Q&A with Susan Rieger
You’ve taught law at Columbia and Yale. You’ve written about law for newspapers and magazines. And now you’ve written what one critic called a “brutally comic” and “extremely clever” novel about a lawyer. What about law so fascinated you that you’ve dedicated your life to it and what do you hope to achieve with a novel that you didn’t with your previous professional work?
At an impressionable age, I saw A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt’s wonderful movie about Thomas More, Henry VIII’s doomed chancellor. At one point More gets into a testy argument with his son-in-law, Will Roper, who says he’d “cut down every law in England” to get the Devil. More answers him: “And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man’s laws, not God’s—and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?”
After that speech, I was a goner for the law BUT, I was very young, and I didn’t know any women lawyers. That all changed, of course, and 10 years later, I went to law school.
It took me much longer to screw up the courage to try to write a novel, to shake myself loose from the fact-based world of law and make things up. In 1999, I had a kind of now-or-never moment. I wanted more play in my life, more imagination and invention. It took another 12 years, and I didn’t know until 2010 that I’d actually finish.
You mentioned that you’ve been divorced once. How did your own experience of divorce influence the writing of this novel?
Getting divorced made me see the drama in the experience, not only for the couple and any children they might have, but for their whole world, their parents, friends, colleagues. For a first novel, this seemed a good place to start—with what I knew. Then I made things up. That was the most fun—and the most work.
The women in The Divorce Papers are powerhouses in their own way: brilliant, witty, dynamic. Did you have any influences in mind while writing these characters?
My mother was smart and funny. The only piece of marital advice she ever gave me was this: Marry the man who makes you laugh, they all make you cry. That’s true, as far as it goes, but I might have benefited from some additional instruction. Still, I passed it along to my daughter, who is also smart and funnyThen there are my good friends, who are smart and funny. I had all those voices in my head.
There are a slew of literary and film references throughout your novel, sure to delight voracious readers. Were any references particularly important or essential to you?
I have three favorite quotes in the book. The first is from A Man for All Seasons. Mia is telling Sophie about “the other woman”: “Do you remember that scene in A Man for All Seasons, when More confronts Richard Rich for betraying him in exchange for being made Chancellor of Wales? More says to him, ‘I can understand a man giving up his soul for the world, Richard, but for Wales?’ That’s how I feel. I can understand Daniel leaving me, but for Stephanie Roth?”
My second favorite is the poem “Telemachus’ Detachment” by Louise Glück, from her book Meadowlands. It’s for grown children who are having trouble freeing themselves from the thrall of difficult or unhappy parents. Short and powerful, moving and funny.
My third favorite is a longish quote from Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Thing. It’s a quote about the possibility—and only the possibility—of another person. I’ve never believed in soul mates. I’ve always thought there were at least a hundred people out there for each of us. The Stoppard quote is about one of those hundred, unpursued but acknowledged.
Main character Sophie loves criminal law and is only very reluctantly pulled into this divorce case. What are your preferred (and least favorite) areas of law, and why?
I like law when it intersects with daily life, with family life and working life. So much of our lives is shaped by law, from putting a dad’s name on a baby’s birth certificate to forbidding gramps from burying granny in the back garden. Outside the domestic realm, my favorite areas of law are civil rights and criminal rights—free speech on the one hand, the right to remain silent on the other. In law school, the course I disliked the most was on the Uniform Commercial Code. The only thing I remember was the professor’s economical, cynical, and, I believe, accurate statement on Chapter IV, the section on banks: “The bank never loses. That’s all you need to know.”
Do you envision writing more fiction and, if so, what’s your next project?
I do want to write more fiction; I’m working on a second novel now. I’m not quite ready to talk about it. I worry that I’ll talk about it and not do it. I don’t want to jinx it. It’s hard work writing a novel. And I’m not taking 12 years this time around.