'Rich And Pretty' Author Rumaan Alam Captures Lives Very Different From His Own
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Next, we have a novel about women and their friendships. It's the story of two women who have been friends for decades, since sitting next each other, aged 11, at an orientation meeting at a classy private school. Best friends forever had not been invented yet. But these two are BFF - mostly. Sarah and Lauren are at a milestone in their lives when the book begins. Sarah's getting married. Lauren is not. The book is called "Rich And Pretty," a reference to the two friends meeting two guys. One of the girls overheard - you take rich. I'll take pretty. Rumaan Alam wrote "Rich And Pretty." And he joins us now from our New York City bureau. Welcome.
RUMAAN ALAM: Thank you so much for having me.
WERTHEIMER: I have to tell you - you have a nearly flawless ear for the way women talk. And you are a guy.
WERTHEIMER: How did that happen?
ALAM: Well, that's one of my favorite things to hear from a reader, particularly a reader who is, herself, a woman. But this is really what fiction is. Fiction is just lying. And the job...
ALAM: ...Of the writer of fiction is to listen and to steal and to lie. And it's not a very honorable profession, I'm afraid.
WERTHEIMER: There's an old notion that writers should write about what they know. And I'm wondering what you think about that. Is it useful when you're trying to see yourself in your characters? Or did you do that?
ALAM: Certainly, many writers have been able to wring beautiful work out of the stuff of their own lives. And I just did not feel that that was something that interested me. Being a writer of Indian descent in particular, I felt a desire to avoid the pressure to deliver something that adhered to some larger critical notion of what it is that writers of Indian descent ought to write about in this country.
That said, there is a lot of my experience in this book. I'm somebody who - you know, I'm gay. I was a gay - I was gay as a young man. And so my friends tended to be girls on the playground. I went to a liberal arts college where most of my classmates and, indeed, many of my professors were women. I worked in fashion magazines where my bosses and my colleagues were women. I worked in the advertising business. And most of my clients and most of my colleagues were also women. So in some ways, this is writing what I know. It's just that I'm so not present in the finished work.
WERTHEIMER: Perhaps we ought to mention that you have two children as well. I assume that gives you even more of an entree into the souls of women, the ideas of women.
ALAM: I think that, for me, my experience of parenting has really made me a more empathetic person. And you often hear writers talk about empathy as being essential to the work on some level. If you can't empathize with other people, then you will never really be able to write well about them. And certainly - having children, having to care for somebody else, having to put somebody else before you at every turn has helped me recede from myself a little bit. And I think that that has been helpful in my writing.
WERTHEIMER: What if we turn it around? Have you ever had the experience of somebody else writing about your particular identity where they didn't have the kind of empathy that you're striving for?
ALAM: I do think that I have a sensitivity to the depictions of maybe all minorities in literature. And I think that the experience of people who look like me is so rarely captured in big, mainstream American fiction that you tend to sort of empathize with any character of color who pops up.
And I did have an experience a few years ago reading a book that had a character of East Indian descent in it who I thought was quite poorly used in the book. I felt that she was presented as sort of needlessly exotic. And then she was killed off in a way that was sort of silly. And that felt like a lesson to me that, you know, in art, everything should be fair game. But it's the writer's responsibility to approach that with the responsibility that it demands.
WERTHEIMER: Now, the book begins with plans for Sarah's wedding. And it ends when she's pregnant with a second baby and Lauren is still unmarried. Do you imagine that they are still friends going forward?
ALAM: I think it's an open question, to be honest. As I said before, in some ways, I think their lives are independent of me. I don't get to decide what happens between them. But I think - I think that's how life works. Things change. One of you gets married. One of you chooses not to for some reason or maybe gets married later. One of you has children. Another one doesn't. And friends do grow apart in that way.
But I think that doesn't really affect the fundamental intimacy that exists. Or it doesn't mean that it never existed or that it didn't matter. So whether or not they will still see one other for, you know, play dates or Thanksgiving or the day after Christmas, that's an open question. But I think that the bond that exists will probably persevere - I hope. I like to imagine them sort of being friends at some point that I haven't yet imagined.
WERTHEIMER: So for your next book, are you thinking about writing about experiences as characters who are more like you?
ALAM: I am about a third of the way through my next book now. And it is closer to my experience insofar as it is very much about parenthood. But I will say that it is specifically about motherhood. And...
WERTHEIMER: There you go again.
ALAM: (Laughter) I think that, in many ways, I have been shaped by my reading. When I look at the list of my favorite works, writers who are women do tend to outnumber writers who are men for whatever reason. And so I think, to go back to your previous question about writing what you know, a lot of writing what you know, I think, comes from - is really a matter of writing what you've read. And for me, writing about parenthood was much more interesting to - it was a more interesting pursuit to do it via a mother than via a father - and I think because it affords me that distance. So I don't feel as though I'm writing about myself. I don't feel like I need to be so true to myself. As I said before, fiction is just telling lies. And maybe it's easier for me to tell those lies when it's a little further from me.
WERTHEIMER: Rumaan Alam's book is called "Rich And Pretty." Thank you very much for talking with us.
ALAM: Oh, goodness. Thank you. This was a real pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.