What was the inspiration for Bradstreet Gate?
The first draft of Bradstreet Gate was written in a fevered six months and during a moment of great personal tension—following a painful divorce, a long period of unemployment, and after discovering I was pregnant. It was a time in my life when I sensed that people who cared about me were really worried, and perhaps asking themselves how someone like me—at least on the surface, at least once, a promising sort of young person—could find herself in such uncertain circumstances. For me Bradstreet Gate was about this kind of uncertainty—and the questions that surround the murder investigation are at heart questions about what sort of security even our most prestigious institutions offer. I chose Harvard as the setting for the pivotal events because it’s still a potent symbol for us as a society: a gateway to prosperity and happiness. The real violence in the novel is, I think, performed on that fantasy.
What drew you to the post-graduate period and the following decade, and why was it so interesting to write about?
Coming-of-age books are a genre for good reason: one of literature’s primary subjects is the intersection of our dreams about life with the reality that asserts itself—most strongly, often, in young adulthood. From a personal point of view, I’d just emerged from that period, and finally had enough distance to look back at the ten years since graduation and see the overall sweep of my own life and the lives of my classmates. I also think those years are especially tense for the sort of people who inhabit my book. One of the novel’s characters, Alice, reflects on how much is meant to be accomplished by ambitious Americans in their twenties: “build a career, attract a successful and stimulating yet reliable spouse, and, in the meantime, rack up experiences sufficient to console them through the next several decades of at least relative monogamy, part-time parental obligation, and whatever professional and personal stagnation would inevitably assault their impossibly high expectations.” Almost no one succeeds at accomplishing all this, and what makes us the adults we become is the nature of, and reaction to, our failures.
How did you craft the four main characters, and how do their detailed backstories contribute to the plot of the novel?
Bradstreet Gate really is a character-driven book. When I started it I didn’t necessarily know it would turn out that way; I didn’t know how much space I would give to backstory and other elements of the characters’ lives that aren’t obviously tied to the matter of the murder. What happened while I was writing was that it became important to me to make the people in the novel fully recognizable as contemporary Harvard students: examples of today’s meritocratic elite, an elite which is very different from the Ivy League society of prior generations. (Alice, for instance, is the child of Serbian immigrants; Charlie’s family is blue-collar.) Such people interest me, and I wanted to show today’s young strivers as they really are—their intelligence, their points of blindness, their pains, their selfishness, their response to tragedy, their capacities for growth. Finally, that goal decided the book’s shape.
Does the novel draw on your own personal experience in any way?
Georgia’s biography most closely resembles my own, but only in a very general way: when I started Bradstreet Gate I’d recently spent some years abroad, including in India; under much happier circumstances, I also gave birth to a daughter after writing the first draft. Finally, without getting too personal, I’ll admit that in college and after I’d had somewhat similar romantic misadventures. That said, I didn’t find Georgia easier to write or more sympathetic than the other characters. For me, all the characters are sympathetic—the effort to understand them made them so, though I didn’t worry too much about creating sympathy in the reader. That would have prevented me from exploring their darker sides. Incidentally, the darkest of my protagonists, Alice, was the most fun to write. I won’t be surprised if many readers find hers to be the strongest voice in the novel too.
What do you think makes Professor Storrow so alluring?
A good deal of Storrow’s power comes from the image he strives to represent: of a perhaps bygone American aristocrat, a kind of ghost of Harvard past. Many of the novel’s characters have confused feelings about him, and I think most readers do too—we’re not sure if he’s someone to be respected or reviled, pitied or feared, if he’s genuinely connected to mysterious powers (military and political forces beyond our purview) or if he’s just a nostalgic blowhard exploiting the naiveté of his campus devotees. What is clear about Storrow is that he’s unstable—as unstable as his place in society has come to be – and that he’s a man with tremendous aspirations. Storrow’s grandeur, and delusions of grandeur, are what make him a character fit for tragedy, and also a man capable, potentially, of committing an atrocious act.
Who are some of the writers or what are some of the books that have most influenced you?
I think it’s been different writers in different years, but when I started Bradstreet Gate, I’d recently been reading Fitzgerald and Jonathan Dee’s The Privileges. I can find distant echoes of their novels in mine, though others seem to find more resonance with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I’m, of course, flattered by the comparison, but that novel wasn’t actually on my mind at the time.
What do you hope readers will take away from the novel?
Whatever satisfactions readers take from the book will make me happy, but I hope some will put it down with thoughts about the fragility of all our positions in life.
What are you working on next?
There is a next novel in the works, though it’s at such an early stage it’s still hard to talk about. I’m exploring issues surrounding the new, largely Hispanic national identity—and, generally, American identity in crisis.