Liz Alterman is a writer, editor, and author with over 20 years of experience in print and digital media. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Parents, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other publications. She is the author of the young adult novel He’ll Be Waiting (Willow River Press, April 2021), the memoir Sad Sacked (Audible 2021), and a new domestic suspense novel, The Perfect Neighborhood (Crooked Lane Books, July 2022). Liz lives in New Jersey with her husband and three sons.
Sheryl Zedeck Katz spoke with Liz about her writing journey, her inspiration, and how society defines a “good mother.” This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sheryl Zedeck Katz: Congratulations on publishing a new novel this year! How did you get started writing?
Liz Alterman: Thank you! One of my earliest memories is of my mom reading to me, so my passion for books and storytelling began early. Because reading and writing were always my favorite hobbies, I majored in English when I went to college and later worked as an energy reporter for a financial news organization. If you want to see people’s eyes glaze over quickly, tell them you write about natural gas and electricity for a living. After having children, I left that job and pursued freelance writing, which led to a position as an editor of a local online news site. When that company was restructured, I was let go, which, coincidentally, happened six weeks after my husband had been laid off. I tried writing a memoir chronicling that period to break up the misery and monotony of job hunting. It provided me with an excellent outlet for my stress and anxiety. Once I proved I could write pieces beyond a few thousand words, I turned to novels.
SZK: Can you describe your path to publishing your novels?
LA: My path wasn’t straightforward. I’ve had three books released within 15 months, and people say, “Wow, you’ve been busy!” but truthfully, I began working on my memoir, Sad Sacked, in 2015. I was fortunate to find a fantastic agent, but the book didn’t sell. We were told the usual things non-celebrity memoirists hear: “Your platform isn’t large enough.” Or, “We don’t know how to break this out.” A few years later, a friend suggested I submit my manuscript to Audible, and, in what felt like nothing short of a miracle, it resonated with an editor who offered to publish it.
In 2018, I struggled to publish my young adult thriller, He’ll Be Waiting. While I had a different agent, I still experienced rejection. Eventually, I found an independent publisher who guided it into the world. With The Perfect Neighborhood, I braced for rejection and ended up with a handful of offers. So, after years of writing, rewriting, and wading through massive rejection, I’m glad I stuck it out!
SZK: I read your recent blog post, On the Balls of our A$$ets (I love the name, by the way). You discussed your frustrations and desire to give up writing in the post. You dreamed of “retiring your laptop and applying for a gig at a garden center.” When it gets hard like that, what keeps you moving forward? More importantly, how do you keep moving forward?
LA: Sidenote: On the Balls of our A$$ets was the original title of my memoir, but my editors said it was a mouthful, and I admit I prefer Sad Sacked. These are questions I ask myself weekly—sometimes daily. I think it’s because when I write nonfiction, those questions help me process my thoughts and feelings about the subject I’ve chosen to explore. It’s cathartic. Fiction, on the other hand, offers a sweet escape. I wrote and revised The Perfect Neighborhood during the pandemic, and it was a relief to leave the real world behind for a few hours each day and slip into a fictional community. I loved spending time with those characters’ problems instead of my own.
SZK: What inspired you to start writing fiction, particularly this story?
LA: Growing up, my collection of Nancy Drew mysteries was one of my most prized possessions. I also loved shows like Charlie’s Angels, Remington Steele, and Moonlighting. Count me in for anything with a “whodunit” plot!
This idea for The Perfect Neighborhood came to me in a dream. I woke up with a vivid picture of the beginning and the ending, knowing the story would start with a missing child, and the blamed babysitter would have a secret. I needed to think about how the middle unfolded so I sat with it for about six months and allowed the characters and plot to develop in my mind before writing.
SZK: I loved how you structured the novel. The story is told from the perspectives of five women: two mothers, each with a missing child; a woman grieving over multiple miscarriages; a female neighbor; and the babysitter of the missing children. What made you decide to write from these diverse perspectives?
LA: I wanted readers to feel like they were inside these women’s heads so they’d have more compassion for each of them. Let’s be honest; they’re not all kind. Though these women are judging one another, I wanted the reader to know the truth about what was happening behind closed doors in each of the characters’ lives. I felt that shifting perspectives allowed for that.
SZK: Is there anything about The Perfect Neighborhood that you have experienced personally? Is the depiction of the neighborhood or the people living there based on your observations? If not, what inspired it?
LA: I’ve lived in various New Jersey suburbs similar to Oak Hill for most of my life. Some real-life inspirations made it into the book. I have a friend who lives in a major city and doesn’t have children. When she read the novel, she asked, “Is it tough to find a babysitter? Are there secret basketball teams for smaller kids? Is there such a thing as an honors orchestra? Do neighbors judge one another for serving wine in plastic cups?” I can say unequivocally “yes!” to all of it.
SZK: A few poignant lines in the book jumped off the page for me. One of them was, “Is there a word for a woman who’s lost a child other than broken?” You mention “widow/widower” and “orphan” as words that describe other losses. Perhaps society has decided the loss of a child is not part of the natural order and assigns the word “broken”? The word seems perfect as it relates to the characters with missing children, the character with multiple miscarriages, and even the babysitter. What made you include the “brokenness” of these characters in a story that centers around missing children?
LA: “Broken” seemed like the right word because a child is truly part of a parent—to lose one is to lose an integral piece of yourself. For most, to experience the loss of a child is to experience an ache that never abates.
SZK: I bet the first discussion question in a book club will be—is it “right” to let a kindergartener walk home from school alone? I polled my Facebook friends and received a variety of responses. They all asserted that it depends on the neighborhood, which ironically is the point of your book. But one friend sent me an article about “free-range parenting,” which features my friend’s decision to let her kids roam their neighborhood. The article suggests our kids are safer now than 30 years ago, but constant access to news makes us feel the opposite. Did you come across any research that supports that? What do you think of that idea?
LA: Ted, Rachel’s husband, frequently complains that Rachel coddles Billy, which he believes has made Billy more anxious and less independent than he should be. Additionally, Ted’s son, Evan, from his first marriage, walked to school on his own a decade earlier, so Ted expects the same for Billy.
When Billy disappears, his usual walking companion has a dentist appointment. Some parents are comfortable if their child is walking with a group, but what’s the threshold—three kids, four, or five? Everyone has a different definition of “safe.”
Another concept I was playing with is the power of maternal instinct. Rachel’s gut signals not to allow Billy to walk from school alone or with a friend. However, she allows herself to be overruled by her husband. This choice haunts her later.
It’s not uncommon in neighborhoods like Oak Hill, where residents believe they exist inside a well-manicured bubble, to think it’s fine to let a few children roam the neighborhood together. A mindset sometimes exists in communities where stay-at-home moms and nannies are prevalent. People think somebody’s watching out for my kid, and that’s never a safe assumption, although statistics state that kids are far safer now than they were decades ago. The constant news cycle and social media posts cautioning us to be vigilant contribute to parents’ feelings of risk. We have access to more information than ever, which can be both a blessing and a curse.
SZK: A major theme of the book asks the reader to define what makes a “good” mother. Rachel, the mother of a missing child, was at work when her child walked home from school alone. She struggled with choosing to work for her sanity instead of needing to work for the money. What made you choose this character to experience the horror of losing a child to abduction? How have you balanced the challenges of working and motherhood?
LA: In some communities, there’s judgment aimed at working mothers—especially when pursuing a career for personal fulfillment rather than for a paycheck. When a sitter collected the kids at school pickup, I overheard another mom say, “Why is she working? It’s not like they need the money.”
Working moms often feel guilt when unable to attend the numerous school events that stay-at-home parents enjoy. Yet you rarely hear about “working dad guilt” or see criticisms leveled at men. Billy’s disappearance compounds Rachel’s guilt as a working mother. I wanted her to point out that Ted, Billy’s dad, doesn’t experience those emotions. I wanted the reader to wonder, is this Ted’s nature, or does society hold fathers to a lower level of scrutiny?
SZK: You explored how people try to keep up with their neighbors. Some of the mothers were grown-up mean girls. But they lightened the story and served as a juxtaposition to the missing child terror. Why did you make that an important part of this story?
LA: In some communities, these neighbors exist. You only have to go as far as a local Facebook group to find them. I wanted these characters’ over-the-top antics to provide a release from the tension of the primary storyline. For example, what kind of person expects a thank-you note and the quick return of her Le Creuset baking pan from a woman whose child is missing? I wanted readers to have some eye-roll moments amid the suspense.
SZK: What message do you want your readers to take from The Perfect Neighborhood?
LA: I wanted to give readers an entertaining escape while also exploring the idea that we never really know what’s happening in someone else’s home, marriage, or family. Things may look picture-perfect, but they’re often far from ideal.