writing can end up feeling like an exploration of your own consciousness, which feels self-serving. But at the same time, when I read someone else’s work and am moved by it, it feels like a gift has been given to me. So, it’s complicated. Of course—it’s not the same thing as actually going out and helping people. 

Working at a school requires a much more minute-to-minute kind of usefulness. Sometimes the stakes are quite high. Middle school is a very formative time for kids. They tend to push boundaries. They’re figuring out which of the rules they have to follow at home are real in society, which can be hard to deal with, but I remember certain comments from my middle school teachers that have stuck with me to this day, so I know how important it is to demonstrate kindness, receptiveness, and also proper boundaries… It’s not about being nice all the time. It’s about making sure they feel acknowledged. 

You also volunteer with Girls Write Now [a mentorship program that supports the writing and education of young women and gender non-conforming youth].

Yes—that’s been a wonderful experience. My favorite aspect is that it’s not affiliated with a school. There are things that teenagers want to write about that they don’t want to show to their parents or turn in to their English teachers; those are often the things that end up having the most artistic energy. I’m also just blown away by the natural instincts of the young writers.  

Is there any advice that you give to your mentees that you’d be willing to share with our readers? 

My favorite piece of writing advice is: eyes on your own paper. If you want to do something, then that’s between you and the page. Before even thinking about getting published, you need to have a project, and you won’t have a project if you’re only focused on the space between where you are and where you want to be. It’s good to have role models, and it’s good to be knowledgeable. But you can’t allow yourself to get discouraged by practical things, like the difficulties of the industry. That only makes things harder. Only you can write your book. And also: only you can not write your book. So you do just really have to do it. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.