I'm very excited to be chatting with Cristina Alger this morning. Cristina, a former financial analyst and corporate attorney, is the author of two wonderful novels, The Darlings and This Was Not the Plan. She has another novel, The Banker’s Wife, coming out this summer. She's a mom of two kids. You can read more about her on her website, cristinaalger.com. Welcome to Cristina.
Cristina Alger: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Zibby: Let's start by talking about New York, which we were just doing beforehand. As you know, I'm a native New Yorker too. Cristina and I both went to the same preschool and have kids there as well. One of the first things you mention in your bio is that you're a native New Yorker. How much do you feel that informs your writing? Your books are all set in the city. Do you think being a native New Yorker gives you a different point of view from someone who came here later in life?
Cristina: It does inform our writing. I think it’s the first thing I say in my bio, is that I'm a New Yorker. [laughs] I hate writing bios. I find them really stressful. It’s so hard to explain who you are in three sentences or less. I never know what people want to hear. New York features so heavily in all my books that it’s important for me to explain that I've been here for thirty-eight plus years. That's why I'm so fascinated by people that live here. There are so many stories worth telling that are in New York. That's why I obsessively write about it. That’s why I mentioned it in my bio right off the bat.
Zibby: You do such a good job. The scene in The Darlings, the intricacy of the benefit, I could have been in that room you were describing. I was like, “This is crazy.” It’s so accurate, your depiction of New York. You say in The Darlings about one of the characters is thinking about moving. The husband says, “Merrill would never go for it. He didn’t even want to ask her. New York wasn’t just a city to Merrill. It was a part of her being.”
Is that how you feel about it? How can you explain how deeply engrained the city is to its natives?
Cristina: As we were just discussing, my husband and I have almost moved out of New York a bunch of times, and then have always found a reason to stay. There's that wonderful John Updike quote that says, “People in New York think that anyone who lives anywhere else is in some sense joking.” A lot of New Yorkers feel that way. Living here is such a unique experience. It’s a walking city. It’s very stressful to live here. It’s really rewarding. It’s hard once you've had this experience to see yourself living elsewhere. There's not a New Yorker I know who doesn't think about moving out all the time because it is so stressful to live here. We all have this internal struggle. The pros of living here are amazing. The cons are serious cons. There's this internal struggle. Literally every character I have in all my books is going through it because I've been going through it. I'm thirty-eight, and I've been going through it my whole life. I have a love-hate relationship with New York. I think a lot of people do too.
Zibby: As I was mentioning, I feel the same way. Although I still think it’s nice to walk out the door and always run into someone. For most people who grew up in New York, so many people stay here versus perhaps other places that it becomes communities build on top of each other.
Cristina: It’s funny. Johnathon is so fascinated by how small town-y the upper east side is.
Zibby: Johnathan, your husband.
Cristina: Yes. My husband -- sorry -- is from LA. LA is so spread out. It’s very transient. People come and go. He’s mesmerized by the fact that I went to the same school for thirteen years. All my best friends still live in the neighborhood. All my mom’s friends still live in the neighborhood. We can't walk down the street without running into people. There's something really small town-y about it. New York is micro-local in that way. I love that about New York. I could see how it could get annoying as well.
Zibby: My daughter -- this morning, we passed somebody I went to school with. She's like, “You know so many people here.” I'm like, “I know. You will too one day.”
When you write about female friendships in The Darlings you say, “Ines felt strongly that women were rarely friends with one another unless they could get something out of it. Female friendships were like strategic alliances. Each party had to bring something to the table in order to maintain equity.”
Do you feel this way? Have you seen women behaving this way? Is that how you came up with that? Is it New York that makes women behave that way?
Cristina: Ines is a totally loathsome character. She's very strategic. That's her viewpoint on the world. I'm not Ines. I certainly don’t feel that way about my own female friendships. Yes, New York is a very type-A, competitive place. There are a lot of people that see everything as a competition and everything as a strategic alliance. It’s one of the fascinating things about living here. It’s a very merit-based place in a lot of ways. People respect hard work here. They respect scrappiness. There are a lot of very cutthroat people. Ines is one of them. That's how she views the world.
I don’t think there's any woman who lives in New York who would not say they don’t know women that see the world that way. I don't think it’s particular to women. I think men, too. The flip side of it is female alliances are extremely powerful. When they are born out of love and affection and respect, they bear amazing fruit. My best friends are other moms here, people I grew up with here. There are a lot of amazing women in this city also. This podcast is a testament to that.
Zibby: Did you read Wednesday Martin’s Primates of Park Avenue?
Cristina: I did not read it. I did read an article that she wrote. That book troubled me because I felt that it was mean-spirited. One of the things that I've actually been criticized for again and again is that I have a lot of sympathy for my characters, even the really despicable ones. Ines is someone who is of that ilk, the very socialite-y New York woman. I have a lot of sympathy for her too. I try and paint all my characters with a sympathetic brush. My understanding of that book was I'm not sure Wednesday Martin did that, paint her characters as sympathetically. I didn’t read it because I didn’t want to get myself upset. [laughs]
Zibby: I read it and actually ended up interviewing her for Avenue Magazine. I took her to task on some of the things that --
Cristina: -- Wow. I want to interview you about that.
Zibby: [laughs] More on that later. To move for a minute to This Was Not the Plan, which is also so good. You tell the story from a man’s point of view, Charlie Goldwyn. Was doing this difficult? You were so in his head writing this piece. I know you had mentioned at one point you had seen your husband coping with his lack of paternity leave when you had your baby. How did you get into his headspace so well? What was it like for you?
Cristina: Thank you. I still don't know if I did it effectively or not. It’s really hard. It’s something that you can't take lightly, when you try and move into the headspace of someone who’s very different than yourself. What I came to the conclusion was that Charlie’s actually a lot like me. I was a very type-A, workaholic lawyer. When I had my daughter, we had a very troubled pregnancy. She was born early. She had a lot of medical complications. It became clear right away that I was not going to be able to go back to work as I had planned. That was extremely disorienting for me. I'm someone who’s always really identified myself through my work. What I thought was so fascinating was my husband did not get to take a year off. I did, and it was a great detriment to my career. I gave back an advance that I had already started working on a book for. People understood. They understood that I was a mom. I was a mom of a child that had medical issues. People were very understanding.
With my husband, he was back in the office three days later. There was something I found so troublesome about the fact that no one talks about that. This is the reason I chose to write about Charlie and not a woman like Charlie. There are a lot of fabulous books that talk about motherhood and the challenges of being a working mom. There's a lot of very funny fiction about it. I didn’t see that happening with fathers. I came up with idea during some late-night breastfeeding session when I hadn’t sleep in forty day. I was like, “I don't know if this is a good idea.” It would be so interesting to write about a guy who’s doing this by himself and has to figure out how to be both a parent and a successful man. That's something that's been important to him his whole life. I talked to a lot of single dads, which was also totally fascinating when I was writing it. I wanted to make sure I was really getting the nuances of their experience right. I made my husband read things over and over and over again. It’s hard to write from a male perspective. It was fun too. Charlie and I are probably more similar than we are not similar.
Zibby: Hopefully not with a big, drunken outburst at the holiday party. [laughs]
Cristina: That's not my law firm, although a lot of people have asked. It’s funny. I did feel like, in a totally different and less humorous way, my career was completely derailed by parenthood. I'm sure a lot of people feel that way. I relate to that experience where one day you feel like you're on this particular track. The next day, you're not. You have to figure out what that means and how to reconcile it.
Zibby: And the definition of a successful career, I would argue you're having a renaissance of a career with the writing versus being a lawyer.
Cristina: Thank you. I was lucky that I had started writing before I had kids because I felt like I had a little bit of wiggle room to bounce back after the year that I went down this rabbit hole of being a full-time parent. This career now is something that I couldn't have done at my law firm. I'm really grateful that I have a job that's flexible and project-based. Ultimately, you see Charlie find his way into something like that too. Law firm life is very all-consuming. It’s fundamentally hard to balance with parenthood. It was something I was interested in writing about.
Zibby: I love how it was his wife who had passed away’s birthday. Everybody kept asking him how he was doing, but it was about a case, not about her birthday.
Tell me more about A Banker’s Wife, which is your book coming out this summer. I think you said July 3rd?
Cristina: July 3rd. I'm really excited about it. I always saw The Darlings as a financial thriller. It was described as somewhere between a thriller and a social drama. I always thought of it as a thriller. That's primarily what I read. I always thought that I would go back to writing that kind of book. The Banker’s Wife is a pure financial thriller. It’s about a data leak that comes out of a Swiss bank. It’s told from two perspectives. One is the wife of a banker who goes missing. The other is a journalist that's investigating this behemoth of Swiss bank that has a lot of very shady clients. It was really fun to write. It’s what I will be writing going forward. I'm really excited about it. It comes out in a few months.
Zibby: What are some books that are some of your favorites?
Cristina: I try and ping-pong between more literary fiction and thrillers. There are a lot of crossovers. I love reading John Grisham. His early stuff is brilliant. I love Lee Childs. I love Nelson DeMille. As I was telling you, I have this book club. I'm trying to make it all female authors. Janice Lee has come. She's an incredible -- I loved Pachinko. I would die of happiness if she would come to our book club. I go back and forth. I'm a big buyer of what I see as up-market literary thrillers. That's what I aspire to write.
Zibby: Throughout your books, or at least through these books and the preview of the next book, death seems to be a very big theme for you. Uncle Morty dying early on in The Darlings, Charlie’s wife dying in This Was Not the Plan, and now, the plane crashing at the beginning of The Banker’s Wife. I'm not giving anything away by saying all this. Your characters are all shown coping with the loss of someone that they care about. I wanted to see what's that about? Have you lost someone close to you that makes you want to delve into this deeper?
Cristina: I always tell people that I feel like writing is cheaper than therapy. It’s equally cathartic. My life was very much defined by the fact that my father died on September 11th. I was a week into my senior year of college. At the time I thought I was going to go be an English professor. I studied Medieval literature at Harvard, which is totally useless in every possible way except for if you want to go get a PhD in Medieval literature. I was on this very particular track. My dad died in this very dramatic and tragic way.
Zibby: I'm so sorry. I didn’t know that.
Cristina: Thank you. It was very defining for me. Immediately, my perspective changed. I wanted to move back to New York. I wanted to get a job where my mom didn’t have to worry about me making money. I took a job at Goldman Sachs, which was insane because I was terrible at math and knew nothing except for Anglo-Saxon poetry. I spent my twenties grappling with the loss of my dad. I'm still grappling with it. I'm not sure it’s something you ever really get over. It’s been a very defining part of my adult life. Yes, it’s a theme that keeps coming up over and over in my books.
At the end of the day there are not that many things worth writing about. Grief and loss is one of them. Maybe it’s just the books that I choose to read. I find that grief and loss are often -- they're universal themes. They are themes that almost everyone relates to. It isn't necessarily about who it is in particular. Most people by middle age, as we are, have experienced loss in some way.
Zibby: Middle age? Stop.
Cristina: [laughs] Early middle age, late young adultness, have experienced loss. It’s a topic that I'm interested in. One of the ways I grappled with my dad dying young was reading. Books that I felt like relayed that experience in a way that resonated with me were so helpful. I remember reading Joan Didion’s books, which were incredibly hard to read in some ways. They're so well said. I couldn’t say this better if I tried. If I can do that for one other person, that's awesome to be able to make someone feel like there are books out there that talk about this experience and see their characters through the other side of grief. That's important to me also.
Zibby: I lost my college roommate and best friend on 9/11. I've written a lot about that experience too. Writing, per your comment about therapy, has been really helpful. I was at Harvard Business School then. I wish I had known you. This is what happens when you're a New Yorker. You have a big catastrophe, and the world is very small.
Can you tell me a little more about your writing process? Paint us a picture. Where do you write? When? How often? When do you share it? Do you have a process?
Cristina: It’s funny. I'm in this book club with a bunch of crime writers. I'm the youngest one. I'm the least successful. I'm, I think, the only woman, although there’s a couple of female journalists. It’s so funny to hear the guys in our group talk about their process. They are not parents of small children. They all have their own office. They go. Some of them will stay up all night drinking. That sounds fabulous and bohemian. That is not my process.
It’s really hard to write with kids. You can't wait for the muse to inspire you because you have so few hours in the day. What I've found is I actually can't write for more than three or four hours a day. I start writing nonsense. I try and write first thing in the morning. By that I mean three hours after everyone's awake and out the door. Most mornings I go to a quiet place. By that I mean Starbucks or a library. I sit, and I try and work until about lunchtime. I usually go for a walk or do something to clear my head. Then I pick my kids up from school. That's what I aspire to do five days a week. Life gets in the way a lot. It’s a work in progress. I do tend to edit and do less intense brain work after my kids are asleep. My kids are little so they're asleep by seven thirty.
Zibby: That's nice.
Cristina: It is nice, although they get up very early. My husband and I have taken to -- I can't decide if it’s deeply romantic or deeply unromantic. We will get takeout and sit and work together at the dining room table after they're asleep. It is what it is. It’s this phase of life. It’s the best I can do at this point.
Zibby: Are you working on a new book now?
Cristina: I am. I'm working on a book called Snowbird. I signed a two-book deal after The Banker’s Wife. I theoretically should be working on this book and then another book after that. I'm halfway through it. It’s a thriller. It’s set out in Long Island. It’s been really fun. It’s a little hard when you're coming up into a book tour to toggle between the two books. I found that to be a little bit challenging. I'm starting to do press for Banker’s Wife. I have to juggle that with my work in progress. I can't complain. I love writing. It’s my hobby that is actually my job.
Zibby: That's awesome. Did you have to sell the idea of the second book of the two-book deal? Do you already know what that one is?
Cristina: No. I just signed my contract, although we negotiated the deal a while ago. It just says “Untitled.” It’s this total blank slate. Thank god because I can't think that far ahead. I do have ideas. My editor is amazing. We obviously kicked around ideas before signing the contract. I have a few ideas that are percolating. I'm trying to stay focused on book four and not think too hard about book five.
Zibby: You mentioned also your books have been optioned into movies?
Cristina: The Darlings, we developed it. We got pretty far down the road developing it for HBO into a show. I was really involved with that process. It died on the vine as many shows do. It was really fun. At some point I’d like to write screenplays more. The Banker’s Wife, we are working on selling it as a show as well. I have conceded that I'm not a professional screenwriter. This time around, especially given that I have two other books that I've been contracted for, I do not want to write the screenplay. As I keep saying to my agent, “I want a real screenwriter to write it.” [laughs] I'm not sure how involved I’ll be with it if it does get made into something. I love being part of that process. It’s really fun. I write in a very cinematic way. I tend to visualize every scene. My chapters tend to correlate with a particular scene. I can see it in the movie reel in my head. It’s fun to think about it getting made into something.
Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring novelists and any advice to someone thinking of moving to New York? Very different.
Cristina: I talk to a lot of aspiring novelists. I'm sure everyone has friends in LA that they've heard about who write screenplays in five days or journalists who turn over an article a week. Novels are a labor of love. You're chipping away very slowly at something that gets built over a year, ten years. You have to stick with it. It sometimes feels very daunting when you're writing a thousand words a day and your goal is eighty thousand words.
One of the things I've told a lot of people is agents are hungry for finished products. A lot of agents and editors see a lot of half-baked projects where people want reassurance, as I did when I was writing The Darlings, that someone would buy it if I spent the time to finish it. People are routinely surprised, in my opinion, by how eager agents are for products that are finished. Books evolve so much during the editorial process. I always say just get it out. Get the story out. Get it out on paper. Finish it. Then, you can go back and polish it. I tell myself this all the time. My type A, OCD personality, I always want to go back and edit everything. If you can get the full draft on paper, someone will want to read it. I really believe that. Go write.
As to for people that want to live in New York or move to New York, New York is so weird. People either love it or they hate it. It’s pretty clear right away if it’s for you or not. I actually don’t think native New Yorkers are actually people who have been living here their whole lives. Native New Yorkers are people that take to this lifestyle really quickly. My parents were the New Yorkiest people you’ve ever met in your life. My mom grew up in Havana. My dad grew up in Brussels. You could not find two more New York people. They would never live anywhere else. The idea that my mom would live anywhere is anathema to her. People take to the vibrancy and rhythm of the city, or they don’t. You figure it out pretty quickly. It’s a very manic, high-energy place. If that's what you're looking for, this is the place to be. If it’s not, it can be very overwhelming. I think everyone should try and live in New York once in their life.
Zibby: I said to my mom once because she spends a lot of time in Arizona, “Why don't you sell your apartment? What do you think?” She was like, “New York is my home. This is my home. Are you kidding? Even if I spend time elsewhere, this is it. This is my home.” I get it.
Cristina: My mom is not leaving. She's going nowhere. Every time one of her friends moves to Florida or whatever she's like, “They're crazy. What are they thinking?” I'm like, “Well, I don't know. It’s pretty nice down there.” New Yorkers, you’ll always come back here.
Zibby: Thank you so much for being on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Cristina: It was a total pleasure.