In her debut novel, New York Times reporter Stephanie Clifford takes readers to New York City in the years before the 2008 stock market crash. Everybody Rise follows young striver Evelyn Beegan as she attempts to break into some of New York City’s most elite circles—and will go to almost any extreme to make it happen. We spoke to Clifford about her move from reporting to fiction, social power structures and the “unlikeable” female protagonist.
This is your first published novel, but you’ve worked as a court reporter for the New York Times. Given your experience with the legal world and the undoubtedly juicy stories you’ve covered there, were you ever tempted to write a thriller or crime novel?
I’m actually pretty new to courts—I covered business for years at the Times before switching to a courts beat last year, and a lot of my observations from that coverage made it into the book. Reporting on the 2008 crash and its aftermath made a huge impression on me—we were suddenly having a national discussion about wealth, class and how we got into this mess. I wanted Everybody Rise to reflect the lead up to that time, from the easy money that the young bankers are making at first, to their confidence that the stock market will continue to rise and buoy their fortunes.
As Evelyn thinks at one point, the “more” is always there, taunting her, as it was for so many in that time. As to the courts question—I am starting work on a second novel, set in the criminal-justice world, and there is daily fodder for it in Brooklyn’s courts, as you can imagine!
Your heroine, Evelyn Beegan, goes through quite the transformation over the course of the novel and, at times, behaves absolutely abhorrently. How did you approach Evelyn’s metamorphosis and did you ever worry about taking her past the point of redemption?
There were points when I was watching in horror as she made bad decisions, but I tried to follow where Evelyn led, and to put aside worries about whether she was likeable. I was rooting for her—I felt she had this underlying social anxiety that we’ve all felt at some point (well, most of us have felt). We’ve all wanted something that’s not good for us; we’ve all tried to be something we’re not; and Evelyn is so desperate to belong that she’s willing to do anything for it. Once she realizes what she’s done, it was important to me that she figure out how to get back from this bad situation she creates—and to do so on her own, without being redeemed or rescued by a man. She gets terribly lost, but she ultimately figures out how to find her way back to herself.
You revealed on Twitter that you quietly worked on this novel for years. What was the most difficult part of the writing process? How did you manage to find the energy and creative space to write a novel in your spare time?
There are two answers to this—one practical and one theoretical. I was working on this in fits and starts for a couple of years, and then I realized that if I wanted this novel to be finished, I’d need to structure things differently. I needed to set up regular time that wouldn’t be interrupted, so I would get up at 6 and write until 8 every morning before work. Then, theoretically, I had to make sure that every morning when I finished, I’d get up the next day too and keep working at it. So until I finished a draft, I tried to turn off the critical voice in my head, and I made a deal with myself that I just had to get my rear in that chair from 6 to 8, and even if I only typed a single word, I was still ahead of where I was the day before.
At one point in the novel, a character says to Evelyn that she has been “trying to make it in Edith Wharton’s New York.” In many ways the world depicted in Everybody Rise seems not altogether dissimilar from that of a Wharton novel; in your opinion, how has New York and its society changed in the last century?
Ooh, good question. Parts of the book were inspired by “House of Mirth,” and I think Wharton remains one of the best writers about social class. What’s changing now is that the world is now a lot more diverse and a lot more meritocratic than it was in the Gilded Age. A small cadre of WASPs no longer controls, say, the business world, or colleges, or social life. In fact, growing up in Seattle, where everyone gets the same standard-issue hiking boots and fleece, I didn’t even know this echelon of people still existed. When I shipped myself off to boarding school in the East, I was startled to find not only did they exist, but they held immense social power. The question of why—of what made them so alluring despite the drastically changing times—was one of the sparks for Everybody Rise.
Let’s talk about all the Sondheim and musical theater references in the novel (including the title!)—what was your inspiration for weaving those into the story?
When I was first writing this, after Evelyn was deep into her bad choices, I felt really bad for her. I wanted to give her something that would soften her landing just a little bit. I was listening to Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” basically on repeat at the time, and that offered an answer. Musicals appeal to Evelyn’s escapism and dreaminess, and remind her—even when she’s throwing herself at this world—that there’s something different out there. The book is also a family story, about Evelyn’s fractious relationship with her parents, whom she’s eager to please and embarrassed about at once. Musicals offered something that Evelyn and her mother could share: as much as Evelyn initially disappoints her mother, and as cold as their relationship can be, they are able to share emotion through musicals. Also, it gave me an outlet for my voluminous and heretofore useless knowledge of musicals lyrics!
The movie rights for this book have already been secured. If casting were left up to you, which actors would you like to see in the film?
I feel achingly old, because my knowledge of twenty-something actresses is not very good—I’m still like, “How about that woman who was in Mystic Pizza?” I actually think the role of Evelyn’s mother, Barbara, would be the most fun to cast—a fifty-something woman who is disappointed with her own life and pushing her daughter into the life she never had. Such a fun Mama Rose role to play.
In recent years, there has been increased discussion about the “whitewashing” of literature, television and film. For instance, the TV show “Girls,” which is also set in present-day New York City, was criticized for its lack of racial diversity, and Everybody Rise is populated almost exclusively with Caucasian characters as well. What is your perception of this issue and what do you feel is your responsibility as writer when it comes to the stories you tell and the characters you populate your novels with?
Not everybody in the novel in white, but it is true that virtually everyone in the stratum Evelyn wants to break into is. While Everybody Rise isn’t journalism, but I approached researching this book as a journalist—interviewing people from this circle, spending time at events, reading sociology about class—and when I spent time in that world, that’s the makeup I found. My responsibility here, I felt, was to write about how something is, not how I wish it were.
One of Evelyn’s biggest downfalls is that once she starts lying, she can’t stop, until her falsehoods get bigger and bigger and she gets trapped by them. Care to share a lie you told but would like to finally come clean about?
Ha! I didn’t brush the cats this morning like I said I had, and I probably won’t do it tonight, either. . . .
Evelyn’s growing lies stemmed from some of the court cases I’ve written about for the Times. As I began to attend more cases, I noticed one commonality: The defendant’s missteps always started small. Giant drug dealers who’d committed multiple murders began by packaging one bag of heroin. White-collar criminals who’d defrauded homeowners of millions of dollars began by fiddling with their taxes. I wondered: how does someone get from a small lie—a place we’ve all been, where we’re futzing with the truth a little—to this life that is off the rails? That journey fascinated me, and I wanted to see what choices Evelyn made, how she rationalized it to herself, as she went from point A to point B.
One of the major narrative thrusts of Everybody Rise is the pursuit of the “American Dream” in 21st-century America. What is your personal version of this dream?
Put simply, it’s a world where everybody has a shot. One of the most frustrating things in covering courts is seeing how systemic problems affect regular people: court fines that people can’t afford, records for minor violations that keep them from getting jobs years later, even a midday court appearance that means their hourly job may be in jeopardy. Evelyn’s problems are far removed from those daily pressures, but by the end of the novel, she’s asking some of the same questions: who matters in society, who doesn’t, why some people get punished and others get off scot-free. Those are questions that, judging from political campaigns and national conversations, a lot of Americans are asking nowadays.
RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of Everybody Rise.