Thursday, February 16, 2017

Q&A with Lucinda Rosenfeld

Lucinda Rosenfeld, photo by Nina Subin
Lucinda Rosenfeld is the author of the new novel Class. Her other books include The Pretty One and I'm So Happy for You. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The New Yorker, and she lives in Brooklyn.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Class and for your main character, Karen?

A: The book was very much inspired and informed by my experience, first, exploring the public school system in Brooklyn, New York, where I live, in search of a kindergarten for my older daughter to attend; and, second, being a parent for the past six years in a mixed-race, mixed-income public school in a gentrifying--or, really, already gentrified--neighborhood.

Which is not to say that Class is an autobiographical work. But my angst and irritation over what I found to be a very inequitable school system--combined with an otherwise socially conscious parent population that seemed strangely apathetic about those inequities--definitely led me into the project.

I wanted Karen to stand in for the many well meaning, white, avowedly liberal mothers out there who, despite their belief systems, tend to act on fear when it comes to their own children.

But by making Karen Kipple a do-gooder by trade--she raises money for a hunger relief charity--I upped the ante slightly, since this is a woman who has devoted her life to helping those less fortunate than herself. Yet when it comes to her own daughter, Ruby, she can’t quite stomach her child’s proximity to actual poverty.

Q: You dedicate the book “To public schools everywhere.” Why did you pick that dedication, and what do you think your novel says about public schools?

A: Initially, I was going to dedicate the book to my 8 1/ 2 and 10 1/2 year old daughters, since a certain percentage of both the dialogue and the anecdotes in the book came directly from their mouths. But then I decided it was slightly perverse gesture to dedicate a book to two people who were not old enough to read it!

I eventually landed on the public school dedication idea because, in the end, and despite Class being satire, it was very much written as a celebration of public education.

On a more meta level, and even before Trump won and Betsy DeVos was nominated as secretary of education, it’s been clear to me that public education in this country is under siege--partly because the donor class hate unions and partly because there seems to be a kind of innate suspicion in this country of public utilities.

I really don’t understand it. Scandinavia has some of the best-educated populations in the world and there are no private or charter schools there. Certainly, the public schools in the U.S. have room to improve. But given the endless budget cuts to which they’re subjected--combined with the high-poverty, high-needs populations they serve, especially in urban areas--I believe they do an admirable job.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: I came up with the title before I ever wrote the first sentence. It’s kind of an obvious pun/double entendre, and yet to my amazement it had never been used before--at least not as a title for a novel.

In 1984, the cultural historian Paul Fussell published an acclaimed non-fiction book of the same name about social classes in the United States. I read the Fussell book and found it both amusing and canny. Though in its insistence on a WASP aristocracy standing astride the ladder in their L.L. Bean top-siders, martinis in hand, it seemed dated in exactly the way you might expect of a book written three and a half decades ago.

Q: One of the issues the book focuses on is race. Why did you choose that as a theme?

A: Well, I felt that there was this fairly large disconnect between the educated, white parent-body that I was encountering in my quintessentially liberal neighborhood and the choices they were making regarding their children’s schooling--and that, although no one wanted to say it out loud, it had everything to do with race.

The book takes place during the Obama years. And I’ve always suspected that, for a certain set of (upper middle class) white people, the fact that Obama had their vote somehow made them feel excused from having to make any difficult decisions in their own lives regarding the racial divide.

As for making race a major theme in my novel, I was initially reluctant to wade in for fear of offending both my white and black friends. But I think it’s just as important for white people to be talking about issues like school segregation as it is for communities of color to be pointing out how, for instance, separate is not equal. Being polite rarely leads to social change!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I hesitate to admit this (in case my agent reads it!), but I’m writing absolutely nothing right now. In today’s economy, promoting a book is a full time job--at least for the month after publication. Though I do have ambitions of writing a new novel or script that has something to do with obsession. That’s a theme I’m interested in right now.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Since you asked…all of my critics so far have assumed that the book takes place in Brooklyn. In fact, Class was intended to take place in a fictional, semi-gentrified urban any-land that could be Oakland, Chicago, D.C., or New York.  And if you read the book through, you will see that I never say the word “Brooklyn” once!

Secondly, I’d like my neighbors and parent friends to know that the fictional mixed-race, mixed-income urban elementary school in the first half of the book--Constance C. Betts--is not a replica of my daughters’ real life elementary school in Brooklyn. My daughters’ school has a much more sizeably affluent parent-body than the fictional school in Class does.

However, I will say that my real-life experience as an active parent at my daughters’ school marked the first time in my adult life that I found myself affiliated with an institution where, as a white person, I was in the minority. To that effect, it was and has been a leaning experience (and a very positive one at that)!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Lucinda Rosenfeld, please click here.

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