|Andrew Ridker, photo by George Baier IV|
Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Altruists, and for the Alter family?
A: I didn’t set out to write a family novel. The characters, beginning with Maggie, were born out of a set of anxieties and concerns I had in my first year out of college, watching friends spin off in various directions—some seeking (and attaining) big paychecks in the financial industry, others embarking on (and often abandoning) social justice projects.
In those years I was obsessed with the question of how to live a moral life, and how money complicated this issue. The family grew around these concerns, one by one. The nuclear family, and the idea of the family home, became a perfect staging ground for exploring issues of the American dream, namely upward mobility and homeownership.
Q: Heller McAlpin, on NPR, said of the book, "Many first novels fall into one of two categories: the campus novel, or the dysfunctional family novel. The Altruists combines the two, but don't let that put you off." What do you think of that description?
A: I was thinking about a number of literary traditions while I wrote The Altruists. The campus novel, sure, and eventually the family novel (“dysfunctional family novel” feels a bit redundant), but also the comic novel and the social novel. I’ve always loved literature that refracts broader social, cultural, political, and economic trends through the stories of individuals—and with a sense of humor.
Lastly, I was thinking about the "inheritance plot" common in Victorian literature, in which family members swarm a wealthy relative in the hopes of being written into the will; I thought it might be time to turn that notion on its head.
Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: I settled on the title fairly late in the writing process. Each member of the Alter family tries in his or her own (fraught, complicated) way to make the world a better place, to help others, at least in theory, so The Altruists seemed like a fitting title.
Depending on which character it refers to at a given moment, the title can be taken with varying degrees of irony, which fits the tone of the novel—sometimes ironic, sometimes sincere.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I hope that readers enjoy the book, first and foremost. The novel is a popular form and always has been; I do keep this in mind while writing. I have no political or philosophical aims, but I hope the novel prompts readers to reconsider certain received ideas—about money, morality, and family.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m in the late stages of a new novel, which opens in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election and is set in my home state of Massachusetts. It concerns friendship, obsession, climate change, idealism, and, as ever, the intersection of privilege and progress.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Readers can visit my website for information on forthcoming events or just to drop a line.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb