It was in the middle of a workshop with writer Mary Gaitskill that Maura Roosevelt realized her short story was anything but.
“It was a 40-page story and [Mary] was like, ‘This isn’t a [short] story,’” Roosevelt says, from the living room of her in-laws’ Brooklyn town house, her husband and baby nearby. “So I just kept writing it.”
The story evolved into what is Roosevelt’s first novel, “Baby of the Family” (out now from Dutton books). It tells the story of the modern-day Whitbys, who are descendants of Astor-esque New York real estate moguls. After the great patriarch of the Whitbys dies, his children, half siblings Brooke, Shelley, and the youngest, Nick, attempt to piece together their complex familial relationships.
First published as a short story in literary magazine “Joyland,” in 2014, “Baby of the Family” originally focused on just one of the Whitby children. “The story was only about Shelley,” Roosevelt says. “I tried to imagine her life and what her family was like and then it just got bigger and bigger.”
Roosevelt’s preoccupation with family is fitting considering her own ancestry: her great-grandparents were President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt. “I’m kind of interested in how you define family and especially how you relate to those family members that are close to your own age,” she says, though adding that virtually none of the novel is based on her own experiences.
Brooke, Shelley and the rest of her cast of characters aren’t always the most likable bunch, something Roosevelt was intent on. “I’m more interested in reading about well-rounded characters that are flawed and interesting, especially when you’re taken along with their logic of how they’re making sense of their very poor decisions,” she says. “I wanted to give a more authentic view of how people view their families.”
To accurately craft the Whitbys, Roosevelt researched famed families of the Gilded Age, including the Vanderbilts and the Astors. She also says she researched a bit of her own family history, reading books by her grandfather James Roosevelt 2nd.
A new mother, Roosevelt says spending so much time thinking about how families operate has affected the way she thinks about raising her son.
“Now I’m very conscious of trying to figure out how our son is going to be involved with his greater family members,” she says, “and making sure he knows about his history on all sides.”
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