Q&A: Rumaan Alam | Debut Spotlight, August 2016

Alam's first novel, Rich and Pretty, tells the compelling, multifaceted story of two women in their 30s who have been best friends since junior high school. Here, he discusses these distinct protagonists and how he was able to portray the intricacies of female ­friendships as a male author.

Photo by David A. Land

Rumaan Alam has written for many publications, including New York ­magazine, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Wall Street Journal. His first novel, Rich and Pretty (LJ 5/1/16), is the compelling, multifaceted story of two women in their 30s who have been best friends since junior high school. Here, Alam discusses these distinct protagonists and how he was able to portray the intricacies of female ­friendships as a male author. Why Rich and Pretty? Does the title capture the essence of the novel? RA: I chose the title, and it was one of the first aspects of the work to become clear to me. The title is a challenge because it can feel very polarizing. It seems to be describing the protagonists in a way that could be thought of as reductive. It’s a risk to ask the reader to sit with the book for long enough to understand that my perspective on these women is more nuanced than to simply reduce them to one being rich and one being pretty. rich and prettyReaders may be surprised that a male writer was able to convey female friendship with such accuracy. How do you think you were able to do this? It’s gratifying to hear that since I wanted to disappear from the book. I’m a gay man, and I was an awkward, quiet kid. My friends were always the nice girls at my school. At college, all of my friends were young women. I went to work in fashion magazines, and my bosses and colleagues were all women. Now I’m a dad, and going to the playground I spend most of my time with moms. I feel very comfortable in that universe, even though it is not my own. I had the liberty to make things up because I wasn’t relying too closely on my own experience, but I also had kind of a lifetime of intelligence gathered.

Although these women are not based on anyone in my own life, in fiction there’s always espionage. Writers are forever stealing great details from the lives of the people around them. I did that and assembled those details to suit my own needs. That’s what [novelists] do. It can seem really horrible and immoral, but it’s also kind of amusing.

Your novel is told from the points of view of protagonists Sarah and Lauren, giving us insight into their individual thoughts and memories. Was one easier to write than the other? I found Lauren easier to write. I found the act of imagining Sarah’s upbringing a challenge. I come from a lovely middle-class home and the kind of wealth that Sarah inhabits required a little more imaginative stretch. Ironically, the substance of my adult life probably looks much nearer to the adult life that Sarah ends up living insofar as I’m a dad and I live in a house in Brooklyn. I found Lauren easier to portray because she’s a little meaner and there’s more edge to her. It’s a little more fun to inhabit that persona. Was it difficult keeping the personalities of the two women separate? There were times while I was writing when I felt that they were bleeding together into one person. But I felt that was kind of appropriate. Sarah and Lauren have a kind of sisterly and intimate friendship. I’ve known friends like that; they’ll be recounting an anecdote and forget which of them experienced it. It made sense to me that Sarah and Lauren would sound the same. It is two people talking, but it is one narrative. Are there any specific books that have influenced you? To list the books that have affected me personally, artistically, or professionally would take hours. The writers who affected me the most in terms of this particular work would be Lorrie Moore, who is an absolutely brilliant writer. Laurie Colwin, who sadly died so young, wrote beautiful books, and I felt her presence in what I was writing. Willa Cather is one of my favorite writers, as well as Alice Munro and Tony Kushner. What’s your latest project? My next novel is about motherhood. It’s about an artist and her very intimate and complex relationship with her childcare provider. In some ways it’s a book about friendship, but the dynamics are more intricate. It is also about adoption. To be any kind of parent requires balance, but I think adoptive parents approach the job with a little more intellectual awareness. You are constantly aware of wanting to honor who your children are as well as who your family is. Honestly, our society would be in a much better place if every family had an experience like that. ­[Writing the story] has made me think differently about a whole host of issues.—­Catherine Coyne, Mansfield P.L., MA
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Ralph Baker

Rumaan, What a pleasant surprise to discover your book. Who knew you were into the arts. I just bought it and gave it to my son, Ralphie, (now 21 years old) to read first. It's been a long time since we lived in the same building in Brookly, NY. Congrats on your major accomplishment ... wishing you many more down the road. When you get a chance check out "Shock Exchange: How Inner-City Kids From Brooklyn Predicted The Great Recession And The Pain Ahead." Regards, Ralph

Posted : Aug 12, 2016 09:20



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