Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On A Fortunate Age - homage to The Group

Joanna Smith Rakoff's debut novel A FORTUNATE AGE received the kind of attention authors dream about -- it was among Booklist's Top Ten Debut Novels of 2009, a New York Times Editors' Pick, winner of the Elle Readers' Prize...and on it goes. An homage to THE GROUP (Mary McCarthy's scathing satire of eight Vassar graduates, class of '33), it tells the story of a group of 20-something Oberlin grads in hipster Brooklyn in the late 1990s.

JRW: Can you talk about how you built on THE GROUP?

In the spring of 2001, I began writing a short story set in Manhattan, about a couple of native Brooklynites in their twenties and a college friend who comes to visit from Boston—and is sort of inculcated into their world, which is rather more sophisticated than his. The story kept getting longer and longer—and involving more and more characters--and I eventually realized that it, of course, wasn’t a story. But it wasn’t necessarily a novel either.

A year later, after the attacks of September eleventh--which is to say, during a period when my perspective on the world, in general, and my own life, in specific, was radically changing—I read THE GROUP and realized, by the time I’d finished it, that I wanted to take my now-hundred-page short story and turn it into something akin to a contemporary retelling of THE GROUP.

McCarthy’s novel is, of course, about a bunch of Vassar grads who move to New York during the Depression and try to lead their lives in a style very different than that of their haute bourgeois parents. It’s brilliance lies in the way McCarthy lays bare the ways in which her ostensibly rebellious, artistic, intellectual characters are hopelessly defined by received information and mainstream, middle class societal expectations. I was trying to do something similar. I was also, like McCarthy, attempting to chronicle a very particular cultural moment in New York history (and, ultimately, in American history), a final gilded age.

JRW: So how did you reshape your growing novel?

I spent a good year or so developing those characters, and part of that was thinking about the ways in which they resembled McCarthy’s. Each character generally has one core dilemma—or, defining trait—that, in my mind, he or she shares with the corresponding character in THE GROUP.

Dave is my version of Libby. Someone who’s read both novels might not see any resemblance between the two, but to me, they’re both ultimately unable to be honest with themselves.

My first draft of the novel slavishly followed the structure of THE GROUP, but that—not surprisingly—didn’t work at all. In the next two drafts, I took the novel fully apart and put it back together again, and banished THE GROUP from my mind. It was only then that the novel began to work.

JRW: How did your characters turn out different?

JOANNA: Mine are, I think, more aware of themselves in the world—aware of their limitations and shortcomings—which means they’re also more aware of their own unhappiness.

One small, specific thing: All of McCarthy’s characters are seriously WASPy and inhabit a Manhattan curiously absent of anyone unlike themselves. While I was reading the novel, the first time, I didn’t think much of it. But then I realized how bizarre it was—how indicative of McCarthy’s world view—that there were no Jews, in particular, in a novel about actors and playwrights and writers and Communists in New York in the 1930s. As a sort of joke—almost a dare with myself—I decided to make all my characters Jewish.

JRW: The "Friends" in this group are Beth, Sadie, Lil, Tuck, Dave, Tal and Emily -- they're all Jewish, grew up wealthy, and now they are creative idealists, decidedly unwealthy artists and writers and the like. Where did you find these characters, and are any of them you?

People often assume that the novel is essentially true, that these characters are fictionalized versions of my close friends from college, but it’s not. None of them are me—not in any straightforward way—but there are parts of me in all of them. Even Dave, whom people constantly tell me they hate, and who is definitely despicable in certain ways. And there are pieces of each character—traits and tics and experiences—that have come from the people I’ve met over the decade I’ve lived in New York.

When I began devising them, I thought of each character as possessing a certain defining characteristic. So, for instance, Dave came out of my curiosity about certain men in my acquaintance, men who possessed that awful combination of overinflated ego and crippling insecurity. And Sadie Peregrine, of course, came out of my thinking about commonalities between the women I know who come from rather privileged backgrounds.

JRW: You don't seem to feel any of the contempt for your characters that Mary McCarthy did for hers.

JOANNA: I think that’s the big difference between the two novels. As the novel evolved—and I became increasingly aware of what I wanted to do with the novel—my characters became more developed and I felt more and more sympathy for them. Ultimately “The Group” is a comedy—there’s an extent to which McCarthy’s characters are caricatures—whereas “A Fortunate Age” is really a tragedy.

JRW: Characterizing the time, one of your characters says: "Everything just feels so pointless. . . . It's all, like, where are we going to eat for dinner? What movie are we going to see? . . . There's no urgency to anything. No reason for anything." How do you think these characters would have changed if we could drop in on them today?

JOANNA: It’s funny, just last night I had dinner with a close friend, who said something to the effect of, “Remember how we used to go to dinner all the time? It was so stupid. I don’t miss it at all.”

For her, that period ended perhaps five years ago, when she had her first child, as did I. And I think, if we were to meet my characters right now, we’d find them similarly transformed, their purposes sharpened. By the end of the novel, most of them have a child or two, and their lives have taken on the sort of urgency that tends to come with having a family. When you have two hours to yourself—while the baby naps and the toddler’s in preschool—you tend to make those two hours count. I suspect that Sadie, by now, is writing screenplays for Ed, and Beth has written a book, and Emily is in medical school.

JRW: You've set the bar high for yourself, and I'm sure you're working on the next novel. Can you tell is a little about it?

Yes! You’ve caught me at a moment when I’m pretty excited about the new novel, which I’m just starting. Like A FORTUNATE AGE, it will likely be a big, sprawling thing—that’s what I tend to read, so I suppose that’s my inclination as a writer—about a family, the Baughmanns, who are in the midst of a particular sort of disintegration.

JRW: We Jungle Red Writers all write mysteries, so I have to ask if you: When you're wrote this book, were you thinking (as we would when we write our books) about the secrets your characters have that will be revealed by the end of the book?

JOANNA: I was, most definitely. I actually love mysteries and in devising a structure for the novel I thought a lot about what my characters had to hide—and how I’d go about slowly bringing their secrets to light. This is, in a way, why I so loved—and partially adopted—the structure of The Group, which is episodic, so it allowed me, as the omniscient narrator, to give the reader glimpses of various characters before fully exposing them. I was really attracted to the idea that a reader might think of a character one way—as utterly confident, in the case of Sadie Peregrine, or as bold and bombastic, in the case of Emily Kaplan—for much of the novel, then enter that character’s head and realize that, egads, she’s riddled with anxiety.

But, in terms of mysteries, I was very influenced by Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books, which I love and have read over and over. The first, CASE HISTORIES, was fully on my mind over the years I was writing A FORTUNATE AGE.

JRW: Thanks, Joanna!

Joanna will be visiting JRW today. Have you read A FORTUNATE AGE? Were you riveted by THE GROUP as many of us were? Please, share your thoughts.


  1. The Group was passed hand to hand at my high school with a fake cover, because of the so-called dirty parts. But I took the story to heart and ended up going to a women's college to recapture the experience of a close-knit group of friends--and was not disappointed. I'm still in touch with several of those college friends.

    I will definitely look forward to reading A Fortunate Age. I wonder, do you think friendship among women has changed since McCarthy wrote her book?

  2. Well, I've got to read A Fortunate Age because my stepson and his wife both went to Oberlin and then moved to Williamsburg - probably at the same time as Joanna.Just hope he isn't one of the bad guys...

  3. I have not yet read A Fortunate Age, but after this post, I plan to buy and read it, pronto.

    Your description of the careful thought and hard work put into shaping the story into its best form is very impressive.

  4. I was haunted by The Group. Haunted. I read it--oh gosh, many times. Many many times. And I still think about it. Lakey. And the diaphragm. All of it.

    Thank you so much for the wonderful and thoughtful interview...I'm so eager to read your book!

  5. Hi Joanna, thanks for visiting "our" group at JRW. I was in Junior High when the Group was being passed around. Embarrassingly enough, I took no great message from it as Sheila and Hank (and Joanna) obviously did! I will have to read it again before picking up your book (and maybe avoid getting distracted by the sex...)

  6. Sheila, oh my goodness, a fake cover! That makes me think of something I'd completely forgotten about: When I was in fifth grade--so, maybe ten years old--everyone was secretly passing around Judy Blume's novel "Forever," because of the dirty parts! I remember one of my naughtier friends reading those sections aloud during free study and being so, so embarrassed.

    Anyway, that's a great question -- have women's friendships changed in the last thirty years. I don't know the answer to it, but I do wonder if portrayals of women in mainstream media -- television shows like "Gossip Girl" and so on -- have led to cattier or more competitive relationships between young women. Then again, it doesn't get much cattier than McCarthy! I also wonder, though, how the nature of friendship, in general, is changing in our current age, with the advent of social networking sites, that allow the illusion of intimacy without actual personal interaction. It's a bit distressing to me. My friends and I never seem to pick up the phone anymore...

  7. Okay, Rosemary, now I'm *very* curious about who your stepson is! (And his wife!)

  8. Ramona, thank you! It was indeed hard work, but so, so pleasurable. I'm just starting my second novel and it's such a pleasure to return to that sort of task (after seven months of writing shorter pieces and endless publicity stuff).

  9. Hank, yes, the diaphragm! That she leaves in the park! Poor Dottie.

    Have you read Rona Jaffe's The Best of Everything, by the way? Some similarly distressing episodes in it.

  10. Roberta, thank you for having me! You know, for years now, I've been saying to friends, "You MUST read The Group" And while many come back to me and say, "I loved it!" Many say, "I couldn't get past the second chapter." So, in other words, they, like you, were put off by the sex-heavy second chapter. Which I completely understand.

  11. I read THE GROUP much later (Peyton Place was the book we traded around for the dirty parts). What I remember is the way it takes on female stereotypes -- yet McCarthy refused to be categorized as a feminist. I think the fact that A FORTUNATE AGE has male AND female friends is just one indication of how much things have changed.

  12. Well, huh. I haven't read either "The Group" or "A Fortunate Age," however, the description and comparison of the two books is fascinating. Also very much appreciated the peek into the author's creative process. Looks like I'm going to be buying two more books! Yay!