Elyssa Fried­land’s author pho­to by Bri­an Marcus

Jean Meltzer’s author pho­to by Lisa Damico

Elyssa Fried­land and Jean Meltzer, authors of the forth­com­ing nov­els The Most Like­ly Club and Mr. Per­fect on Paper respec­tive­ly, dis­cuss mod­ern romance, the pow­er of female friend­ships, and men­tal health strug­gles through the lens of Judaism. 

Elyssa Fried­land: Jean! This feels very bash­ert to me that we’re inter­view­ing each oth­er. I remem­ber my good friend and book cham­pi­on Andrea Katz of Greats Thoughts, Great Read­ers Face­book group telling me I had to read The Matzah Ball. I always lis­ten to Andrea and I’m grate­ful she intro­duced me to your work. I fell in love with your debut and now I’m dou­bly in love after read­ing your sopho­more nov­el, Mr. Per­fect on Paper.

Jean Meltzer: I feel the same exact way about you! I’ve been a big fan of your work since The Float­ing Feld­mans. I was so hon­ored to have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to read your lat­est book, The Most Like­ly Club. One of the things that struck me as I was read­ing your lat­est book was how per­cep­tive you are at writ­ing char­ac­ters. Where did you draw the inspi­ra­tion for Melis­sa, Priya, Tara, and Suki? Also, I would be com­plete­ly remiss if I did not ask you this — did you receive a senior year superla­tive, and did it come to fruition?

EF: I’ll start with my superla­tive. It is so ran­dom! I was part of a quar­tet deemed Most Like­ly to be the cast of Sein­feld. I’m sure you remem­ber how pop­u­lar that show was in the 1990s. I even host­ed a view­ing par­ty for the finale at my house. I was the Elaine char­ac­ter, which I take as a huge com­pli­ment; she’s fun­ny, smart, and works in pub­lish­ing. And we both have black, curly hair. I was close friends with these three boys in my class who did resem­ble — at least in per­son­al­i­ty — Jer­ry, George, and Kramer and so the four of us posed togeth­er in the year­book as the Sein­feld cast.

As for the four main char­ac­ters in The Most Like­ly Club, I start­ed with Melis­sa and built her friends around her. Melis­sa was some­one I could see very clear­ly from page one; she was the pres­i­dent of every­thing, the per­son who does all the work in the group project, and who can’t get enough acco­lades. But she’s not always lucky, and I do believe luck plays a sig­nif­i­cant role in suc­cess. She’s scrap­py and hard-work­ing, and as a sin­gle mom she nev­er los­es faith in a more promis­ing future. Tara I saw as some­what of a tough girl who doesn’t fit the image her par­ents have of her and yes, she can’t break free from them even as an adult. I know many peo­ple in that sit­u­a­tion. Priya is the brain, because you got­ta have a brainy one in the group. And her mar­riage most resem­bles mine. She has a love­ly hus­band, but he’s got­ta do more house­work! And Suki is the most enig­mat­ic. I liked that she didn’t fit it into any of the tra­di­tion­al high school labels.

I loved read­ing about J‑Mate, the Jew­ish dat­ing web­site your pro­tag­o­nist Dara cre­at­ed in Mr. Per­fect on Paper. Before get­ting mar­ried, were you on J‑Date? As a romance writer, how do you feel about meet­ing through apps? Your book’s title makes it clear that chem­istry and resumes don’t always align, and yet many peo­ple have found suc­cess­ful match­es online.

JM: I was on every dat­ing app I could find! Seri­ous­ly. I didn’t get mar­ried until I was thir­ty, and I’m pret­ty sure I dat­ed every sin­gle Jew­ish man in Man­hat­tan before I even­tu­al­ly found my husband.

I did not meet my now-hus­band on a dat­ing app. We met on a cruise while I was in rab­bini­cal school. He was an engi­neer­ing stu­dent and Army Reservist on a fam­i­ly vaca­tion before his sec­ond deploy­ment to Iraq. He was also (plot twist!) not Jew­ish. This real-life expe­ri­ence — the idea that you could be deeply com­mit­ted to your Judaism, but fall in love with some­one out­side of your faith, despite all your best inten­tions not to — became the inspi­ra­tion for my sopho­more nov­el, Mr. Per­fect on Paper.

I don’t have any prob­lems with dat­ing apps. What many peo­ple may not real­ize about me, and about the sto­ries I write, is that I believe — whole­heart­ed­ly and com­plete­ly — in the Jew­ish idea of bash­ert. I believe there is a lid for every pot, and that God cuts and des­ig­nates a soul for most every per­son. I think any­thing that facil­i­tates a per­son find­ing their bash­ert is a use­ful and ben­e­fi­cial tool.

Speak­ing of bash­ert, I loved the close­ness these four women share in your book. As some­one who has also had the same group of friends since I was eight-years old, there is some­thing tru­ly com­fort­ing about know­ing some­one through your most awk­ward years. What made you want to write a sto­ry about female friend­ship, high school, and do you have your own most like­ly club” root­ing for you in your life?

I believe in the Jew­ish idea of bash­ert. I believe there is a lid for every pot, and that God cuts and des­ig­nates a soul for most every per­son. Any­thing that facil­i­tates a per­son find­ing their bash­ert is a use­ful and ben­e­fi­cial tool.

EF: I love hear­ing you speak about your per­son­al romance. I have the chills! As for my choice to focus on friend­ship, it was a nat­ur­al out­growth of my pre­vi­ous two books where I focused more on fam­i­ly. I get bored as a writer and like to chal­lenge myself with each new book. So I decid­ed to focus on friend­ship — specif­i­cal­ly among females — for my fifth nov­el. I do believe friend­ship between women can be com­pli­cat­ed and there are nat­ur­al pangs of jeal­ousy that exist between friends, whether we like to admit it or not. But I also believe that there is no one more sat­is­fy­ing to talk to than an old girl­friend. I love my hus­band very much, but there are things he just doesn’t get in the way a female friend does. I’m also intrigued about how friend­ships evolve over time when people’s lives take diver­gent paths, as chil­dren, spous­es and careers come into the pic­ture. And now with social media, there’s an added lay­er of com­plex­i­ty to friend­ships. I def­i­nite­ly have a most like­ly club” root­ing for me. I real­ly live for my girl­friends. They bring me so much joy and laugh­ter, and tex­ting with my ladies on a dai­ly basis keeps me upbeat and feel­ing con­nect­ed. Most of these women I met after hav­ing chil­dren, but there are a few friends from high school that I keep in touch with and there’s noth­ing like rem­i­nisc­ing together.

What made you want to write about Gen­er­al­ized Anx­i­ety Dis­or­der? There’s a lot to be said, and has been said, about the con­nec­tion between anx­ious peo­ple and suc­cess­ful peo­ple. What does Jean Meltzer have to say about it?

JM: Sim­ple. I have it.

One thing that is impor­tant to note — there is a dif­fer­ence between anx­i­ety and Gen­er­al­ized Anx­i­ety Dis­or­der. GAD can be extreme­ly dis­abling. There is noth­ing pos­i­tive about hav­ing pan­ic attacks at three o’clock in the morn­ing. Or avoid­ing get­ting on an air­plane for your entire life, miss­ing out on wed­dings or see­ing the world, because of the remote pos­si­bil­i­ty you may crash. This is when anx­i­ety spi­rals out and begins con­trol­ling your life. But you’re cor­rect that anx­i­ety is not always neg­a­tive. Anx­i­ety pro­pels us to lock our doors at night, com­plete our assign­ments, dou­ble check the road before we cross it. Anx­i­ety, when focused in the right ways, can yield many positives.

I could say so much about anx­i­ety, but the most impor­tant thing I want­ed to get across in my book was that no one should be ashamed of their men­tal health chal­lenges. In this way, the hero­ine of my sto­ry reflects my own jour­ney. Like the main char­ac­ter, I am the daugh­ter (and sis­ter!) of a psy­chol­o­gist. My moth­er also always treat­ed my own men­tal health chal­lenges the way you would a skinned knee — with no judge­ments attached.

I also knew a ton of peo­ple with anx­i­ety grow­ing up, and that famil­iar­i­ty with oth­ers nor­mal­ized the expe­ri­ence for me. Then, there was becom­ing an adult, and under­stand­ing my Jew­ish his­to­ry more ful­ly. I began to see my own anx­i­ety as the very nor­mal byprod­uct of Jew­ish trans­gen­er­a­tional trau­ma. It was the result of our peo­ple sur­viv­ing anti­semitism, expul­sions, pogroms, and the Holo­caust. It was from strength and resilience that my anx­i­ety formed.

I know that the way I feel about men­tal ill­ness is not the norm. But I want­ed to extend this way of refram­ing to any read­er who may be strug­gling. The one thing I try to get through in all my books is that there is no rea­son, at all, why any­one should be ashamed of any diag­no­sis. Shame keeps peo­ple from get­ting help. My hope is that my book gives some­one courage who needs it.

Your book also deals with strug­gles beau­ti­ful­ly. When we meet your char­ac­ters in the present-day, all of them are strug­gling. Some char­ac­ters strug­gle in their inter­per­son­al rela­tion­ships, unable to com­mu­ni­cate their needs to their spous­es, chil­dren, or part­ners. Some have giv­en up on their goals. Or, have no idea where to start in achiev­ing them. At some point in the sto­ry this changes, and the women move from a place of com­pla­cen­cy into fight­ing for their dreams. What mes­sage were you hop­ing read­ers take away from watch­ing these four women shift their perspective?

EF: Thank you for shar­ing about your GAD. I whole­heart­ed­ly agree with your per­spec­tive on men­tal ill­ness and wish it was the per­va­sive way of thinking.

The women in my book are all strug­gling. We meet them at dif­fi­cult points in their lives. They are strug­gling pro­fes­sion­al­ly and in their per­son­al rela­tion­ships. They also must man­age the dai­ly strug­gle of get­ting errands done, which I believe is a pit­fall that affects women about a thou­sand times more than men. It can be dif­fi­cult to focus on a larg­er goal, like chang­ing jobs or eval­u­at­ing your mar­riage, if you’re busy every sec­ond of the day fold­ing laun­dry and run­ning out for milk. I tru­ly mean this. There are days when my life is so busy with minu­ti­ae that I can’t even find five min­utes to make a deci­sion about some­thing that actu­al­ly mat­ters, like — do I want to write anoth­er book? Which high school is the right fit for my old­est child? Instead, my head is clogged with wor­ry­ing that I didn’t send in the pay­ment for my daughter’s vol­ley­ball uni­form in time.

The reunion is some­thing of an inflec­tion point for the women. They step out of their rou­tines and have space to ana­lyze their lives in a way they don’t often do. Plus being around their high school friends reminds them of the promise they once held — the opti­mism and deter­mi­na­tion that got lost in the gro­cery list, or put away because of one too many dis­ap­point­ments. I want women to take the time to think about longer term goals, to not get lost in to-do lists, to real­ize that it’s far more impor­tant to eval­u­ate their hap­pi­ness than to make sure the fridge is stocked. I also want women to take away the mes­sage that it’s nev­er too late to make changes. Some of the hap­pi­est women I know are the ones who went to law school in their for­ties or end­ed a bad mar­riage even though they were still rais­ing small chil­dren. These deci­sions can only be made if you give your­self the men­tal space to think care­ful­ly, not in the super­mar­ket aisle.

Dara has very strong views about her reli­gion. Do you wor­ry about offend­ing peo­ple who have dif­fer­ent views about reli­gious prac­tice and inter­mar­riage than Dara does, even though she’s a fic­tion­al character?

JM: No. LOL.

Lis­ten, I work extreme­ly hard not to offend any­body in my books. I try to be as gen­tle as pos­si­ble in my choic­es, and I always write to the good­ness of the world. But, you shouldn’t be an author if you aren’t will­ing to be courageous.

There are a lot of won­der­ful romances out there, with Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish char­ac­ters, who have unprob­lem­at­ic inter­faith romances. They are pleas­ing, well-writ­ten, and don’t remote­ly risk alien­at­ing some­one. In fact, many read­ers of romance actu­al­ly pre­fer this type of book. A romance that doesn’t get too real. A rom­com that allows them to escape into a fan­ta­sy of love and life. I total­ly get that, and those types of inter­faith sto­ries should and do exist.

But — as a Jew­ish woman from an obser­vant fam­i­ly, who was in rab­bini­cal school when she fell in love with a non-Jew­ish man — that wasn’t my experience.

There are so many peo­ple out there whose sto­ries have nev­er been told. In romance, we only have a hand­ful of tra­di­tion­al­ly pub­lished Jew­ish sto­ries. When you start veer­ing into sto­ries of obser­vant Jews — or obser­vant Jews who don’t want to leave the reli­gion — that num­ber gets even small­er. But not every book is for every read­er. My only goal is to write hon­est­ly and lov­ing­ly from the Jew­ish world­view I know.

You strike me as an author who also writes with courage. One of the things that real­ly struck me while read­ing The Most Like­ly Club was this under­ly­ing theme that men are often respon­si­ble for derail­ing the plans of women. Some­times this derail­ing was unin­ten­tion­al, such as a woman tak­ing all the emo­tion­al labor in her rela­tion­ship. Some­times it was not, as in the case of anoth­er char­ac­ter who is sex­u­al­ly assault­ed. I was won­der­ing if this idea of derail­ing was delib­er­ate on your part, and what — if any­thing — you would like to say about it?

The reunion is some­thing of an inflec­tion point for the women. They step out of their rou­tines and have space to ana­lyze their lives in a way they don’t often do.

EF: I didn’t set out to make the men the vil­lains of my book, but it sort of worked out that way. I think in the case of Priya, where she and her hus­band have the same job but she is doing almost all of the house­hold labor, her hus­band isn’t a tra­di­tion­al vil­lain. He is emblem­at­ic of a pat­tern in many house­holds where the moth­er, for what­ev­er rea­son, bears more respon­si­bil­i­ty than the father. This is often called the men­tal load” and it’s some­thing I strug­gle with at home. Writ­ing The Most Like­ly Club pushed me to be more coura­geous. Like Priya, I start­ed demand­ing that my hus­band take a big­ger share of the fam­i­ly pie. I’m lucky that he was very amenable and under­stood my frus­tra­tions, but it’s still a work in progress!

Tara’s sto­ry is dif­fer­ent. She was on the path to becom­ing a pro­fes­sion­al chef/​restaurateur when her boss assaults her. There’s no gray area here, only a clear vil­lain. I was inspired to write this sto­ry­line because of the end­less stream of head­lines stem­ming from the MeToo move­ment. Men tak­ing advan­tage of women is a seri­ous prob­lem, and even if it doesn’t take the form of an actu­al assault, there are count­less sub­tle ways that men make women uncom­fort­able at work. I have heard way too many sto­ries from my girl­friends, espe­cial­ly those who work in finance.

But I do want to say not all men are bad in the book! How awe­some is Nathan? I love that guy.

JM: I adored Nathan! And as a romance writer, I com­plete­ly swooned at the idea of some­one get­ting their hap­py end­ing. Speak­ing of end­ings, and before we say good­bye, what are you work­ing on next?

EF: I have my first pic­ture book com­ing out in Feb­ru­ary of next year. It’s calledThe Muse­um of Lost Teeth and answers the ques­tion: Where do the teeth go after the tooth fairy col­lects them? I’m real­ly excit­ed to pub­lish a pic­ture book. It’s a new world for me and, as I said above, I get bored eas­i­ly so I like new chal­lenges and expe­ri­ences. I’m also a teacher and my class at Yale starts in a month so I am busy prepar­ing for that. And I signed on to write two more nov­els. Yikes. Writ­ing that all out just gave me a stom­achache. Oy!

What are you work­ing on?

JM: I’m cur­rent­ly work­ing on my third book, Kiss­ing Kosher. It’s about the heir to a kosher baked-goods empire who goes under­cov­er at a fam­i­ly-owned kosher bak­ery in order to steal their world-famous pump­kin-spiced bab­ka recipe. But when gar­ner­ing the secret recipe means draw­ing clos­er to the grand­daugh­ter — a woman deal­ing with sex­u­al dys­func­tion due to chron­ic pelvic pain — both are left won­der­ing if they’ll ever find the right recipe to fall in love. Like all my books, it will be super-Jewy, unapolo­get­i­cal­ly joy­ful, and chron­i­cal­ly-fab­u­lous. Kiss­ing Kosher will be out in August 2023. After that, I’m thrilled to be writ­ing two more books.

Elyssa Fried­land is the author of five adult nov­els and teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at Yale, from which she grad­u­at­ed. She also holds a J.D. from Colum­bia Law School. The Muse­um of Lost Teeth is her first pic­ture book. She lives in New York City with her hus­band and three children.

Jean Meltzer stud­ied dra­mat­ic writ­ing at NYU Tisch and has earned numer­ous awards for her work in tele­vi­sion, includ­ing a day­time Emmy. She spent five years in rab­bini­cal school before her chron­ic ill­ness forced her to with­draw, and her father told her she should write a book — just not a Jew­ish one because no one reads those. She is the author of the inter­na­tion­al­ly best­selling The Matzah Ball, Mr. Per­fect on Paper, and Kiss­ing Kosher.