Crossing Washington Square: Review & Interview!

September 15th, 2009

Back in the spring, Joanne Rendell contacted us about the possibility of reviewing her new book, Crossing Washington Square. As it turns out, Caroline’s mom had just recommended Joanne’s first book, The Professors’ Wives’ Club to us, and so we were primed to read her popular novels about the personal lives of academics.

After reading her books, we decided we wanted to know more about Rendell’s background and how a writer who was born and educated in the UK came to know so much about higher education in the United States. So following our review of Crossing Washington Square here, we’ll post (in two parts) an interview with her about writing, mothering, and the difference between US and UK dorm life.

Ah, study abroad: The intellectual opportunities! The cultural experiences! The chance to live with and learn from a global student population!

Or so study abroad is billed. But of course truthfully, study abroad is often an opportunity to flee bad relationships and drink a lot of very good beer. Even earnest, studious students like the two of us found ourselves frequently distracted from libraries and lectures. We turned out okay—finished our time abroad without many heartaches or hangovers—and then continued on to finish our BAs, an MFA and a PhD. Now we lead quiet lives with husbands and kids; when we look at pictures from our study abroad days, we barely recognize ourselves.

And so we leapt at the chance to read Crossing Washington Square, Joanne Rendell’s entertaining new novel about two female English literature professors at the fictitious Manhattan University. A tense relationship is only the beginning of a story that culminates with Literary London, a two-week student trip abroad.

Personal and academic sparring forms the heart of the conflict between the novel’s two protagonists. Rachel, a scholar of popular literature, devotes her study to books like Bridget Jones’ Diary, while Diana, a Sylvia Plath scholar, disdains her younger colleague’s work and the implications it holds for the traditional canon. Both women are single, and inevitably find themselves drawn to the same man in their department.

For readers like us, who unashamedly read both Fielding and Plath yet understand how charged the stakes can be in academic turf disputes, the story’s a page-turner. The conflicts–over both literature and love– come to a head when the two women find themselves unexpectedly co-chaperoning the Literary London trip.

Of course as studying abroad students, we never really thought about the faculty’s experience. We never thought about their personal lives at all. But now we have friends and family members who are university faculty; we witness their struggles to combine work and family, sympathize with their difficult schedules, read their draft manuscripts and yes, visit when they lead student study abroad trips. Those trips don’t look so easy as they did when we were being led gently by the hand from this historical point of interest to that literary landmark. Reading the book made us want to find out more about author Joanne Rendell’s own background, and so we wrote to ask about her own educational experience, her writing life, and her take on motherhood and academia. Read on!

Mama, PhD: What was your inspiration for CWS?

Joanne Rendell: As someone who has lived the academic life (I have a PhD in literature and now I’m married to a professor at NYU), I’ve always loved campus novels such as David Lodge’s Trading Places, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, Richard Russo’s The Straight Man, Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, Francine Prose’s Blue Angel, and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. But what I noticed about such campus fiction was the lack of female professors in leading roles. Even Francine Prose and Zadie Smith focus on male professors in their writing. Furthermore, most of these male professors are disillusioned drunks who quite often sleep with their students, or at least consider sleeping with their students or are accused of it. I wanted to write a novel with women professors at the forefront and I wanted these women to be strong, smart, and interesting – instead of drunk, despondent, and preoccupied with questionable sexual liaisons!

Mama, PhD: How closely do any of the events in CWS connect to events in your own life?

JR: Like one of my characters, Professor Diana Monroe, I once taught Sylvia Plath to undergraduates. Like Professor Rachel Grey, my other lead character, I sometimes struggled to ignite a discussion in a room full of tired students! Crossing Washington Square is also set at Manhattan U. which closely resembles NYU where my husband teaches and where we live in faculty housing. So there’s a lot of me and my life in the book, but the story of the two very different women and their struggles against each other is definitely fictional.

Mama, PhD: How did you develop the characters of Diana and Rachel?

JR: I knew I wanted to write a book about women professors and at some point while I was working on this idea, I reread Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. I’ve always loved Austen’s portrayal of the two very different Dashwood sisters: Elinor led by her sense and Marianne led by her irrepressible sensibilities. I enjoyed putting these two types of women in a modern context and then adding opposing views of literature to stir up more sparks between them. Professor Rachel Grey is emotional and tempestuous and uses chick lit in her classes. Meanwhile, Professor Diana Monroe is cool, aloof, and controlled. She is a scholar of Sylvia Plath and thinks that “beach” fiction is an easy ride for students. They do not get along!

Mama, PhD: In your experience, are the university “old guard” as resistant to change in the canon as you portray them in the book? Why do you think this is?

JR: There are still many people in academe who are resistant to change, although my depiction of the “old guard” in Crossing Washington Square is probably a little exaggerated. But not too much. Even now it is hard for scholars interested in more modern and popular culture to be taken seriously and to have their courses and their publications accepted and valued by their institutions. I recently wrote a piece for The Huffington Post about scholars interested in romance fiction (think Harlequin and Nora Roberts). The field is growing considerably, but it is still very small considering the huge popularity of romance novels. I suppose the “old guard” want to protect their work and their disciplines and they probably do genuinely believe – as Professor Monroe does in my book – that classical or serious literature will get pushed aside by students and scholars wanting to study supposedly “hot” and “trendy” cultural artifacts.

Mama, PhD: You grew up and earned your degree in the UK; you’re married now to an American and live in residence at NYU. What do you see as the differences between the British and American college experience?

JR: The British system, I think, encourages students to be more independent in their studies. In the U.S., there seems a more top-down approach: a lot more required credits and supervision. The U.S. student experience also seems a lot more sober! I know, for any of you in the U.S. who’ve experienced or witnessed frat houses and beer pong, you might think that laughable. But in Britain the drinking age is 18 and sometimes it seems like the whole university experience is built around alcohol – some dorms even have their own bars!

Mama, PhD: The only mother we see in the book is the wife of an assistant professor–as a mother yourself, do you feel that motherhood and the academy are somehow incompatible?

JR: I don’t think they are incompatible, but I do think it is a big challenge to do both and I hugely admire the women who pull it off (my best friend is one of them). Motherhood is a 24/7 job so to add writing lectures, grading papers, going to faculty meetings, writing journal articles etc. on top is just a very hard thing to do. It clearly involves a lot of juggling, scheduling, toughness, and support.

Mama, PhD: How has living in faculty housing shaped your experiences as a mother/writer? Your perceptions of the academy?

JR: My husband and I are actually faculty-in-residence which means we live in an apartment in one of NYU’s dorms and run all kinds of programs and events for the students. Sometimes when I tell people we live in the dorm they’re horrified – probably imagining some sort of Animal House scenario! However, we’ve had nothing but great experiences. The students in the dorm really appreciate our presence and our programs. Also, it’s been wonderful for us, providing an immediate community, lots of “friends” for Benny our six year old son, and it has also has shown us a lot about students today. I’ve been pleasantly surprised how polite, engaged, and enthusiastic all the students seem to be.

Mama, PhD: You have a PhD in literature and no longer teach; when did you decide to leave the classroom behind, and what was the transition from academia to creative writing like for you?

JR: I left academia after I finished my PhD and when I moved to the States to be with my husband and to have my son. When I was pregnant, I assumed I would start applying for academic jobs after the baby was born. But then my pregnancy rolled on, my son arrived, and the longer I was out of academe the more content I felt. No meetings, no teaching prep, no never-ending reading lists, no hours fretting over a lost citation. I watched as my husband went through all this and it didn’t make me yearn for the academic life. Also, I just couldn’t imagine being able to juggle my newborn with all the demands of a tenure-track job.

When my son was just a few months old, I saw an ad for a creative writing class and it suddenly occurred to me that there was something I missed: writing and the writing life I had back in grad school. But creative writing? I wasn’t sure if that was really me. After all, I had years of literature student baggage weighing me down. How would I ever write fiction without thinking about the grad students who might one day pull my writing apart? How would I choose what to write? Would I be postmodern, feminist, queer, or deconstructive?

In the end though, I got over my fears and signed up for my very first creative writing class. There was no looking back after that.


Tune in later this week for the rest of our interview with Joanne Rendell, in which she talks with us about her writing routine, “unschooling” her child, and what’s next for her.