Women About Town
by Laura Jacobs
Laura Jacobs is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and is the dance critic for The New Criterion. She has written for many other publications, including the Atlantic Monthly, the Village Voice, the New Republic, the Boston Phoenix, and the Chicago Reader.
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Q: Lana's career trajectory is similar to yours, and ultimately comes full circle when she does an interview for Vanity Fair, where you are a contributing editor. What other traits do you and Lana share, and what makes you different?
LJ: The trait Lana and I share most is a sort of watchfulness that can feel like spying. I think many writers feel this. It's a sense that you're observing people too closely and it makes you feel powerful and protective at the same time. It's actually not an easy place to be. How am I different from Lana? She hasn't had any great losses yet. She is emotionally young, untested, which makes her a little blithe about other people (Deena, older single women) and what they may have been through.
Q: Iris Biddle is a very traditional character. She's like a Jane Austen heroine born into the 21st century. What inspired you to write her?
LJ: It's almost as if Iris already existed and was waiting for me to set her down. Maybe it's all the Swan Lake's and Sleeping Beauty's I've seen as a dance critic. Iris is like the heroine of a ballet: poetic, idealistic, but solitary, trapped in her losses. She struggles against society's, as well as her own, expectations. In a way, she's like a sleeping princess in a fairy tale. But these days, a woman has to wake herself up. In the process of doing so, Iris becomes an artist.
Q: Iris's custom-made lampshade business is quite unique. How did you research this?
LJ: When I lived in Philadelphia in the mid-1980s there was a custom-made lampshade shop on Walnut Street that I passed every day. The creations in the window mesmerized me. So (like Iris) when I found a really good old shade in a thrift shop, I took it apart, wrote down every step, and then remade it with new silk. I continued to cover shades, getting technically better with each attempt, and though it is painstaking work, when you finish, you have created something with character and distinction. The details Iris shares with us are all drawn from my own experiences stretching the silk and gluing the gimp. But it is through Iris that I began to understand the secret life in a lampshade.
Q: Lana is slightly more rebellious than Iris. Instead of marrying young, she escapes to New York to pursue a career, yet ultimately, she still yearns for a traditional life as a wife and motherin addition to being a writer. Is it possible for women to have it all? How do you balance the professional and the personal?
LJ: Some people are wired, it seems, to "have it all"they have that kind of energy, an ambition that revs them up, keeps them going. Other people, like me for instance, are overwhelmed just thinking about having it allit means we'd have to "do it all," and there just aren't the hours in the day. I think one of the great challenges for women today, with all the choices available to us, is to make our choices, find our own balance, and then not be thrown off by the different choices other women make.
Q: While Iris and Lana strive to achieve this precarious balance, their mutual friend Deena and the cutthroat Fernanda end up alone. How does one retain a sense of self while struggling to ascend the career ladder?
LJ: You have to constantly remember who you are and what you care about, and try not to measure yourself by superficial standards. New York feeds on the new, the hip, the hot, and sometimes it's very arbitrary who gets ahead. You have to ignore all that, keep going, and work for success on your own terms.
Q: Iris's ex-husband and Lana's boyfriend both have commitment issues, though in varying degrees. Do men have more of a tendency to shy away from long-term relationships than women? Why or why not?
LJ: I don't think men shy away from long-term relationships any more than women do, but men like being in a rut (women hate being in ruts). Men don't like change; they find it annoying, uncomfortable, and even something to be afraid of. Lana is trying to get Sam out of his rut without scaring him. She probably could have jostled him sooner, but then, one of the reasons they are a match is that both are afraid of things that happen too fast. Iris's ex, Erich Biddle, is a man who, even if he wasn't manic-depressive, is not cut out for the daily sameness of a conventional life. This is something Iris comes to terms with over the course of the novel.
Q: Do you think city women have a harder time finding stable, committed men than women elsewhere?
LJ: No. There are as many wonderful men in cities as there are outside them.
Q: The inevitable crossing of paths between Iris and Lana was done with subtlety and ease. Did you have this mapped out when you began writing or did it come organically?
LJ: I did not have a meeting between Iris and Lana mapped out. But I did feel they were fated to meet, if only glancingly, crossing paths, because that so often happens in a big city. It eventually became clear that it was their careers that would converge. And it was a challenge to have Lana interview Iris.
Q: After years of critical writing and nonfiction, what moved you to write a novel?
LJ: I had always been afraid of fiction. The few pages I wrote in my twenties sounded like a teenager's diary, as if every sentence had an exclamation mark. So instead I focused on critical writing. I loved the distance it imposed, the objective voice setting out its argument with reason, but also with lyricism and imagination. I acquired a technical assurance that allowed me to write about anything. When I sat down to try fiction again, it was on a lark. I wrote with two goals: to be true and to be amusing. That's all I was trying to do. But I found I finally had the technique to fly. And I was swept away by how much fun it was.
Q: What books and authors inspire you?
LJ: I majored in English literature but my minor was Slavic language and literature and I think I've been influenced by the Russian sense of storytelling in general and Tolstoy in particular. Nothing was beneath his noticethe way a ribbon was tied, a gesture seen across the roomall the little things that add up to joy or desolation. I draw inspiration from Colette for the same reason. The hundred little upkeeps women must do to stay in the game, the sudden obsession with a new white blouse, not because you want a lot of blouses, but because of what it symbolizes to you and how, at that moment, the symbol, its hope, is what will keep you going.
I admire the writing of Muriel Spark for the unapologetic, unsentimental intelligence of her female characters. She'd rather be sharp than lyric, and at her best she manages to be both.
My husband, James Wolcott, was in the revision stage of his first novel, The Catsitters, while I was writing Women About Town. I learned a great deal watching him chooseout of respect for his charactershonesty and humor over verbal acrobatics. And the simplicity, the little pop or push, with which he ends each chapter is something I've tried to emulate.
And then there's Nancy Mitford. She insists that her characters be entertaining, but never for a second stops seeing life as it is. She has a light touch; but sadness moves under the surface. She leaves it there, shadowy, stirring, where it has more power. The light touch and the shadows, that's what I tried to learn from Mitford.
Q: Are you planning to continue writing fiction? What are you working on now?
LJ: Absolutely. I am working now on a novel in which Emily Edwards reappears. She is the best friend of a woman named Margaret, who is the main character, a sought-after window dresser in Manhattan.
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Excerpted from Women About Town © Copyright 2013 by Laura Jacobs. Reprinted with permission by Penguin Books. All rights reserved.
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