This week, former McCalls' editor-in-chief-turned-novelist Sally Koslow (With Friends like These) answers five questions from Jenna Blum (The Stormchasers) about setting, writing in four voices, how everything a novelist observes is an ingredient for the writing smoothie, and Fargo, North Dakota. (Ya, you betcha, that’s where Sally’s from.)
Jenna Blum: Sally, I've just had the great pleasure--and believe me, it was genuinely a pleasure--to read your so-smart, laugh-out-loud novels The Late, Lamented Molly Marx and With Friends like These. In both, I thought the New York City setting was a character in itself. Would you agree that these are "New York" novels? How much did the setting drive the novels--did you think about the setting first and then the stories, or vice versa?
Sally Koslow: Full disclosure: I pray that the statue of limitations never ends on being able to brag that I’m from North Dakota. Being from Fargo gave me the chance to go to schools with English teachers who, along with encouraging my writing, drubbed out the “ya, you betcha,” “git” and “jist” from my speech; smart, down-to-earth, lifelong friends and a terrific grounding in what real people might actually want to read. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in Madison I moved to Manhattan, which is what you do if you want to work on a magazine. I eventually became the editor-in-chief of McCall’s and a few other women’s magazine. My favorite task was to write “coverlines” with promises like “How Not to be Fat After 35.” In Little Pink Slips, my first novel, which focuses on the magazine industry, the main character Magnolia Gold explains that “Editors who grew up anywhere cooler than Fargo—which is to say, everywhere—had probably never even been in the same room as your average coupon-clipping, Wal-Mart shopping American woman. Magnolia grew up with her, and was her…” My first book editor told me she loved the manuscript, but it wasn’t believable that Magnolia could be from Fargo. I said no-go. Magnolia and I are separated at birth.
In fiction I try to capture and evoke a place in the same way a historical novelist might. So if you think my novels are New York-y, thanks. New York is the beating heart of many industries and will always attract ambitious, albeit insecure, people from other parts of the country. The foibles of such people interest me in fiction. Setting, however, is secondary. Characters come first and while my three books have primarily taken place in or around New York, every novel has a main character from elsewhere. Molly in The Late, Lamented Molly Marx grew up in Chicago. In With Friends like These, Talia is from Santa Monica and Quincy is from Minneapolis.
Jenna: Would you ever consider setting a novel in another region? How do you think that would affect the book?
Sally: I’d love to set a novel not only in another region, but in another time period, because I enjoy historical novels and it would be fascinating to research one. I’d also like to see how trying to craft such a book would change my writing. My fourth novel, which I’m into about 100 pages, features a main character closer to my own age than the women in my previous books and the writing is emerging differently. I’m trying to coax wisdom out of this character that a younger woman wouldn’t as yet have acquired.
Jenna: Obviously, we know you're not narrating from beyond the grave, like Molly, but otherwise--what things in the novels are based on your own experiences? (Your books are so wonderfully saucy; we can't help but wonder!)
Sally: Everything a novelist observes is a potential ingredient for the smoothie that is the end result of her writing. Sometimes I jot down bon mots and insights from my friends, husband or children, so I can steal them for my books. (Sorry, guys.) But often I think a writer isn’t conscious of where her dialogue and story lines originate; boundaries between fictional characters and their author can blur. I wasn’t totally aware of it when I was writing, but in With Friends like These, I put my own traits into each of the main character: Jules’ bossiness, Chloe’s insecurity, Quincy’s retreat into herself when she’s stressed and Talia’s tendency to give into her withering “Mean Maxine” inner voice. (Talia also has the ability to put her nose to the grindstone, which I, good old Midwestern workhorse, have, too.) In The Late, Lamented Molly Marx I was able to draw on my experiences as a mother, wife, friend, sister and New Yorker in creating Molly. Magnolia, from Little Pink Slips, has my insider knowledge from an editor-in-chief’s perspective of the magazine industry, including how a publisher might throw an editor under the bus in an effort to win a toilet paper ad.
Jenna: Quartets of female friends have been repopularized by Sex and The City, but your novel With Friends like These reminded me of other fictional foursomes that were beloved long before Miranda, Charlotte, Samantha and Carrie came along--as in Rona Jaffe's novels The Best of Everything and Class Reunion (two of my favorites). Were you deliberately capitalizing on this tradition--if you'd call it a tradition? What were the challenges and perks of writing in four voices?
Sally: In With Friends like These I tried to capture the flavor of women’s friendship in the early 21st century. In that sense, my books pay homage to those of Rona Jaffe. Other readers have pointed out this link and I want to reread her books. The screenplays for Sex and the City were sharp and hilarious. I adored that series, but it wasn’t my model. In With Friends like These I wanted to create characters who felt familiar and more realistic than Carrie and her pals.
I chose to write about a quartet for practical reasons. Tension between only two women would be painfully unrelenting. Three friends would get into too much obvious triangulation. Five friends would be tricky to track. Four felt right.
The hardest part of writing in four voices was to differentiate them. Big challenge, but big perk, because it was fun to try and succeed at this. I’m guilty of looking for humor in a situation, but four wise-crackers would have been overkill. I tried to give Jules a strain of indigenous NYC humor and in Talia’s thoughts, some wry Yiddish, a language she would know from her parents, Jews raised in Eastern Europe. Chloe and Quincy are more restrained, reflecting New England and Minnesota. Chloe is the character who grows the most during the course of the book; in the beginning, she sounds less mature than she does at the end. I wonder if readers notice any of this, by the way, since we all read first and foremost for plot. For my book club I just finished The Portrait of a Lady. As much as I’m drooling over Henry James’s elegant style, top of mind for me as a reader was what in God’s name was going on with Isabel Archer’s marriage and why she didn’t marry the handsome, self-deprecating, filthy rich, perfect English nobleman?
Jenna: Did you have a favorite among the quartet? Why?
Sally: Shame on you, Jenna Blum. Asking me to pick is so Sophie’s Choice. I love Chloe when she finds a stronger sense of self and Quincy when she has a moment in Minneapolis that allows her to put the puzzles pieces of her life in place. I especially like Jules when motherhood softens her. She was also the easiest to write, simply because she’s funny. Talia is the most honest about her foibles, however. She’s probably not the most likable to readers, but for that reason I like her best.
Jenna: What writer would you most liken yourself to and why?
Sally: Can’t you please answer this question instead? I don’t have a clue. I will say that at the time I started writing fiction I read When We Were Bad by the British novelist Charlotte Mendelson. I was wowed and thought, some day, I want to write a novel that’s this wicked and wise and Charlotte’s writing has always been in my head. She sets a high bar, but if one day our work is deemed similar, I’d be over the moon--for about an hour. Midwesterners don’t let ourselves get a swelled head for long.