In what ways did being a mother affect your understanding and portrayal of Heloise?
I think, in some ways, I went on a similar journey -- starting as a woman (a stepmother) on the sidelines of soccer games in the suburbs, thinking myself a little apart, then coming to understand, no, I had much more in common with the moms than I realized. It's dangerous for women to think of themselves as separate from other women, without similar concerns.
I didn't need to become a mother to realize how far a woman will go to protect a child. But I think I did need to become a mom to realize how important community is to a parent.
Heloise works as a prostitute but claims to be a lobbyist. Should prostitution be legalized? Should lobbying (as we know it) be illegal?
I think prostitution should be decriminalized, but that traffick-ers -- pimps, madams (and, yes, I realize that includes Heloise) should be held accountable under much stricter laws and fines. In an ideal world, where no one ever exploits anyone, it would be possible for people to make an informed decision to sell their bodies. We don't live in an ideal world and legalizing prostitution would make some people -- illegal immigrants, for example -- extremely vulnerable to abuse.
I don't have a problem with lobbying, but don't get me started on the idea that "corporations are people." It amazes me that people think capitalism is pure, that money should just be allowed to do what it does, go where it's directed, as if it were a force of nature. Actually, we try to control nature in a way we've never tried to control money.
Much of the novel hinges on the choices women make and the choices that are made for them. Why is this so timely?
Is that for me to say? It's hard to write a timely novel; even a fast writer, such as myself, is working a year ahead. If I caught the zeitgeist, it was unwitting. I almost wish it weren't so timely. It's been a depressing year in the news.
What does it say about our society that the mere mention of a Women's Full Employment Network kills further conversation or curiosity-Heloise counts on this, right?-but the notion of a "suburban madam" produces endless chatter?
There are so many conversations about other people's lives that we don't want to have, so many discussions that we just want to be over. When Obama was elected, I felt that part of the subtext -- even among "good" liberals, especially among good liberals -- was the unspoken plea that we could stop talking about race. Because it was over, right? The playing field had been leveled, that was behind us. And, of course, it's not. People don't know what to do with other people's grievances, they just don't, especially if they're even indirectly implicit in them.
And it's so much easier to gossip about the suburban madam than say, Syria. I'm not immune to that problem. It's hard to be informed on substantive topics, easy to chatter about silly ones.
In what ways do you feel Heloise is emblematic of all women, with regards to both power and predicament?
She's a single mother, trying to maintain a certain lifestyle for her son. She has to maintain a civil relationship with her ex because that's best for her son and, by extension, best for her. I really did conceive of her as a kind of American everywoman. To me, the driving suspense in the novel centers on the question of what Heloise can do besides being a prostitute. With no degree? In this economy? That's a question bedeviling a lot of middle-class Americans right now, male and female.
The post-Sun careers of Alvarez, Fesperman, Hunter, Lippman, and Simon have been phenomenal. Besides being an outlet for writing, what did the culture of daily newspaper work (at that time) contribute to the creative lives of such people?
The flippant answer, given that most of the writers above traffic in violent stories, is that working at The Sun made you want to kill someone. I'm inclined to think it was just happenstance, but I also think The Sun, in its heyday, was a good enough paper that it made people stop and survey their own ambitions. Do I want to go to The New York Times or The Washington Post? Do I want to be a foreign correspondent? When I had been there only a month or so, there was a book party for Leslie Walker, who had written a nonfiction book about a pretty horrible homicide down in Anne Arundel, about the boy who killed his parents. Somehow, that "normalized" book-writing for me. I had colleagues (including my father) who wrote books, so why couldn't I? The Sun was my endgame and, once there, I didn't burn with the desire to get a bigger, better newspaper job. I wanted to write novels and I was finally ready.
What will a Baltimorean recognize in New Orleans? What will be foreign?
The nostalgia for the past; it's a place where you can buy T-shirts emblazoned with drugstore and grocery store names that haven't been in use for a while. And I think people sometimes give directions using landmarks that are no longer there.
But Baltimore could learn a lot about self-love from New Orleans. There's no defensiveness in New Orleans self-regard, no excuses. If you don't love it, then you're wrong.
That said, it wouldn't hurt New Orleans to absorb just a little bit of the Baltimore work ethic.
Where's the best coffee in New Orleans?
A trick question. I refuse to commit myself. Let's just say when I'm down there, there are three coffee houses within walking distance, two locals and a Starbucks, and every single one has its own distinct charms. Except, perhaps, the one where the barista wants to talk about how the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery.