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Author
Joanna_Smith_Rakoff
Posts: 47
Registered: ‎12-15-2008
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Re: Questions for Joanna Smith Rakoff

Karen, hello, and thanks so much for having me here!

 

I suppose my favorite character is Emily, as her struggle -- balancing her allegiance to her family and her ambitions (and self-respect) -- is one that I understand quite keenly. And, like her, I lived for some time on a tiny budget, in a dilapidated Williamsburg apartment without a kitchen sink. But I also relate to her reticence. She absolutely can't stand the thought of imposing her problems or concerns on her friends -- and loathes the idea of anyone pitying her (or, really, thinking her life is anything but perfect. It's a somewhat dangerous inclination...

 

That said, I identify pretty strongly with all the characters, though I didn't quite realize it until long after I'd finished writing the novel.  Even Dave. 

 

In terms of Tal: The first draft of the novel included chapters from his point of view. But I soon decided that it made more sense, structurally and dramatically, for Tal to more fully disappear -- and to instead allow the reader to see him through the eyes of his friends. This is, in part, as you say because he is indeed drifting away even at the novel's start, yes. (Does that answer your question? Please tell me if not!)

 

Tal was, by the way, one of the earliest characters (it took about a year to develop and figure out all of them), and his sections were the first I wrote, so it's kind of funny that I ended up cuttinh them all!

 

Joanna


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Author
Joanna_Smith_Rakoff
Posts: 47
Registered: ‎12-15-2008
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Re: Questions for Joanna Smith Rakoff

Hi Susan. I'm so glad to hear you're enjoying the novel!

 

I love Vermont and would be thrilled to head up there, but I'm not sure if my publisher plans to send me there. I'll check in with them and see what they say!

 

All my best,

Joanna 


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kittykat59
Posts: 44
Registered: ‎12-08-2008
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Re: Questions for Joanna Smith Rakoff

Hi Joanna,

 

Thank you for taking the time to join us. Good luck on your novel and I look forward to future work.

 

Lets talk about the sex scene in chapter two between Will and Beth. This bothered a lot of folks here but not me. When reading it, It seemed like you wanted us to view Beth differently and judge her right away. Was that your intent?? To first see Beth as one of the responsible ones in the bunch. Then all of a sudden she has this intense and strange sex with Will and we see her in a different light.

 

Second, just an opinion. I had a hard time keeping track of all the characters (might be my age). I found myself going back and rereading. 

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Chatterbox
Posts: 32
Registered: ‎11-28-2008
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Re: Questions for Joanna Smith Rakoff

Joanna,

Is the fact that you identify most closely with Emily the reason that you seemed (at least, to me!) to give her story a relatively uncomplicated ending? The doctor almost seems like a prince riding in to save her, and the relationship feels so much less stressed & subject to agonizing that that of the others, even Sadie. Yes, there is some initial ambivalence, but once Emily makes her decision, any turmoil she encounters seems to be caused by external events, such as Lil's sudden reappearance in her new life. (Trying hard not to deliver any spoilers here!)

tks!

Author
Joanna_Smith_Rakoff
Posts: 47
Registered: ‎12-15-2008
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Re: Questions for Joanna Smith Rakoff

Hi Chatterbox,

 

I'd have to say no, actually, that's not how Emily ended up with such a happy ending. The truth is that when I was writing the novel I didn't think that Emily was the character with whom I most identified.

 

When I mapped out the story, my plan was to have the least likely character end up married to a Jewish doctor, the sort of guy that Beth's parents would have wanted her to marry -- the sort of guy that all her friends had sworn they'd never marry. My point, I suppose, was to point out the superficiality of bohemia; the ways in which, when you're young and in love with the idea of yourself as an artist, you sometimes have trouble looking beyond a person's trappings, and that this is, in and of itself, a sort of conservatism. Dr. Gitter is just as interesting, literate, smart, and cool as her friends, but Emily can't see it -- almost can't see him -- because she thinks he's from a completely different world.  And so she's blind to his interest in her, as well.

 

All my best,

Joanna 


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Author
Joanna_Smith_Rakoff
Posts: 47
Registered: ‎12-15-2008
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Re: Questions for Joanna Smith Rakoff

Hi Debbook,

 

My mother's family is from Gloversville, a small city not far from Rochester (closer to Albany, I suppose), and two of my great-uncles moved to Rochester when Gloversville hit hard times (that is, when the glove industry foundered). I've spent much time up there, and been to most of the cities of northern New York, but I've actually never been to Rochester itself. Dave's observations are based on my own in other cities upstate (I've definitely experienced the weather!), stories told to me by my mother, the experiences of a close friend who attended Eastman (and who actually loved Rochester and stayed on after she finished her degree), and extensive research (in fact, I did way too much research into the history and geography of the city). 

 

But Dave's unhappiness in Rochester, as is probably obvious, has more to do with his unhappiness with himself and his fundamental immaturity than with Rochester itself. He's pretty unhappy in Brooklyn, too.

 

All my best,

Joanna 


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Author
Joanna_Smith_Rakoff
Posts: 47
Registered: ‎12-15-2008
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Re: Questions for Joanna Smith Rakoff

Hi everyone!

 

Before I delve too far into the questions, I just wanted to take a moment to say hello, and thank you all for having me here. I'm very much looking forward to being in conversation with you over these next few weeks. 

 

Your questions are all so interesting -- and I'm so grateful to you for forcing me to think about certain aspects of the book and the writing process -- but many require a good amount of thought, on my part, so please bear with me as I compose my answers (and wrestle with technical difficulties; this morning I wrote a long reply that was then lost!).  

 

All my best,

Joanna 


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canterbear
Posts: 73
Registered: ‎10-19-2006
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Re: Questions for Joanna Smith Rakoff

I appreciate the work you put into this novel.

But I wish you could have let the reader in on more of what each character is feeling and how things are developing in their lives.

I felt all the flashback memories distracted from the story.

For example: on pg 167.. where the paragraph begins with...But the trouble with Dave---who was from a very nice family(which Will, of course, was not, a fact that would cause some problems with the ceremony, but she wouldnt think of that now)-- wasn't simply that he had neither money etc.

 Now as a reader, we have lost that you were talking about Dave.

 

At the end of that paragraph, "But that was exactly the type that made women cry in public restrooms, wasn't it?  (now if you skip over to pg 168)  "Beth," she began, carefully. "You dont have to marry Will..etc.

that connects the story with out the long page of "Some years back..." 

 

Also I wondered why in the section with Beth and her mother you always refer to her mother as Mrs. Bernstein? when in some other parts you refer to other character's mothers by their first names.

  There is a story here..I just got tired of weeding through everything else.

 

thanks for your feedback. 

Author
Joanna_Smith_Rakoff
Posts: 47
Registered: ‎12-15-2008
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Re: Questions for Joanna Smith Rakoff

Hi there TWJ, and thanks so much for your questions.

 

1.    What made you write this particular book?

I was interested in chronicling New York’s most recent gilded age from the perspective of characters who allow themselves to be passed over by the tech gold rush. And I was also very interested in writing about the mythology of New York versus the reality of it (including the differences those raised in the city and those who arrive here, having been fed a steady diet of James Baldwin and Woody Allen, hoping to make their way as artists, writers, musicians, etc.). And, finally, I wanted to look at the interaction (and friction) between the three generations profiled in the novel: those born in the late twenties and early thirties, like the Peregrines; their children, the boomers, like Mrs. Bernstein and Dave’s parents; and, of course, the main characters, who came of age during the Reagan and first Bush administrations.

2.    How did you get the background to write about these kind of characters. Is it autobiographical to some degree?

Like much fiction, the novel draws from my own life, yes. But none of the characters are direct representations of me or anyone in my life. Their world, however, is my world. I went to Oberlin. I lived in Williamsburg in the 1990s (and many of my friends lived, or still live, in the other Brooklyn neighborhoods mentioned, like Cobble Hill). Like Emily, I had no money. Like Sadie, I worked in publishing. Like Lil, I did graduate work at Columbia. Many of my friends are actors or photographers or filmmakers or play in bands or are writing short stories or what have you.

And then there are some tiny details that are drawn directly from life. For instance, one of my closest friends did, like Emily, build a coffin out of bread, lock herself in, and eat her way out, as a project for a performance art class.

3.    Did you exaggerate some of the characteristics of the neighborhoods and the characters to make a particular point?

Not really, no. But why do you ask? Did you have some specific character in mind?

All my best,

Joanna 


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Author
Joanna_Smith_Rakoff
Posts: 47
Registered: ‎12-15-2008
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Re: Questions for Joanna Smith Rakoff

Hi Susan,

 

The novel draws, in a general way, from my life, but the events in it and the characters are pure fiction. The general similarities are too many to mention: I went to Oberlin and graduated in the mid-1990s. I worked in publishing, like Sadie, and went to grad school in English, like Lil and Tuck. Like Emily, I was poor, and lived in Williamsburg in an apartment without a kitchen sink (it didn't seem like a big deal when the realtor showed me the place...). Like Lil, I got married in 1998 in a loft (but my wedding, and my husband, were very different than Lil's!). Perhaps most importantly, my parents are roughly the same age as the Peregrines, a fact that has shaped my world view more than anything else in my life.

 

Which brings me to your next question: Earlier today, I answered Karen's query on the same subject, by saying I most relate to Emily, which led to a follow-up question about whether my identification with Emily led me to give her the happiest ending of all the characters (though the truth is that I'm not sure her ending is entirely happy, but that's another story). I suppose what I should have said, first, in response to Karen's question was that I really identify with all the characters equally, in a way. There's a bit of me in each of the characters. Emily, I suppose, is my favorite character, and this is probably primarily because I understand, quite deeply, her main predicament (having to do with her family). But I'm afraid that in many ways I'm most like Sadie....

 

All  my best,

Joanna 


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Author
Joanna_Smith_Rakoff
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Registered: ‎12-15-2008
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Re: Questions for Joanna Smith Rakoff

Hi Mattzay,

 

So, first, Karen asked about which character I most identify with, and here's my response:

 

I suppose my favorite character is Emily, as her struggle -- balancing her allegiance to her family and her ambitions (and self-respect) -- is one that I understand quite keenly. And, like her, I lived for some time on a tiny budget, in a dilapidated Williamsburg apartment without a kitchen sink. But I also relate to her reticence. She absolutely can't stand the thought of imposing her problems or concerns on her friends -- and loathes the idea of anyone pitying her (or, really, thinking her life is anything but perfect. It's a somewhat dangerous inclination...

 

That said, I identify pretty strongly with all the characters, though I didn't quite realize it until long after I'd finished writing the novel.  Even Dave.

 

Debbay also asked and I updated my answer for her:

 

Earlier today, I answered Karen's query on the same subject, by saying I most relate to Emily, which led to a follow-up question about whether my identification with Emily led me to give her the happiest ending of all the characters (though the truth is that I'm not sure her ending is entirely happy, but that's another story). I suppose what I should have said, first, in response to Karen's question was that I really identify with all the characters equally, in a way. There's a bit of me in each of the characters. Emily, I suppose, is my favorite character, and this is probably primarily because I understand, quite deeply, her main predicament (having to do with her family). But I'm afraid that in many ways I'm most like Sadie....

 

None of the characters are based, in a one-to-one way, on friends or family, with the exception of Rose Peregrine who--there's no getting around this--bears a strong resemblance to my mother (though it wasn't exactly my intention that the resemblance was quite *that* strong; it just turned out that way).

 

It's interesting that you perceive the characters as feeling quite detached from their parents. My intention was to portray a somewhat broad spectrum of relationships. To my mind, Beth is actually very close--almost too close--with her parents. (She actually considers her mother her best friend.) Sadie adores her father--her favorite time of the week is Sunday morning, when they get breakfast ready--and though her relationship with Rose is more complicated, she's actually very close to her (so much so that she has a running dialogue with Rose in her head). Dave, too, is quite close with his parents. But Lil and Emily, I think, have purposefully distanced themselves from their families, as a means of self-preservation.

 

All of this is, yes, based on observation of many families over the years.

 

All my best,

Joanna 

 


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Author
Joanna_Smith_Rakoff
Posts: 47
Registered: ‎12-15-2008
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Re: Questions for Joanna Smith Rakoff

Hi GSB65,

 

This is a hard question for me to answer, as I didn't write the scene with the intention of revealing something specific about Beth's character. I simply knew that Beth was going to have a sexual encounter with Will, and that it was going to make her uncomfortable, but that she was going to emerge from it stronger and surer of herself.

 

Does that help at all?  Let me know if you want to know something more specific about the scene and I'll try my best to answer.

 

All my best,

Joanna 


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KxBurns
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Re: Questions for Joanna Smith Rakoff

Thanks, Joanna, for such gracious and illuminating answers to our questions so far!
Contributor
LA-Rose
Posts: 6
Registered: ‎11-26-2008
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Congratulations Joanna!

Hello Joanna Smith Rakoff,

 

I would like to start by congratulating you on this wonderful novel that you have written! I enjoyed reading your unique writing style that chronicled these women and men at pivotal moments in their lives. I believe you have accomplished your goal of giving us a superficial look at the characters in the beginning of the chapters, while proceeding to develop the characters as the chapter continued. I also found it interesting that we received important information about characters through the gossip of others both within and around "the group". At the end of the novel I felt a strong understanding of many of the characters, with the possible exception of the elusive and mysterious Tal.

 

With that said, I have a couple of questions. First, I found it ironic that the novel opens with Lil's wedding and ends with her funeral. I found this extremely sad and disappointing, as it was sprung on the readers in an unexpected fashion. I was wondering if this was the only way for us to truly see that the others had come of age? Was Lil's death something you had planned from the beginning, or was it also a suprise for you? Did the irony of the opening influence your decision to end with her funeral? Also, I enjoyed your depiction of the Jewish characters and the traditional events. I found myself laughing at the dipiction of the Jewish mother and smiling through certain ceremonies. While many authors choose to give their characters a religion, it usually isn't this one. Was this solely because of possible personal inspiration, or was their some other motive behind choosing this relgion for some of your characters?

 

Thank you for taking the time to read and consider these questions and comments! I wish you the best of luck with the novel and your writing career! Congratulations!

 

Sincerely,

L.A. Rose

"If you are forgotten, it is as if you have never lived. So, you must make yourself remembered: write a legacy." -L.A. Rose
Correspondent
Rosei
Posts: 111
Registered: ‎10-19-2006
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Re: Questions for Joanna Smith Rakoff

Hello Joanna!

 

Congratulations on your book! I personally like your narrative style and my question is about the point of view. We kinda know every character in this book through each others' point of view. Could we say you used some stream of consciousness to let each character makes us know the other ones? 

 

I know that there's a specific narrator, but also we can notice the narration being delegated to the characters. That's great!

 

Thank you!

Inspired Bibliophile
thewanderingjew
Posts: 2,247
Registered: ‎12-18-2007
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Re: Questions for Joanna Smith Rakoff

 
Joanna_Smith_Rakoff wrote: ...

edited by twj.....    Did you exaggerate some of the characteristics of the neighborhoods and the characters to make a particular point?

Not really, no. But why do you ask? Did you have some specific character in mind?

All my best,

Joanna 


 

Hi,
Hmmm, how do I put this? I felt as if you were focussing on a specific outstanding trait in each of the characters or locales, kind of honing in on one in each, almost taking a stereotyped view, in order to cover the widest variety of issues. So I wondered if you had a particular ethical message in mind. Since I haven't yet finished the book, I don't know if the descriptions will soften a bit and become more mainstream.
I am enjoying the book as I get further into it and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it. I am just a bit troubled by the negative stereotypes so I am hoping that they grow into more positive role models.

I am a parent of kids in the generation you are writing about (they fit and yet they don't fit) and I never found myself to be as "kind of" one dimensional or shallow (so I fit and yet I don't fit, I have a more positive image of myself and my kids). I guess I wonder, does your generation view mine as frivolous, if we were financially comfortable and also as a generation that spoiled their children? I too have 3 coffee presses but I don't flaunt them, I use them since I don't use a coffee pot. It was kind of a funny feeling to see it portrayed the way it was by Dave, (I think). Do you think the "kids" are responsible for their problems or the parents? Is up to the kids to rise above their issues or should they just continue to blame their backgrounds and depend on others? These are really rhetorical questions because I suppose I will find out as I continue to read, and I surely will!
I am not a writer so I apologize since I may be totally off base.
Thank you for taking the time to respond to me.
Gail Rubin

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Ramya
Posts: 2
Registered: ‎12-03-2008
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Re: Questions for Joanna Smith Rakoff

Hi Joanna!

 

Let me start by congratulating you for coming out with this wonderful book. It took me a while to actually get into the book. I found the first few chapters a little slow. But once I got into the book, I began to like it a lot! I am still not done with the book.. but I am definitely liking what I am reading.

 

My question for you : How long did it take you to write this book. It definitely does look like a lot of work and I am curious to see how long it actually took you to write it!

 

Thanks!

 

Ramya 

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Vermontcozy
Posts: 5,279
Registered: ‎10-20-2008
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Re: Questions for Joanna Smith Rakoff

Hi Joanna..With my schedule I read as much as I can..I am truly walksing the streets and I am in Sadie's Parents apt..enjoying the appetizers...throughly..Its so discriptive ...I am 49 w/a 24 yrold College Grad daughter...she has some memories of my parents house and food..anyway your characters are so familiar,and I meet them as well in Vt..lots of people left after9/11 for a different lifestyle here..but they do gather at the cafes and farmers markets to chat...I told a 37ish computer Tech Mom...at home raising her 2 children about your book and will pass it on to her....I will of course finish your book  when,soon...(alot of us work pt at our ski resorts and ski and garden,and feel freeer here...lots of your female/male players  could in fact be living here,someday......We are all about creativity.Your next novel could be focused in Vt...A full simple life is attainable here....We even have a Temple not far from the Bookstore.....Good Luck to you..Susan VTC   Catlin,Emily yes they could live here
Kindness,I've discovered,is everything in life...Issac Bashevis Singer
Author
Joanna_Smith_Rakoff
Posts: 47
Registered: ‎12-15-2008
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Re: Questions for Joanna Smith Rakoff


Hi krb2g,
 I'm so glad you enjoyed the novel and very much appreciate you taking the time to tell me so. It sounds like we have very similar taste in fiction. And I have to say: Often, when I read contemporary fiction (both novels and short stories), I find myself wishing particular works were longer.  
 Let me try to answer your questions:
 Did you have to do a lot of research?
More than you would think! Mostly on small subjects, like the application process and schedule for Sundance or the layout of Rochester.
Did your conclusions about your generation change as you researched/wrote?
In a way, yes. Or, I suppose, the way it felt to me was: As I wrote and rewrote (the novel went through three major revisions), I became more acutely aware of what I wanted to say and why it was important (to me) to say it. I think I went into it with some larger ideas about chronicling the economic and political changes of the 1990s -- and their effect on my generation -- and some slightly smaller thoughts about portraying the reality of living in New York without a huge safety net. And as I wrote those larger and smaller sets of ideas both merged -- I realized that the two were inextricably linked -- and became more refined (I became more aware of the commonalities that link middle class members of my generation). 
Your sub-plots intersect in neat ways: for example, I liked the way Caitlin Green-Gold kept popping up; did you work from an outline?
 When I began writing in earnest (a year after I developed the first three characters, who eventually became Sadie, Dave, and Tal), I hewed to the format of The Group, so certain intersections can be attributed to Mary McCarthy! But in the second and third drafts I broke from the original, pretty radically, and that was when many subplots and secondary characters emerged. And in those rounds, no, I had no outline, but I did some sketching out of the plot on legal pads (employing illegible diagrams with lots of arrows and question marks and quasi-flow charts).
 Did you cut material (or characters, or plotlines)?
Yes!  I originally had two other characters, one of whom was folded into Sadie; the other became Tal. And I originally had many more dead-ends. My rewrites were largely about making everything come together.
 Thanks for such interesting questions and all my best,
Joanna
krb2g wrote:

Dear Joanna,

 

Thank you so much for sharing your book with us. I really enjoyed it, and while I haven't read The Group, I do think A Fortunate Age works a lot like The Forsyte Saga, Middlemarch, Our Mutual Friend, and War and Peace (to mention some of my favorite examples). My biggest quibble with the book, in fact, was that it wasn't long enough.

 

I was wondering if you could comment on your writing process. Did you have to do a lot of research? Did your conclusions about your generation change as you researched/wrote? Your sub-plots intersect in neat ways: for example, I liked the way Caitlin Green-Gold kept popping up; did you work from an outline? Did you cut material (or characters, or plotlines)?

 

Thanks for taking the time to join the discussion, and best of luck!


 


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Correspondent
jabrkeKB
Posts: 164
Registered: ‎11-15-2008
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Re: Questions for Joanna Smith Rakoff

Thank you for taking the time the answer questions.   

 

I am curious about the use of flashbacks in the story.  Why do you use this technique so often?

 

 

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