There were nights during the decade that Adrian Nicole LeBlanc reported Random Family (2002) that she'd grow so fatigued she would simply hand her tape recorder to her interview subject and go home to sleep. "Do whatever you want with it," she'd say. Part desperate measure, part journalistic ploy, the practice provided her with valuable material.
Coco, the book's protagonist, would read her lover's prison letters into the recorder; others just goofed around, singing songs and telling jokes that would make LeBlanc smile when she listened to the tape. "Maybe I secretly wish my characters could tell their own stories. They'd probably do a better job than I do," she says.
Most likely they wouldn't, of course. But in LeBlanc's fantasy one finds the kernel of truth, the feeling of unmediated access she provides the reader. The New York Times's Janet Maslin called Random Family "a book that exerts the fascination of a classic unflinching documentary."
LeBlanc's technique has led a number of critics to conclude that she is condoning, rather than simply depicting, her characters' behavior. Conservatives criticized her for not being more of a social critic. Liberals faulted her for portraying the poor in such a direct, unsentimental light.
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc was born in 1963 and grew up in Leominster, Massachusetts, a small factory town near Boston. Her father was a union organizer; her mother worked in a drug rehab center. Her background gave her a strong sense of bluecollar values, which only deepened when she studied sociology at Smith College.
After receiving a Master of Philosophy and Modern Literature at Oxford University in 1988, LeBlanc became the fiction editor at Seventeen magazine. The position was flexible enough that she was able to continue to write for magazines about the marginal figures—prostitutes, drug dealers, gang girls—who had come to fascinate her.
She found the seed for Random Family in a clip in Newsday announcing the trial of a hugely successful heroin dealer named Boy George. While reporting the piece, LeBlanc got to know the girlfriends of the various dealers, and they soon became the main story.
LeBlanc quit her job at Seventeen and spent the better part of the next twelve years working on the book, going through two agents, two publishers, and five editors.
Reviewers of Random Family marveled at her ability to make even the mundane, gritty facts of life in poverty fascinating. "None of the people she writes about veer definitively toward a newer or better life—they tend toward the same tired grooves—yet she makes their stories riveting," writes Margaret Talbot in The New York Times Book Review.
The New York Times Book Review named Random Family one of the ten best books of the year. It was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. LeBlanc's next project is a book about a stand-up comedian. In September 2006 she received a MacArthur "genius" award.
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, Scribner, 2003
"How Hunger Persists in a Rich Country Like America", The New York Times Magazine, September 6, 2020
"Dick Gregory", The New York Times Magazine, December 23, 2018
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Interviews and Reviews
A Journalist Grapples With Grief MacArthur Award winner Adrian Nicole LeBlanc on capturing her father's, Mediabistro, November 15, 2006
Kelliher, Laurie, “Ties that Bind,” Columbia Journalism Review, May/June 2004
“Bronx Tales,” The Brian Lehrer Show, WNYC, December 29, 2003
Interview Women’s Hour, NPR, October 14, 2003
Haynes, Clarence A., “City Lit: Bronx Tales,” City Limits, June 2003
“Random Family,” Morning Edition, NPR, May 7, 2003
Martin, April L., “A Bronx Tale,” Cincinnati CityBeat, March 5, 2003
“Ghetto Living,” On the Media, NPR, March 7, 2003
“Family Matters,” The Brian Lehrer Show, WNYC, February 19, 2003
Jackson, Jr, John L., “Numb with Pain,” Puerto Rico Herald, February 12, 2003
Review, Random Family, Avni, Sheerly, “No Way Out,” Salon, February 11, 2003
Thernstrom, Melanie, “A Novel Idea,” New York Magazine, February 10, 2003
Talbot, Margaret, “In the Other Country,” Originally published in the New York Times, February 9, 2003
Lyons, Stephen J., “‘Random Family’: Intentionally Shocking,” USA Today, February 5, 2003
Valby, Karen, “Random Family Startling Tale,” CNN.com, February 3, 2003
Farley, Amy, “In the Family Way,” The Village Voice, January 27, 2003