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The Old Boys’ Club: Publishing, the 50s, and the "Three-Martini Lunch"

Three-MartiniI have an extra-soft spot in my heart for Three-Martini Lunch, Suzanne Rindell's novel about the book publishing world in the 1950s. It takes place in an era that was before my time, but one that has always loomed large in my imagination: while I wouldn't have been able to articulate it as a kid, I think I always knew that I wanted the book world to be mine. So any books (I'm thinking of Joanna Rakoff's wonderful My Salinger Year) and movies (Crossing Delancey) that depicted brainy people in love (both literally and spiritually) with books and authors felt like they were written for me. Three-Martini Lunch has the tone and language of the era down pat – at least it matches my imagination and the movies – in which things happen "lickety split" and people look "sharp." That it's also about even more serious things – like race and honor and character – is the bonus. Here, some of Suzanne Rindell's thoughts about her latest book, available April 5.

Amazon Book Review: Your first novel, The Other Typist, is about New York in the 1920s. This one is about New York in the 1950s. You obviously like to explore other eras. But what drew you specifically to publishing this time?

Suzanne Rindell: The Other Typist was out on submission and I was working at a literary agency. I was still somewhat new to publishing and it really struck me how people in the industry frequently expressed despair over publishing's future, coupled with nostalgia for "the Golden Days of Publishing." Considering the conservatism and fear-mongering of the 1950s, this nostalgia seemed rather dangerous to me, like, "be careful what you wish for!" People have compared the book to television's Mad Men; I think that show embodies that same sense of dangerous nostalgia: You look at the TV screen and see this sexy, colorful mid-century set and costumes, meanwhile, this-or-that character is in the middle of saying something completely racist or sexist, etc.

ABR: The novel has three protagonists—can you tell us a little about each?

SR: Cliff is a Jack Kerouac wannabe. Unfortunately he doesn't write much; he is more in love with the idea of being a writer. He hangs around Greenwich Village drinking and posing.

Eden comes to New York to make it big as an editor, but finds herself thwarted by office politics, sexism, and anti-Semitism. She develops a sleek, sort of Audrey Hepburn-esque style, works in publishing by day and hangs out with the beatniks by night.

Miles is a young black man from Harlem. He is the most talented and most educated of the three, but is rendered somewhat invisible via the racism that surrounds him. He's also grappling with his past and his sexuality, so the waters ahead of him are choppy.

ABR: How did you develop each of these three very different characters' voices?

SR: To get each character's voice going, I would read and reread specific authors. For Cliff I read Kerouac, Hemingway, and Salinger. For Eden I read Rona Jaffe, Joan Didion, and Sylvia Plath. For Miles I read James Baldwin and a little bit of Truman Capote.

ABR: Even in the 1950s, most people probably would have branded the New York publishing world as "liberal" and largely enlightened, but you paint a somewhat different picture. What are some of the perhaps surprising social attitudes you explore in the novel?

SR: Despite being perceived as a "liberal" industry, there was still a strong element of the Old Boys' Club to publishing back in those days, and that atmosphere dies hard, as maybe we can see in, say, Hollywood today – another industry that's superficially perceived as liberal but keeps showing us its persistently conservative roots. One thing that surprised me were the rigid divisions within publishing itself. Houses were often either Jewish-owned and run or else quite WASP-y, bordering on anti-Semitic.

ABR: Are any of the characters in the novel based on real-life people?

SR: Not wholly. I read up about the Bennett Cerfs and Maxwell Perkinses and Harold Obers and what-have-you of the business, but I wanted my characters to be free to walk off the page however they pleased. In my opinion, that's the best you can hope for – that your characters will walk off the page and do their own thing.

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