One of the best perks of my job is getting cool books sent my way. When a collection of short stories titled Spoiled by Caitlin Macy arrived at my desk, I found myself hooked from the very first page. Another great perk of the job? Chatting with authors whose books I enjoy, which is what I got the chance to do with Macy.
Based on the title alone, you might imagine this book to be yet another romp through an elite world of the rich and famous — that was my first guess — but it's not that at all. Instead, Spoiled is a razor-sharp, witty, and oftentimes touching examination of the ambiguities of class distinction in America. Macy is a keen observer of how precarious being right on the edge of the upper class can be for highly educated, urbane, and somewhat neurotic women.
Macy doesn't miss a beat mining this territory for laughs, either, which makes the collection a fun and engaging read. I kept thinking this is the world Curtis Sittenfeld's protagonist Lee Fiora in her book Prep might find herself in by her early 30s (Sittenfeld, by the way, enthusiastically recommends Macy's book).
To check out highlights of my interview with the author, who also wrote The Fundamentals of Play, just read more.
On writing short stories instead of a novel this time around: After Fundamentals [of Play], I really wanted to start a new novel right away . . . and then I had one of those completely inspirational moments. "Christie," which is the first story in the book — it was just one of those things where I just sat down and wrote it. I usually write and re-write and go through many drafts but "Christie" just sort of came to me whole, and I wrote it. Then I had a good agent who said, "OK, based on this one story" — which he had managed to sell to The New Yorker — "let's get you a book contract!" [laughs] And so I said, "OK, I guess I'm writing stories," because suddenly I owed them, you know, eight or nine more stories at least. So it was kind of thrust upon me, I guess you would say.
On inhabiting the world of the privileged and what about this atmosphere fascinates her: I can totally see why this book is packaged that way and why people sort of want to cast me in that light because, first of all, my first novel was in no uncertain terms set in a very kind of rarefied world of New York and Newport and, you know, really kind of old money, preppies. I point out that I'm in my 30s and most of the women I know — and this isn't to say that it's not a rarefied world, in terms of the world itself, but you know — most of my friends who work have a nanny. I think there are these kind of, like, knowledge economy cities nowadays, and it's not exactly, like, the old-money WASP elite that I'm writing about in [Spoiled]. It's more sort of educated, well-heeled women who are making difficult choices, who maybe have a certain amount of guilt about maybe employing a nanny.
On how her own upbringing helping her identify the subtle class distinctions she writes about: My dad was cut from a kind of WASP-y, old-money family. My mom, on the other hand, is Irish Catholic from Brooklyn, and I grew up in a small rural town, and I went to boarding school and college on financial aid. I am now married to a guy that works on Wall Street, and so I definitely consider myself a part of the milieu of people who have nannies or maybe would get apartment envy in Manhattan. . . . I guess I enjoy looking at class and actually sort of the subtle nuances and do think that there's a pretty big difference between [old-money women and] the world of these kind of women living in these kind of knowledge economy cities who've gone to good colleges, and therefore maybe that's sort of the reasons for their class anxiety.
On the sometimes neurotic women in her stories who seem painfully aware that it takes more than a pair of Manolo Blahniks to feel securely upper class (as opposed to, say, the ladies of Sex and the City): I think that's a really interesting topic. I think the Manolos and so forth are status markers to a certain extent, but let's face it: I certainly remember making, you know, $18,000 a year as an assistant in publishing when I got to the city and buying a $350 pair of boots and just putting it on the credit card. So we can all just sort of splurge on material things.
I'll go to "The Red Coat" [a story in Spoiled] — she has a cleaning woman but she is not someone who grew up in a family that had a cleaning woman. You know, she was borderline working class and now has a cleaning woman. So she has this outward status marker and she has this — again, for lack of a better phrase — Upper East Side stress, but instead of it reassuring her, these things actually, you know, completely sort of blindside her . . . and she ends up stealing her cleaning woman's coat because she's so jealous of her.
On status markers and class in America: I'm interested in the sort of anxiety and emotion beneath the markers of class, because I do think that's something that's very American. It's sort of central to the American experience, where we supposedly live in this classless society. I mean, in a certain sense, as Americans, you know, people have to kind of like work harder to attain some class status because it is a more pliable class structure than, say, Europe — say, England — where one's accent to a certain extent gives one away. So while I think those status markers are interesting, I think they can only sort of take you so far in terms of the insight into a character and their emotional state.