Toby Fleishman has suddenly — unexpectedly — become an object of immense desire. His phone buzzes as he falls asleep; when he wakes, there are a dozen texts from a dozen women that include photos of “underboob and sideboob and just straight-up boob.” Toby is the newly separated Upper East Side doctor at the center of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s “Fleishman Is in Trouble,” one of the most anticipated novels of the season. As he’s adjusting to his popularity in the unfamiliar, salacious world of dating apps, his ex-wife drops their kids off — under the cover of darkness — and doesn’t return, leaving Toby to grapple with his role in their doomed relationship. “It was a lightning bolt,” Brodesser-Akner says of the idea for her debut novel, released this week. After telling a male friend she was sorry to hear he was getting divorced, he said, “ ‘It’s OK, look what’s going on,’ ” she recalls. “He showed me his phone and some of his apps, and suddenly this guy had women crawling all over him.” Brodesser-Akner — a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine known for her piercing celebrity profiles — walked directly into a Le Pain Quotidien, ordered an iced tea and wrote what became the first 10 pages of “Fleishman.” Within six months, it was complete. She’ll discuss the novel today at Politics and Prose.
Throughout your journalism career, did you always plan to write a novel at some point?
This was what I wanted to do from the beginning. I had a degree in screenwriting and got a job right out of college at a soap opera magazine, and one thing led to another and I stayed a journalist. But it took all these years of writing the truth, and trying to figure out how to accommodate large themes in the truth and seeing that an audience of readers loved it — they loved the fact that the truth doesn’t always make sense, and that the truth is hard to reconcile. And once you see that, you realize your fiction work should reflect that; it shouldn’t be neat.
Did you test out any dating apps as research for “Fleishman”?
I did, with my husband’s permission. I first went on as a man, and then I went on as a woman, and oh, my God, they are terrible. I feel like we’re supposed to talk about [the apps] as if they’re so liberating, but all I saw was men calling the shots. I went on as a couple different ages, and when I was a woman my age , I found a bunch of divorced men who were total jerks, like “I don’t ever want to be manipulated by another woman,” and “I need someone who isn’t all about her career.” And really angry things that should not attract a woman, and yet, these men are doing just fine. I’d go home and watch, like, “The Americans” with my husband and be very, very grateful to be married. It’s a cringe-fest. If I ever have significant problems in my marriage, I will remember what is out there.
If the tables were turned and someone was writing a profile about you, what would be important to include?
The way I like to write a profile is to ignore the things people say are essential to them and go with what [I] see anyway. And the one thing I have learned is that if there is anyone disqualified from saying anything completely true about yourself, it’s you. I always knew how much power you hold in your hand when you’re writing about somebody, and I tried to take that very seriously. But I never really understood how much scarier it is on the other side, to just let someone else tell your story. I have a new respect for the people who sit down with me, especially knowing the kind of story I write.
Suppose someone finishes “Fleishman” and wants to devour everything else you’ve written. Are there a few pieces you recommend starting with?
It changes all the time, but the stories that most represent who I am right now are my Gwyneth [Paltrow] story, maybe my Weight Watchers story, maybe my Bradley Cooper story. Although, I don’t know if he would recommend it. Every story I write, the minute it’s published there are a thousand things I would have done differently. That’s part of the reason I sold a second novel before this one came out and why I write so much — so when the thing comes out, it’s not the only thing I have going on. I read people who write one or two big stories a year, and I think, “But what if nobody reads it? What if nobody likes it?” We try to pretend that people’s reactions to our work don’t matter, but we’re lying.
You’ll be in conversation with CNN’s Jake Tapper at your Politics and Prose event. How did that come about?
First of all, I love Jake. He is a really, really smart newsman, and he wrote a very readable, exciting novel that I absolutely loved called “The Hellfire Club.” I wrote a profile about Jake, and after the story, we became friends, which is something that I rarely, if ever, engage in. He read the book while it was still in a Word doc, and he was one of the people who encouraged me early on.
Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Thu., 7 p.m., free.