Rachel Kapelke-Dale, THE INGENUE: A Novel

Rachel Kapelke-Dale, THE INGENUE: A Novel

Zibby speaks to Paris-based author Rachel Kapelke-Dale about The Ingenue, an exhilarating new suspense novel about a former piano prodigy who returns to her hometown for her mother’s funeral and discovers her massive family estate will be given to someone else. Rachel talks about her journey to becoming a writer, from Brown University to a Ph.D. in London to life in Paris, and the themes she enjoyed exploring in her book–mother-daughter relationships, real estate, and the darkness in her protagonist. She also discusses her earlier book, The Ballerinas (inspired by Judy Blume and her own career in ballet), and the book she is working on now (hint: it’s a Yale equestrian mystery).


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Rachel. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Ingenue . How’d I do?

Rachel Kapelke-Dale: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what this book of yours is about?

Rachel: Absolutely. Ingenue is about Saskia Kreis, who is in her late thirties and a former piano prodigy. She comes home to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, after her mother’s unexpected death believing that she’s going to inherit this massive family estate only to find that it’s been left to this mysterious family friend with whom Saskia has a complicated past. The book is about her unraveling both what led her mother to do that, how she can reclaim what she thinks is rightfully hers, and reframing events from the past and various relationships.

Zibby: I found it so interesting how her complicated relationship made even her death seem like an insult to her. They had grown apart, and so her mom hadn’t told her that she was sick. It was somehow the nail in the coffin of their relationship. Of course, this would happen.

Rachel: This, for me, is really a coming-of-age book, which is funny to say about a character who’s thirty-seven at the time. As the book begins, Saskia is still seeing a lot of what’s happened in her relationship with her mother as things that are really exclusively about her. She’s still very much clinging to this idea, this concept of herself as she was as a teenager. It’s very reactive, this relationship with her mother. For me at least, a big part of getting older, if not growing up, was coming to terms and understanding my parents as people and not just for the roles that they played and play in my life. I always had wonderful relationships with them, looked up to them a lot. There’s still that tendency, no matter how old you are, to go, well, you did this. You did that. You did that to me. It’s not that simple. Although, I think we’d like it to be sometimes.

Zibby: Yes. That is very mature.

Rachel: Easier said than done.

Zibby: You’re a therapist’s dream right now. This is the place where we should all get with our relationships with our parents.

Rachel: We can get my therapist on conference call and see what she has to say about that.

Zibby: I should actually do that podcast. I think that would be hilarious, except it would breach every form of confidentiality. To interview an author and their therapist, that would be so fun.

Rachel: Oh, my gosh, I’m a hundred percent in.

Zibby: I think every single author has some diagnosable something. Usually, anxiety, but I don’t know. This is why I feel like I relate so much to every author. I’m like, oh.

Rachel: I’m another data point for you. Super high anxiety.

Zibby: You got a PhD in Paris, but you went to Brown. Tell me your life story, basically.

Rachel: How long have we got? Such a question to ask a writer. It’s only fair because I have to say I spent last weekend just pouring through Bookends, so fair enough mine.

Zibby: Oh, you did? Thank you.

Rachel: So incredibly powerful.

Zibby: Wow, that’s really nice.

Rachel: I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I went to Brown. I actually laugh because I was waitlisted at Yale, so I think we could have these alternate lives.

Zibby: I was so disappointed. I still have a little chip on my shoulder about the whole thing because I’m like, what if?

Rachel: My next novel is set at Yale, actually.

Zibby: Really? Oh, my gosh.

Rachel: We can get into that later.

Zibby: Maybe I could be your expert reality check or something.

Rachel: Exactly. I went to Brown, spent a semester abroad in Paris, and then worked in New York in the art world for a couple years after graduation. I had this strange incident where I was hit by a car in Brooklyn. I got this small financial settlement that came out of it. I thought, I can do anything with my life. What am I going to do? I thought, I’m going to go to grad school in Paris. Tuition here at the public universities, it’s two hundred euros a year. At the time, it was another two hundred euros for health insurance, which was my parents’ big thing. Will you have health insurance? I did my master’s here.

Zibby: Wait, can you go back to the car accident? Go back to that for a second. What happened? Car accident in Brooklyn, what happened?

Rachel: I was off work. I was running late to dinner at my friend’s apartment. I was crossing the street, which was also an entrance to a highway, on the light. A guy makes an illegal left turn out of nowhere and just smacked me down. First of all, I have a lot of social anxiety. I was also in some kind of shock, so I just kept being like, “I got to go to this party. I’m so late for this party.” He’s like, “You don’t look good.” I was like, “No, no, it’s fine. Let me get your license plate and your number in case I have to go to the hospital later, but it would be after the party. I have to go to my friend’s party.” They’re like, “We can see the bone on your forehead.” My forehead was open. They’re like, “One of us is taking you to the hospital.” I was like, “But I brought wine.” I had the top of the bottle, clutching it. What happened? I sprained my thumb. I had that cut on my forehead. It’s one of those life events that, at the time, just feels like the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. I had a pretty fortunate childhood. In the end, it was complicated with legal stuff, but the guy had to pay my hospital bills because my insurance — it was his fault, the accident and this and that, with the lawyer. Anyway, there ended up being enough for graduate school. I said, well, I’m going to go to Paris and do a master’s and be a student again. I loved being a student so much. My parents are both professors. I’d grown up at their heels at universities. It’s my happy place. Then I came here and did my master’s.

I wanted to go on and do my PhD in film, but here and in Europe more generally, there’s no coursework. It’s just the written part. My French is fairly good. My written French is awful. It is just so hard for me to write in good French. At that point, thinking that I’d follow in my parents’ footsteps and become a professor, my advisor was saying, “Why would you want the major professional document of your career to be in a language you don’t write very well?” He was straight to the point. “You don’t write this very well. Why would you do this?” Okay. At that point, I’d done the coursework. I thought, I want to stay in Europe. I’ll do it in London. I went to London, did my PhD there. At the same time, my best friend from college, Jess Pan, had moved there. She had married a Brit. We had these long email exchanges while I’d been hopping all over the world. She’d been living in China and Australia and all of these places. We put those together as a book. That was the first book that I published, Graduates in Wonderland. London wasn’t the place for me, even though it’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything. It’s a little bit like the car accident in that I never would’ve had that first book with Jess if I hadn’t been in London. Certain things seemed meant to be in retrospect, even though not at the time.

Zibby: What part of London did you live in?

Rachel: I think this was a real symptom of how the city wasn’t a good fit for me. It’s seven different apartments in six years. I was all over the place. I was in Notting Hill, South Kensington, Chelsea at one point. The longest point was up in Highbury, North London. All over the place.

Zibby: Okay, I won’t ask more about that. Then after London, what happened?

Rachel: I finished the PhD. It was in film studies. My parents both taught English. My parents are both also writers. My mother’s a poet. My father’s done many short stories, writes fiction. I’d always thought — this is a child’s view of their jobs. I was like, this looks like the best job to have time to write, to be involved with creative people and students and be in an intellectual community and still have this time and make a good living. The fact is that to be a good professor, you need to have the same passion for it that I really only had for writing. Everybody was going, “You got to turn your thesis into a book now.” I liked writing my thesis. It was interesting. It was fun at times. If I’m going to spend a year of my life doing a book, it’s not going to be that book. Oh, you have to publish articles. I’d rather write a short story. The people who were in my cohort — it’s now been seven years since I finished. I see the absolute passion that has to drive that work. I thought, you know what? I’m going to go out without a safety net. I’m going to piece together freelance jobs, and I can do that from anywhere in the world. That’s the point where I’d gone as far as I could in the university system other than doing another PhD in something else. I was going, you know what? It’s time to really make a decision. I’m going to throw this all into writing and just trust that it will happen, hope that it will happen.

Zibby: What was your thesis about?

Rachel: My thesis was about foreign women in Hollywood of the 1930s, about their representations and their value, monetary and otherwise, to studios. It had a lot to do with US immigration policy at the time. It had a lot to do with certain concepts of whiteness and virtue. It’s not that long ago. You look back at these incredibly horrifying, explicit statements made by public intellectuals and senators and all of that, and then working with the films, which was always the great pleasure of it, putting them in their context.

Zibby: So interesting. Oh, my gosh, I love hearing how your brain works. Keep going. You did that. Then you moved back to Paris?

Rachel: Yeah. Paris, for me, it’s a much more livable city. London’s enormous. It’s just geographically a lot bigger. It’s very expensive in a lot of ways. I was going, if I’m going to do this freelance life, there’s a lot about Paris, culturally, just in terms of the size, getting around, in terms of the food, a lot of the things that were important to me in terms of what kind of life I wanted for myself, that were more accessible here. I moved back in, it would’ve been 2018.

Zibby: Do you know the author Sutanya Dacres who lives in Paris?

Rachel: I don’t.

Zibby: I want to put you two in touch. I just did a podcast with her about her book called Dinner for One. It’s a really interesting story, her post-relationship, how she learned how to cook for herself.

Rachel: I love that.

Zibby: It was a fun memoir. Not fun. It was heartfelt. Fun is the wrong word, but it was really good. Anyway, you’re both there, and you should hang out.

Rachel: I’d love that.

Zibby: Then talk about The Ballerinas.

Rachel: This idea of returning home is something that’s always really struck a chord with me, these kind of stories about going home again or being in same place and seeing the ghosts of the people that you were before in this same place. I was returning to Paris at thirty-four, which, at the time, felt very old to me. What happens is you just keep getting older, and you’re like, . There’s no going back. The last time I had been here, I had been twenty-five. That was a very different life stage. It’s the same people. I’m even living in the same neighborhood. All of these things about my past — I had done ballet training as a teenager. There was so much that was coming up for me. At the same time, I think I was starting to grapple with ideas of visibility and aging. This ties into the second book as well. What happens when so much of your identity is predicated on being young or being precocious? A ballet dancer, they have to retire so young. It is like tennis, so punishing on the body. You don’t see a lot of dancers in their forties, or especially in their fifties.

When I was young, I had this concept that youth was this inherent characteristic that I had. There’s some point in the past decade or so where a lot of my friends have looked around and gone, oh, my god, are we the adults in the room? When did that happen? A friend was telling a story about somebody having a medical emergency on the bus. She was like, oh, I’m the one who’s supposed to be — I’ve got to mobilize now. We’ve got to step up. How you grapple with that at the same time that there are lots of messages saying that the things that made you valuable — I think this is particularly true for women of our generation, this elder millennial, Gen X. Being young was treated like a characteristic that was celebrated, almost fetishized. It’s like, yeah, but that’s not anything to do with me as a person. That’s not anything to do with the core of who I am. Getting caught up in that and dealing with that as you get older, you say, okay, who am I beyond that? Those questions started to really haunt me. I started playing with them a little bit.

Zibby: There’s a new young woman on my team named Faith Tomlin, who is a former ballerina. Also, Yale, actually. Maybe it would be fun if she interviewed you for something, like some feature for our magazine. I think that would be fun. I’m like, I’m not letting you go here, Rachel. These are the three things we have to do after this interview.

Rachel: I love it.

Zibby: When The Ballerinas came out, what was that like for you? Then when did you start working on The Ingenue? Where do you see your whole trajectory going? Where does this dark element come in? The Elf House was creepy. I’m like, oh, I can’t read this one before bed, necessarily, these little statues that no one knows where they came from. You do this montage of the house through time where you’re just like, how did this get here? Suddenly, it’s like a fast-forward film thing. Actually, it’s so funny. Now you have this whole film studies background. It does feel like you just did a — where the seasons change, but you’re in the same place, how you introduce the house. Where is the dark? Where is that coming from?

Rachel: My mom would say that it’s my Scorpio side coming out, for sure. I’ll tell you what. When I sat down to write Ballerinas, I wanted to write — I don’t know if you know the book Summer Sisters by Judy Blume.

Zibby: Yes, totally.

Rachel: Just a pivotal book for me when I read that because, to that point, I hadn’t read anything about the complexities of female friendship. It was just like, oh, and they’re buddies. It’s like, no, it’s as, if not more, complex than other relationships. I was like, I want to do this reunion. They’re working through the issues of their past. Things just turn dark on me. There’s something in me that really wants to push it as far as it’ll go and explore that. With Ingenue as well, I sat down saying, I want to write something about fathers and daughters because I don’t think that this has been — there are a few works that explore it exceptionally well. The play Proof is just —

Zibby: — That was so good, oh, my gosh. So good.

Rachel: Just knocked the wind out of me. I’m very close with my father. It’s been one of the most important relationships in my life. I thought about something like American Pastoral, the Philip Roth, where the daughter’s gradually becoming this monster that he doesn’t recognize. I was going, yeah, but what if they’re carried along together? It just turned into this. These gothic elements just kept creeping in there. The Elf House, actually, that’s a real place. It’s based on a real place. There’s a mansion in Wisconsin a few blocks away from where I grew up with two, I guess they’re gnomes. This has been clarified for me since writing the book, but I like elves better. In real life, they’re gnomes sitting on the front of the house. I was thinking, when I started to write Ingenue, about boomer-millennial tensions and this idea that — when we were growing up, it was, you’re going to save the world, girls can do anything, and these kind of really facile statements, the kind that you do give to kids. Then somewhere along the way, it flipped into, you’re eating too much avocado toast. You’re not buying houses. I was like, these things aren’t happening in a vacuum. The way that the house played into that is, like a lot of people my age, I’m very obsessed with houses and with real estate. Back before the internet, they would have these little boxes in front of the house with flyers that show you the insides of the rooms and the floor plan. I was this weird little kid going around being like, what’s the inside of this house look like? I got to know.

Zibby: Oh, my god, I’m the same way. By the way, they still have those in some places. They have them in some houses in LA. I still sometimes grab the things. I also go to open houses anytime there’s an open house no matter what I’m doing. Love open houses.

Rachel: Absolutely. I’m obsessed. That house was one of the flyers I’d grabbed as a little kid. It was on sale — it’s a huge house; it’s not as huge as the house in the book — for something like five hundred grand. Milwaukee real estate is notably a bargain. It is not New York. It’s not LA. This would’ve been in the nineties. Then it recently went on the market again for several million. Salaries haven’t changed that much since that point. You’re looking at that house in the nineties, and you’re going, somebody with a moderately well-paying job could take on that kind of mortgage for that house. At this point, it’s very hard to earn the kind of money you’d need for a house like that now. This book let me kind of fulfill some of my dreams of home ownership of certain properties I’ve had my eye on for decades.

Zibby: I feel like this also needed a bunch of work. I feel like the house needs work. We need a refresh. You might need to get an architect in there, do a little rejiggering and freshen it up. Fixer-upper. Next thing you know, it’s on HGTV. You should do that. You should have HGTV come do the Elf House renovation. Did someone buy it?

Rachel: Yeah. It’s wonderful on the inside. They did a huge renovation a few years ago. It’s got the pool, which in Milwaukee you can use for about three weeks a year, sauna, wine cellar, all of that. It’s gorgeous.

Zibby: Amazing. What are you working on now?

Rachel: I just finished book three. It’s about to go off to copyediting, so there are a few more stages. It’s a Yale equestrian mystery. It’s from another part of my life. I was very obsessed as a child with just every kind of lesson. I would take each lesson for about three months. The only ones that really stuck were ballet and riding. I’m going through now, all of them. Eventually, we’re going to have weird ice-skating stories and I don’t even know what. Then immediately started book four, which is going to be an art book set in France, but it’s far too early days for me to — I don’t even know more about it at this point. Still imagining it.

Zibby: I like the idea of taking all your extracurricular activities as a child, and each one becomes a book. It’s like you’re finally monetizing all of that, all of those classes. That would be great. Now I’m thinking.

Rachel: I don’t know if you remember this series, A Very Young…blank.

Zibby: Yeah, by Jill Krementz. Yes.

Rachel: We had those. I was obsessed. I feel like I’m really working my way through that series now, but just adding murder. A Very Young Ballet Murder. A Very Young Pianist Murder.

Zibby: Circus Flyer. Didn’t they have a Circus Flyer one?

Rachel: Yes. My sister keeps joking about that saying, “Your next one’s going to be A Very Young Clown Murder.”

Zibby: Exactly. That would be terrible. Clowns are already scary.

Rachel: Don’t give me any ideas.

Zibby: I can see that. 2027. Rachel, it was so lovely to chat with you. I’m so excited to have gotten to know you better. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Rachel: Before I say this, I should preface it. I have ADHD, so I get into periods of hyperfocus. My brain works very differently than other people’s, so this may not apply to everybody. You have to finish the first draft as fast as you possibly can without falling in love with anything, keeping in mind that everything can change. It’s the Anne Lamott thing of these shitty first drafts. My first drafts are junk. I know that as I’m writing. The thing is that you can’t figure out what the story is until you know what you’re working with. You can’t make it match that ideal that you have in your head or the vibes that you’re going for until you have something that you’re comparing to that to actually work with and to start — I think there are a lot of people who get caught up — when I was young, I would write like this too — in perfecting every sentence as you go along. When you do that, you don’t want to throw it because you’re like, that sentence is perfect, and this and that. Like a lot of writers, I have my junk file where I’m like, I do love that sentence, it’s going in there. Ninety percent of the time, it never sees the light of day again, but sometimes it does. The last line of Ingenue is from a short story I wrote when I was sixteen, which was just an absolute mess except for that last line, which I always wanted to use. This was the book that —

Zibby: — This one? “She watches the light, the light, as it plays tricks across time.”

Rachel: That’s it.

Zibby: Amazing. That’s beautiful.

Rachel: Thank you.

Zibby: I won’t read the previous two lines at the end of this book for fear of major reveals. All this is great. Thank you so much. Good luck. I’m going to email you all the follow-ups.

Rachel: Amazing. Thank you so much, Zibby.

Zibby: Have a great day. Bye, Rachel.

Rachel: You too. Bye.

Rachel Kapelke-Dale, THE INGENUE: A Novel

THE INGENUE: A Novel by Rachel Kapelke-Dale

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