August 25, 2015

Elisabeth Egan

A wry and wise look at our modern-day balancing act
Interview by
In her witty and charming debut novel, Glamour books editor Elisabeth Egan portrays the struggles of one suburban mom after her husband's career setback sends her back into the workforce full time.
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In her witty and charming debut novel, Glamour books editor Elisabeth Egan portrays the struggles of one suburban mom after her husband's career setback sends her back into the workforce full time. Alice Pearce thought she had it all: a rewarding part-time job that left her plenty of time for her husband and their three children. But when she finds herself needing a full-time job—and landing one at a competitive eBook startup, Scroll—her work/life balance comes crashing down with a vengeance. We asked Egan a few questions about being on the other side of the reviewing divide, woman and work, and what the differences between her and her protagonist. 

One of the central themes of A Window Opens is the idea of women trying to successfully balance a career with motherhood and marriage. To what extent do you think this concept of the modern-day Renaissance woman is realistic or, perhaps even more importantly, desirable?
I think of this concept in terms of Renaissance people—not just women—because the expectation applies to all parents, moms and dads alike. This, at least, is progress. And the “having it all” ideal might not always be realistic or desirable, but it’s a definitely a necessity for most of us. I can’t pretend to have it all figured out; I just try to find humor in the chaos. For some reason, my lowest moments always occur at the supermarket: the time I left my car running, windows rolled down, radio on, for the duration of my shopping expedition; the time I ran accidentally over my own rotisserie chicken in the parking lot; the list goes on. I’ve learned not to go to the supermarket after work when I’m tired—or ever, if I can avoid it.

"I can’t pretend to have it all figured out; I just try to find humor in the chaos." 

Not only are you a published writer, you’re also a mother and a wife. Of the three identities, which have you found the most challenging? 
The first one is the hardest to wrap my mind around. My book is my new baby, and the experience of holding it in my hands is a little bit like holding one of my own babies for the first time. I loved them with all my heart and soul (still do), but I kept expecting the real mom to come home and pay me for babysitting. Similarly, I now expect the identity police to come around and out me as a fraud author. I’m way more comfortable describing myself as an editor than a writer—which I think is a good thing because, for me, the best writing happens in the rewriting. And rewriting again, and again.

"My book is my new baby, and the experience of holding it in my hands is a little bit like holding one of my own babies for the first time. I loved them with all my heart and soul (still do), but I kept expecting the real mom to come home and pay me for babysitting."

At one point, Alice reflects on how the demands of being a working parent today are different from when she was growing up. Her father would bring work home from the office, but there wasn’t the expectation that he be available at 3 a.m. or at his children’s baseball games. So, although technology is often promoted as making our lives simpler and more efficient, do you think that it has made things more difficult for parents?
I’m all for progress, but I have a tortured relationship with my phone. On one hand, it allows me to work from home, or from a swim meet, or to text my husband from a meeting to ask him to pick up chocolate chips on his way home from work. (You’d be surprised how often we have an urgent need for chocolate chips in our house.) On the other hand, the phone can keep you from being entirely present in one place. Nobody in my office expects a response to email at 9 p.m., but I’ll send one anyway just so I have one less thing to worry about the next day. I’m a modern-day Icarus in Lululemon yoga pants: firing off a few messages before dinner only to discover after the dishes are done that those basic dispatches have mushroomed into full-blown conversations and before you know it, I’m settling in with my phone instead of tucking in my kids. This is an unfortunate habit.

As a purveyor of ebooks, Scroll is presented as the death knell to bookstores and literary culture. Is it safe to say that you’re a paper book devotee?
I don’t mind reading nonfiction on a screen, but I prefer to read fiction in the flesh—dog-earing, underlining and, yes, even cracking the spine when the mood strikes. I love the physical components of the book almost as much as the story it contains: the spine and flyleaf, the endpapers and deckled edge; that delicious vanilla ice cream smell of a newly-minted novel. I like to foist a beloved book on my mom or a friend; I keep a stack of favorites on the radiator by my front door just for this purpose.

One of the perks Alice receives when accepting her job at Scroll is a first edition copy of A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. If you were the one doing the choosing, what book would you ask for and why?
This is such a hard question! I’d probably pick Mrs. Dalloway since it’s the first book my husband ever gave me and we both love it. Or 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. I have no idea whether or not this one is even on the radar of collectors, but to me it’s the ultimate bookworm’s delight.

Initially when Alice snags herself a well-paying, high powered job, her husband is supportive, but eventually he begins to feel her career is detracting from her role as a mother and a wife. It feels as though this is a common double standard in our society: Career-oriented men are commended for providing for their families, whereas career-oriented women are vilified for being neglectful and selfish. How do you feel about this paradox?
I’m not sure it’s quite so black and white. I think the perception depends on the circumstances: who you are, where you live, the demands of your particular job, how long it takes you to get there. In my corner of the world, nobody uses the word “selfish” to describe parents of any stripe; I think (I hope!) there’s an awareness and understanding that we’re all doing our best, and most families require two incomes in order to stay afloat. The loudest critical voice in my head doesn’t belong to society, or to a man; it’s actually my own voice, saying, When was the last time you reminded the kids to floss? Do we even own floss? I try to keep this voice on a low volume and focus instead on my kids’ smiles, which are the bright and beautiful.

Another important focus of this book is the notion of aging, particularly as it relates to watching our parents grow old and become dependent upon us. At one point, Alice mentions that it’s a very striking moment when you realize that you’ve switched places with your parents and are now responsible for taking care of them. Have you faced this moment in your own life? If so, what did it look like for you?
Thankfully, I’ve never been the complete caretaker of either parent, but for me the pendulum started to swing in a different direction when my dad was first diagnosed with throat cancer 16 years ago. I was 25; he was 55. He was my go-to person for advice—whether it was about taxes or health insurance or the fine print on my lease, he always had an answer. He was like a human Magic 8 ball. After he got sick, the dynamic changed. He still had answers, even if he had to jot them down on a legal pad; but suddenly he needed our help, too. He wanted to learn how to use a computer. He couldn’t lift bags of potting soil out of the trunk of the car. He needed someone to be his voice. I grew up calling my parents’ friends “Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So,” but at my dad’s funeral I remember making a split-second decision to switch to first names across the board. I felt like I’d earned that privilege.

Like Alice, you have three children and work within the publishing world writing book reviews for a magazine. For those who might wonder how much of A Window Opens is autobiographical, set the record straight and tell us some ways in which you differ from your protagonist.
I’ve never had a job where I had to scan my hand upon entry; my husband is a moderate drinker; and I’d say I’m about 10 degrees less flaky then Alice. Like her, I love New Jersey, loathe cooking and drive a minivan with 18 cup-holders.

Having worked as a book editor where you weigh in on other people’s published works, how does it feel to be on the other side of the equation?
I feel the big hand of karma patting me on top of the head. I’m glad I’ve never eviscerated anyone else’s book, but I can think of a few times when I’ve been dismissive for ridiculous reasons (the font, a smug author photo). Now that I know exactly how much work goes into a book, I have a new respect for everyone involved in making it happen, from the author to the agent, editor, copyeditor, publicist, cover designer—you name it. The village is a lot bigger than I realized, and everyone deserves credit.

One of the reasons Alice gives for moving to their current neighborhood is its proximity to a truly fantastic independent bookstore. Care to give a shout out to your own favorite indie bookstore?
Happily! Mine is Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, New Jersey. It’s around the corner from my house and is the reason we bought this particular house, which is a fixer-upper to say the least. I love the community and camaraderie there—it has the vibe of a local bar and a house of worship rolled into one.

What are you working on next?
I’m in the early stages of another novel. This one is about a friendship gone wrong. The main character is a third-generation owner of a family deli, and she loves sandwiches the way Alice loves books. I figured, why not give myself an excuse to eat unlimited pastrami and dill pickles?

RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of A Window Opens.

Author photo by Beowulf Sheehan.

 

Get the Book

A Window Opens

A Window Opens

By Elisabeth Egan
Simon & Schuster
ISBN 9781501105432

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