I recently read The Darlings by Cristina Alger, a former associate at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, and I rather enjoyed it. It was a (mostly) guiltless read. Set in the immediate aftermath of a Madoff-like scandal, the novel spans five days in the lives of the fabulously rich and comely Darling family. It's a story about the disintegration of privilege (yes, there would be a role for Gwyneth Paltrow) and personal loyalties, where the drama unfolds in some of the most seductive real estate around New York—i.e., penthouse apartments on the Upper East Side and the Georgica Pond section of East Hampton.
Recently, I sat down with Alger at Pain Quotidien (on the Upper East Side, of course) to discuss her transition from bankruptcy lawyer to novelist.
I was reading the acknowledgments in your book—Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, and a whole slew of people I don't know, but feel I should. That's not the crowd most lawyers travel in. How did you get such an impressive board of advisers?
Joan Didion was a neighbor [in my parents' apartment building]. My father gave her a story of mine when I was in eighth grade. It was so embarrassing. I went to school with Alexandra Wolfe; she's been a friend since childhood.
Those are nice literary connections. But you didn't pursue writing as your first career. You went the opposite route—two years as an analyst at Goldman Sachs after Harvard, then NYU Law, then Wilmer. Why such a circuitous route to what's obviously your first love?
After my dad passed away [Alger's father was David Alger, a prominent mutual fund manager, who died at the World Trade Center during 9/11], I took a sharp left turn [into finance]. My goal at the time was to go into my family's [mutual fund] business.
Why did you decide on law school after your Goldman stint? I'd think you'd opt for an MBA instead.
I thought of law school as a kind of liberal arts armor. I always thought law school was an option for me, which is what you think when you are an English major. I thought I would do fiction on the side.
And did you actually do that—write on the side?
Yes. I wrote for fun. I'd get up early and write before I went to work.
Whoa—you wrote for kicks while working full-time as a lawyer? How did this hobby become a published novel?
I didn't know I had a novel until I had written 150 pages . . . I showed it to two agents. [The first agent] was very encouraging and told me that I had to finish it. Then Lehman went into bankruptcy, and my workload went up dramatically, and I stopped working on it. Later, another friend arranged for me to meet with another agent. [The second agent] read it, and marked it up. I was really impressed by her dedication. I had not signed an agreement with her, and she was taking a risk on me.
And how long did it take your agent to sell the novel?
We sold it in four days; I was expecting a longer time.
Wow. So you must have felt like you won the lotto. Did you quit right away?
[Once the book was sold,] I realized that the editing part would be intense and had to be a full-time job. At the same time I had family demands, and I wondered if I could continue with a job with little flexibility. It was a strange confluence of my personal life and my writing.
If you didn't sell the book, would you have stayed at Wilmer?
Yes. I'm very risk-averse by nature. I don't think I would have the confidence to walk out without a safety net. I would have stayed because writing is so unstable in terms of salary and health insurance.
You were at Wilmer barely three years. That's not a lot of time. Were you miserable as a lawyer?
I enjoyed the bankruptcy work. Corporate work can be tiring. But in bankruptcy, you can look at so many different aspects—transactions, tax. Wilmer was very generous with me and told me that I'd be welcome back. It's a wonderful firm. The people have an intellectual life outside of the firm.
I noticed that since the book came out, the press has focused on your personal background. Some have suggested that you were able to run off and write this book because of your wealth and social status. Does that bother you?
I wasn't prepared for it. I'm a private person by nature. Some people might think that my background gives me authenticity. The flip side is that [being privileged] is controversial.
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