May 28, 2010
During the spring semester of my first year in grad school at Columbia University, some ten years ago, I, for reasons I cannot explain, signed up for a course called Poetry and Technology. For a couple hours each week, I and fourteen or fifteen others sat in a windowless room at the bottom of the engineering building (as if the university administrators had been uncertain where to put us—Humanities? Science? Call it engineering, but stick them in the basement) and discussed, um, poetry? and technology? Yeah, something like that. I remember long talks about theories of Futurism. I remember a class visit from Bruce Andrews, one of the prime movers behind the incomprehensible literary movement called Language Poetry. And I remember the huge sense of relief that washed over me when I looked across the room during the second or third session and saw a woman with long, dark, curly hair who looked, well, like me, and who rolled her eyes at the same nonsense I did. That woman turned out to be Joanna Smith Rakoff, and she and I turned out to have more in common than just hair and a healthy dose of skepticism over literary theory. We talked outside of class and discovered a mutual love for the nineteenth-century British novel and Thai food, and a shared obsession with excellent writing. Our friendship extended beyond the bounds of grad school and into the trials of adulthood; over the years we’ve helped see each other through marriage, motherhood, career-related questions—and the publication of Joanna’s superb first novel, A Fortunate Age. I was, myself, fortunate to have read early drafts of the novel, and to develop a connection with her characters as I watched them grow and change with her conception of them. I became very fond of the group of recent college graduates struggling to make a life for themselves in New York in the late Nineties.
It was great fun, after all this time, to put to Joanna a list of questions as if I were just any old interviewer and she were just some author.
Amy Rosenberg: In a recent article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, William Deresiewicz discussed the nature of friendship, offering an account of the way it’s changed through the ages. He mentions the book that partly inspired your novel, Mary McCarthy’s The Group, saying that it offers a “tart” view of the particularly youthful experience of having a circle of friends who help one define oneself. McCarthy’s circle of friends operate in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, while yours operate, as we know, in a very fortunate age. Do you think the two groups differ in the ways in which they relate to one another? If so, how? And, if so, how does the context in which each group exists affect the friendships within the groups?
Joanna Smith Rakoff: This is a great—and difficult—question, and one that I thought much about when writing the novel. First, I should say that in certain ways my characters started out in a rather less fortunate age than one might imagine: They graduated from college during the recession of the mid-1990s, when there were pretty much no jobs available, particularly in the arts. It was an odd time in America, which led, of course, to what came to be known as “slacker culture.” You had all these overeducated kids in their twenties moving to cities where the cost of living was cheap—Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Chapel Hill–working at coffee shops and dive bars, playing in bands and painting. This was obviously a retort to the greed-driven Eighties, during which my characters came of my age, but it was also a response to the realities of that era. There were very few interesting white collar jobs available, so kids of that generation—my generation—found service jobs and made them interesting, or didn’t care that their jobs weren’t interesting because they had artistic lives outside of those jobs. All of this is very different from the generation that came right after, which graduated into the booming job market of the late 1990s.
All that said, with regard to the group of friends in The Group and that in my own novel, in many ways, I actually think the characters related to each other in a very similar way. This sounds a bit cheesy, but both groups have found a sort of family in each other. With one or two exceptions, they rely on each other more than they do on their actual, biological families. McCarthy was, in a way, documenting the first generation of American women to flee their hometowns and reinvent themselves in New York. My own characters are the latest incarnation of that now-familiar narrative. Both find themselves utterly unmoored at times, both financially and emotionally. And this is part of what I wanted to explore: The ways in which the city can prove both liberating and deadening.
Deresiewicz also bemoans friendship in its current state, arguing that social networking sites like Facebook have killed true intimacy and destroyed the experience of camaraderie. What do you think of the current state of friendship? Are circles like the one depicted in A Fortunate Age still possible?
Yes, the other night, my husband and I met very old, close friends for dinner. My husband, Evan, isn’t on Facebook. Midway through the dinner he, very sweetly, raised his glass and said, “Let’s toast my wife, who has a great story on Slate today!” Our friends gave him a funny look. They’d already seen the Slate piece, because of Facebook, and thought it was weird that Evan was mentioning something I’d posted a good six hours earlier. Old news!
So, yes, Facebook is indeed a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we know exactly what our friends are doing—that their kids are sick and their movies are going to Cannes or whatever—but on the other hand, we’re less inclined to pick up the phone and call them, or meet up in person. And when we do meet in person, conversation can be slightly weird, as often our friends know the basics of what we’ve been up to. During my darker moments—when I’m confused or need advice—I find myself more inclined to post something on Facebook than call a close friend, which increasingly strikes me as a bit weird.
And yet, well, maybe that’s all a load of bunk. I’m not quite sure. I go through phases in which I feel quite isolated and part of me blames Facebook, but most of me knows that the problem is really me. That even pre-Facebook, I tended to lock myself away when things got a bit tense or I needed to write.
In other words, I don’t think the actual nature of friendship has been changed by social networking. Humans are social beasts and we crave personal interaction. I still have a few strong overlapping circles of friends, certainly, and in many ways I feel like those friendships are stronger because email and Facebook and texting have allowed me to maintain closer contact with certain people. My local cafe, for instance, is staffed largely by twenty-five-year-olds who are the latest incarnation of the characters in my novel—painters, actors, playwrights, and so on. They’ve grown up chatting online or what have you, but they still hang around the café together, drinking wine, on Friday nights.
Your original title for the novel was Brooklyn, and in some ways Brooklyn seems to function almost like a character in the book. How does the setting enable, facilitate, or affect the friendships among the circle in your book?
When the novel begins, in 1998, Brooklyn was quite different than it is today. The neighborhoods in which the characters live—Williamsburg, Carroll Gardens, and so on—were predominantly bohemian outposts in which one could find cheap apartments and often not much else (other than crack bodegas and liquor stores in which the cashiers are enclosed in bullet-proof glass). Living together in such neighborhoods definitely intensifies friendships. As does having no money, like most of these characters. You spend a lot of time sitting on friends’ couches, talking.
Sometimes I think these characters could be anywhere: in Portland or Silver Lake or Chapel Hill or what have you. But most of the time I’m certain that Brooklyn becomes fundamental to their identities. As Brooklyn comes into its own, so do these characters. It shapes them, as they shape it.
In his poem “To Jewishness,” Kenneth Koch addresses the condition of being Jewish and imagines that condition speaking back to him: “Why not admit that I/ Gave you the life/ Of the mind as a thing/ To aspire to?” he imagines Jewishness asking. “And where did you go/ To find your ‘freedom’? to/ New York, which was/ Full of me.” For your characters, most of whom are Jewish, what are the relationships between their Jewishness and their “life of the mind” — in their case, their literary, musical, and thespian aspirations? Their Jewishness and their finding freedom — or independence and adulthood — in New York? What’s the significance of their Jewishness in terms of their relationships with one another?
Well, it’s slightly different for each of them, but to speak generally: My characters are simultaneously quite secular and quite defined by their Jewishness, but it’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly how, except to say that they’re all slightly uncomfortable with the secular nature of their upbringing. Or, rather, they don’t quite understand what it means to be Jewish. Tal, of course, goes off and tries to figure out what it means, ultimately abandoning his secular life. But others—like Sadie and Beth and Lil—simply long for a less superficial engagement with the world. Sadie, though she can’t express it, wants to believe. But she—all of them, really—lack the tools—the language, the resources—to find a way to reconcile the religious aspect of Jewishness with the predominant cultural aspect of it. In terms of their friendship, well, I think they found each other in part because they come from similar backgrounds.
Will your next novel be set in New York? Will it be, like A Fortunate Age, a novel of manners? Can you say a little about what it will be about?
My next novel will, in some ways, be a novel of manners and it will be set partially in and around New York, partially in Africa, partially in Berlin. It’s a big novel—bigger than A Fortunate Age—about a family at its moment of disintegration. Which makes it sound like a lot of novels. I’m also working on a nonfiction project, to take a bit of the pressure off, which is also partially about New York and partially about manners.
If you didn’t live in New York, where would you live?
Oh, gee, it’s so hard to imagine living anywhere else. Sometimes I worry that I’m becoming Woody Allen. But, let’s see, we spend a lot of time in the Hudson River Valley, in a town called Tivoli, which is just north of Bard College. I loved it up there—not just Tivoli but the towns around it, especially Red Hook—and could imagine spending part of the year there.
Outside of New York state: Like so many left-leaning, coffee-drinking persons of my generation, I love Portland, Oregon. And recently I’ve found myself strangely happy during my visits to Los Angeles. We have a lot of friends out there. So maybe someday. And there’s always London, where I lived right after college. I’ve always longed to go back.
The publishing industry is changing so quickly that it looks different now than it did even ten years ago, when Sadie Peregrine, the protagonist in your novel, was launching her career as a book editor. You’ve worked in publishing yourself, in a range of different roles — as an assistant at a literary agency, as a freelance writer, and as the editor-in-chief of a widely read online literary magazine. In your role as a novelist, what has surprised you (or not) about the way the publishing industry works?
Oh, God, so much. For years, I profiled writers for magazines and heard seemingly zillions of stories having to do with the frustration and anxiety associated with publishing one’s first book (or second book, for that matter), but either some sort of amnesia set in once my own novel sold or (and this is probably more likely) I labored under the idiotic delusion that because I knew so much about publishing I would be exempt from all those frustrations and anxieties.
So, what, specifically, surprised me? Well, the first thing that comes to mind is that publishing houses—which I still naively thought of as bastions of liberal thought dedicated to the promotion of art—operate on a sort of box office mentality. Meaning, they want each book to be a bestseller right out of the gate, never mind that generally the only books that end up doing so are thrillers and romance-type novels by established writers of those sorts of entertainments, like James Patterson and Mary Higgins Clark. What this means for you, as a writer, is that for the six or eight months before your book comes out, you’re working closely with your editor and publicist to figure out ways to get people to actually know that your book exists and even possibly read it. And then, about a month or two after the book arrives in stores, your publicist just sort of vanishes—unless, of course, your book becomes a mega-hit, in which case they stick around to help handle speaking engagements and press requests and so on. Your editor, too, moves on to the next season’s books and suddenly, after a year (or more) of constant contact, you barely hear from him or her. This is all kind of strange on a personal level, as you often grow close to these people. The effect is rather the same as your high school boyfriend dumping you inexplicably. You keep thinking, “What did I do wrong?” But it also means that you often have to take over much of the publicity tasks yourself and if you’re me—which is to say, the sort of person who prefers to sit in a room by herself for most of the day and is often gripped by panic at the thought of picking up the phone—this can be less than fun. But it seems that this is simply part of being a writer at this moment in time. You need to devote the year or so after your book comes out to promoting that book.
Do you think the many dire predictions out there about where book publishing is heading — the death of the book and all — are worth worrying about?
Oh, gee, I don’t know. I feel like the death of various media industries—magazine, newspaper, film, broadcast television—is always being predicted and it never comes to be. Instead, those media change and adapt.
How does a writer motivate herself to keep writing in the face of all those dire predictions?
Honestly, being a writer—when you get down to it—has nothing to do with the publishing industry. You write because you need to write. If you wanted to be rich, you’d be a hedge fund manager. If you’re good, your work will find an audience. The worst thing you can do, as a writer, is think too much about publishing. You just need to read and write, to bury your head in the sand.
What do you think the role of a novelist is in a time and place like ours, so saturated with sources of entertainment, information, and technological diversion?
The role of the novelist is and always has been to write novels that are as great as that novelist has the power to make them. For me, personally—and for most of my favorite novelists—that means an intense engagement with the political, social, and economic forces at play during the period one is chronicling.
There are, yes, many new forms of entertainment and perhaps too much dispersal of information—I do not need to hear, ever again, about what vegetables, eaten in huge doses, might ward off skin cancer—but narrative is a fundamental part of what makes us human. People are always going to read novels. My son, who is five, has recently been exposed—and I will confess that I’m deeply unhappy about this—to various video games, but his favorite activity is still sitting on the couch listening to my husband or I read Harry Potter or Treasure Island (and screaming “READ!” if we so much as pause to take a breath).
What is the role of a novelist in the face, again, of the dire predictions about the future of literary production?
I hate to sound redundant but: To write good novels. And read them.
As someone with a book fetish (I’ve seen your apartment) what do you think of the fact that your book is selling in an ebook format? Have you read it in that format? Have you ever read any ebook? If so, what did you think of the experience?
I think it’s great. Basically, I think that people should read in whatever format makes sense for them and if that’s an ebook, then fine. I’m not sure it’s for me—I’ve never read one, nor have I even seen one up close–but I have a cousin who’s a rather famous physicist and travels three out of every four weeks. He reads constantly and for him, the Kindle was a revelation. It meant he could pack ten pounds lighter. I get that.
And I honestly don’t know if I have a book fetish. I just like to read. So I have a lot of books! Last year, I cleaned out our bookshelves and donated about 1000 books to Housing Works. It wasn’t difficult at all. It felt good, actually, to get rid of books that I knew I’d never read or had read and hadn’t loved.
I know you’re tenacious, but your novel was five years in the making. While you finished it, you also worked full time as the editor-in-chief of an online magazine — and as the mother of a toddler. How did you keep going without giving up?
It’s funny, but giving up was never a possibility for me. It literally didn’t occur to me! Though I didn’t, at the time, feel that I was facing insurmountable obstacles. It just seemed to me that my life was quite full of good things. I sometimes think that writers fall into two categories: Those who dread sitting down at their desks and those who love it. I fall into the second category. Each day was (and is) an exercise in patience, waiting until I’d have an hour—or six hours, or ten minutes—to work on the novel. When I spent too long away from it I’d grow sick, missing my characters. They were like real people to me. Still are.