Andrew Ridker, HOPE

Andrew Ridker, HOPE

Zibby interviews author Andrew Ridker about Hope, a hilarious, heartfelt, and impeccably written novel about a year of crisis for a seemingly perfect, affluent Jewish family of four. Andrew talks about his book’s relatable family dynamics and humor; the inspiration behind the story; the college poetry class that started his writing career; and the topic of his next novel. He also shares his best advice for aspiring writers (it involves having a little bit of delusional faith in yourself!).


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Andrew. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your novel, Hope.

Andrew Ridker: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: I was just saying I’m obsessed with your book and your voice. I think it’s so funny. I posted this on Instagram, but I swear to god, I thought this girl was me on the cover. I had to do a deep dive. Ultimately, I think she has longer legs than me. Anyway, this could have been me, is the point. I had a sweater just like this. My bat mitzvah year looks just like this, so I immediately identified with the book.

Andrew: What’s so crazy about that is everybody seems to see themself in this picture. I was born in the year this picture was taken. I still look at it sometimes, and I’m like, was that my bar mitzvah? Is that me? I actually had a friend over the other day who — not Jewish. He’s the WASP-iest guy I know. He’s from Princeton, New Jersey. He was like, “That looks like my cotillion dance.” I think there’s something about that image. For Jews, it’s bar/bat mitzvah. It gets you immediately. Everyone can sort of see that universal adolescent longing and the humor and pathos of that time in that image.

Zibby: Totally. I don’t think I’m the blond girl, just to be clear. I’m the lurking brunette in the background. It’s a great image. It’s so great. That’s beside the point of how great the book is. Why don’t you talk about what the book is about? Tell listeners what the book is about.

Andrew: It comes out of this feeling that basically, in every neighborhood, especially in the suburbs, you get the sense that there’s this one perfect family that, at least on the surface, seems to have everything figured out. In Brookline, Massachusetts, in 2013 that family is the Greenspan family, who are the central characters in this book. When the father of the family, Scott, is caught committing fraud at work, he sets off this chain reaction of scandals. You start to see the cracks that have been underneath this family all along. The book follows this family of four over the course of a really eventful and turbulent year as they basically fall apart and try to put themselves back together again, whether that means opening their marriage or going to fight in the Syrian Civil War or whatever other normal family stuff the perfect family does. It’s about a not-so-perfect family falling apart and putting themselves back.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that’s a very good description. I have a great-aunt Marjorie who was from Brookline. Again, with the identification. The passive-aggressiveness of her, this could be a woman in my own family. I’m sure people are saying this to you also about the relatability of this family. Maybe not the fraud. Maybe not some of the internet café stuff. That was so funny when he went to Berlin. Just the way that people interact with their parents — I love the fact that Scott has this room, this mental, self-protective, emotional room that he can go into and close himself off and just not hear the chaos until one day, it doesn’t even work. Tell me about that. Is that a trick that you use? Should I be adopting the mental room trick?

Andrew: I’ve got to find a way to say that that no living family members will take offense to. I think we all have those people in our family or friends or just our lives in general. We love them. We’re close to them. We couldn’t imagine life without them, but they drive us crazy. I come from an extremely close-knit family. The flip side of being close-knit is that it can be sort of limiting and constraining. There are times when you think, what if I wanted to find myself outside of how my family sees me? You have these people who are like, no, no, no, this is who you are. We know you better than you. For some people in your family or elsewhere in your life, you might do as the father in the book does and basically retreat into yourself. You’re thinking, all right, this person’s talking, and I’m passively listening, but in order to protect my own emotional state and mental health, I kind of have to tune some of this out. Then one day, a piece of information penetrates that mental room, namely, that this character’s mother has been conned out of her life savings with this teenage boyfriend in Berlin. Suddenly, this room that he’s imagined for himself, complete with interior décor and everything, has come crashing down. Suddenly, he’s like, I have to face this person, my mother, that I’ve been tuning out for the last hour and kind of also my whole life.

Zibby: The humor in your book, it’s so understated but so funny. I just think it’s hilarious. Can I just read a couple of these little things? I don’t know if anybody’s going to find this funny the way I’m reading it. Maybe it’s in the bigger context of the whole scene. They’re all telling a story here at a dinner party or cocktail party. “A caterer appeared with a tray of water crackers topped with avocado and crab meat. ‘Oh,’ Scott said, watching with longing as the caterer passed. ‘The Ethicist. Sure.'” The next person. “So Dawn and I were on a flight to Tokyo last month, and who else was on board but these Hasidic Jews. Black hats, curly sideburns, the whole deal. What they want in Tokyo is a mystery to me. Do they have Jews in Tokyo? No idea.” It’s just so funny. Then it keeps going on about canceling the flight and why they would do that. This was so funny when the friend takes him into another room and drops his pants and is like, to the doctor, “Do I have herpes?” or whatever. He finds out he does have herpes. When he asks him how he gets it, he says, “‘I won’t trouble you with the sorted details. Let’s just say that not all of our marriages are quite as sound as yours.’ A skateboard was mounted on the wall behind Marty, a cartoon alien painted on its underside. ‘Herpes,’ Marty said, buckling his belt. ‘My god. Hey, by the way, how’s your mom?'” Then he says, “‘I won’t ask how you made that mental leap.’ ‘Just being polite.'” It’s almost like, not Seinfeld, but there’s something about just quips and the timing. Then I was totally interested — in fact, I already quoted this yesterday to somebody who was like, should I settle and get married? I’m like, no, don’t do that. There’s this study, and I don’t know if this is based in reality, of the people who stay married for sixty years or more. It’s about low expectations. Tell me about that.

Andrew: The low expectations, I think I made up and is just a punchline that I suppose I hope isn’t true but might be. My friend from college, Leah, got a job, or rather, was doing her PhD at Yeshiva University in clinical psychology. It was this really funny situation. She’s half Jewish. She’s at Yeshiva with a lot of orthodox Jews. She was like, “My job right now is to sit with elderly, mostly Jewish couples and ask them about their marriages. That’s all I do all day.” She gave me all these great stories. It’s one of those funny things about writing. She probably told me this six years ago. Then you’re sitting down one day, and you’re like, I need a job for this character. What would fit the relationship themes in the book? There Leah’s incredible job talking to these old couples, almost in that Harry Met Sally kind of way. I’m so glad you pointed out the humor, only because sometimes when I talk about the book, I get a little lost in the politics and these heady themes. I’m like, but it’s a comedy. It’s a comedy. Jokes are so important to me. Humor is so important to me. I, much to my embarrassment now, did, actually, high school and college improv, which is where I met my wife. Something about that Jewish tradition of humor, I just think there’s so much truth in jokes. It’s a way of saying something that would probably be a little dark if it wasn’t funny, but it gets at a truth in a way that you let your guard down. You laugh. Suddenly, the effect of what the joke is saying hits you. I’d say in addition to all the books I read growing up, stand-up comedy, the movies of Mel Brooks, that’s as important to me as any literary influence, to be sure.

Zibby: There’s almost an Arrested Development meets Curb Your Enthusiasm. There’s just something. I’m just quoting anything funny I can think of. I don’t know.

Andrew: You nailed it. Those are the big ones. Absolutely.

Zibby: I love how you do that. I know this is your second novel. I haven’t read your first novel, but now I have to go back. Is that a similar tone and voice? I know it had so much acclaim. Tell me about that novel and also just how you got into writing to begin with.

Andrew: Maybe I’ll just go chronologically. I was really into writing as a kid. I was a big reader. In an almost embarrassing way, I feel like I wanted to be a novelist basically as long as I can remember. My parents dug up some old — one of those things you do in school. What do I want to be when I grow up? I had said writer at some — I’m in fourth grade or something. I loved poetry first.

Zibby: I said the same thing in fourth grade, by the way. Don’t be embarrassed. A lot of people who’ve come on the podcast are like, actually, that’s what I wanted to do forever, but how did I get there?

Andrew: It would be so much more romantic if I had some crazy path to getting here. I was like, I love books. I want to write books. I don’t really think I’m capable of other skill sets. I can’t do math. I better figure this out. I was really into poetry at first, which I think is how a lot of people get into writing before you’re old enough to construct a narrative. You write poems. I went to WashU in St. Louis, majored in English. I had this incredible experience there with this poet named Mary Jo Bang where she would offer this special class that I had to petition for where basically, you just met one hour a week one-on-one, and you handed in a new poem. That was the class. She took your poem. She took out her red pen. She scribbled out a bunch of stuff. She handed it back to you. Always, she had found this incredible poem underneath my poem. She hadn’t added anything, but just in crossing out the words that weren’t working, she would have found this poem. I realized two things in that class. One, that so much of writing is cutting through all the fog. If there’s something you really want to say, it’s kind of buried under. Also, that I probably wasn’t cut out for poetry. I started shifting to fiction writing. I went to work in book publishing after graduating college for no reason other than, I was like, I have to be near books. I can’t do anything else. I wrote my first book there.

Zibby: What did you do in book publishing? Which department?

Andrew: I was an editorial assistant. It was the classic story of wanting desperately to be a writer and spending all day publishing other people’s books and feeling all that kind of torment and angst and sneaking hours in the morning, getting there early to write before my boss came in. I wrote the book there. I wrote the book largely at work in those little hours when there’s nothing going on, basically to prove to myself as much as anyone that I could do this in addition to filing the paperwork and all the other stuff I was doing. Then I went to grad school at Iowa where I met Sanjena Sathian, who you interviewed a couple years ago.

Zibby: Yes, I saw that in your blurbs.

Andrew: We roomed together. Rather, I should say, I slept in her unheated basement for two years. She was generous enough to let me crash there. It’s been a kind of straight shot of just an obsession, a dedication. If I could read and write all day and I didn’t have to do anything else, I probably would.

Zibby: I’ve basically made that my life, by the way. This dream can be yours. It probably is yours because you’re coming out with these fabulous books and all of that. Tell me more about your first book because now you’ve piqued my interest into your whole oeuvre, if you will. By the way, are you from Boston? Is that where the context for Hope comes from? Yes?

Andrew: I’m from Brookline, Massachusetts, same suburb where the book is set. Very much a product of that town in the same way the characters are as this kind of liberal utopia that’s also built on these weird contradictions about money and guilt and politics. The first book, The Altruists, it’s much like this one in that it’s a family of four grappling with similar moral questions, but it’s actually set largely in St. Louis, which is where I went to college. The premise is basically, the mother of the family passes away. Her husband, in her dying months, she realizes has been cheating on her, so she passes her inheritance to her children, bypassing him completely. Then she kind of leaves him in the lurch. The book is about his attempt to win back his kids’ love and inheritance so he can pay off the mortgage on this home that he can no longer afford. It’s similar themes of family and money and humor, but a very different setting and much more about this concept of goodness. What does altruism mean? Are we acting out of selfish motivation? Where do family and money come into play? Family’s been a big theme for me. The novel I’m working on now is really different in that it’s a big, sweeping, historical epic of a book, but it’s still about a family. It’s still about a lot of these same issues. I am discovering my own obsessions, I guess, as I go.

Zibby: More information about the next book, please.

Andrew: Queer Jewish immigrant in 1911 shows up in Kansas City, starts a department store, raises the son of a sex worker friend who has no father, becomes a retail dynasty in the Midwest. It’s this succession story of this three generations rising and falling through the twentieth century of the history of Jews in retail, the history of American politics, and just all the stuff that happens when you have blood family and adopted family and chosen family and mixed family and people showing up on you didn’t know about and all that kind of stuff.

Zibby: That sounds awesome. I had some grandfathers in retail, Jewish, as everybody does. Not everybody, but you know what I mean. I’m digging myself in a hole here. Tell me a little more about what it’s like with this new book you’re writing and with Hope and everything. When you’re writing, you’re no longer having to hide this at a day job, I’m assuming. Tell me what your process is like. How much did you know going into it versus how much was in it? Were there any huge plot twists that you didn’t see coming? What was the whole experience like?

Andrew: I had been writing a different novel in grad school. Sometimes you know it’s just not working. It had been two years. I was having full-blown panic attacks. Then as soon as I had the thought, what if this isn’t it? suddenly, my shoulder fell. I was like, okay, so now I have to basically grapple with, I’m free of this project, but what do I do now? In that project, there had been this secondary set of characters, the Greenspans. I was like, maybe I resurrect them and make them the center of the book. It grew from there. In a sense, it was this, very much, phoenix rising from the ashes kind of situation. It was also the pandemic. It was 2020. I’d gone back to my childhood home in Brookline where I hadn’t been since I was eighteen. I was with my sister, who I hadn’t also lived under a roof with since I was eighteen. It was this weird feeling of thinking, okay, I can’t write about what’s happening because it’s still happening every day. What is this pandemic? What’s happening? Where were we ten years ago? I can’t even imagine what that’s like anymore. Life is so different. So many things have changed. I’m back at home.

I really had to approach it like historical fiction, do research into, what was the Obama era? What was my childhood? All I’m thinking now is, Trump, COVID, lockdown, quarantine. It was a way to write myself out of the pandemic and also try to see — we were all very hopeful at that time. Now we’re here in this hopeless time. How did we get here? What were the blind spots and cracks in my ideology and my beliefs about America and about family that might have led us here? Basically, why didn’t we see this coming? Where did this all come from? It was really this process of writing into very recent history but treating it almost like I’m writing about the Middle Ages. It’s like Wolf Hall or something, only it’s my childhood from ten years ago. My process is really very businesslike. It’s up at seven AM, get to the desk around eight thirty, write and edit for as long as possible, and then feel guilty all day that I’m not doing anything else. Then get up and do it again the next morning.

Zibby: The way you write about guilt also, this is a hallmark of humor also, the intersection of guilt and plot, essentially. That’s awesome. Wait, so you have a sister. Are your parents married? Let me pry into your life here.

Andrew: Sure. As in the book, my father is a cardiologist. My mom actually just retired a week ago from being a seventh-grade French teacher. I have a sister who actually, fortunately, lives down the street. She was over here last night. Very close with her. She started writing for TV just before the TV writers’ strike. She’s super creative as well. We crack each other up. A lot of our humor comes from just being kids. We used to make comic books together and put on little plays and that kind of thing. Very tight-knit, creative-y family. Now we’re just in our twenties and thirties trying to untangle ourselves from some of that stuff that was so wonderful at the time. Then we’re like, how do I stop being my parents’ child? I am thirty-one now. We’re all very close. They’re still living in Brookline. Like I said, my sister’s down the street. She’s very close friends with my wife. We had a good little COVID pod, for sure.

Zibby: I’m forty-six, and I am still trying to untangle my complicated parental relationships. I don’t think it ever ends. I hate to burst your bubble here.

Andrew: More material for more books, I guess.

Zibby: Exactly. It’s a lifelong investigation. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Andrew: I remember when I was an aspiring author, and I would go sometimes to readings or just anywhere I could be near a real published author because there was this aura around them. I remember going to one at Brookline Booksmith, where I’m going to be next week, which is this beautiful full-circle moment. I went up to her. I didn’t know her work or anything about her. I was just like, “How do I do this? How do I get where you are?” She was like, “This is going to sound, maybe, disappointing, but there’s no cheat code. There’s no corner cutting. You just have to read and write.” I was deeply disappointed . I was like, I already know that, but then what do you do? Just reading everything you can possibly read and then finding out what your voice is by — it’s like throwing all your favorite authors in a blender and trying to be like, what of this is me? What of this do I leave aside? I also think there’s this delusional perseverance that you need that is kind of insane and not recommended in other fields. I feel like if you were trying to be a lawyer and you failed the bar thirty-five times, someone in your family might be like, look, maybe it’s not for you if it’s thirty-five times. You need to fail 350 times with rejections and so on with writing. You almost also have to just be like, I like this enough to persevere through the doubt, through the rejection. I really do think if you read enough, write enough, and keep going, there will be that pot of gold. It might not look like a pot of gold or be the thing you expected, but you can get there. You just have to have an extremely high tolerance for pain and a little bit of a delusional faith in yourself that against all available evidence, maybe you can do it.

Zibby: I love that so much, delusional perseverance.

Andrew: It’s not noble. Not like I’m so .

Zibby: No, I know. Another author I was talking to recently was like, being an author is such a mix of insecurity and then displaced complete confidence. My book should be a best seller, but wait, maybe nobody’s actually going to like it. It deserves to be on the best-seller list, but wait, maybe it’s not — it’s this dichotomy.

Andrew: There’s no middle. Yet even to write — I don’t know how you felt when you were writing your books, plural. You kind of need to believe you’re a genius in the morning when you sit down to — at least, I need to feel like, this is great. What I’m doing is really good. Then later, I go, ugh, is that what I wrote this morning? That stinks. In the moment, if I’m being too self-critical, I won’t get it done. It’s almost like you have to summon a state of insane ego and then later, turn that off and be like, okay, what did I really do?

Zibby: Totally. I know. It’s hard to explain, but I feel like you did it very well.

Andrew: I don’t really understand it.

Zibby: It’s so bizarre. Even what you were saying earlier of, that conversation with Leah I had six years ago, as soon as you sit down, all the stuff in the jumbled mess of your brain just ekes out when you need it to. You don’t even know why the inputs get in there to begin with and why you remember certain things and then why you pull them out. The brain is bizarre. I feel like writing, it’s examining human nature over and over again.

Andrew: I’m the least new age-y, woo-woo person ever, but as soon as I have to start explaining writing, I am like, well, it’s your subconscious talking. It’s some of these forces you don’t understand. I really do think there’s something subrational that’s happening that we just don’t really understand. That’s the magic of it, of course, too.

Zibby: Yes, totally. Then of course, our poor families.

Andrew: Exactly. They need a high tolerance for pain as well.

Zibby: But it’s fiction. I know. I’ve just been rewriting — well, I shouldn’t be rewriting because we’re in copyedits for my novel. I’m like, I haven’t handed it in yet, so I’m just going to . This character I have of the mom, I’m like, this is getting a little bit close. I know she has two dogs in the book. One dog in real life. She’s going to figure this out.

Andrew: I’ve had some fallout before. I’ve sort of been on that roller coaster. It isn’t pleasant, but I also think, to your point, you can’t sit down and write with all these guardrails up. Don’t touch that. You kind of just have to go and then later maybe be like, do I tweak that? Do I change a name? As soon as you sit down to write and you start telling yourself what’s off limits, I feel like it’s a creative shutdown. I texted my dad this quote the other day that I love. I think it’s from . When a writer is born, the family is finished. It’s this brutal Eastern European, sorry, you raised a writer, you’re going to be in the book.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Are you going to LA at all on your tour? You should come to my bookstore.

Andrew: Oh, my god, I’d love to. Not at the moment, but I have friends in LA. I’ve actually never been to LA, period, so I would really love to. I’m going to take you up on this. You’re going to find me knocking at your bookstore door.

Zibby: I would love it. First of all, I would just love it. You’ll like it.

Andrew: I’m coming now. I’m going to be there.

Zibby: Please do. We’ll set it up. I just ordered a huge stack of your books for the store.

Andrew: Oh, my god, thank you so much. I’m there. It’s done.

Zibby: Amazing. Congratulations. I will read everything you write from now on. I’m going to go back and read The Altruists. You’re so young too. I know that sounds — not like I’m so much older, but you have so much more writing in store. It’s exciting. It’s wonderful to have a new talent. Think about all the books you’ll have written in the next thirty years by the time you’re — it’s just amazing. I can’t wait to read them.

Andrew: That really means a lot. I love watching other writers’ or filmmakers’ arcs. I love going onto Wikipedia and seeing this whole story. All I’ve ever wanted in life is to get to have a little arc like that. That means a lot. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: No problem. Thank you. Thanks for coming on. I wish you all the best for your launch. Buh-bye.

HOPE by Andrew Ridker

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