Laurie Frankel has no interest in syrupy stories about perfectly pleasant families. Families—whether traditional or nontraditional—are complicated, and it’s their messiness the author enjoys writing about.
“I’m a member of a weird family, but all families are weird, and that’s what makes them not weird at all,” Frankel says over Zoom on a rainy morning from her home in Seattle, where she lives with her husband, a software engineer, and their 15-year-old trans daughter, whom they adopted as a child from South Korea. “You’re going to get stuck with some people, and those people may or may not have given birth to you, and sometimes it may be awesome, and sometimes not, and that’s what family means.”
Family—that odd group of individuals whom we’re stuck with, and who are stuck with us—is the cornerstone of Frankel’s fiction, and the theme she uses to explore what it means to be normal, and how widening that definition can benefit everyone. Frankel’s four previous novels—including The Atlas of Love, her 2010 debut about three women who band together to raise a baby, and 2017’s This Is How It Always Is, about a bustling Wisconsin family whose youngest child is a transgender girl—have together sold approximately 590,000 copies and have been translated into 28 languages, according to the Friedrich Agency, which represents Frankel.
Her new novel, Family Family, due out in January from Henry Holt, is a nuanced story about adoption that follows India Allwood, a Hollywood actor and adoptive mother whose life is upended after she publicly criticizes a film about adoption that she’s meant to be promoting. Her comments set off a media firestorm and lead to the release of private information about her past, including her decision in high school to put a baby up for adoption. Frankel says she was interested in writing a novel that examined adoption through a flattering lens. “There’s no shortage of books, TV, and movies about adopted families and orphans, and they’re all couched in this ‘oh, poor you, this is a tragedy’ language,” she says. “I hate it!”
Adoption wasn’t a last resort for Frankel—and she wants people to know it. When she decided to adopt, three years into her marriage, she did it not because she couldn’t have biological children but because having biological children wasn’t important to her or her husband.
“When I adopted a kid, I noticed this message that you adopt because you tried everything else and this is the bottom of the barrel, and that’s terrible,” Frankel says. “Adoption is great. There should be more of it, and more love in the world.”
Molly Friedrich, Frankel’s agent, has represented the author since The Atlas of Love and still has the query letter Frankel sent her in 2008, which was plucked from a slush pile by Friedrich’s daughter and fellow agent Lucy Carson.
“There are times when I talk to Laurie where the two of us get so riled up that we can’t finish our own sentences,” Friedrich says. “I think all of Laurie’s novels are special, but Family Family is special to me because I have two biological children and two children who were internationally adopted, and Laurie and I share a feeling that the literature about adoption is often negative. Laurie is making good trouble. She’s opening up the discussion of what a family looks like.”
Micaela Carr, Frankel’s editor, appreciates the author’s ability to write about family dynamics with nuance. “Laurie has been such an incredible light and such a hard worker,” Carr says. “Family Family takes you on so many twists and turns while remaining grounded. It’s so warm, like Laurie.”
Born in 1973 in Columbia, Md., Frankel earned a BA from James Madison University and an MA in English, with a focus on Shakespeare, from the University of Delaware. She moved to Washington State in 2005 and in 2009 adopted her daughter. At six, Frankel’s daughter, who was assigned male at birth, announced that she wanted to wear dresses, and so began Frankel’s journey as a parent of a transgender child, which inspired This Is How It Always Is.
“The book came out days after Trump was inaugurated and, at first, I received vitriol in my inbox and on social media,” Frankel recalls. “But then there was love. I was grateful because the book was so personal.”
Amy Einhorn, senior vice president and publisher of fiction at Crown, acquired This Is How It Always Is when she was an editor at Flatiron Books, and watched as the novel became a breakout hit and a Reese’s Book Club pick. “Laurie is the nicest person, and her novels are beautifully written and have a great message,” Einhorn says. “She’s an enlightened individual who is beloved by booksellers and a go-to writer in Seattle.”
Frankel relishes progressive Seattle, where her daughter can thrive. She’s fiercely protective of her daughter’s privacy—but always the proud mom. “I picked my husband because he was awesome, but with my kid I got really lucky,” she says. “She’s out and proud and considers herself an activist. She’s passionate and angry about a lot of things, which is fair. Of course I worry about her at every waking moment and 99% of the sleeping ones.”
When Frankel’s not spending time with her family or cooking (lentil soup is a favorite), she’s reading. “I’ve read 10,000 novels and sometimes I feel like I have 10,000 novels in my house, piled on the floors,” she says. “Reading is good preparation for writing.”
When asked about her process, Frankel says she produces “hundreds of terrible drafts,” some of which her husband—and first reader—looks at, too. Dialogue is her favorite thing to write, and she sometimes has to remind herself to add exposition to a story. “I put a note on my computer that says, ‘Describe something, really anything at all!’ ”
This Is How It Always Is, which is rich with great dialogue, has been optioned by Stampede Ventures and is being developed as a series, and Frankel has written scripts for the show—a task she prepared for by reading hundreds of screenplays, including those for Tootsie and My Cousin Vinny.
“I had to put myself through school,” Frankel says. “The great thing about screenplays is you can read three in an afternoon. It’s like eating popcorn. Until I started reading them I didn’t realize that I don’t picture my characters when I write. I think Tootsie is a perfect screenplay, the way it’s structured. And My Cousin Vinny—I’ve been watching it all my life. What is perhaps the most Jewish thing about me is that I get together with my whole family at Christmas and that’s the movie we watch. That’s another script that’s brilliantly constructed and put together.”
Frankel hopes Family Family and her other novels (and adaptations) can change hearts and minds just a little bit. “My life has been immeasurably improved and deepened by reading, so the opportunity to do that for someone else through my books is a gift,” she says. “I feel grateful every day.”
Elaine Szewczyk’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s and other publications. She’s the author of the novel I’m with Stupid.