In Pretty Little World, authors and real-life friends and former Philadelphia neighbors, Elizabeth LaBan and Melissa DePino present a snapshot of three modern families with a sentimental yearning for community. The three families can’t imagine life without one another–until one family outgrows their tiny row house. In a bid to stay together, a crazy idea is born: What if they tear down the walls between their homes and live together under one roof? Behind closed doors they strive to preserve the closeness they treasure. But when boundaries are blurred, they are forced to question their choices–and reimagine the true meaning of family.
LaBan is the author of The Restaurant Critic’s Wife, The Tragedy Paper, and the Grandparents Handbook. She teaches fiction writing at the University of Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer and New York Newsday. LaBan lives in Philadelphia with her two children and her restaurant-critic husband.
DePino, originally from the Philadelphia area, is a former high school English teacher and is founder and editorial director of Leapfrog Group, a branding and marketing firm for nonprofits.
The authors will be featured in a discussion moderated by The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Books Editor John Timpane, at the Philadelphia Free Library (Parkway Central Library) on Monday, February 27 at 7:30 p.m. The event is free. The library recommends allowing extra time for travel due to extensive roadwork in that area. For more information on the event, visit: https://libwww.freelibrary.org/calendar/event/62748.
Pretty Little World is available on Amazon.com.
Philly Happening recently caught up with LaBan and DePino in a phone conversation to discuss the release of their first co-written novel, the real-life experiences that inspired their writing, and the best cash-only red gravy restaurant in the Italian Market.
LaBan (left) and DePino (right) are former real-life neighbors in Philadelphia. Their experience raising their families in a tight-knit community on the same block inspired their first co-written novel “Pretty Little World.”
P.H.: Melissa, I know that you’re from this area. Elizabeth, can you tell us what brought you here to Philadelphia?
Elizabeth: I moved here because of my husband’s job. He moved here to start working at The [Philadelphia] Inquirer as a correspondent. We were here for two years, then we moved to New Orleans and that’s where he started writing about restaurants. We came back here in 1998 when he became the restaurant critic at The Inquirer. We moved onto a small street in Center City. Both of our kids were born here. In 1999 Melissa moved in on the same block. Melissa has since moved off the street, but still lives very nearby. When our kids were young there was no parking on the street and we spent a ton of time letting our kids run around outside. One of the things that is so special to Philadelphia is that you can live in this big city, but at the same time, you really know your neighbors and it’s really like a small town. You can hear your neighbors going up and down the stairs in the house next to you. The noise isn’t a problem; I find it extremely comforting knowing they’re right there. I would not want to live in a suburban house now– I feel so protected by the neighbors and sharing walls.
P.H.: How does living in Philadelphia inspire your writing?
Elizabeth: I’m definitely inspired by the history of Philadelphia!
Melissa: Philadelphia is so vibrant in so many ways. We included many Philadelphia references in our book: DiBruno Brothers in there, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, La Colombe, and Café Lutecia. We include things that show that it is a tight neighborhood. There are all these interesting places that make Philadelphia a combination of big city and a small town. It has its own very distinct personality. Through our characters and through the book you can feel the personality of Philadelphia.
P.H.: From what I understand, you two had a harmonious collaboration working on this novel. How did this collaboration work and how did you find the time?
Melissa: We are actually working on another book right now. It’s so much fun that it doesn’t feel like “oh my gosh, I have to squeeze this in.” During the time that we were writing the book I was pretty into working and running my business so I was writing at night. Elizabeth was working on a number of other books. We were both really busy, but we looked forward to working on it. We would spend time with our own chapter and then touch base with each other throughout the process until it was time to pass it to the other person. I always felt like I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the draft and see where I could take it next!
Elizabeth: I’m working on a chapter in our new book right now. Based on conversations that Melissa and I have had, I think she’ll like it. There might be things that she wants to change, but we’re really good about talking that through. When I pass chapters to hear, I’m eager to hear what she thinks. When I write a novel alone, I have a similar sensation while I’m waiting to show my work to an editor or an agent, but I love collaborating. It’s so much fun to work as a team!
P.H.: Elizabeth, I know that you’ve written other novels, but Melissa, was this your first experience with novel writing?
Melissa: Yes! I have experience with other types of writing, but when we first decided to write a novel together, I said, “I have no idea how to write a novel!” I read a lot of novels in that genre to learn the style and to be honest with you, I just mimicked Elizabeth’s style at first until I was comfortable. Our writing styles are similar and they blend well together.
P.H.: How long did it take to write the novel?
Elizabeth: It takes generally about a year to write a full draft. We took a while to smooth it out so that it did not read as two people had written it and to make sure the plot is as smooth as it could be.
P.H.: How did you come up with the title “Pretty Little World” ?
Elizabeth: The title is about walls. Having walls up and then taking those walls down. There’s a musical called “The Fantasticks,” which is really about just that. There is a reference to it in the book. Melissa found the lyrics to a song in the musical called “I Can See It.” The lyrics go, “That pretty little world that beams so bright/That pretty little world that seems delightful.” It’s a be careful what you wish for sort of thing. We thought this theme fit what we were trying to say in the book.
P.H.: What was it like raising families in Philadelphia and how did those real-life experiences influence your writing?
Melissa: It’s such a tight community to raise kids. We had the great fortune of having this street where we had all like-minded people that we just loved being around. It made everything easier and you never felt alone, which is what it’s like for the families in our novel.
Elizabeth: In my neighborhood, I feel like I can knock on anyone’s door. I can’t imagine a better place to raise kids!
P.H. : Who is this novel for and who can relate to it?
Elizabeth: People really want to belong to something, whether it is a family or a friend group. People want other people to have their backs and to miss them if they’re not there. That’s what we’ve created in this book: a bigger than typical family that the characters feel like they belong to. You don’t have to have kids to enjoy the book because it’s also about friendship and how far do you push these boundaries of friendship and how does that relate to your immediate family?
Melissa: Anyone can relate to the fact that your friends who are nearby are often the people who you rely on most. Anybody who is friends with their neighbors can relate to this story.
P.H.: What’s next for you both? Any collaborative projects?
Elizabeth: We’re currently working on another novel. It’s about the importance of friendships and a friendship between two unlikely allies.
P.H.: What are your favorite things to do in Philly?
Elizabeth: My family’s favorite place is Villa di Roma in the Italian Market. It’s a cash-only red gravy place. We have an envelope in our kitchen that we call “the fund.” When we have a few extra dollars, we stuff it in that envelope. When we have enough money in there, we go!
An idea of a favorite day with my kids is to go to Barnes and Noble in Rittenhouse Square and then going to lunch at El Ray on Chestnut St. We also enjoy walking along the Schuylkill River and looking at the boathouses on Boathouse Row.
Melissa: I love live music. I love going to The Fillmore, 29 E. Allen St. and Ardmore Music Hall out in the suburbs. Recently I joined The National Constitution Center. They have the most interesting lectures!
For more information on the authors and their writing, visit:
elizabethlaban.com or check out their individual facebook pages.