Introducing 2017 Debutante: Angelica Baker

On May 12th, at our 8th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating nine of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week is Angelica Baker, author of One Teen Story #16 “The Feather Trick” and Our Little Racket, forthcoming from Ecco on June 20th.

 Our Little Racket tells the intertwining stories of five women who are directly touched by the fall of a Wall Street titan during the financial crisis of 2008. Offering a rare glimpse behind the tidy hedgerows of Greenwich, Connecticut, this novel reveals an insular world, full of its own dysfunction. Each woman in this novel grasps for power and dignity in her own way as she grapples with insecurities and secrets.

Baker’s masterful prose and unflinching realism take us deep into this universe of opulence to show us the dark underbelly of unchecked greed.

Colter Jackson: Where were you when you found out Our Little Racket was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Angelica Baker: When my novel sold, I was in Wyoming at a writing residency. It was March, and surprisingly warm, so I celebrated by going for a long walk by myself through the land around Ucross, which is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Then I probably walked back to my writing studio and made myself a drink and read a book by someone else until it was time for our nightly group dinner. So it was a pretty quiet and solitary celebration, but still an incredible day.

CJ: Something that fascinates me about this novel is that you tell it strictly from a female point of view, despite the very patriarchal, male-dominated world of Wall Street. Can you talk a bit about that choice?

AB: I wasn’t aware, early on, that I was doing this on purpose. When I first started writing what became this novel, I was just thinking about what it would have been like to be the teenage daughter of an investment bank CEO in 2008, just after the bank very publicly implodes. The first parts I wrote were all focused on Madison [the CEO’s teenage daughter], but I began to add in chapters that focused on other characters. I was bringing these to my workshop in my final semester of grad school, and a classmate one day mentioned that he assumed they would soon get to read a chapter about the CEO himself. And I had a pretty violent, knee-jerk reaction to that; I knew I didn’t want to do that. So then I started to see what I was doing, as I drew in other characters: I was focusing on the women. And once I saw that, other things began to fall into place.

CJ: One of the most haunting aspects of the book for me, and it was done so wonderfully, so subtly, was the feeling that women are only valuable in this world insofar as what they offer to the men and that this will continue with every generation based on the small role the teenage boys play in the story. Wyatt and Chip, the sons of the finance men, live off the page for me in a very real and frightening way. Because I felt like you were saying that this doesn’t end here, those boys will pick up the torch. Did I read it correctly? Is that what you are suggesting?

AB: I don’t know if Wyatt and Chip will pick up the torch exactly, but I do agree with you that the teenagers in this book seem to be getting a pretty clear message, from their parents and their community, about what value they might one day hold for one another. The Wyatt and Chip scenes were so much fun to write. It felt very easy, surprisingly so, to access that time in my life—what it felt like to be around boys when I was fifteen, to be trying to figure out what they expect from you.

CJ: For my own curiosity, because I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, do you think Madison’s story ends on a hopeful note?

AB: I think that there is still some ambiguity to Madison’s story, when we leave her. Most of the book follows her during a fairly concentrated period of time, as her understanding of her family and the life they’ve created for her has begun to change. One of the central questions, for me, was what exactly Madison is going to take from this traumatic year of her life. How is this going to affect the woman she grows up to be? We get some indications of this, at the end of the book, and I think they’re not hopeful ones. But I also don’t know that it’s been entirely decided. She’s very broken, the last time we see her, but there might still be hope that she might make different choices from the women who raised her.

CJ: Where did your interest in this story, and in the Greenwich, Connecticut world, begin?

AB: My interest in this story, and what it might look like, began in the year or so after the financial crisis and the failure of Lehman Brothers. I was very interested in the momentary collapse of that system, which really didn’t last—Lehman is gone, but otherwise I don’t know that the system it was a part of has changed all that much—and what it might be like to be on the inside of that, to be the face of it for the rest of the country. So once I knew the kind of people I was interested in writing about, I knew that the story was going to take place in a very specific part of the country.

CJ: As a reader, there were parts of this story that were upsetting. Some of the characters had a total lack of awareness and no empathy for the suffering caused. As a writer, were there parts of this story and this universe that were more difficult to write about than others?

AB: Well, the issue you mention was on my mind, obviously, the entire time. Many things about my characters are off-putting, even repellent at moments. But I think that’s what fiction is for. We can assume, going in, that we’d have no sympathy for these people; but putting them under the microscope of fiction might make them interesting to us. The conversation about “likable” characters always seems to miss the point, to me, because when you’re reading a novel the point isn’t whether you like the people in it. The point is, are they interesting to you? Are you compelled by their flaws and their messy behavior? But obviously, the people in my book are suffering through that year a lot less than millions of other people in the country, whose lives they’ve affected. So I was very mindful of trying to keep one eye on the situation as a whole. I know that some people probably just won’t be interested in reading about the one percent, but hopefully others will.

CJ: The book feels very well-researched. Particularly the nuance (eating grapefruit, the Avenue, the workouts, the high school boys, the homes, etc.) and the routines of daily life in Connecticut. How did you go about your research?

AB: I did read a fair amount about the families of many men who work in finance; there was a lot of nonfiction written about this world just after the recession, and while some of those stories were more gossipy than others, many of them were filled with telling details. But a lot of the details you mention were also drawn from my own childhood; I grew up in a very wealthy community, but my own family’s finances were a bit more modest, so I think I was always paying close attention to the tiny details of other people’s houses. I think any small, wealthy community operates in similar ways. People perform parts of their own good fortune, conceal other parts, craft the narrative they present to their peers in certain competitive ways. And I’ve always been interested in that.

CJ: What are you most looking forward to at the One Story Debutante Ball?

AB: I am looking forward to everything about the Ball. I went for the first time three years ago, after One Teen Story had published my first-ever published story! So it’s a really meaningful night to me, and everyone is always loose and goofy and boozy and it’s not at all stuffy. It’s basically a huge party full of people who really like one another, and who doesn’t enjoy that? So it’s going to be really special for me to be recognized in front of this particular group of people, and I can’t wait.