Crossing Washington Square –
Author Q & A
You have a PhD in English Literature. How did this help with writing Crossing Washington Square?
My own academic experiences are everywhere in this book. Like Diana, I once taught Sylvia Plath to undergraduates. Like Rachel, I sometimes struggled to ignite a discussion in a classroom full of tired students! I’ve also seen first hand how vicious, snobbish, and competitive academics can be with each other. Yet, at the same time, I have seen what a fascinating and important world academia really is.
While in grad school, I also received a wonderful grounding in literary theory which really shaped this novel. I know a lot of people come out of literature degrees complaining about too much theory and not enough reading of the books themselves. But I really valued the theoretical and philosophical side of my studies. I enjoyed asking questions about how we look at books and why and how politics and culture shape what we read and the books that are written. I particularly loved exploring the debates about “high culture” and “popular culture” – in other words, whether it is more important to study Shakespeare or whether Stephen King and Nora Roberts are worthy of study too.
This high culture and popular culture debate is very important in the novel. Rachel is a scholar of popular fiction, while Diana is a rigorous Sylvia Plath scholar who thinks that popular fiction is an easy ride for students. Why did you write about this?
As I said, I’ve always found this debate fascinating. I wanted to bring the debate alive in fiction and in a way that didn’t denigrate either side. I agree with Diana that the study of the classics and “high” literature is vital and should not be pushed aside. But I also believe, like Rachel does, that studying popular fiction is important too.
Popular fiction – including thrillers, romance, or women’s fiction like my own – is often considered fluff, easy reading, or simple escapism. To dismiss it as such, however, is too simplistic, as well as elitist. It overlooks what is positive, fascinating, and important about popular writing. As Rachel says in the book, quoting her mentor, “popular culture influences who we are, what we think, and what’s going to happen in our world and in our lives.” How could we not deem it important to study what is popular?
I also think popular fiction can be a site of great community. People come together in book groups to talk about such books. Even if readers don’t belong to book groups, they often find community within the books themselves. I’m sure there are hundreds, if not thousands of women out there, who found solace and companionship in Cannie, Jennifer Weiner’s plus-sized heroine of Good in Bed, for example. Although a reader might find community in the works of Hemingway, Salman Rushdie, or even Shakespeare, they probably wouldn’t find this particular kind of companionship.
Do you have a favorite character, Diana or Rachel?
That’s a tough one! My knee jerk response is to say Rachel because, out of the two, I identify most with her. As a grad student, I was always caught in a conundrum. By day I would be reading classical literature and poetry, but at night I loved to read popular fiction. Bridget Jones’ Diary, I have to say, is one of my all time favorite books! Rachel is like this too. She’s also flawed and emotional, yet good and honest and brave. I like that about her.
Every time I revisit the book, however, I like Diana more too. She has such strength and poise, and even though she is pretty darn mean to Rachel in the early days, she sees the error of her ways and shows great dignity and bravery in the way she changes. She’s also frightening clever and commanding with her students. She’s the kind of uber-professor that every academic secretly wants to be.
Are the characters in the novel based on people you know?
Rachel and Diana are amalgams but many of the side characters – for example, the professors in the faculty meeting scene – are based on academics I have known. I’m not going to name names though! Carson McEvoy is a fabrication, I must admit. Never in my days have I encountered such a handsome, well-dressed, sports-car-driving, and flirtatious professor. Most male academics fit the common stereotype – corduroy jackets, leather elbow patches, smudged spectacles, battered briefcases. As students, we probably all had a crush on some professor or other. But looking back, they were probably no Carson McEvoy. We overlooked their bad dress or questionable looks because we loved their brains!
Crossing Washington Square makes it seem like university departments are hotbeds for scandal, romance, and gossip. Is this really true?
The university probably isn’t much different from other work places. Where there are people working side-by-side day-in day-out, there will always be gossip, romance, and scandal!
Did any other novels about university life influence you in writing this book?
I always loved the humor of David Lodge’s Trading Places and Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim. I’ve also read and enjoyed Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, Richard Russo’s The Straight Man, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and Francine Prose’s Blue Angel. But what I noticed about such campus fiction was the lack of female professors in leading roles. Even Francine Prose and Zadie Smith’s novels focus on male professors. Furthermore, most of these male professors are disillusioned drunks who quite often sleep with their students! I wanted to write a novel with female professors taking the lead and I wanted these women to be strong and smart and interesting – instead of drunk, disillusioned, and preoccupied with questionable sexual liaisons!
You chose to leave academia to pursue fiction writing. Did writing this book make you miss the university world?
Not at all! Academia is a tough world these days. There are few jobs and a lot of competition. Plus, if you have young kids like I do, it is hard to juggle teaching, writing, publishing, and committee meetings with the day to day demands of being a parent. I admire those people who manage to do it. However, my husband is a professor and together we are faculty in residence in one of NYU’s residence halls. This means I still get to keep my toe in the academic waters. I run book groups and events for students in our dorm and I’m always the first reader of my husband’s work.