With his debut novel, Rich and Pretty, Rumaan Alam has earned himself a place in the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program, a select group of authors the bookseller picksto introduce new writers to the reading public. Alam discussed the book at B&N’s 86th Street location and with Mira Jacob author of The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing.
Rich and Pretty is the story of two young women who grew up as close friends who have grown apart. The novel follows their lives as Sarah’s wedding approaches.
Mira Jacob begins by jokingly asking Alam how many women’s brains must he have eaten in order to have gotten so deeply inside the female mind.
Many of his closest friends are women, he explains, and he watched them. They seemed to live fuller lives. The short answer, he says, is “I stole it,” adding that he expects many of his friends, as they read the book, to recognize bits from their lives. “It was well meant.”
Entering into the mind of women is not a task hopeless. “Writing about women is not like writing about something impossible to know.”
Nevertheless, the women are very much the opposite of Alam prompting Jacob to wonder why he chose white women in New York City as the subject of his first novel: “You are a gay, brown man.”
When you are writing something that doesn’t belong to you, you have to be cautious, Alam says. Every person in publishing is a woman; he felt if he fundamentally was wrong about women and their friendships, they would have caught it. The novel was vetted by women.
It was freeing to not have to write that book every writer who doesn’t look like Jonathan Franzen is expected to write, Alam says. It was a liberating experience. “It was almost like writing about aliens.”
There is an expectation of writers of color and women that their writing is going to be autobiographical. He adds that he doesn’t think anyone says Purity is the story of their life in the way it’s often said of the narratives by marginalized groups. Alam calls it the curse of being a minority artist.
Alam particularly enjoyed writing from the perspective of Lauren’s character, but he sees himself as much more like Sarah. “People want to take a side.”
He says during the writing of the book, he thought about the characters all the time. He would walk around the city and think about how they would interact with things and people he encountered.
Writing was devoid of joy, but it was an escape. However, during much of the process he often believed he would never finish writing it. He describes writing the novel as though he was in a trance or a fugue state. “I’ve always been suspicious of writers who say they love writing,” he says.
“It’s a compulsion. It’s like a mental illness.”