Before I turned to fiction, I had two jobs: as an editor at Seventeen magazine (where I also wrote advice to the lovelorn) and as a freelance political speechwriter. I’ve always had a wide range of interests, from politics, film, baseball, American culture to the more traditional female pursuits of cooking, needlework, and gardening.
My first novel, the satirical whodunit Compromising Positions, was such a success (a Book of the Month Club main selection, movie deal, big paperback auction, translated into thirty languages) that the common wisdom was Do It Again. And why not? I loved my housewife-investigator Judith Singer as well as the mystery form. Anyway, if you have a hit, keep swinging the same way your next time at bat.
There was a hitch: Compromising was my first attempt at fiction and I had a sense that if I kept to that character and genre, I would wind up twenty or thirty years down the line writing Compromising Positions Goes Hawaiian. Not only didn’t I want to fall asleep over the manuscript as I was writing it, I didn’t want my readers to nod off when they sat down with the book.
I decided it wasn’t my job to please my publishers. It was to write the novel I needed to write, which is ultimately the book I most want to read. What was that? Back then, in the late 1970s, as the first thrills and successes of the women’s movement were starting to abate, I decided I wanted to spend the next couple of years thinking about our jobs versus the rest of our lives.
I gave my protagonist, Marcia Green, the work I had once done, political speechwriting. Her candidate is running in the Democratic primary for governor of New York State (as guaranteeing the book would be a comedy), which gave me the terrific opportunity to explore politics-not just the electoral kind, but family politics, ethnic politics, and all the power plays, betrayals, and triumphs that can go on between lovers.
It was Marcia’s life, and I let her set the tone:
“My family hated my job. Aunt Estelle had said. .’Darling, politics is so unlike you. All those loudmouths and lower-class lawyers. They’re beneath you. I know deep down you realize it.’ ‘Roosevelt was a politician. So was Kennedy-Harriman.’ ‘Marcia, sweetheart, they were statesmen. We’re talking New York City now, and you know as well as I do that no one you come in contact with is interested in real elegance.’
“As usual, my mother had let a refined sigh escape through the delicate hole in her pursed lips and then had noted that I seemed to spend a lot of time catering to people in slums.
“Uncle Julius had muttered that politicians wouldn’t know a nice girl if they fell over her.
“Cousin Barbara was thrilled that I was fulfilled .but hinted I might combine my career with marriage and children for even deeper fulfillment.”
It was a situation from which half-hour television comedies are made, “Marcia!” In tonight’s episode, Marcia Green’s warm and winning and wise and wonderful Jewish family reminds her that she is thirty-five, divorced and childless”
Did I miss the security of writing a sequel to a big success? Sure, but Close Relations turned out to be a bestseller. Even better, I gave myself a chance to grow in my craft and had a hell of a good time in the process.