In Stephanie Clifford’s novel, “Everybody Rise,” the main character is a girl who came from humble beginnings and becomes so obsessed with infiltrating New York’s high society scene that she’ll do almost anything to fit in, whether it’s lying, cheating or stealing.
Clifford herself is a Brooklynite, but was not part of the upper-class circles she writes about, that is, until she left her hometown of Seattle as a teenager to attend an exclusive New Hampshire prep school.
The featured speaker at the April 14 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society, Clifford said in an interview before her talk that she became fascinated with the old money crowd she encountered at prep school, people who summered in the Adirondacks and were wealthy enough that buildings were named after them.
“It was interesting and anachronistic, like finding a tribe of Druids. Why are you guys still here? I wanted to understand their customs,” said Clifford, who earlier this year stepped away from a full-time reporting position at the New York Times to focus more on fiction writing.
“Everybody Rise” is Clifford’s first novel, and was published in 2015 by St. Martin’s Press. She wrote the book furtively over an eight-year period, writing from 6 to 8 a.m. each morning before work at the Times, as she also juggled such personal demands as getting married and having a newborn baby.
Insecure about her novelistic efforts, she didn’t tell anyone about them, but there were elements about the transition from journalist to fiction writer that she enjoyed.
“It was so freeing not to be constrained by facts,” she said. As an example, her original draft featured two sisters, one who played by the rules and one who didn’t. But after a while, she realized that the “baddy,” the sister named Evelyn, was the more interesting of the two. “I just tossed out the first sister and it felt so good to do that.”
As the story follows Evelyn’s attempts to insinuate herself with the New York high society set, from debutante balls to summertime sailing competitions, the book also examines the class struggles between ordinary Americans and those born to wealth and power.
In an exchange with her school friend, Charlotte, Evelyn tries to explain why she is so intent on elevating her social status:
“I guess it’s the tradition of it. The way of life, the code of manners. Treating people well, and serving a greater good... I thought the people would be awful and they’re nice. They’re great, in fact.”
“But” - Charlotte swept her hand over the meeting room - “who in that crowd, or here, for that matter, is achieving a greater good? It’s a bunch of self-involved kids who have jobs supplied for them by their parents.”
In researching and writing her novel, said Clifford, she wanted to tell a good story, but also explore themes of class and status.
“I’m fascinated by class. It’s not something we’re supposed to talk about in America. It is a thing. We’re clearly seeing it in this election. There’s a lot of anger about the haves and the have-nots, and who has to play by the rules and who doesn’t,” she said.
At its heart, “Everybody Rise” is about a young woman, her relationship with her mother and her friends, and the toll that trying to fit in with a world where perhaps she didn’t really belong took on her personal, professional and financial life. As Evelyn herself observed after her life had unraveled, in a message she sought to relay to one of her former upper-crust friends, “Tell her I lost myself.”
As she continues to promote “Everybody Rise,” Clifford is already at work on a new novel, this time a parallel story about two young mothers who live in Brooklyn, one who came from an impoverished background and lands in legal trouble, and another who is dealing with the stresses of life from a different socioeconomic level.
The book touches on issues of poverty, race and the criminal justice system, but also has its similarities with her first novel. Much like the insular world of New York’s moneyed elite, she said, the prison system is also a closed society with its own language, rules and pecking order.
As she works on her new novel, Clifford is continuing to write freelance articles for the New York Times and New Yorker magazine.
According to her website, www.stephanieclifford.net, the film rights for “Everybody Rise” were purchased by Fox 2000, and the paperback edition of the novel is due out June 12.