Rachel Kapelke-Dale, THE FORTUNE SELLER

Rachel Kapelke-Dale, THE FORTUNE SELLER

Guest host Alisha Fernandez Miranda interviews Rachel Kapelke-Dale about THE FORTUNE SELLER, an engrossing and propulsive coming-of-age story about an Ivy League equestrian team and the young tarot card reader who infiltrates it. Rachel reveals her connections to the horse world, highlighting her fascination with the class tensions in that environment: some are born into wealth, and others must work to participate in the sport. Then, she describes her writing process (she has evolved from being a “pantser”…), her novel’s themes of privilege, meritocracy, ambition, luck, and identity, and her expatriate life in Paris.


Alisha Fernandez Miranda: Rachel, welcome to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Happy New Year. We’re still in early 2024 here. How are you today?

Rachel Kapelke-Dale: I’m great. Thanks so much for having me on. It’s great to meet you and to talk with you and to be back on the pod.

Alisha: I am extremely excited because this weekend, I dove into your book, which I had the good fortune to read early, probably the best thing about this job. It was such a page-turner. I could not stop. I have a very bad habit of reading the ends of books before I finish them. It’s horrible. My New Year’s resolution should probably be to change it, but I think it’s impossible. I was like, wait, I don’t understand. I have to go back. I have to go back. I have to finish. It had me hooked. Congratulations.

Rachel: Thank you so much. I’m really glad to hear that. Delighted that it kept the tension going for you.

Alisha: Good job on that. Why don’t we start with just telling listeners who aren’t as lucky as I have been what The Fortune Seller is about?

Rachel: The Fortune Seller is a book about an Ivy League equestrian in the mid-aughts, which feels so weird to say still, and a young tarot card reader who infiltrates the team and brings a lot of tensions to the forefront and the fallout from there, figuring out who she is and why she’s there and what it means to the other girls on the team.

Alisha: I know this is your third novel. I also know it was in the works when you were on Zibby’s podcast last for your previous book. What was the inspiration for this? What’s some of the backstory about how you decided to come to this story of these girls and their drama?

Rachel: There is so much about this book that I’d always wanted to write about. I rode horses myself when I was younger. I always thought that was a fascinating arena, not just to write about the animals, which I love, but to write about the class tensions within that world because it is such a strange world. The book gets into this. You have people who can be in it who aren’t born from money, usually, because riding is so expensive, who can be in the world only if they put actual labor into it, working as grooms, working as instructors, things like that, and then the very wealthy. It’s a really interesting point of class meetings. I always wanted to use that for a book. The title was actually something that came along before almost anything else in this book. It came from one of my favorite books as a kid, which was the Emily of New Moon series, the Lucy Maud Montgomery series. The heroine, Emily, works for so long to be a writer. She’s a kid with literary ambitions, as many Victorian heroines are.

Eventually, one of her first big successes is when she gets a title from an old piece she finds in a newspaper called something like The Seller of Dreams, something very Victorian like that. That had stayed with me and morphed in my mind into The Fortune Seller. Although, when I went back and reread the book, it was totally different. I thought, I like that title. What would I do with that? Again, the equestrian world has always been something that appealed to me as a place to set a novel for precisely those class tensions. I thought, oh, that could be interesting. From there, I set out almost with a Mad Libs of things that I want to write about. I wanted to write about tarot. I’d wanted to write a little bit about astrology. I wanted to write about what it’s like to be in New York right after graduation, without any money in particular. These things came together in various ways. I wanted to write a dog in there. I love putting a dog in my books. Then whittling and seeing thematically what works. I’m not sure I think so much about theme while I’m drafting, but in revisions, of course, that starts to come through. My first drafts do tend to be kind of a hodgepodge of just things I like.

Alisha: Are you a pantser or a plotter? Did you already know what was going to happen? The story, it really unfolds. It’s one of those great stories that when you go back after you know what’s happened — in my case, midway through the book; or in other people’s case, when they actually finish — you see all of these beautiful easter eggs and little clues that were dropped throughout. Is that how you write? Do you write based on an outline, or are you more of a “let’s see where this goes”?

Rachel: For a long time, I really was a pantser, but I ended up with a lot of novels, a lot of manuscripts that were just people sitting around and talking. I have ADHD. I think I mentioned that before. My brain will let me go eight hundred pages into a conversation I find interesting, and nobody else cares about it. That’s also where some of the gold is. I like to have a few months to a year before I start writing, actually writing on the page, where I’m just kind of wool gathering and jotting things down. The stakes don’t feel as high as if I thought of it as actual drafts. When I write in my notes app, little moments or sentences or ideas for scenes, that’s my wool gathering process. Then I arrange it into an outline. I have these absurdly complicated Excel spreadsheets. I love to waste time needlessly organizing things that don’t need to be that carefully organized. That really helps me, too, with revisions because I can see what scenes are necessary to the structure of the book. I can see what scenes are no longer necessary. They may have been early on but at a certain point, fall away. I can see the scenes that were in earlier drafts and things like that without having to go generalize from a manuscript.

I do end up plotting pretty carefully in the end, but I don’t come to a novel with a predetermined plot. When I do that, the characters, they come out very forced. You have to kind of listen to the characters as you write and adapt from there because it’s all about what they do in any given situation. If the situation isn’t right or what they would do isn’t right, particularly with this novel where you have four girls, or a novel like this — it’s four girls from what I think are pretty similar backgrounds ranging from middle class to super upper class. They’re four young women of the same generation, all relatively comfortable-plus and on up, of the same race, of the same education. The fear that I have going into that is that I don’t have them differentiated enough to get their voices distinct. Their voices really come out of the actions that they take and as I figure out the kind of people that they are. As that develops over drafts, sometimes scenes no longer make sense, and they got to go.

Alisha: Are you good at doing that? Are you good at killing your darlings?

Rachel: I am. The only reason for that, again, is just, I know how my brain works. I know that I will write a fifty-page description of a horse or a dog that nobody cares about. I’m like, well, I’m glad I know that dog. Okay, let’s take that out of the book and move on.

Alisha: Put it on the wall. It’ll be Ode to the Dog.

Rachel: I have a lot of documents on my computer that are just those darlings for another time, for another draft, for a different project.

Alisha: That’s very good. You mentioned this a little bit, but this book is about this horse community where you have a number of different people coming from different parts of life and different socioeconomic strata that can come together. It also takes place in the Ivy League, in this very upper echelons, very locked-off place of society. You’re talking about class and privilege and how they intersect there and how difficult it can be to break in. I mentioned I was in my childhood home with my parents. You are also at your parents’ house right now. I was reading your book over the weekend. We were playing a lot of board games. We were playing The Game of Life with my children. I don’t know if you’ve played that game ever or in the last however many years.

Rachel: Oh, yeah.

Alisha: The way the game works now is you get a salary card at the beginning. If you start with a small salary, your chances of digging yourself out of that financial hole by the end of the game are almost impossible, which is kind of similar to life. I pulled out this quote that Rosie says earlier in the book. Rosie is the main character. She says, “The idea that all of life was open to you, not just a little sliver of it, that all you had to do was go around pointing at things, experiences, people saying, mine, mine, mine. The ability to choose? That was my idea of heaven.” I was thinking about all of these things as I’m playing The Game of Life and losing miserably against my children, my extremely competitive son who’s hiding his money under the bed so no one can see how much he has. I went to Harvard for my undergrad. I graduated in 2004. A lot of these experiences are very relatable for me, believable. I met people like Cress, another main character in the book. I saw that you also went to an Ivy. You went to Brown. Did you know people like this when you came into this world? Is that part of the book also based on experiences that you had coming into the Ivy League from wherever you were coming from?

Rachel: It’s a great question. I should say that nothing in the book actually happened to me. The vibes did, but none of the murders or anything. My parents are both professors in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. When I was leaving for Brown, I’ll never forget, my father said to me, “You know, you’re going to encounter people from backgrounds that you’ve never encountered before at Brown.” I thought, what kind of Great Gatsby talk is — this is ridiculous. Then you get there, and yeah. I was very comfortable as a child. My background was fairly comfortable, middle class, but it was expected that I would work a job for spending money and that when I graduated — I graduated ’07, so wasn’t covered under my parents’ health insurance. My mom was like, “You’re getting a job because health insurance is a grand a month.” That’s just what you do. At the same time, a lot of the people that I knew were on the spectrum that was even more privileged than the background that I had come from where they were going, my parents say my job is to be a student. I’m going, must be nice. Or buying hundred-dollar bottles of wine at dinner and this kind of thing. It’s delightful to be around, of course, but it really was different from anything that I’d ever experienced. Then at the same time, there were kids in my class who were coming out with huge financial aid packages, student loans. Especially growing up in nineties middle-class America, middle-class Middle America especially, I had thought we live in a meritocracy. I really, really believed that to the point where I hadn’t questioned it. Then all of a sudden, you’re surrounded by these levels of wealth that other eighteen-year-olds have access to.

You’re going, wait a minute, none of us had done anything to deserve any of this, whether it’s being born with the privilege to get there or the intelligence to get there or the combination or the work ethic to get there. See, even now, I’m going, oh, the work ethic to get there, as though just work ethic can get you to an Ivy, whereas really, it’s systems. The Ivies have always interested me as institutions, as this byword for privilege, but also this byword for, oh, you can get there if you work really hard. It takes that, certainly, in most cases, if you’re not Cressida Tate from the book. It also takes a lot of luck. I think that’s the X factor. You must get this with Harvard especially. I live in France. I went to Brown. People kind of know what it is, but they don’t really. Whereas Harvard, all over the world, is — kind of owning it after graduation is a strange thing. After graduation, I was in New York. People go, oh, you went to Brown. Why are you doing this job? Because it’s a job. Because it’s work. For the health insurance. I just remember being really uncomfortable with people’s judgements of that and going, you must be so smart. You’re going, well, no, it’s luck, which is probably a very middle-class trait too. Again, Cressida Tate in the book is not somebody who’s going, I went to Yale, but I’m not that smart.

Alisha: It’s so funny. I’m sure she’s not. My son, who’s twelve, will sometimes — he now knows what Harvard is because he sees it on TV and in shows and stuff like that. He’ll say to me all the time, “Mom, I can’t believe you were smart enough to go to Harvard.” I’m like, “First of all, ouch. Second of all, yes, I was. Third of all, you do need to understand –” I think one of the great benefits, actually, of my experience there was being able to see a lot of the underlying machinations in the system of how that world works in a way that you never could’ve explained to me before I got there. You see how inherited privilege and generational privilege, how it manifests itself among your peers and among friends. There are lots of ways to take advantage of that. My thing was always with boys. You never wanted to tell boys after college that you went to Harvard because you didn’t want them to think you were too smart. I went to college in Boston. It took me a little while to own that properly. Now I’m so far out, nobody cares where I went to college anymore. It’s very far away. I’m very aged. You mentioned you live in Paris. What brought you there? Tell me about your fabulous ex-pat life where you wear stripes and eat baguettes and wear those froufrou outfits like Emily in Paris, I bet. Are you just walking around in super high heels all day long? Tell me.

Rachel: I have not worn heels since the pandemic, I should say.

Alisha: I love that for you. I love it.

Rachel: I studied abroad in Paris. Then I did my master’s there because I realized when I was studying abroad that while our parents and our student loans were paying forty grand a year or whatever it was at the time, the French students who were being exchanged were paying about three hundred in tuition, which included health insurance. As soon as I had the chance after college, I worked in New York for a while. Then I decided to go do my master’s in France for, again, three hundred bucks a year, health insurance included. I got kind of caught up in that system, in the academia of it all again. I ended up doing my PhD. I did that in London because my written French isn’t strong enough to do a doctorate. After that, I published my first book with Jess Pan during my doctorate and realized that that was the area I wanted my life to go. I couldn’t give up the doctorate. I had to finish it. Sunk-cost fallacy. I finished the doctorate in cinema studies. Then I thought, well, if I’m just going to write, I could be living anywhere. I love London, but in terms of quality of life, in terms of what feels like my city, Paris was where I wanted to be. I still had a lot of friends there. Moved back to France. 2018 is when I moved back. It’s been wonderful. It is a great country to live in. There are the glamorous aspects. It’s very funny, I was teaching a writing class this semester of exchange students from the United States. A lot of them, in their early essays, were writing about Emily in Paris in their experiential essays. I was like, okay, just wait, see what you think. The rats on the subway are not necessarily featured in that show.

Alisha: Those are cut scenes.

Rachel: Exactly. Bloopers. It’s a wonderful place to live, to work, to write, of course.

Alisha: I love it. It’s on my list. I’m in Scotland now. I have been an ex-pat. Similar experience. Studied abroad in the UK, went back for my master’s, moved back to live in 2008. Something that’s been interesting for me is writing about America and Americans in my American voice that exists in my head, but from abroad. Have you had that experience? Your book is very much set in New Haven and New York, 2005/2006. Do you think that you have a different perspective of that sitting in Paris working on this versus if you were living full time in the US?

Rachel: It’s hard to say. It’s hard to imagine alternate-world, alternate-universe Rachel, but probably. It’s tricky because, of course, I’ve also gotten older. We’ve all lived through the late 2010s. We’ve all lived through a pandemic since then. When I was writing this and trying to get back into the mindset of college, that I had had in college — I loved college. Despite everything I’ve said here, it was really a wonderful time. It was incredible experiences. It’s afterwards that, again, the structures that allowed me to be there, that allowed my friends to be there, that allowed the people I knew to be there became a lot more evident. I really think it’s time more than distance. In some ways also, living in a country with a fairly progressive government — Macron is not progressive in the European sense, but for Americans, he’s like Bernie Sanders.

Alisha: He’s off the charts.

Rachel: Especially in contrast with American government of a few years ago, pandemic response is very different, structural things that really ended up affecting my daily life, certainly in the daily life of a lot of people in France. There is something to be said for that kind of simultaneous alternate universe where you do get that distance. In terms of the distance, I don’t know. I think there certainly is something to be said for living under different institutions and trying to understand the way that they function.

Alisha: It gives you perspective, doesn’t it? You kind of see the assumptions that things are all like this everywhere. Then you go somewhere else, and you’re like, oh, maybe things can be different somewhere else. What are the reasons why things are the way they are? I think it’s really fascinating. Even the culture at those top-tier universities in France, in the UK, and in the US, they’re very different. They’re very, very different in positive and negative ways.

Rachel: In France, the tuition is so much lower, as I’ve said. There aren’t these X factors in admission, like extracurriculars. If you’re working a job in high school, it can be so much more difficult because you’re not also a theater star or a Rory Gilmore newspaper reporter. Deep dive there.

Alisha: That’s a separate podcast we’ll need to record, Rachel. If you’re a Gilmore Girls fan, we could go down a hole. We could go down a whole rabbit hole.

Rachel: Please, I’m in. Without those X factors they say it’s completely a meritocracy. Then you talk to people who’ve been through this system, and they go, even then, it’s not really. The more elite high schools, the more exclusive high schools feed into these systems. There are coded ways of writing that show your socioeconomic background and things like that. As a progressive American, it’s so easy for me to be like, France is amazing. We’re better, but we still have problems.

Alisha: It’s so fascinating. Tell me what you’re working on now.

Rachel: I’m working on two projects at the moment. First time I’ve done a simultaneous pairing. First is a nonfiction project about this medical mystery tour I was on for the past decade and figuring out some strange symptoms in the UK, the US, and France, across the three systems. That can be very heavy to write, so I need to dip in and out. At the same time, I’m working on a project, another one set in France, like my first novel. This one is about the French resistance and generational trauma but set in, again, the early 2000s. Apparently, I just want to regress to .

Alisha: It was a simpler time.

Rachel: It’s so funny to me now, my students having this millennial envy. I’m like, it was not that great, you guys. It was interesting, but we had our issues.

Alisha: I’m like, aren’t you all wearing the same clothes now? Can’t you see what this was all about? Those chokers were very uncomfortable.

Rachel: I wore low-rise jeans for the first time in about twenty years. It was like, these are terrible.

Alisha: It makes me shudder to think about putting on a pair of low-rise jeans right now. Oh, my god. Rachel, it’s been so great to catch up with you. Let’s finish this off with our classic question. I know you’ve already done this. You’ve already given your writerly advice. What new writerly advice do you have for the listeners today?

Rachel: Oh, gosh.

Alisha: It could be old. You could repeat the same thing.

Rachel: I don’t remember what I said last time.

Alisha: Just any advice. If it’s the same thing you said last time, then we’re just going to say it’s that good that it really bears repeating.

Rachel: It’s going to take a really passionate listener to compare and contrast, but I know all of the “Moms” audience is passionate, which is great. I think the biggest thing that I would say is just to dive into reading and writing the kind of stuff that you want to read and write as much as you possibly can. Read so widely within your genre, outside of your genre. Find the things that you love. Try reading things that you would never think that you would like. Dip in and out of different authors. Read everything one author has ever written. Go into the acknowledgments. Read all the authors she recommends. Keep doing that. Play around. I think a lot of people don’t necessarily know what they want to do in terms of genre, in terms of story until you write a lot, you play a lot, and you throw a lot out. That’s my advice, is just to get as much as you can.

Alisha: I love it. Beautiful. The Fortune Seller is out now. Everybody needs to go and read it. Rachel, thank you again for being on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Rachel: Thank you so much for having me.

Rachel Kapelke-Dale, THE FORTUNE SELLER

THE FORTUNE SELLER by Rachel Kapelke-Dale

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