It’s a chilly, stormy day – unseasonably cold like the weather described in the opening line of her latest novel “Days of Awe” – when I meet author Lauren Fox at a popular coffee shop just a few blocks from her home in Shorewood.
She’s dressed for the weather, and her curly brown hair – springy and slightly untamed – is the most awake thing in a room filled with people bent over laptops, textbooks and cell phones.
Born and raised just a few miles away in Fox Point, the now celebrated author moved back to the Milwaukee area after earning her master of fine arts in creative writing from the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities.
In a half hour she’ll be meeting up with the same writing group she has been sharing her work with for the last 15 years. But for now she’s taking a few minutes to talk to the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle and about her life, her work and the inspiration she draws from her Judaism.
In the critically acclaimed “Days of Awe,” the main character Isabel Moore is faced with figuring out life following the sudden death of her best friend and the unraveling of her marriage.
Although the book isn’t specifically about the Days of Awe – Fox will tell you that her books are mostly about relationships, particularly the complications and nuances of female friendships – it does have a connection to the 10-day period, which calls for reflection on one’s life over the prior year, and atonement for any wrongs committed.
Titling the novel “Days of Awe” was actually the first thing Fox said she knew about the book.
“Usually the titles come to me much more slowly, and more towards the end of the process, but I knew this book was going to be called ‘Days of Awe’,” she said. “It is about Isabel’s guilt, grief, and the confusion that she sort of comes to terms with, and her own culpability, and her own part in the story.”
Although Fox isn’t particularly religious, she finds the Days of Awe valuable for what they both demand and deliver.
“I love that it is a real, prescribed period of introspection. It’s the big stuff. It’s apologies and forgiveness, and, like, sorting out your soul,” she said.
It’s that questioning – that meditation on life – that Fox said she appreciates about Judaism. It’s also part why she takes the time – despite a busy lifestyle as a mother to two daughters and work as a full-time novelist – to attend synagogue with her family.
“I think a lot of Jews of my generation feel this way. It’s really important for my kids to understand their history. We’re a complicated family. We don’t even believe in God really, so it is not like we are even religious that way,” she said. “I like the history. I like intellectual history, and the moral history. And I like that it is a struggle. It’s not meant to be easy.”
And Fox draws on her own family’s Jewish story for “Days of Awe.” The character of Helene – Isabel’s mother in the story – is loosely based on Fox’s own mother who fled Germany as a child with her parents in 1938, just days before Kristallnacht.
“It’s really tenuous history – a lot attempts to eradicate Jews in very recent history. So that is really internalized for me. I have taken that on,” she said.
But Fox mines a lot more than her religion and her family for her fiction. She draws on her whole life, taking in the everyday moments, joys and tiny tragedies, and wonder that are part of her life, and the lives of people around her.
“I always say that fiction writers are like magpies, we take the shiny bits, and we make our nests,” she said. “It’s all based on a little piece of somebody here and little piece of something else. That’s what I love about fiction.”
Right now she is just starting her next book and things are slow going on the inspiration front, Fox said, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of material at her fingertips:
“I am always making notes, and observing and eavesdropping on people’s conversations, and mining my own life for material. The stuff that just floats past me I am just fascinated by.”
· An Amazon Best Book of August 2015
· A “surprisingly buoyant novel,” according to the Washington Post.
· Reviewers praise Fox for her humor, with a “wry silliness.”
· Published in 2015 by Knopf, 272 pages, $24.95 hardcover, $16 paperback.
Other things to know about Lauren Fox
Ever wanted to know what’s like to be a mother of two and a full-time novelist? Here are some other questions we asked Fox.
Chronicle: How long have you been writing?
My first book came out in 2007, but I really have been writing I want to say, my whole life – from when I was first able to write and think about who I was.
I have notebooks still at my parent’s house, in my old bedroom, filled with stories and poems. Really it is the only thing I have ever wanted to do. And, really the only thing I am good at.
Chronicle: You have published three novels so far. What would you say is the thread that runs through all those books?
Somebody pointed out to me that the thread is friendship. It didn’t really occur to me. I think sometimes you learn more about your writing from the people who read your stuff. I think (they all center around) friendship, and betrayal and loss, and all of the sort good, juicy, human emotions and complications. But I guess all three books so far have been about the complications of friendship, in one way or another.
Chronicle: Why do you think you are drawn to that?
I think female friendship is particularly interesting to me because it’s one of the few relationships that we choose over and over again. We are not bound to our female friends by love, or marriage, or any kind of legality. So, I think they can be tricky, and difficult to navigate and negotiate. And sometimes they fall apart because there is nothing holding them together except for the choice every day to be friends and to really put that extra work into it.
Chronicle: Have you had, and do have, friendships now that you have drawn on for your work?
That’s funny, because in my first book there is a best friendship that is really a nice friendship, and so many of my friends have said, “I know that’s me. I won’t tell any of your other friends, but I know that’s me.” I have had four people say that to me.
Chronicle: How and where to do you write? Do you have an office?
I have an office. My husband is a professor is at UWM (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), and he works from home a lot too. His office is this book-lined, little tidy office and my office has like dog toys on the floor, and clothes strewn about, and just stacks of books. The encroaching toys and clothes notwithstanding, I go into that office every day from when the kids go off to school until they come home.
My family is here. If my family packed up and moved to Mars I would want to be there. I didn’t think we would end up back in Milwaukee but I am really glad we did. As long as it is feasible this is where I want to be.
Chronicle: What makes you set your books here?
I set my books in a Milwaukee of my mind. I have the worst sense of direction. My daughter claims I once got lost at Pick ‘n’ Save, but I don’t think that happened.