I had my characters. Nick and Jane, two Wasps. They’d meet in their senior year at Brown. He would be part of an upper-class Manhattan clan, she from a more modest family in Cincinnati, albeit just as dysfunctional, though in a different way. Definitely not from my turf. What was I doing with them, and at an Ivy League college? Wasn’t it the opposite of what writers ought to do? What ever happened to Write about what you know?
Still, they’d come to me as a couple, as they were. I felt I needed to write about how their families (even relatives who had died long before they were born) had gone into forming Nick and Jane. I sensed from the start that they would fall in love. I also realized they would be tested. But it took my own book tour before I could figure out what to do with my two characters.
I would expose them to the modern dream, and also the modern disease, of celebrity. Wasn’t that also writing about what I didn’t know? Well, as far as the Protestant business went, some of my best friends were Wasps. And I lived in what might be considered a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture; in the early 1980s, diversity was celebrated with somewhat less enthusiasm than it is today. As for celebrity, hadn’t I just gotten back from doing readings, autographing books, being photographed and interviewed, even going on TV?
TV. Everybody is entitled to a grandiose fantasy or two, so when I started writing fiction, besides a run-of-the-mill image of me, having signed a seven-book contract, at lunch with my editor), I did fantasize big. There I was, in a glam gown, being unspeakably delightful on the Tonight Show; all over America, people would tell each other And I thought authors were boring. Not Susan Isaacs!
The closest I got to the Tonight Show was Good Morning Cleveland, and instead of being Long Island’s answer to Noel Coward, I came across as, God help me, sincere. When they went to commercial after my segment, the host patted my hand and said, “You’re such a sweet girl.” However, my experience as the most minor of celebrities gave me insight into what happens to people when they get famous, especially in the arts.
It’s odd to be in the middle of your ordinary life, strolling down the aisle of a supermarket, and overhear a stranger whispering, not very softly, to a friend, “That’s her, the writer!”
“Who? Where?” A pause and then “Her?” followed by “What’s her name?”
“Uhhh… It’ll come to me.”
And there were other odd reactions: people who had formerly managed to overlook me now wanted to be my friend; making a reservation at a Hamptons restaurant and getting the grand treatment on arrival; and holding a Swedish meatball on a toothpick for over a half-hour at a cocktail party because I was so busy answering people’s questions that I didn’t have time to eat it.
I took that recognition, the changes in my life, and blew it up into XXL. I didn’t want to write about novelists. But I do love theater and film, so I had Nick and Jane meet in a college production of Hamlet, fall in love and marry. Nick, cool and far less passionate about his art, becomes a huge success – not in the theater, as Jane would have had it, but as a movie star. What would the pressure, hype, privilege, money, and public and private adoration and hostility do to each of them? To their marriage?
Almost Paradise took the longest of any of my novels to write, mostly because I had so much research to do on the generations that came before Nick and Jane and also on what it takes to be an actor. Of course, then I had to sit down and write in such a way that the research wasn’t evident. If you, the reader, can all but see a novelist’s index cards, she hasn’t done the job. Sure, a good writer has to know what she’s talking about in order to make the universe she’s creating feel authentic. But if your reaction is Wow, all that research! Did she work hard! then she’s failed because she’s taking you out of the world of the story. And that’s where you belong.