A Conversation with Suzanne Rindell, author of The Other Typist which explores her inspirations for the book, her research into the 1920s and the ways women's roles changed at this time, and the power of literature and the written word
What inspired you to write this book?
I was immersed in 1920s literature and working on my dissertation. Somewhere along the way, I became intrigued with the sort of competitive friendships between women that F. Scott Fitzgerald portrays in many of his short stories ("Bernice Bobs Her Hair" is one of my favorites). To me, this felt like a stark contrast when compared to a lot of Victorian literature, wherein female characters seem like they're always holding hands and affectionately proclaiming sisterhood. I wrote Rose in part as a way of charting out one woman's journey through these cultural changes. She longs for the types of sisterly relationships she's read about in books, but life hands her cutthroat Odalie; she is essentially jolted into modernity.
As for the police station setting and Rose's occupation as a typist, a few things converged. I was reading an old New Yorker article that explored the impact typewriters had on the 20th century workplace ("The Typing Life," Joan Acocella, April 9, 2007). The article outlined the contradictory assumptions people made about women and typewriters: that women had the passive temperament necessary to merely record things and therefore made the best typists, but that typing jobs would mean more women would enter certain workplaces where they didn't belong. This article, combined with a real-life obituary I came across about a woman who'd worked her entire life as a stenographer in a police precinct, made for the perfect storm. In my head, I started hearing Rose tell her tale and she couldn't be ignored.
Who are Rose and Odalie? What is their situation as your novel begins? Why are these apparently opposite types so drawn to each other?
Rose is a young woman who has managed to channel her potent loneliness into a stance of prudish disapproval of the people around her. When Odalie joins the typing pool, Rose wants very badly to disapprove of her too, but is seduced by the simple fact that Odalie invites Rose into her life. She is so hungry for companionship, Rose is willing to contradict her beloved principles. It gets to the point where whatever Odalie does bobbing her hair, smoking, drinking, vamping is tolerated and eventually admired by Rose. It's a classic case of peer pressure born out of a virulent need to belong. It's a small little coterie, but Rose needs to belong to Odalie, and have Odalie belong to her.
Why was it said by some back in the early twentieth century that the typewriter would "unsex" women?
The worry was that women would enter workplaces from which they had been previously barred, work long hours, and take up the kinds of "bachelor" habits that go along with that lifestyle (living independently, eating at lunch counters, going out in the evenings). In short, the typewriter would take more women out of the home and put them in the office, and the fear was women would loose interest in matrimony, nurturing children, general domestic life.
Why was it considered such a statement in the 1920s for a woman to bob her hair, or cut it short? Smoking is another symbol of the changes in the role of women that were taking place at the time, along with drinking and dating and much freer sexual behavior, at least for some women. Why were all these changes happening at this time?
I would argue that gender roles loosened up in the 1920s, and that bobbing one's hair was a way of playing with the sort of subversive role-reversal that was going on at the time. This is the same period where you have Coco Chanel retailoring men's jackets for women to wear, lots of cross-dressing in the cabarets in Weimar Germany, and Olympic sports opening up to include women. On top of it all, you have the typewriter creating more employment for women and automobiles transforming courtship into an early version of modern dating. A boom in urban populations and the advent of new technologies meant the times were a-changin,' and women were able to make different lifestyle choices.
Rose is reading Jane Austen novels, but people are talking about T.S. Eliot at bohemian parties. Is this a literary mirror to what is happening in society and between Rose and Odalie?
Absolutely. Of course I'm completely biased, but I think literature is a great measure of society's changing pulse. Rose struck me as an introvert who'd spent her childhood reading books, so I wanted to sprinkle in her reaction to the different books and poems she encounters. I think The Waste Land, with it's depiction of a typist who leads a shockingly "modern" life living alone, working for an office job, having casual sex had also gotten stuck in my head, and thus turned up unbidden.
The power of the written word, and more particularly the idea that what is typed becomes the truth, regardless of the actual facts, is an important theme of your novel. How does Rose use this perception to bend the law toward what seems to be a laudable goal, and how does it come back to haunt her?
You know, a lot of that actually came from issues I'd been mulling over in grad school. When you study early 20th century literature, it's inevitable you'll read a lot of criticism and theory on the emerging faith society placed in technology and new machines. The idea was that machines are objective and infallible. In the case of the typewriter, this thinking is potentially dangerous, because it's a machine that handles written narratives and depends on someone operating it. What's to stop someone from altering the contents? Or even creating completely new content? Rose takes advantage of her lowly position; she has a power they've overlooked. She plays God when she alters that report. But then it comes back to bite her, because in messing with the report she has compromised the value of her integrity, and opened herself up to greater suspicion. Not to mention she has paved the way for Odalie to tamper with the evidence in return.
Rose recognizes that Teddy Tricott, the college boy who becomes Odalie's victim, is in many ways like herself, but in essence she delivers him into Odalie's hands. Why?
I think Rose is grappling with a lot of competing emotions. She sees herself in Teddy, and she vacillates between feeling sympathy and disgust for him. I pictured her feeling revolted in that unique way a person is when they spot their own pathetic weaknesses in another human being. And then I think Rose can't decide what she wants more: to protect Odalie or to punish her. Rose wants Odalie's undivided attention and I think she gets to a point where she will settle for either positive or negative attention as long as it's undivided and she doesn't have to share it with anyone!
One of the powers that Odalie holds over many people, and Rose in particular, is that she understands that people are intrigued by mystery and often want to be tricked. She creates compelling imaginary worlds, and then "invited you in ever so casually and somehow even when her lies were shabbily wrought you would find yourself wanting to go in, if only out of an insatiable curiosity." Do you see this as analogous in some ways to what a fiction writer does?
Oh man. Good question. I had so much fun spinning Odalie's various yarns, but it got complicated at times. It was almost like playing a shell game and trying to remind myself it's all a trick. I attempted to make each layer of false story a little more flimsy than the next, so that by the time Teddy tells Rose his tale, both Rose and the reader would be a little inured to it, like "oh boy, here we go again; there's no way this can be true." I also tried to make most of the stories sound slightly over-dramatic, like something Rose might've read in a book, in the hopes this would encourage the reader to question the narrator's reliability. In doing all this, I realize I totally ran the risk of maybe pissing off the reader, exasperating him/her. But ultimately, my hope was not terribly dissimilar from Odalie's, in that I just hope the reader wants to be sucked into Rose's world. She's not a kind, likeable character, per se, but I hope she's charismatic and interesting. This question is very timely for me, because I was just having a discussion the other day about the bizarre counter-intuitive appeal of dystopic novels: books like 1984, Brave New World, and Oryx and Crake set up these dreadfully uncomfortable worlds and yet they can be transporting and addictive for some readers. Bottom line is, I think altered realities can be very seductive, and fiction is still one of the most cerebral ways to achieve this. I think maybe we're greedy to vicariously experience more narratives in life because sadly mortality dictates we only get to experience one directly.
Did you do any special research into police procedures in New York City in the 1920s and the enforcement, or lack thereof, of the Prohibition laws, which are an important part of your story?
I was definitely obsessed with the period, and got my hands on all the things I could find. If any readers out there are interested, one lovely, lazy way to absorb more information about Prohibition is Ken Burns' excellent documentary series on PBS. I liked writing about bootlegging and the Volstead Act. I grew up in Northern California, and there are a couple of wineries out in Napa Valley that tell exciting tales about making wine bricks, sacramental wine, and other ways people tried to keep the various winemaking/distillation industries alive. I was more nervous writing about police procedures, mostly because the NYPD is a fairly new-ish organization. If I remember correctly from my notes, they mark 1845 as their inception date, and even then, from what I could dig up, each department ran things a little bit differently organization of rank, procedures, etc until they eventually moved towards greater uniformity. I had to make choices and follow my imagination, which was stressful. Despite the fact that television still gets it wrong all the time, it would be infinitely easier to write something about the NYPD set in the present, in that their hierarchy of ranks has military specificity these days, and their infrastructure is extremely unified.
In a speakeasy one night, Rose suddenly concludes that the forced gaiety and feigned innocence of her generation were essentially false that "the whole pack of us were fakes." Why does she think that? Do you agree?
So, one of the things I was researching in the course of my studies at Rice had to do with 1920s fashion. I became intrigued with 1920s fashion and the zeitgeist to emulate prepubescent youth. Especially in terms of ladies' fashions: boyishly cut clothes were de rigueur, grown women bobbed their hair in the style of schoolgirls, and suddenly it became sexy to act childish and tomboyish. This seems really startling when you realize a lot of these young people have just witnessed World War I, and should be the most world weary 20-somethings in the history of the planet. I believe there was a certain innocence they were eager to imitate all the while undercutting it with some taboo or other naughty behavior. It's the thing where you see a girl dressed up like an innocent doll, yet smoking a cigarette and looking completely bored with the scene around her.
You've commented that you were influenced by Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby as you wrote this book, with regard to both the language and the habits of the time you were writing about. Are there individual lines or other aspects of your novel that stand out as a particular homage to him?
I really relied a lot on The Great Gatsby as I created Rose and Odalie's world. I more or less used it as a yardstick by which to determine what was fitting for the times. Because The Other Typist is written in the first person, I felt it was important to get her voice just right, even if it meant the writing would sound more embroidered than we might be used to now in the 21st century. Reading and rereading Nick's voice in Gatsby really helped in this regard; Fitzgerald gets away with some incredibly lush turns-of-phrase. Some of those lines come off like purple prose, but it never does! So I held that up as something to humbly aspire to.
When I was feeling a bit cheeky, I planted a few lines that make direct reference to Gatsby. For instance, Rose talks about being so distracted by Odalie she doesn't notice the shortest day of the year, and this is a nod to the line in Gatsby where Daisy says, "I always wait for the longest day of the year and then miss it." Stuff like that. If you're really into The Great Gatsby and know it pretty well, there are a few small references you might catch.
Another novel that comes to mind when reading yours is Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley, since they're both about charming sociopaths who manage to get away with murder. Did you have it in mind as you wrote?
You know, I didn't when I wrote the first draft. My lovely UK editor Juliet Annan made the comparison, and then I was aware of it during the months Amy Einhorn and I edited our way to the final manuscript. At that point, I read the book and watched the film and parsed through all the ways I thought Odalie was similar to or different from Tom Ripley. It's nice to have these sorts of comparisons, but it's important you're not aware of them too early on, or they can really mess with you. If you haven't allowed yourself the freedom to dream up that first draft in its entirety and let it stand on it's own two feet, a comparison can shatter your confidence. You can fall victim to too much imitation, or conversely, make you artificially steer your characters away from similarities out of sheer desperation to ensure your book is unique. Later in the process, though, it's great. It's like in comparing your manuscript to other authors' works you get to get to join a wonderful conversation already in progress and see where and how what you've created fits into the discussion.
The world of your novel is very different from the world of "Downton Abbey," the popular PBS series about an aristocratic English family and their household. But they are both set in the same period, and both focus extensively on the changing role of women, as well as crime and punishment, although on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Do you see a wider resurgence of interest in the women of this time, and if so, why now?
There certainly seems to be a burgeoning of books, TV, and film set in the 1920s right now, so something's definitely up. Only time will tell, but it could be that the progressive social politics of that era really strikes a chord with regard to current events. Gay marriage, for instance, is an issue that really seems to highlight a certain disconnect between generations; most of today's younger generation can't really understand why the heck the older generation has such a problem with it. Young adults in the 1920s had a similar disconnect with their parents' generation. I think things like suffrage or women taking typing jobs, going to the theater alone, etc., felt like a natural progression to them and they couldn't understand their parents' Victorian-minded disapproval. Vast generation gaps give rise to a sense of rebellion, and rebellion is always sexy. Programs like Downton Abbey, with its buttoned-up-to-the-extreme aristocrats entering an era of progressive social politics, really gets at the heart of this.
Why did you become a writer? Was it a lifelong goal?
Writing is just something I've always done. I think most writers are this way and can recall silly little stories they wrote when they were five years old. It's a compulsion, and as you get older you either squelch it or you give in and feed it. Writing has always been important to me, but "being a writer" is a new thing. That's trickier terrain. I come from a very practical family; they told me my writing was good but that I needed to make sure I also had "a real job," which to them meant I ought to have an office or teaching job instead of running around pretending to be Hemingway. I think in a lot of ways this was good for me, because it means for me writing is always about the work and not about posing as a writer. People who are super-enamored with the idea of being a writer tend to get a bit of an eye roll from me. I feel privileged to be able to write for a living, but it can be very difficult, unglamorous, lonely work. You do it because you can't not do it.
What are your writing habits? Do you write every day?
I'd say I write about five out of seven days of the week. Any less than that and I start feeling a bit worthless. Even during those periods in my life when I've been very busy with a separate day job, I've still had to figure out how to cram some regular writing time in or I'd find myself in a funk. There's something I get from writing something as simple and obvious as catharsis, maybe that I can't get from anything else. Of course, I should mention a disclaimer in that not everything I produce in those five days is worth keeping; I cut a lot and throw entire scenes away. But having written it feels necessary.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I would say to focus on the work itself, and to remember that good things come out of a sense of play. Get lost in your own story and try to keep the noise of who's publishing what where turned down whenever you sit down to write. Also that the most important thing about writing is to keep asking questions. Really fundamental questions, like, "Who the heck is this character and what do they want?" are easy to take for granted, but are so important to perpetually ask yourself as you write, as they change over time.
What do you hope readers take away from this story?
I hope they are entertained! I hope they feel transported. And if they get to thinking about any of these other issues we've discussed feminism, obsession, early 20th century history, subjective truth, narrative and metanarrative so much the better.