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Deborah Copaken Kogan On The Red Book, Reunions, And Real Life

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Reversals of fortune and the artifice of self-presentation are the subjects of author Deborah Copaken Kogan's superb new novel, "The Red Book".

The red book, from which the book takes its title, is a Harvard class report published every five years with brief autobiographical overviews written by alumni. Using it as a framing device, Copaken Kogan explores the divide between the personal narratives presented in the red book and the real lives of those penning them through four women who come together for a college reunion during the summer of 2009: Clove, a former securities broker with an unusual family background who's struggling with fertility issues; Addison, a "trustafarian" who had a gay lover in college and is now stuck in a stale marriage; shopaholic Mia, a former actress turned stay-at-home mom married to an older man going through his own mid-life crisis; and Jane, the Paris bureau chief for a newspaper with her own set of emotional issues.

Copaken Kogan herself comes from a family of Harvard graduates but was not part of its pedigreed elite. "My father had gone there on a full scholarship," she said. "He was a poor Midwest kid from Kansas City who felt his life had been completely altered by the experience, so he wanted his kids to have the same opportunities as he did. I'm one of four girls. All four of us went to Harvard."

Not unlike her characters, however, once the recession hit, Copaken Kogan found her own middle-class family "tumbling through life's cracks without a safety net." Adds Copaken Kogan: "When I sat down to write the book, I was writing under the influence of three of life's biggest stressors: my husband had just lost his job; we had to move to find a cheaper place to live; and my 67-year-old father had just died from pancreatic cancer. I felt, as many Americans feel today, like I was drowning. And no fancy degree from any institution was going to save me."

"The Red Book" eloquently mines this problematic turf and the way people chose to stay true to their authentic selves -- or not. "The stories we choose to tell about our lives, whether in quick status-update burst on Facebook or more thoughtfully and narratively in the red book, are hardly a true self-portrait of the flawed, confused human beings we all are, with our unmet longings and unfulfilled dreams and simmering desires just under the surface," Copaken Kogan said.

I recently spoke with Copaken Kogan about "The Red Book."

Did you set out to write social commentary about the Facebook generation of mid-lifers?

I wanted to write a non-fiction exploration of my Harvard class of 1988 after attending my first reunion. But by the time I was talking about it to my publisher, I realized that lots of people's narratives I'd been following at the reunion -- because that's what reunions are, [following] peoples narratives -- were probably like mine: completely different a year later. For a lot of us who hit middle age at the same time that the recession hit, our lives were suddenly thrown into complete disarray.

So I sat down with my publisher with all this going on and said that I wanted to write a book about my Harvard class -- about how that generation of women has weathered their lives; women who were told that they could do and be anything, yet found when they got into the working world that there was basically no infrastructure for a two-income working family to really make it. That's what I wanted to write about. But my publisher said: "The only problem with doing a non-fiction book about this subject is that nobody's going to be honest. No one will tell you what's really going on in their souls. They'll gloss things over." And I replied, 'Oh, like the red book." And she said, "What's the red book?"

I explained to her that it's this crazy thing that Harvard alumni get sent every five years -- that it's basically like watching the Michael Apted documentary "7-Up", but it's your friends, and you follow their lives every five years. Alumni write in these little essays about themselves. Sometimes people are brutally honest, but often what they write is sort of like a Facebook version of their lives. And my publisher said, "That sounds fascinating. That's a novel." And I said, "Oh, you mean a novel using the red book for structure?" And that was it. It was instantaneous.

Your characters are all emblematic of social trends and types.

Yes, they are, but I'm not interested in likeable characters. I'm interested in characters who are flawed, like I am. Like everyone I know is. Nobody is wholly likeable. That said, none of these characters are me. Not even close. But pieces of all of them are. In the same say that Flaubert said, "Madame Bovery, c'est moi," each of our characters carry parts of ourselves.

You've described your characters as four women "who have sacrificed their true selves for the sake of a life that they're supposed to have." Everybody struggles with that on some level, whether they've gone to Harvard or a community college. There's a lot of pressure to be who we're not.

Absolutely. And it never ends. It starts out in college -- for me, it started out with the push to go to Harvard. Back in the day when we went college, you filled out an application, sent it off, and hoped for the best...

We didn't have portfolios back then.

No, we didn't! Nothing like that. And when I went to Harvard -- I'm very happy that I did -- but it wasn't really about my life. It was my dad's vision of what my life should be. I think we are all in constant flux with who we are, what we've become, how much of it is driven by self, how much of it is driven by society. Even friends of mine who are in the process of divorce -- nobody wants to get divorced, but in certain cases it's necessary. So there's this constant push and pull between societal expectations for us and what we as humans need. And those two are often at loggerheads.

That conflict is exemplified by four women in your book. Do you think that women in middle age experience these crises differently than men?

Not necessarily. I think they just don't talk about it as much as we do. That said, I
tried to explore these things with my male characters. Jonathan is 61 so he's not middle aged -- he's entering the third third of his life. Seen from the outside he seems to have done extraordinarily well, yet even he's hit a point where he's struggling with meaning and what mark he wants to leave on the world and how to change as a person.

I think that's what it's all about, male or female. We are all in constant flux. Our careers are in constant flux. Who we are -- what we feel and need -- changes hour to hour, year to year, decade to decade. All of us experience those moments when we ask ourselves: Are we living up to our potential? Are we doing what we're supposed to be doing? This happened to me when my dad was dying. The death of a parent is transformative in a way that's impossible to predict or describe. Three and a half years after my father's death, I'm still processing it. I'm still processing what it means, those last moments in his room when he was alive one minute and dead the next. I have no words for it.

You once said to Publisher's Weekly: "I love reunions -- there we are, still alive but we are all sprinting toward death." Do you think we Americans are beholden to college reunions because they're a way of reconnecting to our younger selves; that they remind us of a more pristine sense of who we are -- or who we were?

Absolutely. College is where we become who we are. The apron strings come untied. We live our own lives even if our parents are paying for us. We have unbelievable freedom in those four years -- freedom to figure out who we are. And the friends that we make during that journey -- that very precarious and interesting journey of becoming oneself -- are friends that we often keep forever.

Maybe it's just the writer in me, but I've always been fascinated by reunions, by being able to follow the narrative threads of all these lives I once knew back when they were in their larval state.

What's one thing you know now that you wish you knew growing up?

I would say in general terms that it's not what you've achieved that counts; it's who you've become.