Sunday, April 29, 2012

Deborah Copaken Kogan Talks about The Red Book, expectations, obsessions and more

Deborah Copaken Kogan's bio reads like a novel in itself. A photojournalist, she wrote the bestselling Shutterbabe, followed by Between Here and April, Hell is Other Parents and now the New York Times bestseller, The Red Book.  Her essays have appeared in Elle, The New York Times, Paris Match, O, and more, she's shot photo assignments, produced and shot a documentary in Pakistan, performed live on stage with The Moth, adapted Hell is Other Parents for the stage, and even wrote screenplays and a TV pilot. 

The Red Book is part The Big Chill, part  The Group, and really, wholly original. About a group of Harvard friends who reunite at their 20th reunion, it explores what really happens when reality catches up with your dreams. It's a terrific, literary novel, and I'm absolutely honored to have Deborah here. Thank you so much, Deborah.

What sparked the idea for this novel?

Middle age, a death, a job loss, an empty bank account, and a move of desperation is the short answer. The longer answer, herewith: I had a two-book non-fiction deal with Hyperion, so after I finished the first book (Hell is Other Parents), I met with publisher Ellen Archer and my then-editor Barbara Jones for drinks on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I’d sent them a bunch of ideas for the second book, one of which I imagined as a series of linked interviews with the women from my Harvard class, to be published in time for our 25th reunion in 2013. Born in 1966, we came of age as our mother’s generation were storming the barricades of sexism. Told we could be anything, do anything, work anywhere, we entered the workforce without the proper infrastructure (no paid maternity leaves, no subsidized daycare, no Sheryl Sandberg saying, publicly, that every parent, male or female, should be leaving their offices by 5:30 to be with their kids.) That lack of infrastructure and lack of societal support for working families has made for lots of unintended drama and difficulties in the lives of my fellow classmates, many of whom have children and 2-working-parent households. When the recession hit just as we were supposed to be settling gently into the folds our back fat, well, I just thought, here’s a generation of women who’ve been screwed by the gigantic delta between myth and reality. They have a lot to say.

Ellen, however, was dubious, thinking the women I’d interview would never be honest enough to really mine the depths of our generational neuroses. No one would talk about sex or money. And when you’re 42 and going through middle age and a recession simultaneously, I mean really. What else is there to talk about but sex and money?

I happened to mention Harvard’s red book, the self-presentation to one’s 1600 classmates, how it often differed—vastly, in some cases—from the real story of the life described.

The novel—and the permission to write it, instead of writing another non-fiction book—was born right then and there. I’d use the red book entries of fictional classmates of the class of 1989, who would have written said entries during the fall of 2008, just as the recession was about to hit, and then the alumni would show up at their 20th reunion during the full-blown economic meltdown. Characters were imagined almost instantaneously. The reunion itself offered a perfect three-act structure: Friday’s arrival, the climax of Saturday, Sunday’s memorial service as an ending and a perfect reminder of the melancholy truth of all lives: that they end.

The structure of the book, the way you wove in and out of the lives of these characters, connecting past to the present, was so interesting to me. Was this always the plan, or did it evolve as you are writing? 

Every novel begins with a vague idea of how it will be structured. I knew, from the start, that before any new character would be introduced, the reader would first get a glimpse into that character’s Red Book entry. I also knew the novel would span the short three-day reunion, so I decided to keep the plot’s forward-propulsion prose in the present tense, slipping into past tense to describe the past, future to fast-forward to the future. Beyond that, I knew very little about my characters, where they’d been, where they were going, and so every day when I’d sit down to write, I would surprise myself with the details of their lives. I ended up writing many scenes from the past that I would subsequently erase and/or swallow up into a single defining sentence, but it was useful writing those scenes, if only to understand what had happened to my characters before they arrived in Cambridge. In general, however, in fiction as in life, the past is constantly informing the present, so the toggling back and forth between the two felt organic to the story I wanted to tell.

I can't help but ask, without giving away some of the marvelous plot twists, where do you think these characters are going to be at their 30th reunion--and why?

Good question. Truth is, I have no idea and I haven’t given it any thought, but if I were to guess, hmmm. I think Jane will still be living in Paris, writing her second or third novel and raising her youngest, Claire, after having just sent her eldest, Sophie, off to college in the States. Clover will probably still be in the Bahamas with her son and new husband, running their joint business. I imagine that Addison and her partner might make a big move after her youngest leaves for college; I somehow picture her in Ubud, Bali, making/studying art again or maybe Florence, Italy, studying textile design. And I’m hoping that Mia finds love again and finally makes it up to Seattle, to act in one of Clay’s productions.

I was fascinated by the whole notion of how we see ourselves doesn't always end up in how we live our lives. Can you comment on that?

I’m answering this question having just spent the better part of last night poring over the class of 1987’s 25th anniversary red book, to the detriment of sleep, proper parenting, and a clean house, so I’ve been thinking about this all morning. I have to say the entries I found the most poignant and compelling were those that dealt directly and honestly with this dichotomy between the life we thought was ours to lead versus the life we end up living—the once-overachiever who found herself battling depression, a divorce, and infertility; the once-promising actor, now lawyer, dealing with the death of his child; the man who ended up in a city and job he tolerates but doesn’t really love. The truth we learn about adulthood, through trial and error, is that we are forced to be both active—finding our path—and reactive—changing paths when it leads into underbrush or ends at a cliff. Life lobs lots of tiny and unpredictable hand grenades our way: Here’s the death of a loved one! And, oh, look, here’s a pink slip! Watch out for that sinkhole/pothole/speeding car! Oops, your life partner isn’t who you thought he was! How about a little bout with cancer, huh?

Life also often transforms us from solitary beings into members of a family unit, whose needs may not dovetail perfectly with our desires. A spouse’s job may move us to a different city. The birth of children forces a total reassessment of what’s important and what’s secondary. A sick child obliterates the normal and turns life into a fight for that child’s survival (and I say this having only experienced a month in the children’s ward of our local hospital, nursing my youngest back to health from a critical illness, and he’s now utterly, completely fine, unlike so many.) All this to say that the life we might have imagined, in our youth, we’d be leading hardly ever turns out to be the life we end up living, wily life.

But at some point, usually sometime in middle age, when our bullshit meters have become finely tuned, we try our best to tie those two threads together—expectation versus reality—as best we can, even if we have to jerry-rig them. Again, speaking only from personal experience, I’d wanted to be a writer, but I wasn’t accepted into a creative writing class at college, so I turned to war photography, liked it and was good enough at it to make a decent living, until I realized I could not, in good conscience, be a war photographer and a mother simultaneously. So it was back to the drawing board. I became a TV producer and did well enough at that to earn a decent living and have good medical benefits, but the hours and travel were brutal on my kids, so I sat down one day, when I was 32, and decided that if I did not make a go of my first love, writing, I would regret it. That story has a happy if oftentimes impoverished ending, but really, I could have failed, and then I’d be doing something else, but I would be acutely aware of the compromises I’d have to make to leave that dream behind, in the same way I realize the compromises I’ve made to keep it alive: lack of stability, income that varies wildly from one year to the next, a lonely day-to-day existence, the masochism of handing myself over to the mercy and whim of reviewers and public opinion.

That being said, I think I can finally and truthfully say that my self-perception and my actual life, at least on the professional front, are finally in harmony. On the personal front, that’s harder to pin down these days, but I’m doing my best to weave those two threads—expectation and reality—together. Wish me luck.

What's obsessing you now?

Architecture; Aspergers; The National; the fact that the house we live in as renters has been put on the market, so we may have to move; a Sam Phillips song, “I Need Love,”; Jon Robin Baitz’s play Other Desert Cities; Catholicism; yoga; summer plans or, rather, our lack thereof; trying to decide whether to let my hair go gray, as it’s currently doing, or to dye it; the election andconcomitant war on women; Lena Dunham’s Girls; visiting colleges with my eldest; the plot of my next novel; an essay I’ve been writing on Erich Segal for the NYT Book Review; the ups and downs of several marriages in my circle; dust; regret as catalyst; regret as useless; socialmedia; mangos; perfecting spaghetti alle vongole; race; neurosurgery; a friend who was publicly mean to another friend; woman-on-woman meanness in general; a possible move to the Bay Area; the past; the present; the future; and, at this very moment, what to have for lunch.


Lindsey said...

That last answer is as rich a picture of a person as I've read recently! xo

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.