Molly Jong-Fast pierces reality by projecting her own obsessions throughout the pages of The Social Climber’s Handbook, a sharp look into the lives of Upper East Side denizens. She’s dichotomously self-defeating and confident. She’s smart and hysterical. I feel like she’s the sister I never had [or even wanted]. Molly is charming, caring and real. She loves Edith Wharton [me too!], fears flying [insert joke about her mother Erica Jong’s groundbreaking feminist tome Fear of Flying], has an MFA from Bennington, adores a good mystery and when she’s not taking care of her 3-year-old twins or their older brother, is reading a classic novel. Molly’s currently working her way through The Sacred Fount by Henry James.
Molly and I had a two-part conversation by phone on Friday.
Amy Steele: How did you come up with the idea to write The Social Climber’s Handbook?
Molly Jong-Fast: I wanted to do something like The Talented Mr. Ripley. That’s what I sat down to do. That’s a book about an outsider. He’s an outsider trying to make it. Daisy’s an outsider too but it’s not the same kind of alienation. There were two things I wanted to happen. I read an interview with Bret Easton Ellis. I think he’s a really great writer. I love that book Glamorama. He was saying, “There’s no such thing as a female serial killer.” And that’s not really true. There was Eileen Wuornos… that prostitute serial killer and there are a lot of women who kill all the time, especially lately. So that kind of annoyed me. And the other thing is that I walk around not that well dressed and, relatively speaking to my peer group, I look homeless. I really stand out. People say, “You’re so down to earth.” I say, “I’m not down to earth. I’m just a mess.” But even I could probably get away with a really serious crime because people just don’t look at white people as critically. They just don’t.
I read a lot of books. Much of what I read is classics. But I was going through a spate of reading mysteries. Readers are willing to suspend their beliefs when they really like something. In some ways what makes me a bad writer is that I’m really stuck on whether something can happen. I get nihilistic—“Nobody reads. Nobody’s going to buy it.”
I’m a huge Edith Wharton fan. Huge. The truth is that people like to read about that world and it’s interesting. It’s interesting to all of us and it’s interesting to me.
Amy Steele: You said Daisy was kind of powerless.
Molly Jong-Fast: I have this interest in people being powerless and how you get to a position where you are so powerless and then how one could conceivably get out of it. How do you get out of something like that when you’re stuck?
Amy Steele: I see that in The Social Climber’s Handbook but then also that her husband thinks she’s powerless but doesn’t know everything about her.
Molly Jong-Fast: My obsession has always been the secret life of the American housewife. Having grown up with parents who were divorcing and divorced, I didn’t know that marriage is its own thing. It’s not necessarily a good thing– marriage as an institution. Our parents didn’t really explain to us that it’s actually quite a lot of work. It requires an enormous amount of sacrifice of things you might normally not want to sacrifice. I was surprised when I got married. And a lot of women really make the ultimate sacrifice by just totally sacrificing themselves to the institution. Some of that is sacrificing the larger part of who you are. I was always feeling bad about myself. And what happened when I had kids, which was really great, was that I didn’t have much time to feel bad because I had the physical labor of childcare.
Amy Steele: I was the same way. My parents divorced when I was young and my mother re-married when I was about 12. I see commercials and things with women saying, “This is the day I’ve dreamed about.” And I never dreamed about a wedding or getting or being married. Who dreams about a wedding? Particularly thinking about the Royal Wedding today.
Molly Jong-Fast: It’s the whole institution that we don’t get great information on. We don’t have a great sense of what it really is. The compromises and sacrifices that one makes when one gets married aren’t that different from what every American woman makes when she gets married.
I never particularly thought I’d get married. I just sort of wandered into the situation that I’m in. I’m lucky because I really like my husband a lot. I never thought, “I’m going to get married and I’m going to have five kids.”
Amy Steele: I guess I’m just not the marrying type as Dorothy Parker or Mae West would say.
Molly Jong-Fast: The world has changed so much. In some ways, the worst of the feminist movement was saying that you could have it all because you can’t have it all. I’m so ineffective it’s a joke. I write one book every seven years. I don’t have it all. If I had to support my family we’d be on the street. I have a little bit. You have to make compromises all the time. I think that’s just a function of life too.
Amy Steele: What makes the Upper East Side stand out from all the other neighborhoods of Manhattan?
Molly Jong-Fast: When I lived up here as a kid it was not very fancy. It was basically like Brooklyn Heights. I grew up in a townhouse. It was constantly getting broken into. It wasn’t a particularly glamorous place to live. My parents had a terrible divorce and everything like that but I didn’t think we were rich. I thought we were lower-middle-class and then I went to college and I met people who had grown up on food stamps. They really had hardship. No one in my family had any idea about money because we were all artists. If anyone made any money, it would quickly be frittered away. It was an extremely terrifying childhood because I always felt like there was no stability.
Now my husband works in finance and we’re fine. It’s also that I can’t think about it too much. I’m not much but I’m all I think about. [Molly jokes]
What is good about the financial crisis was that people stopped looking at bankers as super heroes. That was really a bad thing.
I did what I set out to do. I wrote a satirical novel. If you pick this book up on a beach, you’re going to really enjoy it and it’s not going to make you any stupider. There’s a lot of interesting writing in there and there are a lot of big words. And I think when you take a topic, like rich people on the Upper East Side, back to Edith Wharton, it’s an interesting world and it’s not being written about terribly well. Certainly there are subject matters that will get you more sympathy from your reading public. I think it’s still a very valid and interesting thing.
Amy Steele: What makes you want to write mysteries?
Molly Jong-Fast: I really like mysteries. A lot. Very smart people read mysteries. I’d really like to do a big generational novel that you’d need to have a spread sheet to keep track of everything that’s happening. I love those kinds of books but I’m not sure I’m there yet as a writer. I’m not sure with all these children [three] I’m organized enough. You really have to keep track of everything. But I can’t imagine I’m going to get smarter as I get older so maybe I should.
Amy Steele: Why did you decide to become a writer?
Molly Jong-Fast: I sort of happened into it and I think that’s why children of writers do become writers. You sort of think that this is what people do. Who doesn’t write books? I got into it and I couldn’t get out of it. I love the writing. I like getting into something and going back and forth with it and making it work. I find myself really interested in it. I love the process of it.
Amy Steele: What do you like about the process?
Molly Jong-Fast: I like coming up with something. The problem I always have is that I can’t think of a plot. So it takes me three years to think of a plot and then I’ll write out-takes of other plots and then I’ll have to throw them out. A lot of times I’ll write something and think, “This is really brilliant.” Then I’ll give it to my husband [Yale PhD] and then I’ll read it again and say, “This is the worst thing I’ve ever written,” and I’ll throw it out.
I don’t have a great sense of perspective of my work. The one thing about writing a novel is that you just need to do it and you can’t worry about whether it will sell or whether people will like it. You just have to do it. It’s really hard. It’s a hard question. Do you matter? Does anyone matter in such a fast-paced world?
Amy Steele: What kind of education did you have that has shaped you as a writer?
Molly Jong-Fast: Basically my education has been my PhD husband telling me to read this, read that. He edits my work. He’s a very big part to why I’ve gotten to be a better writer. I don’t think by any stretch of the imagination I’m where I’d like to be when I die which is hopefully not tomorrow. I’m also dyslexic and that has given me a lot of trouble. Being dyslexic made me a much more compelling human being. I feel like I grew up in relatively privileged circumstances but I definitely felt in my mind I wasn’t doing well in school. I couldn’t get a handle on it.
Read my review of The Social Climber’s Handbook.