The crowd at Harvard Book Store was adoring. Laura Zigman was wearing her lucky $6 blouse (black of course). And when she sat down earlier this month to discuss her latest book — “Small World” — with the author and screenwriter Tom Perrotta, it’s fair to say that the confidence she exuded was hard won.
Nor was it lost on members of the audience — famous writers and the Academy Award-winning actor Chris Cooper among them — many of whom knew Zigman’s back story:
She had spent her early 30s writing in obscurity, in tiny apartments, while she worked day jobs, but when her debut novel was published it was so influential it was credited with kicking off the entire Chick Lit genre.
“Animal Husbandry” was witty and painful, and its take on the mating rituals of young urbanites was so delicious that it was turned into a movie starring Hugh Jackman and Ashley Judd. And suddenly Zigman found herself getting invites. To blurb books, to be on panels, to fly to LA, where her film agent whisked her to the opera in his white Porsche. Her!
But literary success is precarious, and what followed was a slow walk into a dark pit, as novel after novel faced mixed reviews, and dwindling sales, and two film options came and then went nowhere. By the time her fourth book was published, in 2006, and it, too, failed to recapture that best-seller magic, her own agent suggested she stop writing fiction.
“You’re not Nora Ephron,” she said.
It was a gut punch. And the start of what would be more than a decade of writer’s block, and years tortured by loss and financial worries.
Her parents had a term for what had happened: “Zigman Luck,” a kind of family curse. The phrase had sprung from a tragedy the family suffered when Laura was 3, and an older sister, Sheryl Anne Zigman, died of a rare genetic bone disease. The death cast a pall of doom on the household that Zigman felt she couldn’t escape.
The downturn in her career, Zigman said, reminded her of her childhood, when she often felt “that there was nothing I could do to change my fate.’”
Along with this feeling came a belief that the talent that drove her work from the beginning — she was a Presidential Scholar in the Arts finalist as a senior at Newton North High School — had abandoned her. The only writing she had left in her was helping other people tell their stories.
With a family to support, she ghost-wrote memoirs for Wendy Davis, the Texas state senator who famously filibustered an abortion bill while wearing pink sneakers, and the comedian and actor Eddie Izzard.
She did PR for a happiness and wellness company even as she herself battled depression. She applied for a job she didn’t want, writing marketing copy for a major discount retailer, and wasn’t even offered an interview.
“Even my father, in his nursing home, with a brain tumor, said, ‘Wow, you were at the top, and now look at you,’” Zigman recalled. “But his point was not that I was such a loser, but that I was scrappy.”
For many years during that time, Zigman assumed she would never write another book. “It would be too hard, feeling like I’d failed the first time around,” she said.
But at some point, her agent’s “Nora Ephron” dagger turned into rocket fuel, and Zigman became determined to prove her wrong.
She started with baby steps. She wrote 75 short, pointed sketches for two animated characters that she posted on Twitter and Facebook (among the episodes: “Comments of Self-Promoting Frenemy,” “Time to do our Couples’ Therapy Homework,” and “We Just Spent $125 on Ice Cream Cones!”). She wrote a movie script — a road trip story about a couple who couldn’t afford to get divorced — but she couldn’t sell it.
Eventually she turned to Instagram, where the days she managed a single well-written paragraph felt like an accomplishment. Post by post, she worked her way back, until she realized she was ready to once again turn her own life into a thinly veiled novel. This time it would be about middle age — “the despair and hope of it.”
The book is called “Separation Anxiety,” and it’s about a Cambridge mother and a wife whose life is unraveling, and who starts wearing her dog in a baby sling across her chest for comfort — something Zigman herself never did, she said. “My dog is too big for a sling.”
Heading into the 2020 publishing season, “Separation Anxiety” owned the “most anticipated” lists: Entertainment Weekly, Cosmopolitan, USA Today, Real Simple, Parade, Buzzfeed, Glamour.
And so it was that on the evening of her book launch at Harvard Book Store on the night of March 3, Zigman could have been the heroine in one of her own novels: She was a 50-something woman who had lost both of her parents to cancer and had fought the disease herself. She had been kicked by life but kept her sense of humor — and then some.
But then … of course … Fauci became a household name, the NBA suspended its season, Tom Hanks tested positive, Broadway went dark …
And in her head, Laura Zigman heard her parents’ voices: “You waited almost 15 years to get a second chance and it finally happens and there’s a global pandemic? That’s Zigman Luck!”
“It’s like it would only happen to me,” she joked recently, “even though it happened to the whole world.”
So yes, the pandemic killed the book’s momentum. The book tour, feature stories on the book — swept away. So her comeback didn’t have a Hollywood ending — she hasn’t yet fought her way back to the bestseller list. But in some ways, it was better than that.
It’s better because Laura Zigman got her confidence back. She felt good enough about her own work to start a side gig close to her heart called “Talk Therapy for Your Writing.” The woman who has been through it all herself acts as a therapist/coach for authors who are stuck, or who can’t figure out a character or are having a problem with their agent. “Compassionate. Discreet. Effective,” reads the pitch on the website.
And she — finally — decided she could write the story she’s been wanting to tell for years. “The one that explains who I am,” she said.
That book, “Small World,” tells the story of two newly divorced sisters who move in together and reckon with the tragedy that has defined them: the death of their oldest sister when they were little girls.
Earlier this month, a few hours before Zigman sat down with Perrotta, she took a moment to give the blouse’s back story. She had bought it several years earlier, she said, to celebrate selling “Separation Anxiety” — the book that marked the end of her writer’s block.
She had been in an optimistic mood then, she recalled — “It felt like the beginning of a new phase” — and she was feeling that way now, too. “Lucky” was the word she used.