Interview: Molly Jong-Fast

Interview with Molly Jong-Fast, author of The Social Climber’s Handbook (Villard 2011)

In the world of Molly Jong-Fast’s comic novel The Social Climber’s Handbook, zip codes and social status go together like white on rich people. Her cast of Upper East Side mums and philandering financiers function as if morality, like riding the subway, is something poor people do. Set in the summer of 2008 during the onset of the credit crisis, Handbook introduces UES anti-heroes Dick and Daisy Greenbaum, a power couple holding onto their Brahmin existence by doing What’s Necessary: covering up fraudulent lending, silencing rogue sex bloggers, or old fashioned murder.

Coming from un-humble literary roots as the only daughter of what she called “the short and ill-fated union” of Erica Jong and Jonathan Fast, this 32-year-old mother of three and lifelong Upper Eastsider satirically eviscerates her neighbors in this intelligent beach read. Jong-Fast recently spoke at The New School about the credit crisis, children named after fruits and why women can too be serial killers.

Were you personally affected by the 10021 split?

I’ve always been obsessed with zip codes and phone numbers. For a while I had a [212] 772- number; I was really happy with that. I am still 10021, though I think some people fancier than me were changed to 10028. But that’s right next to 10128, so…

The Social Climber’s Handbook is your third novel. Did you start writing because of your parents?

My mother wrote Fear of Flying, my grandfather was Howard Fast who wrote Spartacus. When your entire family has the same profession, you think: this is easy, this is what I’m going to do. It’s proven to be absolutely horrible and really hard, but now I’m in it. I tried to be a literary agent for a while, because when you’re surrounded by writers you think being an agent is a leisurely pursuit. It turned out that wasn’t the case. Writing is like being in the witness protection program, once you’re in it, you can’t get out.

How has their fame influenced your career?

It opens a lot of doors, then slams them on you. Sometimes I think nobody has as much mean stuff about them on the Internet as I do. I have medium-to-low self-esteem. I love the process of writing; being a public figure is the hard part.

I actually haven’t read my mother’s books, for obvious mental health reasons. There are people who love my her work and hate mine because it’s so different, or hate her and are looking to hate me, by extension. The way I figure it you can either hate her and like me, or vice versa, but not both.

You’re from the Upper East Side. Were you concerned about your neighbors thinking you were trashing the hood?

I wasn’t trashing the Upper East Side. It’s my home. I grew up in a townhouse on 94th and Park, went to NYU and Barnard and got my MFA from Bennington College. I’ve never lived anywhere else. But you do encounter ridiculous things every day, like children named after royalty or fruit. You meet unbelievably wealthy people who will never want for anything and are still unhappy, and you feel sorry for them. There are questionable people everywhere, this happens to be the world I know.

What made you want to write about a serial killer? 

I read a lot of mysteries and I love Patricia Highsmith’s work. I wanted to write a female Mr. Ripley, or a female Dexter. I read an interview a few years ago with Bret Easton Ellis [The Guardian, 2001] where he said he didn’t think women had it in them to be serial killers. I was like: Fuck you! Women can totally be serial killers!

It also occurred to me that if you wanted to commit a crime, it would help to be a woman with a really nice handbag. If I actually was a serial killer, this book would be the perfect cover.

The book is set during the 2008 credit crisis and you use a lot of detail about shady bank practices. Any correlation to your murdering anti-heroine?

What the credit crisis taught me is that people can commit unthinkable crimes and absolutely get away with it. My husband works in finance and when this happened, neither of us could believe the kind of criminal behavior these guys had gotten away with. I still don’t think people understand how close we were to breadlines, to going to Starbucks and there not being coffee. The taxpayers got screwed and almost all the banks got away with it.

Molly Jong-Fast, The Social Climber’s Handbook, Villard 2011. On sale April 26.

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