Readers, we’ve missed you, but we promise we’re back — and we’ve returned bearing gifts, in the form of a Q&A with the sharp, funny, honest, and slightly potty-mouthed author Erica Kennedy, whose first novel, Bling, is a New York Times Bestseller. But we bring her to you because Sydney, the main character in her new novel, Feminista*, is undoubtedly one of us. Allow me to quote:
She grew up believing she’d have it all. A Career with a capital C. A husband. Babies! She’d be the Enjoli woman, brining home the bacon, frying it up in a pan, never letting him forget he was a man! Who would’ve guessed the whole thing would turn out to be a scam, a cultural Ponzi scheme that would dupe every middle-class woman of her generation?
FUCK YOU, GLORIA STEINEM!
Ahem. I told you she was one of us. How could I not want to get Kennedy’s take on a few of our favorite subjects? It being the season of giving, she graciously obliged. Here are some excerpts.
SK: With regard to that quote [above], this feeling that it’s a scam, that we’ve all just been set up — do you believe that?
EK: In a sense, yes. But I don’t think it’s a scam. I think it’s a ‘grass is greener’ thing. When women were expected to stay home and take care of the kids, they yearned for more. They wanted to be out there, engaged with the world, making their own money, chasing their dreams. But then you get that and there are downsides to it. And then most still want to have kids and you realize how tough it is to manage both. But you can’t predict what that will be like until you’re in it.
I think that’s what the Opt-Out revolution is about. Women who got great educations because they were raised to believe they would have careers and that would be fulfilling but then they got out there and started working and realized how hard it was to juggle everything and made a choice to stay home. I know there are people who say the Opt-Out Revolution is a myth but I know many women who are living this life and many who would if they could afford to.
But that’s why “balance” is always the catchword when women are talking about their lives. Because we don’t want to kill ourselves working all the time, we don’t want to stay home forever, we want to find a way to integrate work and family (and whatever else we need to feed our spirit) in a way that feels right for each of us. And I think we’re in a time now where we are still learning how to do that. The paradigms are not in place. We all have guilt about making these choices, no matter which we choose. I think in the future, things like flextime programs will be more prevalent because that’s a way that companies won’t have to lose smart, talented women who feel like they need to make this either/or choice.
SK: So do you think the idea of ‘having it all’ is just a bunch of bullshit?
EK: To me, the bullshit is to think ‘having it all’ means one cookie cutter thing. Everyone is different and everyone has to define their ‘all’ for themselves. And do you really need it all? Can’t we be content with some? Do we always have to be chasing more?
SK: Your character Sydney is tormented by the pressure to do something amazing — the Career-with-a-Capital-C thing. Have you felt that yourself?
EK: I went to Stuyvesant, a high school for gifted students in New York. I went to Sarah Lawrence where women were encouraged to have Careers and the thought of NOT working was unheard of. I went to Oxford my junior year. So I think there were expectations that I would do something great and I internalized that and put a lot of pressure on myself. I don’t blame anyone for having high expectations of me but it goes back to what does ‘having it all’ mean? Does it mean having some fancy title, executive perks, making a lot of money, having your book on the NYT bestseller’s list? Or does it mean waking up and looking forward to your day, whatever you make of it? I sublet a place in Miami Beach when I was finishing Feminista and it was, hands down, the happiest time of my life. I would write at the beach, swin in the ocean every day, ride my bike around town. And part of that happiness came from being around people who were very chill, who didn’t define themselves by their jobs.
SK: Here’s another great quote from Feminista, variations of which we’ve heard from several of the women we’re profiling in Undecided: “Sometimes she thought, in a strange way, life was so much easier for people with no options… You didn’t sit around thinking, I could have been a documentarian or a forensic psychologist or a sitcom writer…” The angst over the road not traveled – a definite side effect of all the options. Does that affect you? How do you move past it?
EK: This has always been a huge problem for me, even now. I grew up in a middle class family where my father was a corporate exec, my mother started her own design business. Then I went to school with very wealthy kids and knew people in the hip-hop world, most of whom didn’t have formal educations but became millionaires by the time they were thirty. So nothing seemed out of reach for me. I lived in New York and knew people who were business owners and lawyers and CEOs and restauranteurs, anything you could name. And everyone knew I was this honor student, so literally every road was open to me. Which was crippling. So I floundered for many years, working at jobs I didn’t have any interest in because I didn’t know what I should be doing. There were too many possibilities.
A really big pet peeve of mine is that no one, at least in my experience, helps you identify what kind of career you might excel at. Because I think the thing that you will be successful and most fulfilled doing is that thing that you’d do even if someone wasn’t paying you. You can always find a way to make a career out of your talent or passion. But that innate thing may be the thing you completely ignore, like I did with writing. In college, no one helped me identify what my passion/talents/marketable skills were. Why isn’t that a required class?
The week before graduation, one of my professors asked me, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” And I said, “Um, married with children?” She was horrified. As was I. But I think that may have been my unconscious wish, to find someone to take care of me and make the decisions, because I was so ill-prepared, despite my ‘good education’, to do that for myself. I quit my 9-5 job at age 28 to write professionally and didn’t start writing my first book until I was 32.
And too many options doesn’t just apply to jobs but also to men and where we should live and what kind of life we should have. It’s the predicament of abundance. As women, all these doors have been thrown open for us but it’s like, Oh no, which one do I choose and where the fuck is it going to lead me?!
SK: In the book, Sydney sabotages herself, beats herself up, pushes others away–and yet, she’s extremely relatable. What do you think it is about Sydney that’s so universal?
I think what’s relatable about Sydney is that she’s trying to work it all out, what she wants and what she doesn’t want. But I actually didn’t expect a lot of women to identify with her because she’s very angry and bitter–and I consciously did that because I think we, as women, do have this anger and resentment about all the choices we have now and not knowing which to choose but we are socialized NOT to show our anger. We’re supposed to suck it up and worry about everyone else. I wanted Sydney to embody all of that repressed stuff. I hoped women would find her and they story interesting but I’m really surprised that so many women say they identify with her or that her story is their story.
*Feminista, St. Martin’s Press, 2009.