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Author Interview: December 2007

December 2007

Putting a 19th-century twist on popular series like Gossip Girl and The Clique, Anna Godbersen's novel THE LUXE follows the secrets and scandals, the drama and the debauchery of a group of upper-crust socialite teenagers in 1899 Manhattan.

In this interview with's Sarah Wood, Godbersen explains why she chose to set her book in New York during the turn of the century and describes the kind of research required for her to portray the intricate details of the time period so accurately. She also reveals which characters she identifies with the most, discusses what's in store for them in future installments of the series and shares her favorite "modern convenience" of the 20th and 21st centuries. What inspired you to write about turn-of-the-century New York?

Anna Godbersen: I wanted a glamorous setting, and I was thinking of all these books for young readers about extremely wealthy young people. And I thought setting a book like that in the past would have that glitz, but that it would be so much more interesting --- to me, anyway --- because the historical backward glance means that all the luxuries would be unfamiliar and new --- not just what you see in Teen Vogue or whatever --- and also their price would be, in a sense, so much higher. This kind of wealth at this time meant so many more rules and such a narrower kind of life for girls and women, which seemed to me like a lot of promising drama and agony. It meant that the choices my characters were going to have to make would be tough, life-changing ones.

TRC: THE LUXE contains many complex friendships where people use each other for social advantage or personal gain. What inspired these characters or relationships? Was there something in your own life that influenced them?

AG: I think those kinds of relationships are born of a world where one's true self has to be kept secret and where social ambition is the highest calling available to women. And I am very lucky to have been born into a world where neither of those things is true! I have a family that was very pleased for me to be just who I was, and I have a group of girlfriends whose ambitions are mutually supportive. So, those relationships are all very much out of my imagination and not from lived experience.

TRC: The website for your book features a “which character are you” quiz. What character in THE LUXE do you think you are most like?

AG: Well, given that we weren’t a very moneyed family, and given my rather slovenly appearance during my teen years, and also since most of my competitiveness and bitchiness and most of my poise happened in my head, I’d say I was a Lina, although the quiz didn’t have a Lina option. The first book wasn’t really Lina’s book either --- it was really great getting to write for her in the sequel and explore these other aspects of her personality --- so I’m probably basing my response on what I’ve discovered about her since then. I took the quiz, and I came out a Diana; and since I know I’m not a Liz or a Penny, that’s probably accurate enough.

TRC: Which LUXE guy do you find most appealing and why?

AG: Probably Henry. Will would have appealed to my high-school self, and the character I’ve imagined is definitely, to me, a handsome and desirable guy. But now that I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that I like a little bit of trouble. There’s also a strain of self-righteousness to Will that I probably borrowed from boyfriends I had at that time in my life and that I sort of got over as an attraction.

TRC: THE LUXE ends with an exciting cliffhanger. Do you have any sneak peeks or hints about what readers will encounter in the next book?

AG: Oh yes, lots more cliffhangers. There will be a wedding or two, some transcontinental travel and naturally a lot of extravagant backstabbing.

TRC: I love some of the historical details you've included in the book. You give some great descriptions of the architecture and fashion of the period. Was there any unexpected historical trivia you encountered while writing the book? Tell us about your research.

AG: Thanks! The research was a really exciting and inspiring part of this process. I read a lot of histories of the time and then went back to their primary sources: memoirs, etiquette books, gossip sheets, that kind of thing. I read old Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, which is so fascinating --- both the clothes and the tone. And I found a lot of photography books about the architecture and interior design of the Gilded Age. (Fun fact: Edith Wharton’s first book was a co-authored treatise on interiors called THE DECORATION OF HOUSES.) That physical world these people inhabited is particularly interesting to me, because in a way, the tastes of that time are still alive and well in upper crust New York --- the French antique furniture, the big, gilded mirrors, the rich colors. And, of course, many of the buildings from that time are still there, and very desirable.

A lot of the “shocking” stories from the time are on record; I didn’t really discover much myself. But I can say that looking at what things cost totally blew my mind, and what a poor person earned versus what a rich person paid for things. A servant girl might have made $12 a month, I read in one book, and then while I was flipping through Vogue they suggested a $200 sable hat as a gift. It was sable… but still!

TRC: In what ways do you think life was different 100 years ago? In what ways do you think it is the same?

AG: Obviously we’re a lot more crass now, and we live lives that are more explicit, sexually and otherwise. We also understand our lives through all these different points of view from all these varied kinds of media that we consume. But at the same time, people have always cared about human connection and how to get it, survival and glory for their family and themselves, and the attainment of pretty things. And it wasn’t like there wasn’t a huge amount of materialism at the time and a great many printed words.

TRC: What modern convenience unavailable in 1899 are you grateful to have today? Do you think you would have enjoyed living in 1899?

AG: Dentistry! That’s my own personal saga in a way --- I wasn’t born with the world’s luckiest teeth --- but when you think about what a bummer it is to go to the dentist now, I mean, you can only imagine what it would have been like then without all the new technology and pain medication and so forth. I also probably wouldn’t do so well in a world without readily available yoga. But that said, and though it wouldn’t be my first choice for time travel, I do think it would be so fascinating to be an American at the end of the 19th century, because what the country means as a power in the world is really taking on form and meaning here. I think it would be exhilarating to see that without our jaded 21st-century eyes.

TRC: Can you tell us a little about your writing process? How do you discipline yourself to write an entire book?

AG: Well, I write from home --- often in slippers, quite frequently with multiple writing implements holding up my hair --- so the professionalism shouldn’t probably be overstated. But these books are on a really tight schedule, so I write every day, Monday though Friday, and weekends and nights too when it’s coming down to it. Sometimes it’s me staring at a computer screen and compulsively checking my email, but there is at least a discipline of trying on a 40-hours-a-week basis. At the beginning of each book, I spend some time at the New York Historical Society, looking up historical questions I know that I’m going to have and also just reading in a meandering way, trying to get my head in the right place. Then I panic about how much time I’ve wasted and start trying to write a ridiculous number of words a day, which half works. Then my deadline gets scarier and I really, truly get writing.

TRC: Would you be interested in writing about any other historical periods? If so, which ones?

AG: Oh yes, of course. I think the ’20s would be a really interesting time, and the ’60s, too --- although that decade has been written about so often that it’s hard to see past the clichés and the big media events that define it. I think it’s easier to really re-imagine a period that doesn’t have a huge amount of iconic television and photographic moments associated with it. I do think it’s really important to write about your own moment, however, and I hope to do that soon, too.

TRC: You live in New York City. What sightseeing would you recommend to people interested in the Gilded Age?

AG: Go to all the places you would go anyway, but look in a different way. Walking up Fifth Avenue in Midtown toward the park, for instance, is a pretty modern experience if you keep your eyes street level. But if you look up, you see all the architectural flourishes of a hundred years ago or more. The Historical Society and the New York Public Library are also great, both for research and to see the buildings that house the collections. Neither was completed in the 19th century, but a lot of these institutions --- the Metropolitan Museum, for instance --- were partially founded on the money and ambitions of a previous generation of wealth. And their buildings reflect those ambitions. The Frick is another great one for that; it actually is a former mansion of an industrialist, and his art collection is on display there. So you get to see not just the architecture but also the philanthropy and the kind of things these people bought to define themselves as an aristocracy --- all in one museum! And for readers of THE LUXE, definitely go to Gramercy Park. It has this old-fashioned gentility still, and you can look in the windows of the National Arts Club, which is in a 19th-century mansion and still has lots of the old fixtures.

TRC: What are some of your favorite books, or authors you respect?

AG: I love Joan Didion --- the personal stuff, the California-themed pieces, the political writing, the novels. Especially the novels. And I really like Evelyn Waugh --- that kind of dark humor and zippy narrative really appeals to me as a reader.

TRC: Are there any books you'd recommend to readers interested in learning more about the Gilded Age?

AG: Anything by Edith Wharton: THE HOUSE OF MIRTHTHE AGE OF INNOCENCE and THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY in particular. I re-read THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY this year and loved it all over again, although that’s a hard book in a way. I realized how much I missed when I was a younger reader. For those who like nonfiction, a really great history of the relationship between two Vanderbilt women, CONSUELO AND ALVA VANDERBILT, was recently published and is both well written and exhaustively researched. And Luc Sante’s LOW LIFE is a classic and just a really cool book about the seamy side of 19th-century New York.

TRC: What advice would you give young people who are interested in becoming authors?

AG: Read all the time. Follow what you’re curious about and pause to read deeply when you find an author who really holds you. But I think reading really different writers, and kinds of writing, is the most important thing. The other is to get used to editing and even scrapping whole paragraphs and chapters early on --- this book went through a lot of versions, and it is so much better for it. I think that a lot of my earlier frustrations with writing came from not being courageous about imagining a piece in a different way. Sometimes you have to write something one way to realize that it should in fact be the opposite. The ability to undo is so necessary. Giving up things you’ve written can be painful, but it’s the only way to get better, to learn and to really reach the heart of the matter.