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Q&A with Leigh Abramson – A Likely Story

A Likely Story

By Lucy Shardlow.

We are thrilled to welcome Leigh Abramson to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release A Likely Story, out on 14th March 2023. 

The only child of an iconic American novelist exhumes a tangle of family secrets and upends everything she thought she knew about her parents, her gilded youth, and her own stalled-out writing career.

For Isabelle Manning, growing up in a famous literary family was both a blessing and a curse. As New York’s intellectual “It” couple, her classically beautiful mother, Claire, had a reputation as a whip-smart society hostess, while Isabelle’s father—the incomparable Ward Manning—was the king of the New York Times bestseller list. Having to share Ward with his adoring public wasn’t always easy. But, at home, Claire made certain that Isabelle’s childhood was filled with magic and love.

Now an adult, all Isabelle has ever wanted is a career like her father’s. But, after many false starts—and wrecked by grief after Claire’s unexpected death—Isabelle faces down her thirty-fifth birthday alone, without a book deal, without her mom, and is very possibly on the brink of a messy breakdown.

When Isabelle discovers some shocking truths about her parents, she wonders if the world’s rosy, mythologized version of the Manning family is actually based on an elaborate and demoralizing lie.

Isabelle’s own unfolding drama is punctuated with fragments of a clever book-within-a-book, where a righteous female narrator steals back the spotlight from a man who has cheated his way to the top. The characters seem eerily familiar, but how many of the plot points from this other story are rooted in fact? And more important: who is the author?

A Likely Story

Hi Leigh! I want to begin by saying how much I loved reading A Likely Story. After reading the synopsis on NetGalley, I was so intrigued to find out more about the life of Isabelle Manning. It’s safe to say there were definitely moments that left me on the edge of my seat… 

Thank you! That’s incredibly kind and I am so glad to hear it!

Can you start off by telling us a little bit about the process of writing A Likely Story? As the daughter of a children’s author yourself, does the narrative of A Likely Story reflect any of your own experiences in life?  

I am the only child, and the triangular structure of a three-person family has always interested me, though my parents do not really resemble Ward and Claire. But within their circle of arts and writers, I did get to experience the particular egos and preoccupations of successful creative types.

I’ve always been interested in ambition and how it manifests differently in different people – some people are very comfortable being outwardly ambitious, but others less so. I wanted to explore how ambitions – particularly creative ambitions – were experienced by three people in the same family. This was the seed of the idea that became A LIKELY STORY.

As many start to read your debut novel, they will quickly begin to realise your feature of a book-within-a-book. This is a feature that I have rarely come across in literature and found it particularly interesting in discovering more about your main characters. Where did your inspiration for this feature stem from? Why was it so important for you to create a book-within-a-book?  

The early drafts of this book actually did not contain the book-within-a-book. I had a decent draft done when COVID hit in March 2020, but then took six months off while my kids were out of school. When I went back to the book after that break, I realized that if this manuscript is going to play such a central role in the book and all the characters are going to talk about how good it is, I better let the reader see this thing for themselves!

I am particularly intrigued about your character development of Ward Manning. He is an egoistic character, swamped in his lifelong success as a writer, forgetting those who should remain important to him. Why did you choose to present Ward in this manner?  

Something I find fascinating about a lot of really successful people is that no amount of recognition is enough. They have this insatiable hunger for validation, which probably led to their success in the first place, but also can make them difficult as human beings. I think Ward is this way – he always needs new light shining upon him.

But when Claire is taken away, Ward is forced to grapple with how isolated he is. He has fans, but he doesn’t have friends. When he is reduced to chasing down his fan in Texas, I think it shows Ward how lacking his life is in actual intimacy.  

I hope I’ve painted Ward as a multi-dimensional character. He’s a narcissist and his pain is largely self-inflicted, but it’s pain nonetheless.  

Isabelle Manning’s life has been tainted by being the daughter of an iconic novelist, lost in the spotlight surrounding her father. All she has ever wanted is a career like her father’s, so ultimately she strives to become a writer just like him. Can you delve deeper into the character of Isabelle? Where did your inspiration for her character stem from? And, to follow, if Isabelle could have picked any other career path, which one do you think she would have chosen? 

To start off, I imagine the pressure of being the child of a famous person would be incredibly difficult, so I liked putting a character into this predicament. Isabelle has made it doubly difficult by entering her father’s profession and inviting comparison with him.

Probably before she could walk, Isabelle understood that her father’s great passion was his work. So writing is Isabelle’s way of earning her father’s love and attention. Yes, Isabelle is also self-absorbed and egotistical, but fame is more a means to an end for her. She wants recognition, but really from an audience of one. That’s why it’s so devastating when she doesn’t get the reaction she wants from Ward after her book is published.  

When you look at Isabelle as a product of her father, she’s much more relatable. She does come from this very rarefied background, but ultimately she is seeking parental approval – a pretty universal desire.

 What other profession would Isabelle have chosen is a great question. I’m thinking an actress. She’s pretty dramatic, likes the spotlight and Ward would probably respect that choice. Would she make a good one, I don’t know! 

It is clear to say that there are a few rocky relationships throughout your narrative. The biggest being the will-they-won’t-they relationship shared between Isabelle and Brian. It is undeniable these two share romantic chemistry but with all the external obstacles that kept being thrown in their direction, I was begging that these two would just come to their senses! What was it about these two characters that meant their relationship could not be as smooth as we all wanted it to be?  

At the start of the book, Isabelle and Brian both view each other as the people they were when they first met in college – Isabelle is the New York sophisticate and Brian is the rube. They cannot see past those outdated and reductive identities, and it blocks them from having an authentic relationship with the people they’ve become.

Both of them need to have a real reckoning about who the other person is – and who they are – to make space for a possible relationship, and we see this really happening in the latter part of the book, particularly when Isabelle sees Brian in his element at work. And, then of course, when Brian learns things about how Isabelle got published.

Throughout the beginning of the narrative, Isabelle’s fatal accident is teased and touched upon in quite an elusive manner. I was wondering if you could tell us more about the importance of Isabelle’s accident – why does it become a pivotal moment for the Manning family?  

The accident marks a before and after for Claire. Her character’s primary conflict is her desire to be a good mother and her desire to express her own creativity and ambition. While those things are not mutually exclusive, I think Claire feels that with Ward as Isabelle’s father, the onus is on her to be the nurturing, down-to-earth parent to Isabelle. Ward certainly is not going to take over that role.

When Isabelle suffers a serious accident, it makes Claire believe – rightly or wrongly – that she must focus entirely on Isabelle and being a mother. She convinces herself that if her mind were entirely devoted to Isabelle, the accident might not have happened. This is not rational, of course, but as a mother – and someone happy to feel guilty or blame myself – I can certainly understand this way of thinking. After the accident, pursuing anything for herself – especially something that could be unsettling for Isabelle – feels dangerous for Claire.

Ironically, I don’t think the accident has anywhere near the same impact on Isabelle – perhaps because Claire does such a good job of taking care of her in the aftermath.

Your narrative is very clever in how it intertwines each character’s perspectives and different periods of their individual lives. It was Claire’s passages in particular that left me feeling particularly moved. I was wondering if you have ever thought about how the story might have ended up if Claire had not passed away. Do you think the family would be any different? 

If Claire had lived, I believe she would have done whatever it takes to help Isabelle realize her dream of publishing a book. But I don’t think Isabelle and Ward would ever have that the rebalancing of their relationship. It is Claire’s absence that forces Isabelle and Ward to confront each other without the buffer that Claire provided.

This was such a fascinating read about family, secrets and legacy. One that I am sure so many people would be interested to read. So finally, where will readers be able to access A Likely Story

Oh thank you so much and thank you for your thoughtful questions! Readers can experience A LIKELY STORY in hard copy, Kindle or Audio. The book is available at local, independent booksellers as well as Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million.  

A Likely Story

LEIGH MCMULLAN ABRAMSON has written for The Atlantic, The New York Times, Tablet Magazine and more. She grew up in New York City, the daughter of a children’s author and an illustrator.

Leigh’s parents often collaborated on picture booksmany based on Leigh’s own childhood experiences. Leigh studied ballet at The School of American Ballet into her teens, but eventually rebelled against her artistic family by going to law school. She practiced law for several years before following her passion for writing.

Leigh now lives in New York City and Vermont with her husband and two young children.

Leigh’s Instagram: @leigh_m_abramson


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