I’ve been waiting for Rumaan Alam’s first novel since 1999. That year, I was a freshman at Oberlin College, and Alam was a senior who existed in a rarefied upperclassman orbit that I could only glimpse from a distance. He worked at The Feve, the town’s cool restaurant (and, at the time, its only real bar), he hung out with creative writing professor Dan Chaon (in my mind they are smoking cigarettes together, like, Hey, we’re real writers, scram, you runt), and he gave a senior reading at Fairchild Chapel, which is all stone walls and stained glass windows, ascetic and elegant. I don’t remember the specifics of what Alam read that evening — there was something about a painting, and rich people, maybe? — but I remember being enthralled by both the subject matter and the prose, which was graceful and authoritative. It seemed too good to have been written by a college student. I had this feeling that Alam would be a famous writer. I imagine this is what agents and editors experience when they read something they love: a buzz in the body, a hunch that you have found greatness.
I had to wait a few years, but my hunch has turned out to be correct: Rumaan Alam’s first novel, Rich and Pretty, is being published by Ecco Press, and many people already love it. Including me. Set in New York City, Rich and Pretty is about two women, Lauren and Sarah, who have been friends since their adolescence. The novel follows them through their 30s and asks essential questions about what keeps us connected to the friends we made in our youth, before romantic relationships (or lack thereof), ambition (or lack thereof), and competing worldviews got in the way. These are two quite different women, and Alam depicts them with such effortless wit that you almost don’t notice how poignant the story is. The passage of time is brutal and beautiful, and like the best narratives, Alam’s captures that movement perfectly. We aren’t who we used to be — and yet we are.
I had the pleasure of emailing with Alam about his book. What follows is our conversation.
The Millions: Early readers of Rich and Pretty have remarked how well you, a MAN (gasp!), capture these two female characters and their long-term friendship. I concur; the accuracy here is one of the novel’s great pleasures. Here is a terrific example: “At a certain point in her youth, back when it wasn’t inconceivable as it is now that she’d be out late, Lauren had decided that if it was after 11:30 she would, by default, take a taxi. She couldn’t afford a taxi, but neither could she afford to be raped or vomited on on the subway.” One, I love the sad-horror joke of not being able to “afford to be raped,” the nonchalant, inconvenienced language set against the gruesomeness and violence of the literal action. Two, you gracefully weave the everyday negotiation of being a woman, in a woman’s body, into the narrative, and in this way the reader’s understanding of the character deepens. That’s what feels true. Can you talk a little bit about inhabiting these women’s minds and bodies? Did it come naturally?
Rumaan Alam: Let me begin by saying this is my absolute favorite feedback to hear from readers who are also women; that I have successfully captured an experience that’s theirs but not mine. The line you isolate is, now that I look at it in this context, a rape joke. The least funny subject, addressed with humor. To me, this just sounds like something a certain kind of woman would think to herself or say to a friend she trusted. It sounds like something you would say, Edan. I don’t remember what I was thinking when I wrote this line; I don’t remember what I was thinking when I wrote most of the book. It’s told in this very close third person that shifts between Sarah and Lauren; the authorial voice is much less me than it is the two protagonists. I would just…go into a weird trance state and write. I do know this: I found it easier to inhabit Lauren than Sarah. This is odd and unexpected. The book as baby metaphor never works for me (babies can’t be controlled; books can be) but these two are like my kids. I couldn’t choose a favorite but I can’t deny a kinship. Lauren’s particular self-awareness, her defensive reliance on humor, her pessimism (she’d say realism) are familiar to me. The irony here, without getting into any spoiler alerts, is that my life aligns more closely with the life that Sarah makes for herself. Minus the millions of dollars, alas.
TM: I like to write about a place I know well — Los Angeles — but with totally made-up scenarios and people and premises. My life is boring, fiction should not be. Do you come from that same school of thought? Can you talk about why you didn’t write a more autobiographical first novel? Do people ask you this more than they might ask it of another writer because you’re a gay person of color — as in, why are you not writing about “your people,” sir?!
RA: I didn’t know this was a school of thought, but my life is boring too. But I do have a philosophical answer about writing an autobiographical novel. When you are brown, as I am, there is a convention for how that autobiography is meant to work. There is a template. It is the literature of the immigrant, the literature of the first generation immigrant in my case. I simply could not see myself writing that book, bringing anything to that literature. You could say that my refusal to do so is a profound failure of the imagination; you could say that my refusal to do so is an act of rebellion. Naturally, I prefer the latter, but I realize that’s a little self-serving. I do at least have an Indian character in the mix in this book! She’s very much a supporting player, but she’s there. And gayness is a subject I think I avoid altogether in the book? To live this way — as gay, as brown — is neither gift nor curse; it’s simply fact. To have to write this way, though, strikes me as something of a curse. Representation is a terrible burden. Black and brown artists are constantly asked to stand for all black or brown people. White artists simply get to create.
TM: Another element I loved in this novel was its contemporary gaze. You are so good at writing about the delights and frivolities of our current world, and your gaze is sharp as a knife. For instance, at one point, Sarah, who is engaged to be married, glances at a pile of wedding magazines whose pages she’s dog-eared “for reasons she can’t recall. It just felt like what she should be doing — folding down pages and mentally filing away: mason jars for cocktails, Polaroid cameras left with the centerpieces, a basket of flip flops by the dance floor.” These are three perfect details for a just-so, cool wedding circa 2016. Can we credit your magazine writing experience for this sharp-eyed cultural perspective? For me, the best writing is detailed and specific. What is your writing process like, for coming up with these delicious, specific lists?
RA: Process is such a weird, opaque thing. By the end of the long haul of writing and revising, I just knew these women. They were as real to me as anyone in my life; crazily, and eerily, they no longer are. But I used to think about them all the time, I used to think as them, I used to speak their dialogue aloud. It was a very odd thing. During the revision process, I borrowed a friend’s Manhattan pied-à-terre (I’ve always wanted to say that) and I went out one afternoon to Whole Foods and considered buying the expensive cut-up pineapple and I felt as though I had been…possessed. I was Sarah? I never, ever buy cut fruit in grocery stores. It’s a ridiculous waste of money! An entire pineapple is cheaper than a little plastic container of pineapple. Anyway. It’s not spiritual or anything. It’s more like psychosis, frankly. Somehow it was just clear to me that Sarah was the sort of woman who would plan a wedding in this manner, and that she would find the notion of a basket of flip flops by the dance floor alluring.
TM: I asked Dana Spiotta this question when I interviewed her for Innocents and Others, which is also about a friendship between two women who meet when they’re younger: Why do you think there’s been this surge of narratives about women friendships in the last few years, from the beloved “Galentine’s Day” episode of Parks and Recreation, to Ferrante fever, to The Girls of Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe, to HBO’s Girls? Do you have a sense of why we’re so hungry for these stories? Were there any friendship narratives that inspired Lauren and Sarah’s?
RA: I like to tell myself that this work was accidentally zeitgeisty. I started it in 2009, and I very much live in a weird cultural vacuum. Like, I am still not totally clear on who Taylor Swift is. But to be sure I was aware of these things in the culture, and honestly, I assiduously avoided them. I had never seen Girls until HBO finally unveiled that cheaper version of HBO for cheapskates like me. I absolutely love it, but am sure as hell glad I didn’t have it in my brain when I was writing this book (though obviously it’s quite different). I’d counter that narratives of intimacy between women have always been very common; it’s a theme in much of Alice Munro, it’s in Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?.(I have such empathy for the undergraduate writing teachers of the late-1990s whose students had all mainlined Lorrie Moore, as I did.) Many of my favorite works — Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Louise Fitzhugh’s The Long Secret — are concerned with this particular question of the bond between women. I don’t know the Bible at all, but don’t Ruth and Naomi meet this criteria? When you write about friends, you can take the sex out of the equation, even if there is some lingering eroticism, which is nice. And with friends there’s volition; it’s different than writing about family, where the bond is a question of context, and more of a given. I have no great answer. Here’s a funny story: a long time ago I was at dinner with my husband and there were two men seated near us. Somehow by context we knew they weren’t lovers, or brothers, or colleagues. And my husband said, “I just don’t understand why one man would be friends with another man.” I still think this is the funniest story. Obviously, he’s kidding, but he’s onto something; the intimacy between men is a lot harder to untangle, at least for me.
TM: I really loved the structure of your book because it surprised me. I didn’t expect it to cover as much time as it does. Most of it takes place in the span of a few months, and then it covers more time in the final third so that we are moved farther into the future than I expected. It reminded me that novels can do whatever they want, formally. Was this structure clear to you from the get-go? Can you talk a little bit about the drafting of the novel and how it came to be what it is today?
RA: I began writing this work as a screenplay. I think you can see that in its reliance on dialogue. There was something, in my mind anyway, cinematic about this treatment. There’s a tight focus on this sustained period of a few months, and then two big leaps in time. I knew I wanted the book to end quite far from where it had begun, and the last thing I wanted was to write a 900-page novel, so this structure was also the easiest way to get there. The finished book is at once quite close and quite far from the original draft. There were structural changes, mostly having to do with shuffling the work so we bounce between perspectives more quickly, say every 25 pages instead of every 50. Revising this was by far my least favorite part of this entire process, and the day that I finished I bought myself a really expensive pair of shoes. But you’re right; novels can do whatever the writer asks them to. It may not work, but you can always ask.
TM: Since this is The Millions, I must ask you: What’s the last best book you read?
RA: I have been reading so much lately. Part of it is a consequence on transitioning from the business of book writing to the business of book publishing. Suddenly, I have colleagues! I think writers with books coming out — especially writers making their debut, as I am — kind of organize themselves into loose coalitions. It’s lovely. And that there are so many good goddamn books coming out this year makes me feel not competitive but…reassured. It really does. I was riveted by Jung Yun’s Shelter; Lindsay Hatton’s Monterey Bay is both evocative and lovely and quietly chilling and unsettling; Jennifer Close’s The Hopefuls is a disarming portrait of a young marriage; Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes the Sun is a showstopper that takes on big themes in a most human way; Lynn Steger Strong’s Hold Still is this complex story about family that’s so honest as to be disturbing. What a great time to be a reader.
The only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever kept (sorry vegetarianism!) was 2014’s: to write down every book I read. I’ve stuck with it; thus, I’m able to offer an exact accounting of my 2015 in reading. I can’t quite believe that someone has asked me to do so, but boy am I prepared.
As I suffer from tremendous anxiety of influence, I didn’t read a single book while writing my own. (To relax, I cooked; to fall asleep, I did crossword puzzles.) From June on, though, I read deliriously, hungrily, eager to make up for lost time. First, in (fruitless) search of an epigraph for my book, I reread Louise Fitzhugh’s The Long Secret and then Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, both as wonderful, indeed much richer, than I remembered.
I played cultural catch-up, reading books that had been much discussed among my circle (my circle: complete strangers I follow on Twitter) over the previous year and half: Akhil Sharma’s Family Life, Megan Abbott’s The Fever, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Elizabeth Harrower’s In Certain Circles, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (in three days!), Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans, Rabih Alameddine’s devastating An Unnecessary Woman, a book that makes bookish people feel, by association, unnecessary, and Lorrie Moore’s Bark.
We went on vacation and I sat by the pool and read Mira Jacob’s un-put-down-able The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything, which was like if Mad Men had only been about Joan (that is to say: not boring).
You can never actually be well read; there’s too much out there. So sometimes it’s best to choose randomly. I picked up Günter Grass’s Cat and Mouse because my father-in-law happened to have a particularly groovy paperback edition of it. In a piece about the Argosy bookshop, Janet Malcolm wrote about one of the owners resigning Louis Auchincloss to the bargain bin. Thus, I read his The Rector of Justin. (If you spot it in a bargain bin, give it a shot; it contains a wonderful, truly hateful character.) I read Ed Lin’s slender and foulmouthed Waylaid on the recommendation of a friend, and Grégoire Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest because I’m fascinated by Sophie Calle, and Barbara Browning’s I’m Trying to Reach You because I loved the title. I read Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps and Birds of America because I never got an MFA and I have to learn to write somehow, and I read Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight because I love sadness.
I’m working on a new novel that sort of involves a poet, so I read two books that involve poets: Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and May Sarton’s Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. This is like someone who’s never played tennis deciding to learn the game by studying Venus and Serena Williams, but there you go. I read Colm Tóibín’s characteristically wonderful Nora Webster, and Helen Dewitt’s icily smart The Last Samurai (I’ll confess a personal failing: I can’t handle children as narrators). I read Bellow’s superb Henderson the Rain King, (problematic, in the argot of our times) and then Dangling Man, the same author’s first novel.
One great perk about publishing a book is that people send you books. For free! That’s how I got my hands on Nell Zink’s Mislaid (my notes say I found it “bonkers”), and two titles that haven’t even been published yet: Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers and Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest, two excellent books destined to appear on a lot of Year in Reading 2016 lists. Jealous? You should be.
I read two works of nonfiction: Hermione Lee’s smart and comprehensive biography of Willa Cather, one of my all-time favorite writers, and Edmund White’s City Boy, a rambling and sort of disappointing document. And somewhere along the line, I read Margaret Atwood’s unexpectedly optimistic MaddAddam (spoiler: humanity perishes, the written word endures). I just counted: there are 36 volumes waiting on my bedside table (including collections of L.P. Hartley, Carson McCullers, and John Updike that contain multiple novels). Christ. The years are never long enough.
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