Author Claire Lombardo Loves Writing Family Sagas: 'All We Want Is for Our Characters to Do Something Wrong' (Exclusive)

The bestselling novelist’s second book, ‘Same As It Ever Was,’ is out on June 18

<p>Nina Subin; Courtesy of Doubleday</p> Claire Lombardo and the cover of

Nina Subin; Courtesy of Doubleday

Claire Lombardo and the cover of 'Same As It Ever Was'

As an introvert, doing interviews was once author Claire Lombardo’s nightmare. It’s why she could sympathize with the graduate students she recently taught in a writing workshop, when they were asked to speak in front of an audience of their own.

“My students were all going to do a reading at the end [of the class], and they were all very nervous,” Lombardo tells PEOPLE. “And I was like, ‘Just so you know, I was paralytically nervous of anything publicity-related for the first month. And now I don't think anything.'"

Five years ago, Lombardo published her debut novel, The Most Fun We Ever Had, to critical acclaim. The sweeping family drama follows the Sorenson family — parents David and Marilyn and their four adult daughters — during an eventful year in the Chicago suburbs. The book was longlisted for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction and was recently chosen for Reese Witherspoon's book club.

Lombardo’s second novel, Same As It Ever Was, hits bookstores on June 18, and the author admits that some aspects of the publishing process are still jarring.

<p>Courtesy of Doubleday</p> 'Same As It Ever Was' by Claire Lombardo

Courtesy of Doubleday

'Same As It Ever Was' by Claire Lombardo

“It's really strange to spend years and years with something that's just your own, and then suddenly, it's a book in the world that people can just pick up,” she says, of how putting out her sophomore novel feels. “That part has been about the same — like a real pleasant surprise, but still pretty surreal.”

For much of her early life, Lombardo wasn’t focused on becoming a writer. She was in the social work field throughout her early twenties, working with Chicago families experiencing housing instability. Lombardo would write at night, though her day job did lend itself to her fiction.

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“I think you have to be really fascinated by people,” she says. “I think you have to care about people and have, at least, the capacity for empathy for them, even if you don't have it readily available.”

Making a go of it as an author called to Lombardo more, however, and she dropped out of social work school. Lombardo worked in public relations for the National Flute Association to pay the bills before she attended the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

“I decided I would give myself a year to try my hand at writing,” Lombardo says. “I took a risk that is not advisable, but it worked out okay.”

<p>Nina Subin</p> Claire Lombardo

Nina Subin

Claire Lombardo

It definitely has. The Most Fun was a national bestseller, and cemented Lombardo as a new master of the family saga. She’s been called the “literary lovechild of Jonathan Franzen and Anne Tyler” by The Guardian, but what has fascinated many readers is how Lombardo, who is in her thirties, could so intimately tap into experiences she hasn't had herself, like decades-long marriages and parenthood challenges.

“The way that I tackle getting to know my characters, or getting to know them over long periods of time, is really just spending a lot of time with them,” she says. Writing about families, she adds, provides endless possibilities for drama.

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“There's always something happening and always someone saying something that they shouldn't be saying, which is a fiction writer's dream,” the author explains. “All we want is for our characters to do something wrong, because then more stuff happens after that.”

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Lombardo’s latest zeros in on a single protagonist: Julia Ames, a mother at a crossroads. Her adult son is getting married, and her daughter is preparing to leave for college. Life only gets more difficult with the unexpected arrival of an old friend — who nearly ended Julia’s marriage decades earlier. While Lombardo was able to dip into some of her familiar authorial tendencies — her love of music, and Wilco, still appears strong on the page — writing Julia’s complicated character was a new challenge.

<p>Claire Lombardo/Instagram</p> Claire Lombardo poses with her book 'The Most Fun We Ever Had'

Claire Lombardo/Instagram

Claire Lombardo poses with her book 'The Most Fun We Ever Had'

“The more I got to know her, the more I grew to love her and empathize with her,” Lombardo says. “That makes watching some of the decisions she makes, watching the way that she self-immolates or self-destructs or self-sabotages, a little easier to take, because you can see where she's coming from.”

As a reader, Lombardo enjoys connecting with characters, and brought this into writing Same As It Ever Was.

“I was inspired to attempt to tell someone's not-particularly-outrageous life story,” she says. “This book is exploring a lot about what it's like to navigate the world as a woman, and all the different choices that we're faced with, and the weight that certain ways that we make those choices have on how people perceive us … I hope that Julia's a recognizable person in whatever way, shape or form.”

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Recently, Lombardo has seen the arrival of more fans through Reese’s Book Club, who chose her first novel to read for April. The author admits that she and her editor did a double take when the Morning Show actress picked the novel ("We're like, 'Are you sure?'"), but consider it an honor nonetheless.

“The number of new readers I've gotten, and the life that has been breathed into this five-year-old paperback, has really been incredible,” Lombardo says. The Most Fun has also been optioned for the screen by Witherspoon's production company, Hello Sunshine.

<p>Penguin Random House</p> 'The Most Fun We Ever Had' by Claire Lombardo

Penguin Random House

'The Most Fun We Ever Had' by Claire Lombardo

As publication date approaches, Lombardo is staying close to the literary world in more ways than one. She works part-time at the Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, and finds joy in teaching. Some of her students had previously never shown their work to anyone, Lombardo says, and they’ve pushed her to broaden her horizons as a reader and writer (she’s now open to picking up science fiction, for example.)

“No writerly problem is particularly unique,” she says. “I can't tell you how many times I've been sitting in workshops, talking through a problem with a student's story, and realize, 'Oh, I'm talking about my own work.'"

Lombardo is also looking forward to jumping into writing her next book, likely with her dog, Renee, at her side, and getting acquainted with a new cast of characters. The author isn’t one to let success make her too comfortable, though.

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“I don't think I'll ever feel like I've made it, or I've figured everything out, because there's always going to be some fictional problem that you don't know how to solve,” she says. “Which I love. It keeps it interesting.”

Same As It Ever Was
will hit shelves on June 18 and is now available for preorder, wherever books are sold.

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