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Interview: August 28, 2015

EVERYBODY RISE is award-winning New York Times reporter Stephanie Clifford’s excellent debut and a surefire end-of-summer must-read. It’s the keenly observed story of the rise of society wannabe Evelyn Beegan --- and her inevitable fall. Clifford reported on the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis, so it’s no surprise that the novel is set in the years leading up to it. In this interview with’s Jamie Layton, Clifford discusses what makes those years so fascinating and how the excesses of the mega-rich led to a country’s financial collapse. She also talks about having sympathy for flawed characters, why children work so hard for their parents’ approval, and how Evelyn’s ambition is a universal experience --- just kicked up a notch or 10. EVERYBODY RISE takes place in the not-very-distant past, specifically 2006-2007. Facebook is relatively new, Bernie Madoff is still going strong, and the iPhone has yet to be introduced to the world. What were your reasons behind choosing this time period as the setting for your novel?

Stephanie Clifford: I covered the fallout from the 2008 crisis when I was a business reporter at the Times, and it struck me as one of those moments where everything changes. In the lead-up to that, a certain group in New York --- the group I write about in the book --- had obscene amounts of money. Twenty-four-year-olds were taking private planes. A thousands-of-dollars tab for bottle service was no big deal. The effects of that behavior that led up to the crash, which is the setting for the book, are still being felt. On top of that, money and class were colliding in an interesting way, and I thought it was a great setting to explore some of these issues.

BRC: So many girls have “daddy issues,” but 26-year-old Evelyn Beegan has some serious mommy issues. Barbara, her mother, is a tyrant in kid gloves and has been pushing Evelyn up society’s ladder her entire life in a blatant attempt to see Evelyn obtain the social status Barbara feels she never achieved. Evelyn is a complete pawn on her mother’s chessboard. It seems that one of the hardest things to do in life is to say “I am not my parents,” accept it and move on. Why do you think that is? Do you think it is harder in a western culture like ours than others? Why or why not?

SC: That struggle is so acute for a lot of people, particularly those who are around Evelyn’s age. My guess is that this is universal --- mothers and fathers in many societies have particular ideas of what their children should do and how they should behave. Evelyn tries to resist her mother’s idea of who she should be, but when she finally gets her mother’s approval through her entry into this world, she becomes addicted to it. By the end, and after some very hard times, she’s finally able to say “I’m me --- take it or leave it.” Evelyn getting to that point is one of the key arcs of the book.

BRC: A line from Stephen Sondheim’s song “The Ladies Who Lunch” gives the novel not only its title, but also a pretty illuminating moment in Evelyn’s downward spiral. Was your original inspiration for the novel from the song, or did the song just end up working its way into the book and this scene? While Evelyn wonders “aren’t we all just trying to survive New York,” do the lyrics also serve to open her eyes to just how superficial and shallow New York society can be?

SC: I knew fairly early on I wanted musicals to be a leitmotif throughout the book. They provide Evelyn some comfort, especially as her decisions lead to her life getting harder and harder. I’ve long been an enormous Stephen Sondheim fan, and I think he writes about ambition and loneliness in busy, crowded New York so beautifully. “The Ladies Who Lunch” ended up providing the perfect title line, describing as it does women trying to keep on top of the city.

BRC: As the story begins, Evelyn has a new job as membership director at People Like Us, a social media site for the elite. Restricting PLU to the upper echelons of society proves to be fruitless, and eventually the higher-ups realize it has to cater to the masses. Were there any actual early attempts at creating social media outlets that were this discriminatory, with such a targeted audience in terms of class and wealth? If so, were any successful?

SC: There was at least one, which I never accessed in person --- I didn’t make the cut to get an invitation, I’m afraid! So the details about PLU are made-up --- it’s my imagining how such a site would look. The real site ended up teetering in the aftermath of the recession, though I believe it’s making another go of it now.

BRC: It is hard for the reader to sympathize with Evelyn as she leaves her integrity behind, making one calculated move after another in her non-stop attempt to grab the brass ring. Additionally, many of the other characters are living ludicrously lavish lifestyles with egos to match that don’t necessarily endear them to readers. Is it difficult to write characters who don’t evoke compassion from the reader, or is it easier to hold them at arm’s length? Who was your personal favorite in the book? Did you ever find yourself giving him or her a more sympathetic treatment?

SC: You know, I always liked Evelyn, even when she’s making bad decisions. She wants so badly to fit in that she’s willing to do anything to get it. Most of us wouldn’t go nearly as far as she did, but I think a lot of us have really wanted to be a part of something that’s not good for us. You don’t have to like her to understand her, or to find her predicament interesting, I hope: what it’s like to slip into someone you’re not.

I had great love and admiration for Preston and Charlotte, Evelyn’s old friends who try to pull her back from the brink, and I think her boyfriend, Scot, has a lot of admirable qualities, too. I even came to love Evelyn’s mother, whose disappointment in her own life overtakes her.

BRC: You share common experiences with more than one person in EVERYBODY RISE. Like Evelyn’s bestie, Charlotte, you are a graduate of Harvard; like Evelyn herself, you came to the Big Apple from somewhere else and so began life in NYC as an “outsider.” Was there any character you identified with more than another? Could you see yourself somewhere in this novel, or did you assume the role of observer?

SC: It’s funny you say that about coming to NYC, because that was part of what I wanted to write about with Evelyn. When I came here, I had a tough time. I was turned down for job after job, and cobbled together money by freelancing. When you’re in your 20s and you don’t really know who you are yet, that knock on your confidence can really hurt. With Evelyn, though she’s very different from me, I wanted to explore what that might do to someone. What decisions would that lead her to make, when she’s so set on making it in New York?  

As for the novel at large, this isn’t my world --- I cover Brooklyn courts for the Times, where my days are spent writing about gang or Mafia cases --- so I spent a lot of time researching and reporting on this world to try to understand it. I hope I share some of Charlotte’s work ethic, and I certainly have some of the social anxiety that Evelyn has, particularly at the beginning.

BRC: The more entrenched Evelyn becomes with Camilla Rutherford and her “inside group,” the more she pulls away from her family and best friends, becoming quite egotistical and selfish in the process, yet at the same time almost desperately insecure. Do you think this is the inevitable outcome for anyone who looks for acceptance from a group of people who base their judgments of others on things like last names, family history, etc.? Has New York high society changed at all in the past 10 years to be more conscious of what people do with their lives and what they’ve done for others? Is there still room in the world for the Camillas, debutante balls and private clubs of Evelyn’s New York?

SC: What I found in reporting this was that this world still exists and, in some ways, is almost more aggressive about protecting itself, about delineation, given that society is becoming more meritocratic. Although this old-New-York world is the particular group Evelyn gets caught up in, lots of us have tried to join groups that perhaps aren’t that good for us, or try on new personalities, especially in our 20s. A lot of the book ended up being about how Evelyn tries to figure out who she is.

BRC: Since the novel is set in the past, readers, unlike the cast of characters, are “in the loop” regarding the looming economic crisis of 2008. This event could significantly affect many of the primary characters in EVERYBODY RISE --- both the worker bees (investment bankers and hedge fund managers) and the Queen Society Bees who live off family money. Additionally, as the book closes, Evelyn is starting a new chapter in her life. Is there any temptation to write a sequel? Can you tell us about what you are working on now?

SC: While I focused on this top slice of society, I wanted to emphasize that the decisions they made right before 2008 had wide repercussions --- particularly economically. The strategies that people on Wall Street, and a few of the characters in this novel, embraced, like selling subprime mortgages, had disastrous consequences --- not so much for them, but for the homeowners in California or Texas. There’s a scene when Evelyn is watching her father, a plaintiffs’ lawyer who gets indicted, and she wonders: Why is he being punished, but not all these Wall Street executives? Why do the rules apply to some people and not to others? That’s a sentiment that I think a lot of Americans grappled with during the economic crisis.

As for a sequel, I often think of that triangle of old friends --- Evelyn, Charlotte and Preston --- who ended up being the love story at the center of the book. There may be something more to do with them. But spending my days in the courts, there’s so much human drama here, so many compelling tales, that I’m thinking about a book set in the criminal-justice world.