Our second book club pick this summer is The Figgs because a book club that laughs together, stays together. And our choice in Ali Bryan's latest not only provided the comedic family chaos it promised, it also gave us glorious moments of reflection before our breakneck-page-turning for more.
The novel centres on Figg-matriarch June whose dreams of retirement are dashed when the youngest of her three children unexpectedly becomes a father. With a newborn baby at home and apron string attachment at an all-time high, it looks like plans are about to change for the whole family. As Leacock Medal-winning Cassie Stocks puts it: "[The Figgs] is a soaring read with both sarcasm and soul."
We loved the bang-on observations of family dysfunction that were balanced with delightful moments of family affection, the uproariously funny spirit of the story, and, of course, the quirky cast of characters that bring the book to life.
Speaking of bringing to life, we went behind-the-scenes with Freehand Books Publisher Kelsey Attard to find out what first drew her to Ali Bryan's work, the editorial and cover design process that brought The Figgs into reality, and a surprising thing that happened on the way to publication.
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All Lit Up: This is Ali Bryan's second book with you. What first drew you to her work? How does The Figgs differ from Roost? How is it similar?
Kelsey Attard: Freehand was drawn to the distinctive style of humour in Roost. I remember being struck by the way that Ali would keep you laughing on every page, seemingly effortlessly, and then slip in dazzling moments of realness when you weren’t quite expecting them, like:
"I think that’s really when being a parent is most difficult. Not the sleepless nights or the fits at the grocery store or the brushes stuck to your head, but when your child does something an asshole would and you actually think it. Asshole. You think it and you feel it and then you feel sick, like you’ve just seen a cat get hit by a car, because when you first held her in the hospital and she weighed five pounds and she gazed in your eyes and you fell in love, did you ever imagine you would one day think she was an asshole?" (Roost, page 144)
The Figgs has a similar style of take-you-by-surprise humour to Roost – I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when I read it, even during editing when I was reading a chapter for the sixth or seventh time. And to me, the dialogue has a similar cinematic feel. Like Roost, The Figgs follows the lives of one woman and her family as they navigate an unexpected circumstance. Whereas Claudia, the protagonist of Roost, was a thirty-something single mom of two preschool children, June, the protagonist of The Figgs, is a recent retiree with three adult children who all still live at home. The larger immediate cast of The Figgs, and the fact that they are all literally living on top of each other, gives it a different type of energy – energetic, almost claustrophobic at times but in a cathartic way, providing wonderful opportunities for comedy but also for the private shorthand that families develop. The family jokes that go back decades, the way that siblings can push each other’s buttons like no one else in the world, the way that they can ultimately come together in ways that surprise even themselves. The Figgs are a relatable family, even when they’re driving you crazy (just like a real family!)
ALU: Roost was a tremendous success. Did you already have a built-in readership for Bryan's sophomore novel? How did you go about finding new readers?
KA: Even when a book has been successful, there’s no guarantee of a built-in readership for the next one – but it certainly helps when people are excited to read an author’s new book. Roost had many fans who were eager to read and help spread the word about The Figgs. And Roost was fortunate to be selected for One Book Nova Scotia, the provincial reading program, in 2014, so there was a team of librarians who had been introduced to Roost and loved it – and at least partly as a result, The Figgs was as a Loan Star pick in May (one of the ten hottest books of the month, as selected by Canadian librarians). (Librarians are the best!) We also used NetGalley for the first time and made the book available well in advance for reviewers and bloggers. We found that to be a really helpful way to reach avid readers who hadn’t already heard of Roost and start to develop a new audience for The Figgs.
ALU: Can you tell us a bit about the editorial and cover design processes?
KA: The main thing that we worked on through the editorial process was balancing the stories of the five members of the Figg family: June, her husband Randy, and their kids Tom, Vanessa, and Derek, all of whom are going through their own challenges throughout the time span of the book. We only ever see the other family members through June’s point of view, so we had to make sure to show what the other characters were going through – and, for example, making sure that one character didn’t disappear entirely for a huge chunk of the book. Ali is a brilliant author to work with, and as an editor sometimes I’d say, “I think that this section here isn’t quite working and I’m not sure how to fix it” and Ali would come back a few days later with a new perfect new solution that was invariably wonderfully hilarious and that also fixed several problems at the same time.
For cover design we worked with the talented Natalie Olsen of Kisscut Design, who also created the cover for Roost. One of Ali’s ideas for the cover was to draw inspiration from the Figgs’ family crest – the three birds that have no wings. (It was inspired by a crest in Ali’s own family – I believe that in that one, the birds had no feet.) Natalie thought that something hand-lettered fit with the tone of the book, and came up with the wingless birds illustration – and she found it unexpectedly challenging to draw something that resembled a bird that didn’t have wings! We thought she nailed it, though, and loved the cover’s slightly whimsical, approachable, and fun feel.
ALU: Did anything surprising happen on the way to publication? Any anecdotes you would like to share?
KA: One surprising thing for me was that Ali discovered, during one of her rewrites, that June had spontaneously taken up the ukulele upon retirement – and actually kind of hated it. I don’t think the ukulele appeared anywhere in the book’s earlier drafts at all! In the final version, though, it’s weaved throughout. Reading about June’s disillusionment with the instrument was this moment that clicked for me – when I started to get a clearer sense of who June was as a character, what her motivations were, what her hopes were for retirement, and the complex ways she feels about her three adult children still living at home. The journey to publication was packed with these sorts of delightful discoveries.
And this was slightly after publication, but some people on Twitter started to come up cast lists for The Figgs, which led to this dream cast list and movie poster from All Lit Up. That was so much fun, and I am firmly convinced that The Figgs, the movie, should be made! Or maybe it’s a tv show…
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Here's what's in store for book club throughout August: