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Leigh Stein

Last Thursday night I stepped into Greenlight Bookstore and was surprised to see most of the audience members holding panda masks in their laps.

So Leigh Stein likes pandas. A lot. So much that she worked them into her debut novel and brought the masks for her fans to hold up as she read a panda-related section. (“This is my dream come true,” she said, viewing the audience with a smile.)

See, this is the great thing about launch parties, especially ones that are for both local and debut authors. As I mentioned in my Handy BookStalking Guide on Full Stop, readings for both up-and-comers AND locals often have an easy-going, convivial vibe (which may also have something to do with the free-flowing wine).

Leigh’s funny yet piercing book The Fallback Plan concerns Esther, a recent college grad who’s forced to move back in with her parents. She reluctantly accepts a job babysitting for the neighbors’ child May, whose sibling has recently died of SIDS. Through caring for May and forming conflicting relationships with both of May’s parents, Esther learns more about the intricacies of adulthood than she could’ve expected.

After reading an excerpt, Leigh spoke with Paris Review deputy editor Sadie Stein about her experiences working on the book. Since Leigh was twenty-two when she wrote it—the same age as Esther—Sadie asked about the level of autobiography. Leigh said she had based several of the characters on real people—including yes, parts of herself for the role of Esther. “To have both big dreams and to be crushed with despair—that’s what it’s like to be a 22-year-old woman.”

Leigh noted how especially strange it was to hear people psychoanalzying Esther, and taking their views personally: “Wait, you think Esther’s lonely? I’m kinda Esther….”

The panda sections of the book came about when Leigh discovered the joys of watching Youtube panda videos. She included pandas within the novel as a “gift” to herself by having Esther tell May the story of The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe—only the characters are all pandas, and more decidedly modern (for example, they eat veggie burgers).

Check out the actual Greenlight interview here, as well of a bonus video of Leigh reading an excerpt while a stuffed panda pops some pills and goes about its morning routine. Nice.