Leigh Stein, Author of ‘The Fallback Plan,’ On Pandas


Leigh Stein, Author of ‘The Fallback Plan,’ On Pandas

dress and belt H&M earrings ERIN HAKANSSON

“What’s your ‘Plan B’?”

“Have you thought about other options?”

“Yes, but what if you entirely fail?”

The Fallback Plan is the story of Esther, a recent college graduate who moves back home only to be thrown into a world of heavy introspection and disappointing adults—chief among them Amy and Nate, the parents of the child for whom she babysits, who waste no time reeling her into their family drama. Leigh Stein‘s debut novel intrigued us so much that we had to bring her in for questioning. Stein, a published poet and former New Yorker staff member, has had all manner of jobs, from public school teacher to Snow White impersonator to googler of baby pandas (it’s research). What follows is a sample of the conversation we had concerning pandas, the morbidness of children, and that great black hole we call the Internet.

Stay tuned for more exclusive photos from our shoot with Leigh, as well as a full interview in the weeks to come.



Part of Esther’s inner life involves recurring fantasies about an idea for a film called The Littlest Panda.

BULLETT: Pandas. We need to talk about Pandas.

LEIGH STEIN: People like them, apparently.

They’re all up in your book. I was just wondering why?

I think I just got carried away with the pandas. I mean, I didn’t set out to—I wasn’t like, Okay, then there’s going to be this other part of the book that’s going to be all about pandas, but in the first chapter when Esther was googling baby pandas I think I was just googling baby pandas. You can do this for an extended period of time. Then I started thinking—I think towards the end of the—that the panda story and the actual plot of the book collide so the panda story becomes more meaningful later on, so I figured out a way to do that, but in the beginning I would get stuck writing the rest of the book, like I would get writer’s block, and so as a treat to myself I’d say, Okay, you can write one of those panda things that you like to write. It was a gift to myself. And then later I was like, I better make this relate to the plot.

I’m really glad that it’s there. The panda becomes a Narnia story. 

It’s like, What if a panda went to Narnia? And saved Hannukah. From the evil white witch.

My favorite, though, wasn’t the panda bits but when Esther is driving and she puts in The Littlest Panda soundtrack. I had to stop reading, put the book down, and be like, CD? Ipod? Cassette Tape? I was thinking like, where is this downloadable? What is this world where you can download The Littlest Panda soundtrack? And then I was thinking, you can probably download anything at all. Any number of esoteric childhood soundtracks.
I think she was just thinking about what would go on her Littlest Panda soundtrack.

Oh, she wasn’t listening to the soundtrack?

No, no.


But if it exists, you have to tell me.



The book is a lot about Esther looking at children, and trying to find out when innocence leaves you. You work with kids, right?


Where do you think  innocence is left off, if there’s any kind of indicator?

The darkness in kids has always interested me. In some ways I’m like, I wish I could be a child, like I want to jump on a trampoline and not think about anything else but jumping on a trampoline, but I’m also filled with all these adult thoughts, and we idealize childhood as this place where they don’t ever have to think about bad things—they’re safe, they’re protected, they’re in this bubble, but there’s some really dark stuff going on sometimes. I taught kids in Sheepshead Bay and a lot of them were the children of immigrants, so English was their second language, which made them my favorite children I’ve ever known in my life because they said the most hilarious things. There was this valentine that a fourth grader showed me, where she wrote: “Roses are red, violets are blue, want to make sex with me?”

Oh my god!

I didn’t know what to say. I’m also interested in how the lives of adults intersect with the lives of children. So I can be an adult and I can go to a party and then the next morning I have to teach children. I can do both things. When a student says they’ve googled me and they’re, like, 9 years old, it’s like, Wait a minute, was your mom there? She’s like, “No, I just I found your blog.” I’m like, What are you doing? So I think I still try to navigate that, because my writing isn’t for children, obviously. I love teaching children, but they’re two different things. When they intersect I get a little freaked out.

And you’re seeing firsthand how kids who probably shouldn’t be able to be on the Internet are totally on the Internet all the time.


That’s what’s weird to me, because ours is the first generation to not know a world without computers.

For kids now, the Internet has always been there. But I remember AOL and dial-up and that sound—like, Could I get on?—and my mom having to use the phone and me having to get off and being like, But I’m talking to my friend!

And the gray little dialogue boxes that were so scary and forbidding and adult. And when we got the first computer in the house I was like, All I want to do is write ‘I Love Mom’, and no one could tell me it had another use.

I used to make newsletters and have my dad print them out at work. I made one about Saddam Hussein, but it was just like “SADDAM HUSSEIN!!!” and it had like a million exclamation points.

That’s amazing.

I was very interested in publishing. From a young age.

And politics.

And politics.

The Fallback Plan is due from Melville House in January 2012.


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