Q. How much of this novel is based on your life?
A.Probably about 20 percent. I grew up in Chicago, but Babs and Bettina are extreme versions of my mother and me, and most of the situations these characters face are completely fictional.
I did completely rip off the apartment I grew up in and turned it into the aparthouse where Babs and Bettina live. Yes, there is actually a spiral staircase in a penthouse on East Lake Shore Drive, but no, I never fell down it.
As for Cardiss, I based the events in the novel on things that could have happened at Exeter in the Eighties when I was a student there, but none of them actually did. At first, I tried to make Bettina’s tenure at Cardiss a do-over of mine at Exeter: Bettina was going to be popular, mean, have a great body and great sex. Of course there is no way the Bettina we meet in the beginning of the novel could become this girl, and so I ended up creating another character that could be this way: Meredith.
Hailer is a composite of two boys: one I know from childhood whose dad died when he was five, drunk-driving home from a bar in Lake Forest (the suburb I based Grass Woods on), and another who my best friend at Exeter had the most enormous crush on. Hailer’s sex life is all his own.
As for Jake: he was inspired by a boy I knew at Exeter who tried to get as many girls as he could to have sex with him, even pursuing several at the same time. He actually had the key to his dorm head’s classroom and liked to seduce girls on the Harkness table after check-in. He somehow lured me there but I was too self-conscious to do anything.
The boy in question here had been a child-actor and was much more worldly than the rest of us, and did sit and read the Times by himself like Jake. I don’t think Child-Actor was into sadomasochism, but it’s not something he would have said no to, I’m pretty sure.
Q. So did your mother give parties like the Hangover Brunch Cruise Party in the book?
A. My mother was and is legendary for her parties. She is one of the most creative people I know, and when she gets into something, she goes all out.,
Q. How did being a mother yourself affect your writing about this fraught mother-daughter relationship?
A. I started this book a long time ago, before I had children. I definitely think I have had a shift in perspective since then. I have both more and less sympathy for Babs.
When I was writing an early version of this novel at twenty-four, I was able to acknowledge how mean Babs was, but part of me also thought that her actions were not completely unconscionable: that maybe some of her cruelty was actually Betttina’s fault. That maybe Babs had a right to treat Bettina badly because Bettina was not good-looking enough, was clumsy and made a lot of mistakes. But now I know that’s not how the parent-child contract is supposed to work. I have three children (ages 10, 8, and 5), and I now understand how this whole unconditional love thing is supposed to go, as well as how vulnerable and dependent they are on me. I once read a parenting article that said if you lose your temper when your kids are out of control, you become the one who has lost control. And a mother’s role is above all to stay steady, be a safe person for her kids.
When my chicks were babies, I tried really hard: I breastfed each of them for over a year, did the mommy and me stuff, read all the books–but deep down, I was like, when am I going to get back to my real life? My favorite things to do are sleep and read. I felt trapped and resentful and could not understand all of these beaming mommies sipping coffees and playing Peek-A-Boo on blankets in Central Park. I began to see how Babs could feel suffocated by Bettina. Because even if she does have staff, the responsibility for a child never goes away.
Now that mine are past the babble and diaper stage, I enjoy the whole experience much more. I do have to work really hard to figure out what is age appropriate for them and what is not. But I do think many kids are too sheltered these days and, in some cases, innocence is overrated.
Q. This is your first time being published. Anything scary about it?
A. I think everybody worries when you work hard on something, put yourself out there. You just hope someone appreciates the effort. Ultimately, I think, you have to tell yourself that what other people think of what you have done is none of your business.
Q.You don’t shy away from sex. Are those scenes fun to write?
A. Of course! I wish I had gotten all of the action Bettina did at her age.
Q: What’s your writing “process” ?
A. I think it is essential not to fetishize how you work; not to have too elaborate rituals. I make it as portable as I can. I write longhand on legal pads or on a laptop, pretty much anywhere: the library, the park, on buses. I also believe in the timer method. You sit down for two hours, see what happens. Even if nothing does, you have shown up and done your work for the day.
Q: Who are your favorite writers?
A: Rachel Cusk, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lionel Shriver, Janet Fitch, E.L. Doctorow.
Q:What’s the best piece of writing advice you have ever gotten?
A: A.M. Holmes in a workshop: “I don’t believe in writer’s block.”