Q&A with Meg Leder, author of The Museum of Heartbreak
1. Why did you decide to write The Museum of Heartbreak?
A few years ago, I went through a breakup that left me reeling. I think I felt it especially because it was the same time a lot of my really good friends were getting married and having kids, and I always thought that would be me too at that point in my life. To top it off, I had to have my sweet cat put to sleep. So I was kind of a mess. I found I wanted to explore some of what I was feeling through writing—I wanted to explore how heartbreak feels and how it comes in all forms—things not working with someone I liked, losing my wonderful cat, how friendships change over time. But I also wanted to write about how even though it feels like you’ve lost everything when you’re heartbroken, you’ve actually gained a lot—you come out on the other side feeling stronger, with new friends, a renewed sense of self, a small kitten, and maybe even a book…
2. Who is your favourite character?
It’s a tie between Pen and Eph. I love Pen because I feel like she and I are kindred spirits (more on that below). But I also just plain old adore Eph. He embodies a lot of what I love most about my best friends, and he’s the guy I wish I had crushed on when I was younger. I really love how even amidst his own stuff, he remains so loyal to Pen.
3. Do you find that you relate to any of the characters in The Museum of Heartbreak in particular?
I’ve put a lot of myself into Pen. I was a lot like her growing up—my head was always in books, and I desperately wanted to find my own Gilbert Blythe, often to the detriment of the real possible relationships right in front of me! I think she’s so susceptible to heartbreak because she has a big heart, but I like that about her—that she’s not hardened and she really is engaging in these things from the right place—from the heart—even though she often goes about it the wrong way.
4. What was the hardest thing about writing your debut novel?
It’s been interesting letting it out into the world! For such a long time, it was mine—the characters were mine and the world was mine, and there weren’t too many people invited in. And now that it’s out in the world, it’s not mine anymore, not really. It’s something for readers to inhabit and love or not love, and it’s weird and scary and sad and exciting to let it go.
5. Do you want to write more about Penelope or was her story planned as a standalone novel?
I think the part of Pen’s story that I wanted to tell is finished, but I have given some thought to spending more time in her world. I would love to see how Audrey’s trip to Paris goes, and who she becomes now that she’s finding her own tribe.
6. How dinosaur obsessed are you? And what is your favourite dinosaur?
I’m actually a bit more museum obsessed than dinosaur obsessed! A few years ago, I got the privilege of taking a behind the scenes tour of the American Museum of Natural History, and it was one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. There are all these amazing old wood cabinets and shelves and nooks, and there are beautiful old specimens tucked into them—and there really was an attic where they housed the elephant skulls! It got me thinking so much about how even though all these things are gone, traces of them remain—the dinosaurs in particular.
7. Where is your favourite place to hang out in New York City?
I love the High Line, the elevated park on an old train track. It was in an earlier draft of the book, but I ended up cutting it for plot reasons. Walking on it on an early spring evening or late summer night is one of my favourite things—I love the people and the art surprises you can find along the way.
8. How do you transition from Editor at Penguin to Author mode?
Where I write really helps me transition. My job as a nonfiction editor at Penguin Books is at Penguin… when I enter those doors, my editor hat is on. But when I head to my favourite coffee shop or write in my apartment, I get in writing mode. That’s when I’m able to step outside of my editor mindset and to focus on creating, drafting, and revision.
9. Did you meticulously plan The Museum of Heartbreak or did you just start writing and follow the plot’s natural flow?
I compare my writing process to a road trip. I know where I’m starting, I know where I want to go, but I don’t map out the exact route. I like to leave room for side trips and surprises along the way. So I knew I wanted to start with Pen’s dream and I knew I wanted to end with a museum being created. I knew where I wanted Pen to be at the end of the book, but I wasn’t sure how she’d get there. That’s where the joy comes for me—I like seeing where the writing leads me. For example, Grace and Miles weren’t around in early drafts, and I’m so glad I left room to meet them—I love them a lot!
10. What is the most exciting thing about being a debut author?
I love being a part of the community of debut authors. I’m in a group called The Sweet 16s, and it’s composed of other debut MG and YA novelists. It’s an amazing group of people, and I’ve had the honour of reading a number of their debuts and talking about the process along the way. I feel so lucky to have them!
11. How do you fit writing into your busy schedule?
It’s definitely one of the challenges of my writing process. I’m slower than I’d like because of my editing job. Sometimes after a long day of work, I have a hard time shifting into writing mode—I mostly just want to relax and read. Weekends are my go-time, however. I try to spend at least 4-5 hours each Saturday and Sunday writing, and then try to fit in my writing time (or thinking about my writing) during the week.
12. Have you ever kept a memento from a relationship, if so what was it?
I’m such a memento-keeper! I’ve had to pare down due to living in NYC apartments, but I have a number of things—a mini-museum. I’ve got a cool silver egg on wheels that someone I used to date won for me at an art exhibit. I love how weird and quirky and wonderful it is, just like he was. I have a stack of letters from my best friend growing up—we used to write updates of where we were in our lives, and then we’d put them in envelopes and tape them to the inside of my closet, with instructions not to open for at least two years. We ended up opening them on the eve of her wedding, and it was amazing to see who we used to be and who we’d become.