Two of this summer's biggest authors debate workplace dramas and writing women on the edge
This summer’s titles cover a range of topics: From campus cult leaders to Hamptons divorce drama to buzzy memoirs to crime of every sort (#beachreads). But this month sees two highly-anticipated titles that tackle the topic of over-achieving in the most fascinating of ways.
First up is Eliza Kennedy’s Do This For Me (on shelves now) which can be best described as the most deliciously over-the-top divorce tale. Raney Moore is a higher-than-high-power attorney who suddenly discovers her husband’s infidelity and, well, she doesn’t take it very lightly. In one fell swoop she cancels his credit cards, moves out (children in tow), and hacks into his Twitter account for some swift sabotage. In what will not come as a shock, she quickly regrets this decision and begins to call into question all of her long-held beliefs about what marriage and infidelity really mean — and how she can reconcile her self-image with her home life.
In The Glitch, by Elisabeth Cohen (out May 22), our heroine is Shelley Stone — think of her as Marissa Mayer or Sheryl Sandberg on steroids. She works out at 3:30 a.m., she puts sex with her husband into her Outlook calendar, she is obsessed with multivitamins. But after meeting someone with her exact same name (who also bears an uncanny resemblance to herself), she starts to wonder whether this lifestyle is causing her to lose what little grip on reality she had to begin with.
Below, the two authors put their heads together to discuss the inspiration behind their books, how the #MeToo movement has affected the workplace, and just how they conjured these fascinating women.
Elisabeth Cohen: The first part of your book is a gripping revenge fantasy come to life, in which Raney finds out that her husband is cheating and responds with pure, unadulterated vengeance. Part of the fun of her revenge — until it goes too far — is that it also feels like a revolt against social media. Was it fun to write something so extreme?
Eliza Kennedy: First of all, thank you for reading Do This For Me, and congratulations on The Glitch! Part of the success of any novel is how much fun it enlists on the reader’s behalf, and I wanted to make an ordinarily dreary subject — infidelity— fun. So I made Raney, my heroine, a take-no-prisoners litigator, and I made her rage at the discovery of her husband Aaron’s affair all-consuming. In the space of a few hours she cancels his credit cards, cuts off his phone, empties their home, and moves out with their children. Finally, she hacks his Twitter and takes aim at the reputation he’s cultivated as a beloved science celebrity. It’s extreme, even a little diabolical, and Raney herself comes to regret what she’s done. But for a little while, I wanted her — and readers — to live the ultimate avenging fantasy of every wronged spouse.
EC: A novel that begins with infidelity seems like it’ll inevitably end with the couple either reconciling or splitting for good. Did you find it difficult to weigh whether Aaron and Raney should end up together, and how their relationship would play out after his affair?
EK: Again, the affair in fiction is usually so bleak. I wanted to veer from the script and ask: What is sex? What is marriage? What is a wife, a mother, a professional woman? Her husband’s affair is the catalyst that causes Raney to search for answers to these questions, to figure out who she is and what she really wants. The only conclusion that I wanted to convey was that Raney’s happily-ever-after — whatever it ended up being — needed to depend on her, and not on a man.
EC: At one point, Raney has a paralegal summarize for her some causes of infidelity, as if she’s having him do research for a case. I’m sure you’ve read Esther Perel’s take that sexual desire is fundamentally at odds with the comfort and security of a long-term relationship. Do you think Raney would reject that idea?
EK: There’s making love, right? And there’s plain old sex. And there’s a spectrum of emotional and intimate states in between. Raney doesn’t understand any of it. (Does anybody? I don’t.) As part of her journey, I wanted her to explore every station of desire, from the most shallow encounter to the most meaningful, almost spiritual bond. In Raney-ish fashion, she throws all her energies into the project, enlisting research help from her minions, pestering her best friend Sarah about why and how she enjoys sex so much, and ultimately, performing some fieldwork of her own. By the end, I think she’d be leery of any grand, one-size-fits-all pronouncement about desire versus security.
EC: There’s a lot in this book about toxic behavior in the workplace, an especially relevant topic right now. Yet despite the firm’s culture, Raney seems to thrive there, until she begins to notice its effect on younger female associates. How do you think she is able to avoid confronting these issues for so long?
EK: If the last year has shown anything, it’s that for all our advances toward gender equality, we still live in a world that very much belongs to men. It would be impossible to write a book about a successful professional like Raney and not talk about how she navigated that world as a woman. Pursuing that thread also gave me an opportunity to show sexism from a unique perspective: that of the unwittingly complicit female power broker. Raney doesn’t see the problem because she doesn’t want to see it. She just wants to succeed. It’s not until a young female associate schools Raney in how her attitude has harmed other women that she confronts it, and begins to use her power for good. When I was a Biglaw associate, I was fortunate to work with women partners who fought to make my firm a fair and welcoming place to work. But it wasn’t easy. In a profession that literally exists to create and resolve conflict, it’s impossible to avoid people who will use any perceived advantage to make you feel bad.
EC: I read that Raney works at the same fictional law firm as the protagonist of your first novel, I Take You. What inspired you to return to that setting with this book? Can we look forward to more stories of bad behavior at Calder Tayfield?
EK: I spent three years in law school, one year clerking, and five years practicing law. The stories, the characters and the milieu will never get old for me, and probably result in other books about lawyers — and all that we never dared talk about during the 9-to-5. Right now, though, I’m writing the screenplay for Do This For Me, so I’m never far from that world at any given moment.
Eliza Kennedy: The Glitch is so many things — corporate satire, techno thriller, poignant family drama, and hilarious portrait of a woman on the edge. Was there a kernel from which it all grew — an image, a scene, an idea that fired your imagination?
Elisabeth Cohen: I was out to dinner with my husband — a rare grown-up night out — and I was telling him about this profile of Marissa Mayer I’d seen in Vogue. There was a photo of her posed upside-down on a lawn chair, wearing a tight dress, with her hair falling down. She’s lying there as if she’s a mannequin waiting for someone to come along and set her upright. I thought, it was a really bad call for her to pose like that. I also thought, I’m totally judging her on appearance, which is part of what makes it so hard for women to succeed.
That photo drove me nuts. I can’t really explain why. It wasn’t like I’d lost out on the Yahoo job to her. I was miserable at work, and I didn’t want to hear all the “Lean In” stuff in the air just then, and I was writing a novel that wasn’t interesting, even to me. So I was giving this extended critique while my husband ate tapas and drank a lot of wine. Finally he sat back and said, you should write a novel about a female CEO.
EK: Some of my favorite sections of the book are those that convey the absolute joy Shelley takes in her work, which is rare in novels. Did any of that rub off in the writing process? Did you feel any secret yearnings to be a ruthless, powerful (if slightly unhinged) tech CEO?
EC: I think people in jobs like Shelley’s do genuinely love it, at least most of the time. They’re giving so much of themselves over to work. They have to be getting something out of it besides a paycheck. My husband’s grandfather was the head of a company, and listening to him talk about it, you got the sense he wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything.
I couldn’t physically handle Shelley’s schedule: the spirit is semi-willing, but the flesh is weak. Languor is more my natural speed, though raising children and working has made me more productive and hardworking than I ever thought I’d be. My kids think I’m ruthless and type-A because I make them brush their hair in the morning, but mostly I’m just trying to keep us all afloat.
EK: Obviously, you finished this book before the #MeToo movement burst onto the scene. Yet some of Shelley’s observations about male-female dynamics in her world seem prescient. How much did the issue of workplace sexism inform your writing?
EC: Your book tackles this subject so well, Eliza, and I especially love how you delve into the double standard for bad behavior at work. While #MeToo brought to light specific perpetuators, it wasn’t news that these behaviors existed. I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve had only a few run-ins with workplace sexism, but a few is not none. And something doesn’t have to be Harvey-Weinstein-level terrible to hit you hard at a vulnerable moment and discourage you. I was interested in what it would be like to be a woman who seems to have been unaffected by sexism, even as she rises to the top of a male-dominated industry. In Shelley’s case, it’s due to a combination of determination, cluelessness, and luck.
EK: Shelley’s company produces a device called Conch: a tiny, wearable personal assistant that whispers directions, hints, and admonishments in the user’s ear. Having spent so much time with Shelley, has her voice become a kind of Conch to you? Does she whisper to you about deliverables, action items, and business accountability metrics — or worse, the superiority of quinoa over simple carbs?
EC: I did have a Shelley-like moment in the razor aisle at Target, gazing at the pink and aqua razors, when I realized I could just buy a man’s razor. I am lucky not to need a Conch to optimize my productivity. I have my mom’s voice stuck in my head, telling me to do things. (And it never needs charging!)
EK: What are you working on now?
EC: I’m developing an app that folds laundry. Just kidding. I’m writing about a family, but it’s something totally different.