Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Q&A with Rebecca Hanover




Rebecca Hanover is the author of the new novel The Last Applicant. Her other books include the YA novel The Similars. She lives in San Francisco.


Q: What inspired you to write The Last Applicant, and how did you create your characters Audrey and Sarah?


A: The idea for this book popped into my head while I was at a Starbucks meeting another mom who wanted my advice on "the preschool application process." Absurd, I know, but it can be a reality of parenting in 2023, especially in cities like New York and San Francisco.


That's when the idea came to me that someone might go so far as to stalk an admissions director of a K-12 school. I went home and started to think about who that mom was; who would be desperate enough to go to extreme means to secure a spot for their child?—and what securing that spot might mean to them.


Sarah's character came to me right away, in a flash. I knew she'd need to have a really compelling and complex backstory to inform her actions.


There's an article in The Atlantic about "intensive parenting" that also inspired me (and a new book, just out, called Never Enough about the toxicity of achievement culture. I downloaded it on pub day; as you can probably tell, I find this subject matter endlessly fascinating—as a parent, as a recovering "achiever," and as a member of modern society).


We have all these names for helicopter parenting—snowplow, alpha—and it got me churning on the "why" of it all.


Why do we focus on achievement, which can ultimately be so hollow, instead of accomplishment and fulfillment? Where do we derive our own self-worth—and how are we modeling self-worth for our kids? What do elite institutions represent for parents who are trying to "do the best for their kids"?


Audrey's character is, in a way, the embodiment of those questions. My attempt to address them and make sense of them. She is both a mom, who loves her own kids fiercely, and she is, as she calls herself, the "Decider"—the person actually making the decisions about a child's life trajectory that feel so "life or death" for these privileged parents.


But she's also an outsider, of sorts, and that makes her accessible to us, as the reader. She complements Sarah and is everything Sarah is not, while also having a lot in common with her.


I knew before I crafted the story that both Audrey and Sarah had to embody certain ideals while also being deeply complex and nuanced characters. So I started with those "big ideas" and then began building out each of them and finding ways they would feel like real, fleshed-out women.


Once I got started, it felt like they were telling me about themselves, which I appreciated!

Q: Without giving anything away, did you know the novel's ending before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I knew the ending. I pretty much always know the ending! I'm a big-time plotter, so I don't feel comfortable embarking on the drafting process until I know where I'm headed.


With that said, I'm only about 75 percent wedded to my outline. The way the ending unfolds can surprise me in various ways, and with nuances that come from the writing process itself that emerge only when I actually get to the end. But yes, I always know the bold strokes, and this book was no different.


In some ways, this novel was my most heavily plotted. I had a very clear vision of the book before I ever started drafting it, and that vision carried me through the writing process in a way that was really freeing, because I didn't question it. I let my vision guide me through, and in the end I was pleasantly surprised that my gut had not let me down!


Q: The novel is set in New York City--how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: This novel had Manhattan running through its veins before I'd ever written a word of it! It's almost like the city is a character, of sorts.


I'm certainly not the first writer to take advantage of New York City's many layers—Breakfast at Tiffany's, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Gatsby... Sex and the City!—and I won't be the last.


New York has historically provided writers and artists a veritable goldmine of complex characters, art, culture, and wealth, so fraught with tension and intensity. The high-stakes, high-octane backdrop of a New York City private school was in the novel's DNA from day one.


In my YA series, The Similars, setting also played a fundamental role in the story. That premise would not have worked had the characters not been living in the pressure-cooker of an elite boarding school, where they couldn't (easily) escape each other's orbits. In my next adult thriller, the story itself is also location-specific.


So, I guess I'd say that setting is never an afterthought in my books! When the setting works hand in hand with the story itself and is integral to the plot, that's ideal. For me, setting is a critical element that drives the conflict and gives context for the characters' struggles.


Q: What do you think the book says about the world of private school admissions?


A: I think this novel is my version of The Atlantic article above, or maybe my response to it—in fiction form, because that's what I do!


Without giving away any spoilers, I'll say that the book takes (hopefully) really unexpected turns beyond what the reader is anticipating. Turns that are meant to really dig into these questions—about privilege, about success, about achievement, about the meaning of all this pressure we place on our kids, and ourselves, when our children are still so young.


Events unfold that sort of undermine the reader’s expectations and turn our preconceived notions on their head, giving us space to ask a lot of questions. And hopefully engage in some juicy discussions!


What I ultimately wanted to explore was this: when we step back to look at how we’re raising our kids, we have to wonder if we're setting our kids up for disappointment down the line. Ourselves, too.


Parenting is now a verb—"to parent"—and it makes complete sense that parents in 2023 want to do everything they can for their kids. But what does that even mean? And how do we "keep up" while still managing to raise resilient and resourceful children with grit?


It seems our current way is at odds with what we know to be beneficial to children. I'm not proposing that we return to Stranger Things times (although there's something to be said for the creativity that's born out of a screen-free world, for sure! Bring back walkie-talkies!), but what's the happy medium we can adopt in 2023?


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm working on a second domestic suspense/psychological thriller. It's a completely different world from The Last Applicant, and it's offering up a whole new set of writing challenges! 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I used to write for the soap opera Guiding Light. It was truly a foundational experience for me that taught me much of what I know now about storytelling (of course, there is always more to learn... So very, very much!).


--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

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