A Conversation with Elinor Lipman
Do women as smart as Alice Thrift (B.S. MIT, MD HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL) fall for men like Ray Russo (traveling salesman without portfolio)
I’ve got my dukes up waiting for that question. Yes, they do, everywhere I look. It’s the love her/hate him syndrome carried to an extreme. Some readers get touchy about this, though: They want women on the page to make good decisions, no missteps, meet and marry noble people, and for the character to see the warning signs that are evident to the reader. Ray becomes Alice’s boyfriend through persistence and by default. There’s no one else, and he tries harder and knows a good thing when he sees one. He’s a little sleazier than the average inappropriate guy, but I couldn’t help myself. And I grew fonder and fonder of him as the story progressed. Let’s not overlook that Alice was an excellent candidate to confuse good sex with love, and perseverance as devotion. Besides, don’t I say somewhere in the waning pages that this is a cautionary tale?
How did you decide to make Alice a graduate of Harvard Medical School?
I went to college down the street from Harvard Medical School and attended enough mixers at Vanderbilt Hall to lose any awe I had of its residents. Besides, Alice needed a very good school on her C.V. to make her downward spiral more poignant and inexplicable.
You didn’t name Alice’s hospital....
Because there’s bound to be a few hideously unsympathetic and philandering surgeons on any given staff that will be seen as models for Alice’s attendings. I expect people to sidle up to me and ask, “Is Dr. Hastings based on Dr. X at such-and-such hospital?” The answer is no; I made it all up. I didn’t want to make up a hospital name, though; I don’t think the world needs another fictional “Boston General.”
Is there really an Einstein Drive in Princeton, New Jersey?
Absolutely. I found it on MapQuest.
Where did Leo Frawley come from?
I was at a friend’s son’s bar mitzvah and the most interesting person at my table was my friend’s hairdresser–male, Irish, straight-- who was one of 13 children and raised in Brighton, a working class section of Boston. Leo the character popped up the next day. I knew Leo, in the sense that I grew up in a Catholic city in St. Margaret’s parish, where a lot of my friends had siblings in the double digits.
What is THE PURSUIT OF ALICE THRIFT is about?
Friendship...and being rescued by it. But then again, I think all my books are about friendship. And yearning. The more specific summary is: It’s about a woman, a surgical intern, book-smart but socially inept, and how she finds her way through the world. I might mention Pygmalion... I usually add that the challenge was to take a hapless, clueless, humorless narrator and make her sympathetic and even endearing. A friend of mine claims that I once said all my books are about “Who’s sorry now?” I don’t remember saying that, but I liked it a lot.
There are two mothers in The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, neither mother-of-the-year material.
Absolutely correct. I have a much better time writing difficult mothers than sweet ones. I found a quote in Carol Shields’ biography of Jane Austen that may apply: “...Mothers are essential in her fiction. They are the engines that push the action forward, even when they fail to establish much in the way of maternal warmth.” Alice’s mother has a penchant for the psychiatric and wants to be her bottled-up daughter’s confidante. And then there’s Mrs. Frawley, Leo’s mom, at the far end of the maternal continuum–no tête-à-têtes or unbosomings for her. Just the opposite: Don’t ask/don’t tell.
Was Ray really faking it? Or was there something there?
Don’t blame Ray. I muddied the emotional waters because I grew fonder and fonder of him as the story progressed, and began to think, Maybe he means it. Maybe he really loves Alice. But I had put a frame around the story that was its raison d’etre, Alice saying at the end of the first chapter, “This is about the weak link in my own character–wishful thinking–and a husband of short duration with a history of bad deeds.” I wanted to be faithful to my opening, which meant that neither Alice nor I, in the end, could succumb to Ray’s charms. Of course I wanted the reader to wonder all along if Ray was sincere. And yes I think there was something there.
So we're not talking about following any outline, then?
Can’t do it. It takes me months to come up with an idea for a new book , so when the opening sentence or the premise finally suggests itself , I just want to sit down and get going. I’m constantly puzzling over what comes next, what will my character do today and tomorrow, which leads to some trial and error, but also brings in an element of surprise–organic surprises, we hope; nothing that strains one’s credulity. Eventually, with every book, I make notes that will help me bring down every ball that I’ve thrown up in the air. My notes for Alice in the waning weeks of the writing said, “Bring back Mr. Parrish....Parents come to Boston...Mary?... A final word about Hastings.... Restage wedding.... ‘Have I mentioned that this is a cautionary tale?’...Epilogue. “ I saved that piece of paper.
Your husband’s a doctor. Is there any part of him in Alice?
A lot-- but almost purely vocabulary. He can rattle off, “Herniated nucleus pulposus,” and not hear it as funny. Because he’s a radiologist, he knows every bone and every inch of the human body, so he came in handy, as did his Grant’s Atlas of Anatomy. He’s actually very funny, but he has a clinical bent that makes him say, “I was febrile and diaphoretic,” instead of “I was hot and sweaty.” When Ray had his alleged vasovagal reaction, my husband was the one who suggested the cause: straining at stool–and smiled when he said it.
How did you choose fudge as Ray’s career?
My husband and I were once spending a weekend at friends’ ski house. Our son was 5 or 6. The friends, parents of three, provided a babysitter whom they’d met at the ski lodge and had used before. The kid arrived, a teenaged boy, kind of scruffy. My husband asked if he worked at the lodge. Yes. Ski instructor? No--the snack bar. “What do you do in the off-season?” my husband asked, unhappy already. “Concessions,” he answered. “My family travels around the northeast and sells fudge at carnivals.” He might as well have said, “We’re vagrants and child molesters.” My husband took me aside and said, “We can’t go out tonight.” That episode came to mind when I needed a trade for Ray, which, shall we say, didn’t inspire confidence.
Where did Sylvie Schwartz, tough cookie internal medicine resident, come from?
I had an across-the-hall neighbor my sophomore year in college who was brassy and smart and much braver than I was in all social matters. And prematurely sardonic. Though outrageous, she was always entertaining, and underneath her bluster and bravado she had a very big heart.
Is there anything else you want to add?
Maybe a word about alleged happy endings. And for this I’m quoting Carol Shields again, my literary hero, in her latest novel, UNLESS: “I have bundled up each of the loose narrative strands, but what does such fastidiousness mean? It doesn’t mean that all will be well for ever and ever, amen; it means that for five minutes a balance has been achieved at the margin of the novel’s thin textual plane; make that five seconds, make that the millionth part of a nanosecond.” I love that. I don’t believe readers should be left unsatisfied, with characters staring into the abyss, for the sake of literary coolness.
From the Hardcover edition.