As a writer who’s never professionally published anything longer than about 1,800 words, I am in awe of novelists. Not only do they have to be great storytellers, they actually have to write these stories in a way that’s clear, entertaining, and relatable for 300+ pages. It seems like the ultimate professional accomplishment to me.
Which is why I jumped at the chance to talk to Stephanie Clifford, a reporter for the New York Times by day–whose first novel, Everybody Rise goes on sale tomorrow, August 18–about what it was like to actually write and publish a book. And not just a book, but a good book. The novel follows a twenty-something New York woman who becomes obsessed with climbing the social ladder and impressing her “old-money” friends at the expense of her relationships, her credit, and a whole lot more. I got a chance to read an advanced copy, and, quick PSA here, if you’re able to squeeze in one more beach read in this summer, Everybody Rise should be it.
Here, I talk to Clifford about the inspiration for the novel, the process of getting published, how long it takes to actually write 300+ pages, and more.
YOU ARE A REPORTER FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES. WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO WRITE A BOOK?
I love Times reporting, but it’s, by definition, daily. I wanted to pull back and do something that follows the protagonist as she changes dramatically, and that says something broader about ambition, friendship, and family.
EVERYBODY RISE FOLLOWS A YOUNG WOMAN WHO BECOMES TRAPPED IN THE THROES OF SOCIAL CLIMBING. WHERE DID YOU GET THE IDEA FOR IT?
Part of that was coming from Seattle, where I grew up, to the East Coast. In Seattle, I didn’t even realize old money existed, and on the East Coast, it’s pretty entrenched. I wanted to write about someone who is trying hard to fit in to that particular world, and ends up changing the way she speaks, dresses and acts to get there.
WHAT IS THE PROCESS OF WRITING A NOVEL LIKE? HOW DID YOU START?
I started one afternoon, when I was staying at a friend’s house and had my laptop with me. I thought: “Just start.” I began with this tale about my Irish grandmother navigating the streets of Manhattan in the ‘40s, and that morphed and changed and changed again until it became the seed for Everybody Rise. (Evelyn, at first, was a secondary character, but I found her so interesting that I made her the protagonist.)
THE BOOK GOES DEEP INTO THE RITUALS AND INDULGENCES OF UPPER CLASS SOCIETY. DID YOU HAVE TO DO ANY RESEARCH TO MAKE THE DETAILS OF THE STORY CONVINCING?
Definitely. I’m not from this world, so I read a lot of sociology and etiquette books, and interviewed people who do have this background. And when I found myself in this world, I’d take copious notes. When I was a freelance writer, I covered fashion shows, for instance, and I’d take notes on the conversations the glamorous social types were having and the clothes they were wearing and the way they carried themselves.
THE ADVICE YOU ALWAYS HEAR WHEN IT COMES TO WRITING IS TO “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW.” WAS THAT THE CASE FOR YOU? DID YOU DRAW ON ANY OF YOUR OWN EXPERIENCES WHEN WRITING?
It actually wasn’t! That’s standard advice, but in journalism, we do the opposite. We rarely write what we know – the way we get to understand something is through reporting it out. I tried to bring that approach to this book.
DID YOU BASE ANY OF THE CHARACTERS OFF OF REAL PEOPLE?
One of the fun things about writing fiction is I didn’t have to be constrained by facts and reality, as I have to be in my Times job (I don’t think they’d be too thrilled if I started changing people’s biographical details). So you always pull from real life a little, but it was so freeing here to be able to make things up wholesale, or bestow a line I overheard someone on the subway saying to a character.
WHAT ABOUT THE BOOK DO YOU THINK MAKES IT RELATABLE?
Evelyn is socially anxious, and she thinks she can banish that by fitting in. We’ve all had that moment where we tell a little lie to smooth things over or to make things easier, and that’s where Evelyn starts. She ends up far from there, spinning lie after lie, but she starts in a place we’ve all been. I think most of us have wanted something that’s not good for us, or have tried to be someone we’re not, like Evelyn does.
DID YOU ENCOUNTER ANY WRITER’S BLOCK ALONG THE WAY? HOW DID YOU OVERCOME IT?
What I dealt with was less writer’s block and more general anxiety about the process – what am I doing writing a book? Why do I think I can do this? To help with that, I tried to put aside worry about what would happen with the book once I finished it. My goal was simply to finish it. There’s a great book by Dinty W. Moore called “The Mindful Writer,” which has wonderful quotes from Faulkner, Eliot and other writers, on how to calm your mind and keep going with the writing.
HOW LONG DID IT TAKE TO WRITE EVERYBODY RISE?
Oh so long. I began thinking about it and taking notes about 10 years ago, and wrote chunks of it. I put it aside because it seemed too difficult to do given my job as a reporter. But I kept wondering what happened to Evelyn, and I had to find out. About five years ago, I picked the book back up again, and made a deal with myself to write for two hours every day before work, from 6 to 8 a.m. It took years, but I finally finished!
WHAT WAS THE MOST DIFFICULT PART ABOUT WRITING A NOVEL?
For me, writing it in those small chunks over years was hard. If the writing was going beautifully, I still had to cut it off at 8 sharp, and it could be difficult to get into the groove again.
HOW DO YOU GET A BOOK PUBLISHED? WHAT’S THE PROCESS LIKE?
I’m not sure if my experience is standard, but I finished the whole novel before I sent it to agents. (These days, agents are the gatekeepers for publishers – so you start by sending it to agents, rather than to the book companies.) Once I signed with my awesome agent, Elisabeth Weed, we worked for another six months or so, revising parts of the novel and cutting it down. Then, Elisabeth sent it out to publishers, and they bid on it.
ARE YOU WORKING ON ANY OTHER NOVELS OR IDEAS AT THE MOMENT?
I am! I’m just at the beginning of working on something set in the criminal-justice world – I cover Brooklyn courts for the Times, so that’s where I spend my days. The characters of Evelyn, Preston and Charlotte from Everybody Rise keep staying on my mind, too. They’re a group of old friends, and I often find myself wondering “What’s Preston up to?” “What would Charlotte think of this?” So I may do something more with the three of them.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OTHER ASPIRING AUTHORS OUT THERE?
My advice is simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy: finish the project. There’s never a perfect time to write, and there’s never going to be a perfect time to write, so try to fit writing into your everyday life. It may take years, as it did with me, but you can get there!