The debut novel of Vermont author Amy Klinger takes us back to the office environment of the 1990s
If you're looking for a witty, sardonic and thought-provoking novel that takes you back to a simpler time — that, of course, was not simple at all — a work of fiction by Amy Klinger just might be the book for you.
It's a novel that will feel very much like reality for anybody who ever toiled away in an office environment in the 1990s, and into the 21st century up until recent events, when the coronavirus sparked a sea of change in where people work, and how they approach the working world. In Light of Recent Events is Richmond author Amy Klinger's debut novel.
VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Klinger about the book. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: I've always had a soft spot for antiheroes in books and movies. That's to say, flawed characters who you can tell are really good people. They're just trying to make their way through a complex world with as little friction and conflict as possible. And the protagonist of this book, Audrey Romer, really ticks all those boxes. Where does Audrey work? How would you describe her general philosophy about working in the 1990s.
Amy Klinger: She works for a publishing house — an educational textbooks publishing house. And she is squarely in middle management, sort of straddling the worlds between the administrative side and the senior management. And she finds herself in a place where work is not particularly inspiring. It's difficult for her to imagine rising up the corporate ladder there for various reasons. And yet she's still maintaining relationships in both places.
She has a partner in crime as well in her friend Pooter. He's a confidant on one level, but also somebody who kind of shares her cynical outlook. And it feels like you could have taken an easier route, perhaps, by giving Audrey a foil who's really different from her, like a real Type A go-getter, but instead Pooter is a lot like her in his disdain for office culture, the people who work in it.
Why did you want to have that relationship dynamic kind of anchor this book?
I think workplace environments are really fascinating places for me, because they are a group of random people who have been thrown together with various personalities, and it's an unnatural environment. I think when you're in that environment, you often find your people, who are the ones that you can lean on to get you through the day, to find moments of humor, and inside jokes.
And she and Pooter really function that way. I think a lot of people used to call it, "This is my work wife," "This is my work spouse." And that dynamic, really, to me feels very real. Almost in every environment there are the people you feel really connected to — they become your family during the day when you're there eight hours or more. It's a comfort to know that you have a buddy there, and Pooter really functions as that for her.
The chief cause of conflict for Audrey in this novel is that she's having an affair with a co-worker, her boss, actually who heads her department. He's married to this elegant upper-class woman, named Patricia. And there's this tension-filled scene where Audrey sees Patricia in a supermarket and kind of trails her like a detective, you know, she's unable to look away. And later on she's lying in bed with Dan, that's Patricia's husband and her boss, and Audrey has this amazing moment of revelation. I wonder if you could read a little bit from that moment where Audrey realizes something that really strikes her.
"It took some mental digging to understand why. And then, as if I picked up a well-wedged stone and found a squirming, leggy thing trying frantically to escape the light of day, I realized that something had been nagging me, not just in that moment, but over the course of the last few weeks since I followed Patricia in the grocery store. I had been bait-and-switched. I was no mistress. I was 'the Mrs.'; the homebody; the sit-on-the-couch and read-a-book pal; the cooking, dining, grocery shopper. Patricia, who whirled about the world and landed back in town for stints to attend gallery openings and celebrity fundraisers to have urgent, enthusiastic, 'I miss you so much' sex with Dan. Patricia was the mistress."
I mean, that moment falls like an anvil on Audrey, and she's realizing it about herself. I'm wondering how you approached making her a strong woman in this environment where she could so easily be timid and kind of mousy.
She very much functioned for me as someone who was constantly in the middle, that middle manager she's got her feet in both worlds, and she's not in a mature relationship.
But I did not want her to come across as weak. I think she has very clear understanding of who she is, but she is not very ambitious. She's feeling like she's in a comfortable place and maybe afraid to step out of her comfort zone, but that doesn't mean that she doesn't have strong feelings and thoughts about who she is and where she is. She's clear-eyed to me.
Yeah, she's a real thinking person, if you will. She's such a likable character, despite some of the tough choices that she's made that are obviously making her life more difficult.
One of the strengths of this novel, I think, is your ability to write with a very flowing, gliding style. I mean, there's so much forward momentum in this book that it kind of floats the reader along like an undercurrent. But of course, writing it was not easy. I mean, that's the secret to great writing, you make it seem easy. Your webpage features a blog post about how this book came together, it took quite some time.
What was the biggest challenge for you writing this book, and most importantly, sticking with it?
I think for a long time, I didn't really have an end game. I worked on it, in some ways, like someone would work on an antique car in the garage, just, you know, a bit of a hobbyist and not really knowing if it would ever get out on the road and into the world. I really grew to love these characters, and it was almost like spending time with friends as I was writing it. And so I didn't feel a real sense of urgency.
It took me 10 years to write this book that really should not have taken 10 years, but I was fitting it in among working full-time and raising my daughter. And it just became something in the background until there was a tipping point when I felt like I had enough people engage with it. And it became a full-fledged story. I decided to start shopping it around to agents, spent a year doing that and got some very polite, encouraging rejections, but they were still rejections.
In the middle of the pandemic, I decided that this was a book that felt like it added a little bit of levity to the world. And I really decided at that point I wanted to work hard to get it out. And so I did decide, I thought, well, I'll just send it out and I'll share it with friends and family. And if other people stumble upon it, that's great. And then I got an an e-newsletter that I subscribed to that talked about some publishers that accepted manuscripts from people who didn't have agents and I thought, well, what the heck, and I picked one that felt right and sent it, and the very next day I had a request for the full manuscript.
Once I got past looking for an agent, it actually went very well, and The Story Plant has been super to work with, they've been really encouraging, and their aim is to bring new writers out into the world, so it was a really good fit.