The Professors’ Wives’ Club – Author Q & A
Why did you write a novel about professors’ wives?
The initial inspiration came amid a rather giggly, wine-soaked evening with one of my girlfriends who, like me, is a professor’s wife. After our usual catch-up, the cabernet began to flow and we found ourselves gossiping about other faculty wives. We talked about a wife planning a boob job; another pregnant with her fifth child. The best piece of gossip came last, however: a professor’s wife who’d just run off with one of her husband’s grad students.
The next morning I started to hammer out my first ideas for the novel. As I typed, the more I realized what intriguing characters professors’ wives would make. Even if they aren’t professors themselves (which many are), most professors’ wives are deeply connected and invested in the university where their husband or partner works. Like my friend and me, they live in faculty housing, they go to the campus gym, often their kids go to the same daycare.
Yet, these women, women like my friend and me, often have little power when it comes to university decisions. They don’t get much say if the university decides its budget cannot stretch to child care anymore or it wants to close its faculty housing.
Speaking of which, where did you come up with the idea about professors’ wives doing battle with a ruthless dean to save a faculty garden from demolition?
The idea came to me at the NYU children’s playground. Although situated on busy Bleecker Street among towering faculty housing buildings, the university playground is a serene little oasis in the heart of downtown Manhattan. It has delightful amounts of shade, two vast sandpits, and a heavy gate that even the nimblest of little Houdini fingers can’t undo.
Not long after I started working on ideas for the book, I was playing with my son at this playground and suddenly had a gripping panic. Wouldn’t it be awful if the playground were shut down and demolished? Would NYU ever decide to use the space for a new lecture hall or, worse, a parking garage?
I looked around at the park and the other moms with their kids and it then occurred to me how all the moms I knew there would put up a tenacious fight if the university ever tried such a thing.
The book flooded out after that day. In fact, over the next few months I could often be found typing furiously away on the book, sitting on a bench in the university playground with Benny playing in the nearby sandpit.
Your book portrays not only a unique story about professors’ wives, but also a story about the power and strength of female friendships. Why did you choose to write such a story?
Relationships between women frequently get a bad rap, in my opinion. Women are too often portrayed in film, TV, and books as bitchy, competitive, and at odds with one another. We constantly see the bitchy woman boss mistreating the young female employee; or the woman who treats her nanny like a slave; or the sisters who hate one another; or the mother and daughter who constantly fight; or the “friends” who bitch behind each other’s back or betray each other over a guy.
Granted, in real life, women can be like this. But not all the time. Women, in my experience, also have wonderful, supportive, and nurturing relationships with other women.
I wrote The Professors’ Wives’ Club to echo what Sex in the City, Steel Magnolias, and books like Kate Jacobs’ The Friday Night Knitting Club have done a wonderful job showing us. In other words, how joyful, fun, powerful, and sometimes life-sustaining female relationships and friendships can be.
Which character is most like you?
Probably Sofia. She’s a mom living in downtown Manhattan with a nice husband who’s a professor…which sounds a lot like me. Also, I gave birth watching Terminator movies just as Sofia does in the book (it really is true!). However, Sofia has a feistiness that I can only fantasize about having. She’s fearless yet also fun and loving. I love that about her.
Your book is set at the fictional Manhattan U. which bears more than a passing resemblance to NYU. How much of the book is true?
Well, my husband is a professor at NYU; we live in university housing, so that’s the world I know, and so, of course, real life sneaks into the novel here and there. But I’m not telling exactly where. My husband likes his job at the university too much!
Edgar Allan Poe and his poem “The Raven” play an important role in The Professors’ Wives’ Club. What were your reasons for this?
I always wanted The Professors’ Wives Club to have some kind of literary subplot running through it – I have a PhD in English Literature, after all! I choose Edgar Allan Poe and “The Raven” for three reasons. First, I just love Poe’s work and particularly “The Raven.” Second, Poe wrote and published the poem when living in Greenwich village, where I live and where my book is set. Finally, Manhattan U is loosely based on NYU, and NYU and Edgar Allan Poe have a history. During the time he lived in the Village, Poe was meant to deliver a reading at the university…but was too drunk to show up! Also, a few years ago, NYU caused a furor by pulling down the old house on Third Street where Edgar Allan Poe lived for six months, to make way for a new law school Building. Both these stories show up in the novel.
One of your character’s, Mary Havemeyer, is in a physically abusive relationship. What were your reasons for including such a character?
When people hear the title The Professors’ Wives’ Club, the last thing they would probably expect is a story about a professor’s wife and her abusive husband. After all, aren’t male professors a smart and gentlemanly crew who would never abuse their wives? For the most part, of course, they are.
But domestic violence goes on in all walks of life, including behind the closed doors of faculty marriages, and I wanted to show this. I wanted to show that smart women, strong women, and accomplished women can be abused by their supposedly smart and accomplished husbands.
There aren’t many portrayals of domestic violence in popular culture, especially few in middle or upper-class settings. Yet, in spite of this, the Family Violence Prevention Fund reports that nearly one-third of American women report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives. This statistic is staggering, and thus, it seems to me, we need to represent, talk about, and deal with the issue of domestic violence much much more often.
What are you working on now?
I just finished and sold a second novel which tells the story of two female professors working in the English Department at Manhattan U (the same University featured in The Professors’ Wives Club). I had a lot of fun writing about professors’ wives, but I always knew I wanted to write a novel that explored the campus in more detail. I wanted to show what life is like in the classroom, in faculty meetings, in the library, on study abroad programs. I know a lot about this world from my own years in academia, and I had a lot of fun spinning all the gossip, competition, jealousies, even forbidden romantic liaisons into my new novel.
You have a PhD in literature, but you decided not to stay in academia. What is it like being a novelist instead?
It’s great. Creating my own fictional worlds is proving just as fun, perhaps more fun, than studying and analyzing the fictional worlds created by other people. I’m glad I decided not to stay in academia. Being a writer instead of a professor means no faculty meetings, no teaching prep, no tenure worries, no never-ending reading lists, and no hours fretting over a lost citation. However, I do acknowledge the rich foundation that my academic studies gave me for my current writing life. It taught me how to read books with a keen and studious eye. It taught me the power of words and the tools of research. It gave me great training for executing projects and working for hours on my own with only my laptop and a steaming cup of tea for company! Plus, I can still enjoy the best parts of the academic world through my husband. Together we are faculty fellows in residence in one of NYU’s dorms which means we have a lot of interactions with students and I get to organize and attend all kinds of interesting discussions and events.
Oh, and there’s also the not-so-small fact that the intriguing and gossip-ridden world of academia has given me great fodder for my novels!