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'Worry' is a portrait of sisterly love that is both hilarious and deeply disturbing

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

I feel like people always talk about their 20s like it's the greatest decade ever. But what we don't talk enough about is how brutally hard the 20s can be, right? Like, during my 20s, I felt so much pressure to declare who I was yet so much confusion about what I actually wanted. And it is very clear that that is the case for two 20something-year-old sisters at the center of a new novel by Alexandra Tanner. It's called "Worry." Jules and Poppy Gold end up becoming roommates in New York City. And they torture each other with their anxieties, their despairs and their truths. It's a portrait of sisterly love that is both hilarious and deeply disturbing. And the woman who painted that portrait joins us now. Alexandra Tanner, welcome.

ALEXANDRA TANNER: Hi - so good to be talking to you.

CHANG: It's so good to be talking to you. Wait. So can we just first talk about the 20s? Like, what is it about that decade that makes it so painful? You just finished the decade, right?

TANNER: Yes. I'm in my early 30s now and very glad to be done with my 20s forever. I think they're this just super-pressurized time where you feel like - you know, your early 20s, you're on your own for the first time. You're out of college. You feel like, here I am. I've arrived in my life. But often you haven't arrived in your life, and you don't know who you are. And you're still a child, really.

CHANG: Totally. And in the middle of this, you know, existential dread that is the 20s are your characters, Jules and Poppy. And let's just talk about the relationship between these two sisters. I mean, it's loving, but it's so messed up. It made me wonder. Were you writing from personal experience there? Do you do you have a sister?

TANNER: I have a younger sibling. They're non-binary and trans, and they are my favorite person in the entire world. But sometimes a sibling relationship is quite diabolical. It's a very unique relationship in that it's someone you love so intensely and know so well, you think. But there's this huge gulf between what you know of your sibling and what you actually know of your sibling.

CHANG: Yeah.

TANNER: So I think Jules and Poppy are - the core of the novel is - it's the horror of realizing that your sister is a part of you and the bigger horror of realizing your sister is separate from you.

CHANG: Well, even though we're talking about the viciousness between these two sisters, it really, for me, was the mother in this book who was the most cruel. Like, you depict a particularly vicious woman who calls her daughter the disappointment of her life. You also, I notice, write about these other annoying mommy bloggers out there. And all of that got me thinking. How do you feel about motherhood, Alexandra?

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: I'm not a mom, either.

TANNER: Yeah. I'm not a mom.

CHANG: I'm so curious what you're going to say to this question.

TANNER: I mean, I wrote 300 pages about it, and I still can't quite figure it out. And I think that, you know, in the writing of the novel, I kind of endeavored to have the relationship Jules and Poppy have with their mother, which - I think it mirrors the relationship they have with each other in that it's a relationship of deep emotional extremes, deep boundarylessness. And there's - that's the thing about family, right? It's - you can say anything to them, and they're the people who are always going to be with you. But...

CHANG: You hope.

TANNER: There's - you hope. But there's a huge responsibility in that to recognize that you have to treat other people with care and that saying something like, you are the disappointment of my life, in a moment of deep emotional stress or, you know, using a phrase like that to sort of, in a sick way, like, reach out to another person - they're going to remember that for the rest of their lives. That's not a statement you can just walk back.

CHANG: Right. You can't unring the bell there, and it will...

TANNER: Right.

CHANG: ...Just implant in the person's brain...

TANNER: Right.

CHANG: ...Forever.

TANNER: And I think, you know, mothers, daughters - you go through these cycles of being there for each other and not being there for each other and wounding each other and then being the only person in the world who can lift someone up from, you know, a breakup, getting fired, a devastation. That's the person you want to reach out to.

CHANG: Why set this book in 2019, by the way? - because for me, you know, it's so specifically not the present day but also not that...

TANNER: Yeah.

CHANG: ...Long ago. So what was it about the cusp of the pandemic that you wanted to remind us about?

TANNER: When I look back on 2019, it was this year that felt really normal until, all of a sudden, it didn't. And I remember there was this period, especially toward the end of the year, where it started to feel like things were about to hit the fan in this really big, scary way. And maybe that's a little bit achronistic (ph) to say. But I think it was - now when we look back on it, it was the last year of a chapter in our collective narrative about the world and about so many of our individual lives. It just had this bonkers energy that I really wanted to try to capture.

CHANG: Yeah. You know, loneliness became such a theme during the pandemic, but you remind us that there was a lot of loneliness before the pandemic ever arrived.

TANNER: Yeah. The world was lonely in 2019, too. It was...

CHANG: Absolutely.

TANNER: We sort of thought things were about as bad as they could get, you know, politically, socially, whatever. And then it got so much worse.

CHANG: And then it got so much worse.

TANNER: Yeah.

CHANG: I was also struck - this is a very pandemic thing. Well, this is a very everyday thing now - the use of phones to numb yourself out. Like, that also felt...

TANNER: Yeah.

CHANG: ...So true to me, almost like the phone in this book was a separate character.

TANNER: It really is. And that was very intentional on my part. I really wanted to write a book that would transcribe the internet very closely. I was noticing, you know, when I started writing this book in 2019 and then, of course, throughout finishing the book in 2020 and 2021, I was just spending, you know, my life on my phone and sort of watching real life pass by. And so I wanted to really harness the power of narrative description to give life to what it is to live in your phone and sort of have Jules' relationship with her phone especially really mirror where she was emotionally. So when she's doing OK, you know, she has a sense of control over her relationship with the internet and scrolling and, you know, looking at lizard people truthers and flat Earthers. And then when she's in a really low place, she has, you know, pretty much no control over it. It's a huge compulsion for her.

CHANG: Well, I want to end this interview where I started. What do you hope current 20something-year-olds come away with after reading your book? What do you want to tell them?

TANNER: You're going to strive. You're going to suffer. It's all going to be OK. You're going to make it even if you only make it with a percentage of yourself that is far less than you thought you would carry on to the other side of it.

CHANG: Alexandra Tanner's new book is called "Worry: A Novel." Thank you so much for being with us.

TANNER: Thank you so much. It's a thrill to do this, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
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