Alice Johnson sits down with Deborah Copaken Kogan, whose novel The Red Book was inspired by Havard's five-yearly alumni class report, which features classmates' updates and experiences.
What gave you the initial idea for The Red Book?
I'd recently been to my 20th college reunion and written my Red Book entry before going, but then, a few months later - at the start of the recession – nearly everything I'd written was no longer true, including my address, because we had to move from Manhattan's Upper West Side to Harlem when our family was hit with a job loss just as my father was dying of pancreatic cancer. But then, rereading everyone's entries, it struck me that, really, hardly any of the ways we present ourselves in public matches what's going on in private.
How did your time at Harvard influence the plot?
Harvard is one of those words that, if you utter it anywhere on the globe, people know (or at least they think they know) what you're talking about. I wanted to steal a little bit of the metonymic weight from the word and expose the college for what it is: just a college, where lots of driven, smart kids end up, then spend the rest of their lives living up to some impossible ideal of where they should be 20 years later – all because of their Harvard degree.
What kind of issues do alumni face?
People make assumptions about Harvard grads that, in this day and age, are mostly untrue. Many of the people I metthere did not come from wealthy backgrounds; a bunch were on financial aid. Not everyone was brilliant. And a large percentage of students have gone on to live completely normal, average lives.
How do your characters illustrate the issues you've mentioned?
Mia, having failed as an actress, is home raising her kids; Addison, believing herself above the law, above things such as hard work and dedication to a craft, calls herself an artist without having earned that right; Clover has succeeded by every standard Harvard would embrace, and yet she bears some responsibility for the painful, destructive upheaval in housing and banking; and Jane has done everything right, but her chosen profession, journalism, is fading for reasons wholly unrelated to her efforts as a viable means of earning a living.
The Red Book has been termed the "precursor to Facebook". Do you agree?
Mark Zuckerberg went to Harvard, and Facebook derives from the Harvard Facebook (a book handed out to freshmen with the names, hometowns and schools of each classmate), and the Red Bookhas always been more of a "where-are-they-now" version of that freshman Facebook, so I'd have to say it's the two together that feels more like the precursor to Facebook. The Red Bookis one of the most fascinating documents I've ever read, and every five years it gets more and more so.
Do you expect your children to attend Harvard or other Ivy League universities?
Harvard is a known entity to me, and I enjoyed my time there, so I'd be happy to see my son in the Yard, but I also want him to choose the college that feels best to him. It's his life, not mine.
How does it feel to have a New York Times bestseller?
I cried when I heard. I've been writing full-time since 1998. I sit alone in a room, typing away, hoping that the fruits of my labour will resonate with someone, anyone. Novel-writing is a labour of love. You do it because you feel compelled to do it, compelled to tell stories, compelled to connect with readers. That connection is everything.
What's next for you in terms of work?
I've been commissioned to write a TV pilot based on my first book, Shutterbabe, which is a memoir of the years that I worked as a war photographer. That's all I'm allowed to say on the topic for now.
The Red Book was released in April by Virago.