Mrs., is set among three families whose children attend the same posh preschool on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. But though her characters might seem to have a lot in common, there are in fact enormous differences in background informing their lives: Gwen Hogan and her husband, Dan, who works in the U.S. Attorney’s office, are struggling financially. Gwen, often mistaken for a babysitter, casts a satiric eye on the extravagances of the households to which she accompanies her daughter on playdates.
Meanwhile, acquaintances from Gwen and Dan’s past reappear, and soon the worlds of work, college, and preschool overlap, exposing uncomfortable secrets. If you enjoy Donna Tartt, Edith Wharton, or Curtis Sittenfeld, you’ll love this clever, moving and insightful new novel.
Macy, who previously wrote The Fundamentals of Play and Spoiled, spoke to the Book Store PD shortly before this week’s publication of Mrs.
Book Store PD: Your new novel is set on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where you yourself live. In depicting characters in that milieu, is it tricky that you are sometimes perceived to be an insider? Are there issues of betrayal, or secret-telling, that are hard to manage as a writer?
Caitlin Macy: I haven’t had so many issues with betrayal because despite what people think nobody is actually based on a real person. Obviously, there are elements of people that I know.
I’m sometimes accused of being an insider, and I think it’s because [of my schooling]. My husband and I were both financial-aid kids at boarding school. I had no money growing up, and he really had no money growing up, but then we did go to boarding school, and we ended up in New York. His template was the movie Big – he wanted to go to New York and make money because he was so tired of being the poor kid. I had more tolerance for staying poor because I decided to come here and write. Then he ended up going to Wall Street, so in certain ways now I am an insider, but I don’t think you ever forget the first 30 years.
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I think that my work is often characterized as sort of Upper East Side, the rich and famous. But I definitely identify a lot with the blue-collar characters, of whom there are five in this novel, or something like that. There’s only one person who comes from money in the book. I understand why I do get that label but I like writing about the high/low and the insider/outsider. Like a lot of novelists, that was a driving force for me.
Gwen and her husband are the kind of scrappy upstarts who come to Manhattan and are making it good but on their own terms. Did you feel an affinity to Gwen?
Definitely, in certain ways. The biggest difference between me and Gwen is that although my mother is Irish-and-Spanish Catholic I wasn’t raised particularly Catholic. My father was a lapsed Episcopalian and my mother was happy to leave the Catholic church, so we weren’t raised in the Catholic church, which is a subtle point but it’s a difference.
In school, I didn’t really feel like I belonged with the kind of people who were going to their country houses on the weekends. I remember, freshman year, hearing someone say, “A bunch of us are all going to go to my country house," and wanting vomit, or laugh, or make fun of it. I had never heard the phrase before. I had to sweat it financially, I had to work.
I identified with Gwen’s scrappiness, with her desire to do whatever it takes to get ahead. I was much more the kid for whom it was exciting to be there but for whom it wasn’t a given and it wasn’t necessarily easy to navigate.
You’ve published a novel (Fundamentals of Play), a book of short stories (Spoiled), and now this second novel. Did writing Mrs. present special challenges for you? Famously, writers find second novels tricky.
Yeah, definitely. I realized — when I was already too far down the road to go back — that with every work of fiction that I’ve published, I was starting over, because first I wrote a first-person novel and I just really wanted to publish and I wanted to get out of the gate and establish myself.
Then I thought, I was drawn to doing stories, so I had to figure that out.
The way I conceived this book initially was as third-person [narrative]. Third-person can be so great, and I think it’s the way most people start. If you take a creative writing class, most people are going to start with some sort of thinly veiled third-person narrator who’s close to him or herself. So in a certain way, it feels familiar. But for whatever reason, I don’t like novels that are written in the first person, but everybody gets a chance to tell his or her own story in the first person. I didn’t want to do it that way, so I knew it had to be third-person.
If I had been in anyone’s perspective wholly it would have been Gwen’s, but I didn’t want to be tied to the one perspective in part because pretty early on I knew I wanted to have something from Dan, and so on. But starting over with third person was challenging because I had just never done it before on a large scale, and it really does feel like keeping all the balls in the air and making sure that when you cut back and forth you’re not telling one person’s story from beginning to end, you’re telling a bit of a whole story from different perspectives.
So that was challenging, and took a bit of working out. And then, this was also a little bit more of a complex narrative than I had tried before. I went back over the beats a lot. I would read a passage and then the next passage in the next person’s voice and make sure that the transitions were working. That was important to me.
One narrative technique that you use very effectively is to insert very short passages in italics that are hints of something to come, or something in the past. For example, when Gwen thinks about John Curtis, a college acquaintance who reappears in her New York life, a certain phrase keeps popping into the narrative.
Her husband Dan similarly has a phrase that comes up in his head. These indicate to the reader that there’s some drama that you don’t know about yet lurking in the back of their minds. Did you use that technique in early drafts or did you find that later?
I found it midway. I think with Gwen thinking about John Curtis, originally the phrase was a full blown paragraph almost saying exactly what had happened, but then I realized that it would be effective to foreshadow the event that was still haunting her.
I made sure to go back and repeat them, because the one thing I remember specifically learning about writing a longer work is that you can’t say something once and assume that the readers will get it. The writer really has to keep touching base again and saying remember this, remember this, remember this, not because the reader is an idiot, but just because he’s got a lot going on.
Some of those phrases that had inherent drama jumped out at me as a way I could keep the narrative going, in what I hope is a semi-suspenseful way, so that we’re intrigued by "What is this referring to, what is this phrase is ultimately going to mean?"
Do you feel that Mrs. takes you a different place than your previous two books? Obviously you’ve got a lot of living in the interim between your first book and this. Do you feel like you kind of come to a different perspective, or that this book has new insights that weren’t available to you with the earlier books?
You write your first book just to sort of show up and announce that you’re here. Then it took a long time between that and the stories, and then it took a long time to write the stories, and I think at all of those points I thought, “Am I keeping going with this? Am I actually a writer, or am I just going to be that person who wrote that one novel back in the day and now I’m doing other stuff?” You can easily keep busy once you have children, you don’t need any more excuses of what you’re doing with your day.
And then at a certain point, I put this novel down and I just felt that I couldn’t finish it. I was scrapping it basically. Then all of a sudden, I don’t know if it was just getting older, I’m not sure what it was, but all of a sudden I said no, this is who I am and I’m just going to keep showing up. I’m a writer and I’m going to keep going.
You had more faith in yourself, maybe.
Yeah, I guess I just had more faith in myself. So many guys that I knew in the my MFA program or in college — some would just spew out these 800-page novels and be completely convinced that they were brilliant, they’d just write and write and write. The women I know, definitely most of us (God bless the ones who don’t suffer from this), we had a bit of Emily Dickinson syndrome, where I’ll just write this and I’ll hide it in a drawer because it’s not good enough.
I think one of the great things about middle age is that a lot of those outside voices, of the imagined critic who’s dissing your work, that irate reviewer on Amazon or Goodreads, or whatever it is, I started to not worry about.
My standard has always been “Would I want to read this?” It’s actually a far more exacting standard than people realize.
Were there books that inspired you as you were writing this or in your writing life generally?
Definitely. One book I read while I was writing this book was Edie, the Jean Stein collection of oral history about Edie Sedgwick, because I was writing a book in which there’s a central figure, Philippa, and everyone is commenting on her and their comments create a composite picture of her. A friend of mine recommended Edie and it reassured me that what I was doing made sense, and it helped me focus.
I’m a huge Cheever fan and I went through a massive Ford Madox Ford phase where I just reread Parade’s End. I loved that, I think that Jed [a prosperous banker in Mrs.] is is a Ford Madox Ford character for our age.
I think any woman my age writing today is probably going to be an Alice Munro fan, and if she’s not, I’ll beat her up.
The person who I’ve been the most obsessed with for now going on a few years is Mavis Gallant. I think she suffers a little bit from getting confused in some people’s minds with Muriel Spark and Penelope Lively and all these sort of English/Commonwealth writers of a certain generation. I never really bothered to read her, and then when she died, The New Yorker published a story of hers. I think I read everything else in the issue, and then was stuck somewhere with nothing to read, so I read that story — and now I just can’t get enough.
In college and in my 20’s I was obviously a huge fan of Fitzgerald, Wharton, James, and for me James was among the most fun, because I didn’t read James in school. I didn’t take a class so I was reading them all without a filter. Sitting down and reading The Portrait of a Lady was just such an incredible experience and I certainly think about Portrait of a Lady all the time.
Last question. Have you embarked on a new project?
I’m actually working on three things at the moment. I’m writing some stories. They just sort of have to get written, because I’ve had the ideas for so long and I kept putting them off while I was trying to finish Mrs.
I’m also writing a first-person novel, it’s a novel of friendship, it’s a first-person novel about two girls growing up in Massachusetts. It’s funny because obviously everyone is asking and I have not read the Elena Ferrante’s Naples series. For a little while I had anxiety of influence, and I just thought well, maybe I’ll just bang out a draft of my friendship book so I’m working on that. And then the one thing I’ve never tried and I never thought I would want to is YA, but I just got an idea out of the blue, so I’m also working on YA novel.
I think that sounds great especially given your background of being an insider and an outsider simultaneously in high school.
It’s funny, you get to a certain point and you realize that most of the big experiences may well be behind you but fortunately enough it seems to be pretty rich to mine.
Caitlin Macy, thank you so much for chatting with me and for this wonderful book.
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