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Friendship by the Book: An Interview with the Author of Crossing Washington Square

Published: September 6, 2009 | Last Updated: August 24, 2023 By | Reply Continue Reading

A chick lit author hits her stride~

Once I started reading Joanne Rendell‘s new novel, Crossing Washington Square, I had a hard time putting it down. This gripping book tells the story of two strong women, both of them faculty in the English Literature Department of Manhattan U. The story takes the protagonists-polar opposites in personality, style and in their academic orientations-through unexpected twists and turns from New York to London and back. Over time, the two archenemies find that they have more in common than they first realized.

This is intelligent chick lit, an engaging story beautifully told with multiple layers that touch some of the major issues relevant to the experience of women: relationships between friends, family, colleagues and lovers. So I was delighted to have the opportunity to interview Joanne Rendell, who also wrote The Professors’ Wives’ Club:

How do your novels draw upon your own life experiences as a professor’s wife living on the campus of NYU?

Both my books are set at Manhattan U., a university that resembles very closely NYU where my husband is a professor and where we live in faculty housing. Characters and storylines, although sometimes loosely based on things I’ve heard and seen, are largely fictional. I draw inspiration from other books, movies, philosophical ideas, and cultural concepts more than I do from real events and people.

With Crossing Washington Square one of my main inspirations was other novels about university life. I’ve always enjoyed these kinds of books (think Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys or Richard Russo’s The Straight Man). But what I noticed about such “campus fiction” was the lack of female professors in leading roles. Furthermore, most of the male professors in campus novels are disillusioned drunks who quite often sleep with their students, or at least consider sleeping with their students or are accused of it. I wanted to write a novel with women professors at the forefront and I wanted these women to be strong, smart, and interesting – instead of drunk, despondent, and preoccupied with questionable romantic liaisons.

In what ways are you like Professor Diana Monroe, one of the lead characters in Crossing Washington Square?

Out of the two characters, Diana is the more established and esteemed professor. She’s also very cool, calm, controlled, and aloof. She is the kind of uber-professor every academic wants to be with her grace, poise, and razor sharp mind. But she’s also a little scary too. Although I’m pretty cool and calm and I was born in England, just like Diana was, I share little else with her.

In what ways are you like Professor Rachel Grey?

I’m a lot more like Rachel, although without the tempestuous side. As a grad student, I was always caught in a conundrum. By day I would be reading classical literature and poetry, but at night I loved to read women’s popular fiction. Bridget Jones’ Diary, I have to say, is one of my all time favorite books. Rachel is like this too. She loves women’s fiction across the board – from Jane Austen and Edith Wharton to contemporary popular authors like Jennifer Weiner or Emily Giffin. She’s a passionate woman who’s especially passionate about the books she likes.

Did you set out to tell the tale of a friendship between two women or did it evolve more organically?

Initially, I thought I would have just one protagonist. But as I started mulling over plot ideas, I happened to reread Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. I always loved Austen’s portrayal of the two very different Dashwood sisters – Elinor led by her sense and Marianne led by her irrepressible sensibilities – and how Austen explores their strengths and weaknesses, how they clash but also how they learn from each other. I enjoyed putting these two kinds of women in a modern context and asking whether they could ever overcome their differences and become friends.

How much competition is there between women who study, teach or live on college campuses?

There are competitive women in all walks of life. But there is a particular kind of competitiveness within academe. Even though there are many more female professors than there used to be, it is still a tough world for women. Most people in academia go up for tenure (in other words, attempt to secure their job at the university) in their thirties and that’s usually a very busy time for women. The demands of pregnancy, motherhood, or being married to a husband who must move for his work put additional pressures on female academics. If women want to get tenure and get to the top of the ivory tower, they need to be tough – and yes, probably a little competitive too.

With a doctorate in English literature, are you comfortable with your novels being cast in the genre of “chick lit”?

I’m more than happy for my book to be called “chick lit” – or “commercial women’s fiction” as it is now called in the publishing industry. In many circles, chick lit is synonymous with trashy, badly written, neon-pink books about women searching for Mr. Right and shopping for Jimmy Choos. There are a few books out there that hold to this stereotype, but not many. A lot of the books which have been given the chick lit moniker are much more nuanced, self-consciously ironic, and interesting than detractors allow. They are also novels which deal with real women’s lives, real issues, and they also have a very big audience. I find it sad, yet predictable, that a group of books which are by women, for women, and about women have become demeaned in such a way. In fact, this is a central topic within Crossing Washington Square. Professor Rachel Grey is not scared to stand up for chick lit and popular writing for women. She not only enjoys these books but she also sees that they are important objects of study. If we want to know about our world, as many academics claim to do, it is important to study the forms of culture that matter to the people in that world.

What is the most exciting thing about seeing your book in a bookstore?

Knowing that is finally done and “out there” and that people are hopefully going to buy it and enjoy it…and maybe feel passionately about it, just like my characters feel passionately about books.

How do you balance the roles of author, mother and wife? Any tricks?

When I’m not writing, I’m homeschooling my six-year-old son, Benny. It makes for a busy life which has to be scheduled pretty tightly. “Homeschool” is somewhat a misnomer, though, as we spend a relatively small amount of time schooling at “home.” We live in New York so are lucky enough to have an amazing array of fun and educational places on our doorstep. Benny and I, together with his friends, are always out on trips to the Met, the Natural History Museum, aquariums, zoos, galleries, libraries, and parks. We’ve combined relevant story and picture books, with many trips to museums. Benny has learnt a lot, but it’s amazing how much I’ve learned too. I feel my mind – and my writing – expanding because of these studies.

‘Friendship by the Book’ is an occasional series of posts on this blog about books that offer friendship lessons. To read other posts in the series, use the search function on the right side of the page.

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