Every so often, a book comes into your life at the perfect moment. Passages will seem written just to allow you to celebrate or mourn, characters will speak to you and for you through the pages, and moments will feel as real as memories or premonitions.
For me, 'The Other's Gold' arrived like a gift on one of the most important weeks of my life: that of my wedding. Marriage is a signifier of a new stage in life, and a time for reflection on the relationships of our past, present and future that made us the people we are. This layered, emotional tale of friendship and the inevitable evolution of life was the perfect accompaniment for such a special week.
Following four girls from their dorm room meeting to the early years of motherhood, The Other's Gold explores the complexities for women coming of age in today's world. These interwoven stories are told through a unique lens: the worst things each girl has done.
This book will always have a special place in my heart and mind, and I was delighted to be able to ask Elizabeth Ames some questions about the story, her inspiration and her approach to writing it.
Jessica Riches: The friendship group is vivid, alive and believable. I very much felt myself to be ‘a Lainey’ as I read. Are there any characters you relate to more or enjoyed writing more?
Elizabeth Ames: That’s lovely to hear; thank you. I feel such tenderness towards readers when they share which character they most identify with! It feels like a secret key. I relate to each of the four in some ways, of course, but as I was writing, Lainey and Ji Sun came on stage more and had more to say, so in that way, they were the easiest simply by providing me with the most material. I identified with Ji Sun most as I was writing the book, but when this question has come up at readings with friends and family in attendance, the people who know me best say I’m most like Lainey. It would make for an interesting exercise to ask this question at a book club and see whether your own idea matches what your friends think.
Did you watch the television program My So-Called Life? I identified so deeply as an Angela, the sensitive and more inward main character, and was, years later, shocked when a friend said she saw me as “such a Rayanne,” the wild, charismatic best friend. How we are seen by others, and how it matches—or contradicts—how we see ourselves is a preoccupation of mine.
JR: I've never seen this! I love seeing how friends view you and how it often differs from your perspective of yourself.
JR: The story seems universal and almost timeless, with only a few key elements helping us to place it; for example Walker’s job as a Silicon Valley do-gooder and the presence of the Occupy Wall Street protests. Why did you choose to include these markers, and did you have any considerations about doing so?
AM: I so appreciate that you felt it had a timeless quality. In one of my first conversations with my beloved editor, she described the book as both “timely and timeless,” and that’s a quality shared by the friendship sagas I like best.
Those markers of time you mention are significant, as the book is concerned with how we all shift from being imperiled to being the peril itself. The characters are wrestling with this question in their personal lives, and are also becoming politicized, and grappling with the harm they do, or that is done in their name, on a larger scale. I wanted the book to come right up against the time in which I was writing (2016-17) but not enter into it. There was an optimism that was extinguished for a lot of Americans—perhaps women in particular—in 2016, and it made sense to me to end the book perched on that ledge.
JR: You inhabit the characters very fully at each of their ages. It feels Young Adult at the start, then markedly Adult by the end. How long have you had the idea, when did you start writing it and how has it evolved in that time?
AM: Friendship novels and campus novels are some of my favorites, so I always harbored hopes of writing something in those genres. The two were wed and the project gained traction when I moved with my husband and our infant daughter into a college dormitory. Living alongside students as they and I both embarked upon such a formative stretch of our lives was incredibly inspiring and instructive, and it allowed me to join some of the writing I was doing about new motherhood with an exploration of a deep friendship begun in college. The book evolved a great deal as I began to think about how much growth and upheaval occurs in this stretch of life—from leaving home to starting homes of one’s own.
JR: There are some parts of the book that might shock the reader, and you could have told a similar story without these extremes. I can imagine these led to interesting conversations in the editing process. Were they always included, and were they ramped up for impact?
AM: They were always included. The extremes in the book aren’t there for shock value, but to dramatize emotions. I’m endlessly fascinated by feelings, and I was bowled over by the intensity of feelings I experienced as a new mother. I needed an action to match that intensity, and the book began with the bite, that final mistake, which I appreciated as very upsetting even as I was writing it. I would talk to my husband about it in hushed tones, like,I’m working on something, but the character does this terrible thing, I can hardly bring myself to tell you what she does! I felt aware of being judged for these fictional actions even as I was writing about them in part to explore how we judge right and wrong!
Like the which-character-are-you question above, the question of which mistake you find most upsetting has proved to be an interesting litmus test of sorts, and really surprising to me in that people—or the ones compelled to voice their opinions on the matter anyway—tend to feel very strongly about which mistake is the “worst” or who is most unforgivable. I think that’s worth unpacking. For example, why does Ji Sun’s accusation cause you so much rage? Does it make you even angrier than what Walker is accused of doing? Why? What the friends do, or fail to do, in the wake of their friends’ mistakes is another preoccupation of the book, and I’m really interested in hearing people talk through what they think they would do, or how they’d feel, if a friend of theirs did these things. Book clubs have reported changing their minds on some of these questions after in-depth discussions, and that’s rewarding to hear, that you can’t necessarily land on an answer, you just have to keep turning the problem over and over until new questions emerge.
JR: Female characters are often expected to be likeable, and by focusing on their ‘worst moments’ you seem to push back on that. It makes reading the book more like a friendship with the girls; loving them as you discover their flaws. Was this a conscious choice, and why was it important to you?
AM: Yes, this was conscious, and I’ve been interested in the pushback that comes from writing about characters behaving in deeply unlikeable ways, particularly when those characters are women. We love antiheroes, but when women do bad things and go unpunished, we tend to become quite agitated. I did feel it was important to get to know the characters and to believe in them (believability being to me a more useful metric than likability in a character) before witnessing them commit their worst acts, and in a way perhaps that backfires as a reader might feel personally wronged or betrayed by someone they know, and even think of as like them, or like a friend. But that’s what I’m interested in—that feeling that comes after the transgression, and how we make decisions to protect the stories we tell about ourselves and our loved ones in the wake of that, what we’ll do to preserve the versions of each other than we can live with. Pushkin Press described the book as about “the enduring (and sometimes blinding) love between female friends,” and that really resonated—when does our love for our friends ask that we look at their flaws or mistakes straight on? Who is harmed when we instead look away?
JR: The title ‘The Other’s Gold’ says so much about the book and what the girls share. Can you explain how you arrived at this title, and when in the process it came to you?
AM: As soon as the lyric occurred to me as an epigraph, that snippet rocketed out as a possible title!
A circle’s round, it has no end
That’s how long I want to be your friend
Make new friends, but keep the old
One is silver and the other’s gold
-Girl Scout song
Before that, the document had a lot of very generic working titles, so I think I was partly just very excited to land on one that was interesting and evocative. Author friends had cautioned me not to get too attached, though, so I stayed open to the idea that the title might change. I feel quite lucky that I got to keep it, though, in no small part as it gave reason to sing the Girl Scout song from which it comes together with audience members at readings! Singing a campfire song about friendship together with readers is a really nice way to break the ice, and I recommend it.
JR: When you were first pitching this story, how did you describe it? Has the focus remained?
AM: I looked back at my earliest pitches to agents, and I described the book as “a novel that examines the biggest mistakes made by four friends from their wild college days through their far more feral days as new parents.” So the hook has remained the same, but the focus, when discussing the book in greater depth, shifted away from the “worst acts” and into the relationships and questions at the heart of the novel.
JR: The book has drawn some very favourable comparisons to some very varied stories, from Big Little Lies to A Little Life. What were your biggest inspirations when writing?
AM: An incomplete list of books that inspired The Other’s Gold includes:
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital by Lorrie Moore, Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, NW and Swing Time by Zadie Smith, Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett, The Likeness by Tana French, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Sula by Toni Morrison, Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, Great with Child and Tender Hooks by Beth Ann Fennelly, Unless by Carol Shields, Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti, The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, The Babysitters Club series by Ann M. Martin, and After Birth by Elisa Albert.
These books could be loosely divided into overlapping categories of friendship novels, campus novels, and books about new motherhood, but more importantly for my purposes is that they all made me feel the way(s) I hope The Other’s Gold makes a reader feel.
JR: The plot is divided into four incidents; the characters’ mistakes. Did you always plan to structure it in this way? How did this structure come to you? The novel is complex, with so many strands and perspectives woven together. Were there any parts of your planning, writing or editing process that helped achieve this?
AM: Deciding to structure the book around the four mistakes was enormously helpful, as it allowed me to zoom in on pivotal moments in the characters’ friendship and lives. I knew I wanted to follow them from the start of college through their days as new parents, and I had the last two mistakes (the bite and the kiss) in mind from the start, but the first two mistakes (the accident and the accusation) emerged as I got to know the characters and their relationships better. The organizational aspect of a novel is the most tedious and overwhelming to me—I’m one of those people who can’t remember which year something happened in my own life, let alone in the lives of people I invented. Time is so unwieldy! So giving myself clear parameters and signposts helped keep me from going off the rails. On a practical editing level, I used a program called Scrivener. I write in Microsoft Word, but Scrivener served as a kind of corkboard that I could take with me to the library or coffee shop.
JR: Are we allowed to ask what the next project you’re working on is? Will we see these characters again?
AM: Of course, you are most welcome to ask, even if I am reluctant to answer! I’m working on another novel, and it’s about joy—what it’s worth, and what it costs.
As for Alice, Ji Sun, Margaret, and Lainey, I hope you’ll see them on a screen someday, and while I don’t have plans to revisit them in fiction, if they came back knocking, I wouldn’t dare turn them away.
The Other's Gold by Elizabeth Ames. OUT NOW FROM PUSHKIN PRESS.