Rumaan Alam: Not the Book They Expected
Every novel starts with an act of imagination. A writer finds a story or a story finds a writer -- it all starts with an act of imagination. Acts of faith and empathy, the occasional act of charity, come later; those layered acts build novels, conjure the emotional truths that underscore character, place, story -- the elements that get readers turning pages, make them desperate to talk to each other about what they’ve just read.
We’re still talking about Rumaan Alam's debut novel, Rich and Pretty, a Summer 2016 selection of our Discover Great New Writers program. This charming debut novel about the evolution of a long friendship between two women hit home for many of us: We heard echoes of our own friendships with other women as we read. Emma Straub (Modern Lovers) is also a fan of this "smart, sharp, and beautifully made" portrait of an enduring friendship "that is impossible to resist."
Joining Rumaan onstage tonight is Mira Jacob, author of the critically acclaimed novel The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing. Jacob is the founder of Pete’s Reading Series in New York City; her work has appeared in Guernica and Vogue, among other outlets. --Miwa Messer, Director, Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Mira Jacob: I have some questions for you, and I think the most pressing one starts this off, which is: How many lady brains did you eat to write this book? How did you make this up?
Rumaan Alam: I don't know. I really don't know. A lot of my closest friends are women. A lot of them are in this room right now. But I never asked anybody, you know, tell me about X or Y. I just watched these women over the course of our adulthood, and I knew more about their . . . They seemed to have fuller lives than I do. They had relationships. And I just sort of watched that whole thing unfold. And I guess I stole it. I guess that's how I did it. I don't know.
MJ: You stole it.
RA: I stole it. But isn't that like . . . You do that, too.
MJ: I do that, too.
RA: That's what you do. Right? So I stole it.
MJ: So then it's not the lady brains.
RA: There's a lot of frontline reporting in this book. Even I can recognize a lot of it. I think when my friends do finally now get a chance to read it, I anticipate them saying to me, "Oh, this is something that happened to me that you stole."
MJ: Are you nervous about that?
RA: Well, I'm not, because I feel like it was well meant. I hope. I don't think there's anything mean or . . . Yeah, and there is not one person. It's not like the book is about one person or two people. It's a lie. That's the other thing you do. Like, you're lying.
MJ: Well, the book is about two people, but it's not about two people in their actual life, right?
MJ: So you've got the two main characters, who are white women.
MJ: You are brown.
RA: That's true.
MJ: And a man.
RA: That's true.
MJ: And gay.
RA: That's true.
MJ: You are a gay brown man.
MJ: Can we talk about this?
RA: Yeah. I think we should talk about it.
MJ: How did you approach this?
RA: With some trepidation. Because I think that when you're writing something that doesn't belong to you, you should rightfully feel cautious about it. I was like, I just have to write it and see if it . . . Every person in the business of publishing is a woman. So if I had got it totally wrong, this book never would have gone anywhere. Right?
MJ: That's a fair point.
RA: So I feel like it has been vetted, at least, and I feel like my editors and my agent would not let me do something stupid and make a big, obvious, stupid mistake, so I take some comfort in that. But I was very nervous about it for sure. For sure.
MJ: And it's not the book that is expected of you.
RA: Yes, but that is its own kind of liberation. Because I think the book that is expected like you, when you look like you and I, is a book about people coming from overseas and struggling and learning a language. I see a friend of mine, who is a black woman writer, sitting in the audience, nodding her head, because she knows, and it's the same thing that every writer who doesn't look like Jonathan Franzen (unless he is Jonathan Franzen; he's great), is meant to meet some expectation that is held by some person that no one can identify. I don't know who that person is. I don't know who that editorial director is. I don't know who that critic is, who says, "This is the way the narrative of brown in America works." I've read those books. I love Jhumpa Lahiri. She did, weirdly, write one story that is very similar to the story of my life. (Which is another story.) But she is, for the most part, not telling the story of my life. I felt very little desire to tell the story of my life. I felt like it was much more liberating to do something completely different. It was almost like writing about aliens.
MJ: Hilton Als, right, recently talked about this, about autobiography, and about Lemonade . . . How did you react to what he was writing?
RA: Well, I understand that there is a lot of dissent out there about his actual critique.
MJ: Could you summarize it in case someone missed it?
RA: That Beyoncé's power comes from being a wronged woman, and because she has this visual iconography and this very precise writing, has recast the entire narrative of Black Womanhood, essentially. He makes the point in that particular piece that I loved, which is that people have a very specific expectation of autobiography from writers who are minorities -- I don't even know what "minority" means -- but from writers who are brown.
RA: They expect it to be autobiography. And I do it, too.
MJ: Did you do it with the dancing?
RA: No, I did it with Nicole Dennis-Benn, who I was just talking to you about.
MJ: Oh, that's interesting.
RA: I was reading her book. Nicole Dennis-Benn is a Jamaican writer, and she has a book coming out in July that's amazing, called Here Comes the Sun, and I was reading it, and I was like, Huh, I wonder if this was Nicole's life story. Then I was like, that's so fucked up that I think that when I know better, and I know that she's just a really talented artist who was spinning a tale and building a universe, which is what everybody does. I don't think anybody says -- to use Jonathan Franzen, no one says Purity is the story of his life.
MJ: They don't do that.
RA: They don't do that. It is, I think, a kind of curse of being a minority writer. I think what Hilton was saying was that it's the curse of being a minority artist.
RA: That's a fair point.
MJ: That is a fair point. Fairly quickly, just because we're on the subject, what did you think of Lemonade?
RA: I don't know. I haven't watched the video because I don't have that much time on my hands, honestly. I can't sit and watch something for that long without getting, like, distracted. But I listened to it a lot. I think it's great.
MJ: Give me three descriptions for each character in your novel. Like, if you were writing a dating profile, but honest. Three things that you could tell me about each of them.
RA: The book is about two women named Lauren and Sarah, and they are friends from the time they are eleven. The book takes place from when they're thirty-two to around thirty-seven. Lauren is beautiful. She is sardonic. And she is uncertain. Sarah is lovely, and cultivated, and a square.
MJ: I feel like now is a good time to talk about the title.
RA: First of all, I don't really believe in spoilers, unless you're talking about Game of Thrones, which please don't, because we're very far behind. But the title is very reductive. The title of the book is Rich and Pretty, and it is intentionally a reductive way of talking about these two women. It is my opinion that it is a trick, and there is a scene in the book that gives context to the title that will hopefully make you feel that it is not as reductive as it may seem if you just see it. When I was writing it . . . You asked if it was, like, scary. I was imagining a woman seeing the title of this book and being, "What the fuck do I want to read this fucking book of some dude saying, 'Here is a book about someone who is rich and someone who is pretty.' "
But in a way, that is like the joke that I am making. The title dares you to have that misunderstanding, and I would not . . . A woman who felt that way, seeing the title and seeing my author photo . . . a woman who felt that way would not be wrong to feel that way. You know?
RA: It is a reductive title.
MJ: You're just hoping to punch through to the other side of that.
MJ: Who did you like writing more, Sarah or Lauren?
RA: Yes, which is funny, because I am so much like Sarah. It's funny, because it seems like the readers who have read the book . . . there does seem some sense that, like, people want to take a side and pick.
RA: Yes. But you can feel for Lauren.
MJ: Did they stay with you, the characters?
RA: Yes. You know this. It's like psychosis. It's insanity. When I was writing this book -- I mean, I can't believe that I'm still married. In my experience, what it did to me was crazy. I thought about them all the time. I felt like I was them. When we'd walk around the city I'd look at things and shift, as I was walking, between "What would Lauren think about this?" and "What would Sarah think about this?" I'd go to places that I thought they would go to. It was insane.
MJ: Now you have two kids.
MJ: The oldest is?
RA: He's almost seven now.
MJ: And you started writing this in 2009. I'm just doing the math here.
RA: I did not have kids when I started writing it.
MJ: And then it took over.
MJ: Did you ever find that it was a complete joy to disappear into these characters when you were in the throes of parenthood?
RA: I have always been suspicious of writers who are like, "I love writing," because I think it sucks. I mean, there are certainly moments when I'm working, and everything is alive, and it's working the way I want it to, and the words are coming out, and you can see the page count growing, and you're like, "OK, I'm getting somewhere." But the feeling is so fleeting. And then the next day you're like, "Oh, it's all garbage" -- twenty pages of garbage.
MJ: So in other words, it was an escape from the drudgery.
RA: It was like a fugue state. It was like a trance state. I was very tired. I had kids. I wrote the book at night. I was always very tired when I was working on it. But I think in some ways, like . . . Yes, it was devoid of joy, but it was an escape, yes.
MJ: Interesting. You say that they are still with you. Did you ever think that you weren't going to get it done?
RA: Oh yeah, all the time.
MJ: It sounds like it. It sounds like you were anxious about it.
MJ: Was there ever a specific point like, This is it; this is not going to happen.
RA: Yes. The book centers on Sarah getting married, and when I finally got to the point where she was going to get married, I was like, "Fuck, I can't do this." I don't want her to get married, I don't care about romance. But there's another part of, the joke -- it's not a joke, again, but like the mechanism of the book is a mechanism that is really familiar. Right? Somebody getting married. But it was not one in which I was deeply invested. It was just that, like, that's what they were doing. It was putting them through their paces.
MJ: It was the propulsion.
MJ: So when you got to the payoff point . . .
RA: Exactly. So the wedding, barely exists in the finished book, because I thought, I can't do it. I couldn't figure out how to talk about how a woman looks in a wedding dress, or how Sarah would have looked in her wedding . . .
MJ: You could figure out how to talk about how a woman looks. I totally don't buy that.
RA: I just think . . . Who knows?
MJ: I know that this is years and years in the making, and many things have happened that your friends and family who are here today will know. Can you tell me, just for the joy of all of us, what have been the most gratifying things so far about this book?
RA: That is such a good question. Every milestone on this particular journey or whatever has been so gratifying. Like, I sent the book out . . . I'm so superstitious and stupid. I sent the book out to agents on our wedding anniversary . . . no, on David's birthday. I thought, I'll send it out on October 5th. Then I was convinced, I'm never going to get an agent; no agent is going to want anything to do with me. And then I got the best agent that I could want. Then I thought, Oh, this is amazing; now I have like the world's best agent -- but even she can't sell this book." Then she gave me all these, like, horrible edits to the book that I had to like go and do, and then it went out and I was like, No one is going to want to buy this book. And then my agent told me, "You have a phone call tomorrow with this editor." I said, "Really?" Then I talked to her and she said, "I really liked your book." So every part of that thing was so crazy and gratifying in its own way. So hopefully, there will be more.
--July 4, 2016