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Author to Author with Mindy Friddle
The Author: Valerie Ann Leff
The Book: Better Homes and Husbands (St. Martin’s Press, 2004;
paperback, 2005) by Valerie Ann Leff

What's it like to be a novelist living in the South--with a book set in New York City? Asheville, NC resident and New York City native Valerie Ann Leff, author of Better Homes and Husbands, admits “The South has its own literary culture, and I feel like an oddball. Yet I've also been amazed by the warm reception southern readers and
reviewers have given Better Homes and Husbands. I think what's
important is that readers everywhere can relate to the characters in
the novel. Someone in Asheville said to me, ‘Really, the nonsense that
goes on in that building is just like a small Southern town!’ “
Better Homes and Husbands, just out in paperback, is a stylish, richly
woven novel about class and caste feuds, played out with ferocity
and etiquette in a posh New York apartment building during the
tumultuous period of social change between 1970 and 2000. Leff grew
up in New York City on Fifth Avenue and now lives in Asheville,
North Carolina, where she is co-founder and co-director of the Great
Smokies Writing Program at UNC--Asheville. Better Homes and
Husbands– set in a fictional Park Avenue building similar to her
former home – is her first novel.
“From the time I was nine years old until I left for college, I lived at
1040 Fifth Avenue -- the same building as Jacqueline Onassis and
other prominent families,” Leff said. “We were very ordinary by
comparison. My mother grew up in poverty and, at fourteen became
one of the eight original June Taylor dancers; my father was a textile
Leff attended a girls' prep school in Manhattan and graduated from
Sarah Lawrence College where she studied Italian. After college, she
moved to Milan, Italy and found a job in the fashion industry. By
1988, “really, really sick of the fashion world,” Leff moved to Los
Angeles and studied Physical Geography and worked as an
environmental activist. “That was when I started writing, too. The
writing took over. I did it for self-discovery and personal expression -
- a mental health tool. Eventually, I recognized that I found more
fulfillment and joy in writing than in anything else I'd ever done and
started to experiment with writing fiction.”
Class, ethnicity, and the American Dream are all themes handled
deftly in Better Homes and Husbands. “But it wasn't until the book was
finished that I understood its underlying themes,” Leff said. “They
surprised me. Then I thought -- well, your mother grew up on
welfare, your father grew up wealthy. You are half-protestant and
half-Jewish. You married a carpenter in North Carolina and chose to
adopt a child from Guatemala and become a multi-racial family. So
it's no wonder that issues of class, ethnicity, legacy and identity are
central to Better Homes and Husbands.”
Leff spent last summer on book tour with her husband, toddler son,
and teenaged stepdaughter. “My son head-butted me and broke my
nose our last day in Los Angeles -- fortunately the day after I gave
my first television interview. I showed up to my San Francisco
readings with a giant black eye that no make-up could hide and a
splitting headache. Had my life changed? Yes! “
Leff is currently at work on a novel set on a remote island in British
Columbia, Canada. “I'm also halfway through a collection of short
stories all set in the West -- places like Los Angeles, Wyoming, the
northern coast of California,” she said, adding the new material is “a
lot edgier than Better Homes and Husbands; the feeling is
contemporary and a little bit weird.”
Leff offers encouraging words to other writers: “I think in writing,
revising, publishing and promoting your work, talent is 10% of it and
tenacity the other 90%. Just keep showing up to the work, and don't
let self-doubt stop you.”
Mindy Friddle is the author of the novel “The Garden Angel” (St. Martin’s
Press/Picador.) Visit her website,, for more information
on writing and publishing.