Corie Adjmi grew up in New Orleans and started writing in her thirties. Her fiction and personal essays have appeared in dozens of publications, including North American Review, Indiana Review, Huff Post, Medium, Motherwell and Kveller. Her debut short story collection, Life and Other Shortcomings (2020), won a number of prizes, including an International Book Award, an American Fiction Award, and an IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award. She is a longtime resident of New York City.
Her first novel, The Marriage Box (out May 2), is the story of Casey Cohen, a sixteen-year-old Jewish girl in New Orleans in the 1970s who starts hanging out with the wrong crowd. When she gets in trouble, her parents turn her world upside down by deciding to return to their roots, the Orthodox Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn.
In this new and unfamiliar world, families gather weekly for Shabbat dinner; parties are extravagant events at the Museum of Natural History; and the Marriage Box is a real place, a pool deck designated for teenage girls to put themselves on display for potential husbands. Casey is at first shocked by this unfamiliar culture, but after she meets Michael, she’s enticed by it. Looking for love and a place to belong, she marries him at eighteen, believing she can adjust to Syrian ways. But she begins to question her decision when she discovers that Michael doesn’t want her to go to college; he wants her to have a baby instead.
1. What inspires your story ideas (including The Marriage Box)? The Marriage Box is based on my real-life experience of moving from an all-American lifestyle in New Orleans to an orthodox Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn when I was 16. But there is plenty in the book that is made-up. So, while I do get ideas from my life, I also get ideas and inspiration from the news, other fiction writers, and stories from people’s lives. And then of course, there is imagination. All those elements come together in somewhat of a collage.
2. What is the key to crafting stories that have such an intimate view of relationships? How do you convey that best? I do enjoy writing about intimate relationships. And in relationships there is often disappointment and hurt, as well as joy. Sometimes the smallest moment can reveal a lot. For example, in Life and Other Shortcomings, in the first short story, “Dinner Conversation,” the husband asks his wife a simple question, “Are you going to eat that?” The reader learns about the characters and their relationship in that moment. Issues of patriarchy, control, and body shaming are exposed in this one line of dialogue.
3. Do you have an overarching goal or concept in your work? Is there one thing in particular you are trying to achieve with your writing? No. I think trying to write that way would’ve been too much pressure and it would’ve made writing more difficult. And yet one theme emerged again and again on its own. Patriarchy shows up in a lot of my short stories as well as in The Marriage Box.
4. How important is setting to you? The locations seemed to be central to most of the stories in Life and Other Shortcomings. How do you choose where to set a story? Are they the places you know best or is there something else that attracts you to a location? I am very lucky to have lived in two colorful cities rich in culture and history. Setting my stories in these locations felt natural as these are places I know—the vibe, the landscape, the people. Still, I did research and learned some new and interesting things as well. I’d never heard of Back of Town or Storyville before writing about New Orleans. But sometimes inspiration just happens. Once in Madrid, feeling moved and inspired, I wrote a short story set there.
5. What intrigues you about Jewish religious-ethnic culture? It’s obviously a rich vein since so many authors explore it in their work. I did not set out to tell Jewish stories. Being Jewish is part of who I am, part of my life, and in trying to capture some of my experiences and emotions, those themes showed up on the page. I actually tried to avoid writing about religion at first, but it kept coming up. Eventually, I went with it. And I’m glad I did.
6. The Marriage Box is a coming-of-age story, a cultures-in-conflict story, a love letter to Brooklyn, and a look into the Orthodox Syrian-Jewish community there. How did you manage to keep all those balls in the air, so to speak? Was one aspect of the novel most important to you? This is a great question and thank you for realizing all those aspects are at play. I think trying to keep all those balls in the air is why it took me twenty years to write The Marriage Box! It was extremely important to me that I write about the Syrian Jewish community with a sense of humor while maintaining the utmost respect.
7. Where do you write? What do you need to have on hand to help you get into the writing frame of mind and/or to work most effectively? I write everywhere! In bed, at my desk, on airplanes, in bookstores, libraries and cafes all over New York City, New Orleans, Colorado, California, Florida, Israel, Greece, Italy and more. I need a hot mug of black coffee, a pen, and a yellow legal pad.
8. After publishing Life and Other Shortcomings during the first year of the pandemic, are you looking forward to promoting The Marriage Box with in-person appearances? Or did you like the virtual appearances? (They certainly save time and money and are great for those who don’t love being “on tour.”) I actually enjoyed doing book talks by Zoom. I appreciated being able to present in NYC, Colorado, and Florida in just two days without leaving my apartment. As much as that was convenient, it was all I knew then. Recently, I did a talk in person and I really liked it. I’m looking forward to more in-person events with the publication of The Marriage Box.
9. Which authors influenced you most, in terms of subject matter, structure, writing style, etc.? Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge for their storytelling structure and linked short stories. Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital for style and subject matter. Nathan Englander’s This Is What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank and Phillip Roth’s The Conversion of the Jews were inspirational in showing me how to write about Jewish themes with humor.
10. Who are your favorite authors? (because they’re not necessarily the same as the ones in the previous question) Lorrie Moore, Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Strout, Tom Perrotta, Jonathan Tropper, Wally Lamb.
11. What books have really impressed you in the last few years? I liked Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin (fiction), A Place Called Home by David Ambroz (memoir) and Good Talk by Mira Jacob (graphic memoir).
12. What’s a classic that more people need to read? The Handmaid’s Tale, The Grapes of Wrath, A Lesson Before Dying, and The Catcher in the Rye were books that left an impression on me.
13. You grew up in New Orleans but have lived in NYC for a long time. What similarities and differences stand out for you in these two unique cities? Both cities are vibrant with culture, history, live music, and great food. They differ in pace. In the south everything happens more slowly, the cadence is just different. In NYC you gotta move fast. One is not better than the other, but there is a distinct difference.
14. Tell me a little about your life outside of writing. Work, interests, family, etc. I am a mom to five kids and have grandchildren. I like biking, hiking, and cooking. I also love to draw, which I don’t have much time for anymore. But I’ve managed to complete a draft of a graphic novel for kids. Working on that is a lot of fun.
15. Since I know you finished The Marriage Box a while ago, what are you working on now? I have another adult novel almost completed. The story is told from six points of view and was inspired by an article in the New York Times about a teacher who was abusing his students at a private school in NYC. I used to be a teacher and the news was upsetting. I was also watching the television show Banshee at the time and reading Kissing in Manhattan by David Schickler, and I was motivated to try to create something equally as disturbing, mesmerizing, and entertaining.