Books In Conversation
BOOKS ARE NOT CHILDREN
RUMAAN ALAM with Catherine LaSota
Rich and Pretty, the début novel by Rumaan Alam, has received much well-deserved acclaim. On the surface, one might categorize the book as another breezy summer release about two young women and their trials in New York City, but a reader doesn’t need to get very far into the text to understand why Lincee Ray of the Washington Post, for one, has proclaimed that Alam “transforms a whimsical beach read into compelling literary prose.”
In Rich and Pretty, Sarah and Lauren, two women from very different socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds, have been best friends since the age of eleven. The novel brings us into their lives in their early thirties, a time when big changes start happening for many women (marriage, children, career advancement, etc.). Sarah comes from an established, powerful, and wealthy New York family, while Lauren has moved away from her family to build her own life in the big city.
Alam deftly explores the nuances of a long, specifically female friendship, and many have noted that they are impressed by this feat in part because Alam’s life looks so different from the lives of the characters he’s created. As Alam describes himself, he is a brown gay man, married to a white man, with two black sons, and he’s written a book about two women.
I met with him on a warm and sunny spring day, about a week before the release of Rich and Pretty. As we strolled down Dekalb Avenue in search of a café, we realized that we were both former residents of the neighborhood. We dove into a conversation about parenting, writing about what you don’t know, and how the work of a writer gets done.
Catherine LaSota (Rail): You lived here in Fort Greene from 1995 – 2004? I’m trying to remember the years I was here, but I’m having a hard time. Are you always able to attach events to years?
Rumaan Alam: No. It’s a condition of getting older.
Rail: I know, I can’t even remember the year I got married. I have to count back in time.
Alam: I actually recently discovered I was wrong about when we got married. I always told this story about how I got married when I was thirty or twenty-nine, but actually that was a lie. I got married when I was thirty-one. I was totally convinced I was so young when I got married, I was twenty-nine! Actually, I wasn’t.
Rail: Isn’t it interesting the narratives we make for ourselves?
Alam: Exactly. When I meet someone in their twenties, I think, “You’re too young to get married.” But what do I know?
Rail: Well, you have the women in your book wait until their thirties to do things like get married.
Alam: That’s true. But that seems so common now. I’m genuinely shocked when people in their twenties get married.
Rail: It’s making me think of your book and these two characters, these best friends, who grew up together from a very young age—
Alam: —for a long time, from age eleven.
Rail: Do you have any friends you’ve had for that long?
Alam: No. I think that tends to be an experience that women have more than men. I think that women relate to each other much more than men. They bond more closely with one other than men may be allowed to. But I also shouldn’t generalize, because I’m really just talking about myself.
Rail: It’s interesting that you observe this difference in men’s and women’s friendships. I’ve read several of your essays about being a man who writes fiction about women (though men have been doing that for a long, long time, and vice versa), and I’m curious if you would say there are things that are actually fundamentally different between women and men.
Alam: Beyond biology? That’s such dangerous territory, a dangerous pronouncement—because who am I to say? The biology was the hardest thing to think through as I was writing. In the end, everyone is a person—so you can imagine your way into the psychology—but imagining your way into the biology, the physical aspects of childbirth and breastfeeding, or sex, that was more demanding.
Rail: How did you approach those aspects of the writing? Did you talk to women about their physical experiences?
Alam: I didn’t really talk to people: at the end of the day, all you have to do is lie. [Writing is] a way of artfully lying. You can talk around the thing you can’t talk about. When I’m trying to talk about Sarah and how she feels about her body, I talk about her apartment and how there’s a mirror facing the shower. I can understand the mirror facing the shower, and that became a way to talk about [her relationship to her body]. Certainly men and women alike have a complicated relationship to their body. So it was just a matter of arranging the lie in such a way that I could cover what I understood and gloss over what I didn’t understand.
Rail: Being pregnant myself, I was surprised by all of the things that are happening to my body that I had no idea about.
Alam: The sheer physical reality of pregnancy is so hardcore. I think the reason that people don’t talk about it so much is that it would freak people out.
Rail: You think people wouldn’t procreate?
Alam: I do. You know it’s coming, it’s very natural. Your body’s non-intellectual part knows what to do, but understanding that intellectually? What’s going to happen? My hips are what? My bones are going to pull apart from each other to accommodate the passage of a person through my body? That’s insane.
Rail: Did you always want children yourself?
Alam: I did. I’ve always been one of those baby people. I’m really good with babies. I’ve always really liked kids, and I’ve always wanted to have kids, and then I had kids, and it was weirdly much simpler than it seems it should’ve been.
Rail: But what can you anticipate, really, when it comes to kids?
Alam: I mean more in terms of the logistics, like how is a gay couple going to have a child? In the end, we had our first son about a year after we got married. We had this very postwar experience of life, where we got married, and then a year later we had the baby. It all sort of fell into line the way I wanted it to, which is weird but amazing.
Rail: You mentioned to me that you had written three other novels before this one.
Alam: Yeah, it’s sad to think about, [but] I think that’s an important part of the work, to do something that doesn’t thrive or doesn’t make it. It doesn’t mean that it wasn’t worth doing or that it wasn’t helpful.
Rail: Did those previous novels have any similarities to Rich and Pretty?
Alam: No, they were very different, actually. The first one was probably the most similar, in that there was a class dynamic, but there was a romance at its heart, and I couldn’t get it to work. I was too young when I was writing it. I was an undergraduate when I started it, and I kept plugging along at it. It’s like having a bad boyfriend. I tried to make that thing work for so long.
Rail: So what made you say you were finally done with that one and move on?
Alam: I don’t remember there being any definitive thing beyond the sense that it wasn’t going anywhere. It’s funny, because I actually think of it as being done. When I think about it now, I think about a full book, but that doesn’t even exist, and I’m glad it doesn’t.
Rail: But you’re done with it. So maybe it’s done.
Alam: Yeah, maybe that’s what it is. And again, I think it served me well. I bet you, someday, when we move out of our house, I’ll get drunk, and I’ll read that manuscript, and I’ll see a relationship between that manuscript and this book. I just can’t see it right now.
Rail: Have you written other forms of fiction besides novels, any short stories?
Alam: I did. I wrote [short stories] for a long time. When I graduated college I had this sense, correctly or incorrectly, that this was how you did it, that the short story was the apprentice form and the novel was the master form. That’s a mistake, and I realize that now, but I did think that way. I thought the brevity of the short story form meant it was easier, but I was mistaken. It is shorter by its nature, but it’s not simpler by its nature. Short stories required a lot of me. When we had our first son, I wrote a lot of short stories, because I thought, oh, I can manage this, because it’s a sprint instead of a marathon. But it’s still hard, and you have to go through draft after draft after draft. I really love that form, but I knew I wanted to write a novel.
Rail: Are there certain short story writers you admire?
Alam: Oh, gosh, the funny thing is when I think of my favorite writers, I probably think more of short story writers than of novel writers. Lorrie Moore is an excellent novelist, but a much better short story writer. She’s so good. So many of the writers I like are short story writers: Alice Munro, John Cheever, whose short stories are so much better than his novels.
Rail: What does a novel mean to you?
Alam: I don’t know. In one very simple way, [they are] commercial in a way that short stories are not. There are some rare exceptions, but very few people get an advance they can live on for a collection of stories they’ve spent the last nine years submitting to small magazines. And I’m never sure if [my stories] cohered into a collection.
Rail: But you’ve also said to me that you may re-read your abandoned novel one day and see a connection to your current work you didn’t see before.
Alam: I may. And you can’t judge your own work in that way.
Rail: Was that a hard thing to learn, that you can’t be the judge of your own work? Were you ever writing while also trying to figure out where you fit into the greater literary scheme of things?
Alam: No, I don’t think you can do that. First of all, it’s not up to you, so it’s pointless trying to think through it that way. I’ve had other readers tell me things about my work that surprised me, and I think that’s as it should be.
Rail: What brought you to the Rich and Pretty story? How did that start?
Alam: It’s not like there’s some story I was yearning to tell—it just occurred to me at one point. It was 2009, which I know because I found it in the notebook I kept when I was in Berlin. I can remember the specifics fairly well, because we were gearing up to have a baby. It was in June, and I was trying to think of all the ambitions I had for my life that I wanted to line up before we had the baby. You can probably relate.
Alam: For sure, when you’re going to have a baby, it’s a big change in your life. I wanted it very badly, but I was mindful of the fact that my life was going to change, and there were things I wanted, unfinished business, and I had this idea about the end of a friendship. I settled on the title very early, in 2009, and I had originally conceived of it as a screenplay. I just saw it as very cinematic. I think you can see some legacy of that in the way the book functions now, in the way it just kind of opens, and it relies on dialogue a lot to move it forward, and it skips forward in time. It’s kind of abrupt as you get to the end. I just saw it as a screenplay, I don’t know why. But then I thought, I don’t know how to write a screenplay. What, am I joking? I should write a novel.
Rail: So you had this idea of these two women, and you wanted to explore their friendship.
Alam: I initially conceived of it as the story of the end of a friendship, which is quite wrong actually, and it wasn’t until I was writing the book that I realized that that was not what was going to happen at all. But I had the women, I had one of their names, I had the sort of milieu, I knew that I wanted them to be of these different class backgrounds.
Rail: I find it interesting that right before you were about to have a baby, you were thinking of writing about the end of something, the end of a friendship.
Alam: I think it’s just that life has those certain passages, like friendships ending. But just because a friendship ends, I don’t think it means it was meaningless. It’s no reflection on your life or your friend’s life. It’s a thing that happens. And sometimes it happens when you have a baby; sometimes it happens when you get married, or when your friend gets a divorce. That’s a lot of what the book is about: the way that individuals handle the big changes that are constants in everyone’s life, and which can cause this kind of friction.
Rail: Well, in the same way that you can say that just because a friendship ends doesn’t mean it wasn’t important, you can also say that just because you put a book to bed doesn’t mean it wasn’t important to write it. Even if it never sees the light of day, it doesn’t mean that a book was not important to write.
Alam: Absolutely. I think we often confuse publishing with writing, and they’re two different endeavors.
Rail: So how does it feel now that your debut novel is about to be published?
Alam: Very weird. [Laughter.] I’ve always been a writer. I’ve always called myself a writer.
Rail: That’s great, because you often hear of people hesitating to call themselves writers unless they’ve received some kind of perceived legitimacy via publishing, and sometimes not even then.
Alam: For sure. Actually, for me, no one had asked me if I was a writer, so I was just saying it to myself. I worked professionally as a writer, which helped. I worked for magazines. I wrote as a trade, but, in the end, I was writing those short stories. Some magazine with a circulation of 250 would publish a story of mine, and that was highly gratifying. Whenever I sold a story—I think I sold nine—it was the greatest day of that year. I mean, it’s volunteers and graduate students, and young professors who do it because they have to get tenure. I empathize with that. It’s a service that they’re doing for writers and for readers, and they are the true believers, because they might find something that they like. I was always in the slush—I was never invited to submit anything. And I was that thing they found a handful of times.
Rail: Did you go to graduate school?
Alam: I didn’t go to graduate school. It’s a real shame, thanks for bringing that up. [Laughter]
Rail: Why is that a shame?
Alam: I’ve always felt so embarrassed about it.
Alam: It just seems so much like the making of a writer. I don’t know if you can really learn writing that way, but it seems like such a part of how writers become writers in this day and age, and I’ve always felt sort of, like, oh, I didn’t do it. I think writers go to graduate school, and they learn from these excellent teachers. They’re in these tight peer groups that they carry forward, and I didn’t have that. I mean, I did know writers from my undergraduate days, a lot of whom have gone on to have careers…
Rail: …and get their MFAs?
Alam: A lot of them did. Emma Straub got her MFA, and Edan Lepucki got her MFA. many of the writers I knew as an undergrad did, but I never did, and I don’t really know why, to be honest.
Rail: Do you have any opinion on the whole NYC vs MFA debate?
Alam: No, everybody does it their own way. You can’t make prescriptions about it.
Rail: Exactly! So why feel bad about not getting an MFA?
Alam: It’s because I’m such a believer in education and credentials, and I respect those people who put the time in and did the hard reading. I tried to read a lot, and to stay writing, and to keep focused.
Rail: It sounds like you do have a community of writers you are a part of, even without an MFA.
Alam: I think I do now. One of the nice things about publishing, as opposed to writing, is that it is very collegial. I’ve met a lot of really nice writers. I think debut novelists in particular form themselves into coalitions. It always seemed to me—and this is going to seem childish—that it would be really competitive, but it’s not.
Rail: I love hearing that you have found writers to be a collegial group. As a side note, I have a background in music and art in addition to writing, and I’ve always found the writing community to be the most supportive of those three creative communities. I think this might be because writers generally need to spend so much time alone?
Alam: I think that’s a huge part of it. I think the community is a lifeline, because doing the work requires you to be home alone with yourself, or with your kids. Look, I’m sure there are plenty of writers who are assholes, but my experience has been really charmed and really friendly, and I want to hold firm to that, because it’s genuinely not how I thought it would be. It’s been refreshingly human.
Rail: You seem to have a good attitude and a realistic approach to things like awards and submitting to literary magazines, a realization that just because you received an award or were accepted to a magazine, it’s not the thing that is deeming you a worthy person.
Rail: But perhaps there is also less competition among writers because, if you are truly writing your best work, you are writing something that no one else can write. We are all working on different things, so that eliminates competition. No one’s going to write the same thing that you can, right?
Alam: Well, the flip side of that is that everybody kind of writes the same thing.
Rail: How so?
Alam: My book is not dissimilar from so many other books, to the point that I didn’t read anything when I was writing it, because I was so afraid—
Rail: Wait, how long were you writing this book and not reading?
Alam: For like a year. One of the most horrible aspects of writing this book was not reading for so long.
Rail: But you made the decision not to read.
Alam: I was just so paranoid about reading anything. It felt like such a fraught enterprise. I was so scared of, say, reading Elena Ferrante and then accidentally doing that. So I just avoided reading altogether. I think that everybody is kind of working in the same kind of limits, except for the true odd genius who does things so different and so fresh, so I think it’s good to have an understanding of what you’re doing, that you’re not really reinventing the wheel, so to speak. But that’s okay. That’s not the mandate.
Rail: Why do you write?
Alam: That’s a good question, don’t you think? If you don’t, then what happens? What happens to you as a person? I didn’t [write] for a time, and I could feel myself getting thorny and feeling more unhappy, especially when the kids were small. I could feel myself getting lost, not doing what I wanted to be doing. I wonder if you’ll have this experience—I felt like it was brought into relief by having kids, and realizing suddenly I owed more of my life and energy to them, and I still had to pay the rent, and I still had to work, and I’m still married, and that entails its own responsibilities. The realization that I was being pulled in these directions actually helped me; it helped me cut out the fat of what I didn’t want to be doing, and focus, and do what I wanted to do.
Rail: I’ve heard over and over that having children is not a limitation. It’s a focusing of the time you have.
Alam: I think so. It makes me a better parent, because then I’m not unhappy, and that’s important.
Rail: Let’s talk about how you managed to write a novel in a year while raising two young boys.
Alam: I wrote it at night. Absolutely awful, but I knew it was the only way. I would do it after the kids went to bed. I had usually either made dinner or made the school lunches for the next day, or done something to prepare to give myself a little bit more of a window. My husband was in on it and helped me, picked up more slack than normal, and so the kids would go to bed, and I would start working at seven or seven-thirty, so I didn’t eat dinner with my kids. This was for a five-month period. I would sit down at my desk and put on headphones, and [my husband] was not allowed to talk to me, and I would just work, until 2:30am usually, but sometimes 3am or even 4:30 in the morning.
Rail: At this time that you were writing a novel about friendship, did you have any time for friends yourself?
Alam: No! Certainly not. I entered this weird psychosis state, where nothing was real to me except the people of this book, and the immediate needs of the people in my home. I didn’t do anything. I barely talked to anybody. I didn’t read anything. We barely went out at all.
Rail: So you were in this state of psychosis, but it seems like you had some really solid, clearly formed ideas about these two women, Sarah and Lauren. Was there anything that surprised you greatly in the writing of the book?
Alam: Yes. I started with a very strong understanding of who they were, but I found I exercised very little control over where they went. Once I started writing the book, it was really a matter of the voices, or the voice.
Rail: I was really taken with the fact that you wrote the book in the present tense.
Alam: That was the hardest thing to do by far!
Rail: Really? Why?
Alam: I started writing it in the present tense to give it this sense of propulsion, which I think it does, but I found it extraordinarily difficult to do. Once I internalized it and I found it coming out of me in present tense, I was then unable to write anything, in any mode other than the present tense, and it’s only recently that I’ve shaken that off altogether. [Laughter.]
Rail: You’re traumatized!
Alam: I’m a little traumatized. I’m writing a book now that is not in the present tense, and in the early drafts I kept lapsing back into it. It just became part of the mode of how I wrote.
Rail: You’re telling a story when you’re using past tense.
Alam: It’s telling a story. It’s akin to reading books to your kids. The past tense seems to give a story some kind of authority, The present tense is a little more voyeuristic, and it was just a technical challenge. Because the book has so much to do with memory, there were all these complicated subjunctive tenses that it goes into, and it’s hard to get the grammar right.
Rail: I think that was really well done because that is more like how thought and time works. We slip into memory in the context of a present thing happening—I think it’s much more how life works. We don’t think through our lives in a linear fashion.
Alam: I think that’s probably how I wanted you to feel. It also felt more contemporary somehow to write it in the present tense. It gave this feeling of, it’s unfolding right now, it could be happening somewhere right now around us.
Rail: It’s clear this book is set in New York. I recognize several things here that you don’t necessarily name but make reference to, like Pat Kiernan reading the newspaper headlines on NY1, but then there are some things you do identify with a proper name, like particular delis. What was your decision process like in deciding what to name and what not to name?
Alam: That’s a tough one, because I didn’t want it to feel not inclusive. If I talk about Pat Kiernan a little bit, then it’s like I’m making a joke for you, but not for a reader who lives in Arizona, and I don’t want a reader who lives in Arizona to feel like, “Oh, this book is not for me because I don’t get the joke.” It’s a tough balance because I wanted it to feel of a real place without getting too wedded to the nuances of that place.
Rail: Let’s talk about the title, Rich and Pretty.
Alam: The title is, by design, very reductive. I love the title so much. As I told you, that was one of the first things I settled on. But my only fear about the title is that a reader would not be wrong to be skeptical about a book that treated its protagonists in this reductive fashion, right? That a woman who picked this book up would think, I don’t want to read a book that some dude wrote where he’s saying this is a story about two women, one of whom is rich and one of whom is pretty.
Alam: It’s reductive by design; the book is about, in many ways, the ways in which society is a reductive force when it comes to women. It takes these two hopefully complicated people, and turns them into these two things.
Rail: You were looking at the reduction of women to certain labels. Why women?
Alam: I wish I had a good answer to that question. On the one hand, writing really far from who you are gives you a lot of freedom. I think many writers do the inverse: they write really close to themselves—and are able to spin the stuff of their lives into really interesting fiction. I never felt that was something I was interested in, and maybe that’s because the stuff of my life is so specific, that I couldn’t see how to turn my demographic specificity as a brown gay person with children into a novel that had more open access. But I found writing about something that has nothing to do with me really liberating.
Rail: Does it really have nothing to do with you?
Alam: Well, it doesn’t have nothing to do with me. I have spent most of my life with women—as a kid, as a college student, and then as a professional. I worked in fashion magazines, I worked in advertising. My bosses were always women, my colleagues were always women, my clients were always women. In that sense it does have something to do with my experience. I did some prep.
Rail: And now you live in a house full of men!
Alam: People, even my friends, want me to say, oh, this is a book about my friend X and my friend Y, and it’s not. I don’t know if it would be more satisfying if it were.
Rail: Isn’t that similar to the question people ask about fiction: “Is this book about you, are you this fictional character?”
Alam: Right. In some ways, I get to avoid that question, because it’s so clearly not about me. Many writers toy with that line, and they do it in a really interesting way, but I get to sidestep the whole thing. People think it’s about my friends, and they ask whom it’s about, but no one thinks it’s about me.
Rail: People sometimes want to find themselves in a book, too.
Alam: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t know where that comes from. There’s a mania to see yourself ratified in art that I do not totally understand.
Rail: Even if it’s a non-flattering picture sometimes. I’ve talked to people who, say, worry that their mom is going to recognize herself in this unflattering character they’ve written, and then she does, and she thinks it’s great, because she saw herself in a book!
Alam: I think that that is such a weird privilege, actually. I think readers who are brown and black would be so puzzled by that desire to see yourself reflected so explicitly, because in the body of American literature, we are reflected so rarely. Obviously, you still see yourself—that’s a part of the psychological experience of reading—but I think that difference [has] given me a different feeling about books, I think, than other people, and I realize this as I talk to people. When you hear about their favorite books and how personal it is to them, it’s because those books seem to have something to do with their lives. When I think of my favorite books, they are not books that really have anything to do with my life.
Rail: Do you think that has something to do with depictions of brown people in literature?
Alam: I do, kind of.
Rail: That the depictions aren’t good, or aren’t accurate? Or stereotyped?
Alam: It’s just that there’s no universality. The idea of the universal is such a myth. My favorite book is Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and I’m sure there are aspects of The Magic Mountain that appeal to me as a human being—it somehow reflects something about how I think of myself as being—but I don’t think it’s a book that I see myself in.
Rail: On the flipside, there is so much literature that features white men, and I can only pretend what it feels like to be a man.
Rail: My husband and I don’t share a last name. We’re talking about giving our child my last name, but, as the due date approaches, my husband has expressed some unexpected reservations about this. We’ve talked it through, but he admitted to acknowledging that he has some resistance to this small crumbling of the patriarchy, even though he is one of the most progressive men I know!
Alam: I think having a kid is one of those things that bring these philosophical issues home in a very concrete way. It gives you a chance to figure out if you are the person in practice that you think of yourself being intellectually. You may feel like, I’m the kind of parent who is going to teach my children the proper names for their genitals, for example, or the reality of death. Then you have the baby, and, suddenly, it’s, “Do I still feel this way? Do I still feel like saying, ‘That’s your penis’? Do I still feel like saying, ‘All people die’”? You know, my kids are very aware of Donald Trump, for example—
Rail: I’m sorry.
Alam: —which is kind of remarkable, actually. They picked it up on the playground somehow. My older son says to me, “Donald Trump hates black people,” and now I have to determine the kind of person I am, and how I answer this question. It’s just a weird feeling to go from it all being a hypothetical in your mind to being something you have to practice as a parent.
Rail: That sounds like an amazing and helpful experience for a writer to go through.
Alam: I think so. I think it goes back to why having a kid is sort of a useful thing. You don’t have to have a kid to be an evolved human, obviously, but it does force your hand a little bit, or at least for me it did.
Rail: —to make you aware of your own assumptions?
Alam: The things that I say I believe, yeah.
Rail: Speaking of being aware of your own true nature, in Rich and Pretty, Lauren and Sarah seem to know each other very well, or sometimes they assume they know each other very well, and they actually don’t. In any case, Lauren makes a comment at one point about how she and Sarah could sit and just talk about nothing, and isn’t that all people really want?
Alam: There are only a few people in your life you can really sit and talk about nothing with. The idea of talking about nothing or sitting and doing nothing is something that I noticed comes up more than once in the book. It comes up when they are away on vacation, then, later in the book, Lauren talks about wanting to do nothing and think about nothing, and she takes a walk and goes to the movies. She just wants to exist in some negative place. I can really identify with that, wanting to turn my brain off and turn my consciousness off and zone out.
Rail: It’s interesting that Lauren thinks this is something that everyone wants, to talk about nothing. Perhaps Sarah does need to think about nothing sometimes, but she is also very different from Lauren. There is a lot of planning in Sarah’s life, and she is very concerned about planning things correctly, and doing things correctly.
Alam: Yeah, poor thing. I feel for her, I do.
Rail: Sarah is also a character who comes from a situation where a lot is predefined in the world for her, and what she’s supposed to do. Lauren is a character who is pretty, who is supposed to exist in a certain way because she’s pretty, but there’s a specific society set up around the “rich” character, Sarah, which dictates her life to an extent. Lauren is much more disconnected from her family than Sarah is, in many ways, and seems to have a more independent mind than Sarah. Lauren is able to choose what she wants to do more than Sarah is.
Alam: I think that both of their lives and their access to choices are circumscribed by being the kinds of people they are. So being a middle-class person, as Lauren is, means that she doesn’t have access to the kind of liberty that Sarah has. But on the flipside, being an upper-class person, as Sarah is, means that she doesn’t have access to the kind of experimenting, maybe, that Lauren has. These two women feel they have to be a certain way, and I hope there are moments in the book where you see them slip into autopilot. There’s a moment in the book where Lauren talks about being conscious of being looked at, and how she’s conscious of how people look at her, and there are parts where Sarah talks about planning and being conscious of that what she brings to the table. Both of those statements make me feel really sad, but it’s just who they are.
Rail: Why do those statements make you sad?
Alam: Because I think they want better for themselves, and I want better for them. When Lauren talks about her consciousness of how she looks—about her awareness of how her hair looks, how her body looks—to me, there is something sad about it, because it discounts what is so interesting about her. She’s so funny, and so sharp, and she has a lot of humor to her. There are other things I love about her that I think maybe deep down she doesn’t necessarily see in herself.
Rail: I think Sarah sees those qualities in her.
Alam: Yes, I think you’re right.
Rail: And, at the same time, Sarah also sees Lauren as a pretty person, and acknowledges that this is part of her attraction to her.
Alam: I think they see each other. Lauren, on some level, has to see the part of Sarah that is fun and appealing, and beyond the to-do lists and the kind of weirdness there is about her, otherwise why would their friendship have lasted so long? There’s a real affection that exists between them. They see each other in a way that I’m not sure their romantic partners even see in them.
Rail: That special female friendship! You have two people who, on paper—or maybe even in reality—are very different people. But, often, only people who are very different from you can see those certain parts of you that are in contrast to themselves.
Alam: I think there is that undercurrent of affection among humans. You can respond to people who are very similar to you, and with whom you share tastes and all these other sorts of characteristics, but you can also respond to someone whom you wish you were like, someone who’s very different from you. That’s how I was when I was a kid. The kids I wanted to be friends with were so different from me, and so much cooler than me. It’s almost like this covetous impulse.
Rail: Do you still feel very connected to Lauren and Sarah?
Alam: No, much less so now.
Rail: When did you finish writing the book?
Alam: I turned the book in in September of last year, and I had finished it really the previous spring. So at this point I feel pretty disconnected from it, which is a weird feeling, because for so long I felt so intimate with it, to the point where I felt myself thinking about them all the time.
Rail: Can you tell me anything about what you’re writing now?
Alam: I’m writing a book now about a woman who is older, and it’s about motherhood. And it’s also set in the past a little bit, in the late ’80s through the mid ’90s, and so I find myself thinking about all these things like historical figures, historical details—recent historical figures, but still, history.
Rail: You mentioned that you avoided reading while writing Rich and Pretty, so as to avoid being unduly influenced. Now that you’re writing your next book, are you not reading again?
Alam: I decided to read this time around, because I couldn’t not. I talked about writing as a compulsion, but reading is really a compulsion. I was unsettled before in part because I was writing a book, but in part because I wasn’t reading. I’m trying to read things that feel really different than the work I’m writing. I’ve settled into the voice of the work pretty well, so I’m less frightened about that. I was so scared the first time, because I was writing a book and I wanted to get it to the finish line. Now that I’ve been to the finish line, I feel somewhat less terrified.
Rail: That’s nice to hear—that the process of writing books is a cumulative experience that builds some confidence—because it’s also a new project you’re working on. You hear so many writers say that just because you wrote one book doesn’t mean you automatically know how to write the next.
Alam: Exactly. But it is like having a second kid. When we had our second kid, I knew how not to kill an infant. It was the very lowest possible bar for achievement: I kept an infant alive. I can do it again. Although, the kids are extremely different. Like you said, all books are different. Hopefully I’ll keep this one alive.
Rail: I have to admit, it drives me nuts sometimes when I hear artists referring to their projects as their babies. Do you talk about your books that way?
Alam: No, because my children are my passion, and I love them and I’m obsessed with them, but they exist independently of me. A book is really an exercise of ego. You are in control of every aspect of that book, even if you feel like you’re on autopilot. You made that. As you will discover when you have this baby, he comes out of your body, but he is his own person on day one, and you can’t exert that level of control on your child, you just can’t. So, no, I don’t think of a book as a baby.
Rail: So writing is a way to exert control?
Alam: It’s a different enterprise.
Rail: And is it something you’ve always wanted to do?
Alam: Oh, yeah, since I was a baby. That’s another weird thing about seeing my kids and seeing what they’re passionate about. You see that a lot of this is really fixed in you from a very young age. You hear people say, oh, I was never a writer until I was in my forties, and that is a mystery to me. How does that happen? But it does happen. One of my favorite writers, Norman Rush, didn’t publish his first book until he was fifty-three. Having this long, interesting, rich life, and then becoming a writer and having a whole second act as a writer, it’s amazing.