If you work in publishing, you probably know Jennifer Gilmore as the former publicity director at Harcourt. She left that job not long after her first novel, Golden Country (Scribner, 2005), was published. Shortly after that, the publishing industry underwent a series of changes, in some ways making it almost unrecognizable to someone who hasn't been paying attention.
Gilmore has been paying attention. Her second novel, Something Red, is coming out from Scribner, and she's aware of how much her old business has changed: “I often got asked with my first book, 'What's it like to be on both sides of the desk?' Now it's 2010 and we all know it's a new world,” Gilmore says. She has a favorite expression for her behind-the-scenes knowledge about publishing:
“I know how the lasagna gets baked.” But in publishing's new world of downsized departments, promotion via ever-changing online social networks, and e-book price wars, she adds, “I also have no idea.”
Gilmore speaks for many writers when she says, “It's actually quite frightening to be an author and know the business side of publishing. I imagine it's easier to be in Iowa and not know what's going on with your book. If the industry had stayed the same, I might still feel in control of the publishing process, but sales reps' jobs have changed, marketing jobs have changed, publicity jobs have changed.”
From the vantage point of today's changing world, Gilmore writes in Something Red about another time of change. Her setting is Washington, D.C., at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the '80s, a time, Gilmore says, “that was such a seminal moment in cultural history... the end of disco, the start of punk rock.”
The cold war casts a heavy shadow on the novel, which follows the fate of the Goldstein family. Dennis, the 40-something child of lefty Russian immigrants, remembers the political fervor of the '60s and still plays “If I Had a Hammer” when he needs to get out his aggression. But these days he works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a job threatened by President Carter's grain embargo against the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, his wife, Sharon, once a Vietnam War protester and now a caterer, is trying to combat the anxieties of middle-age with a set of mantras from a self-betterment program called LEAP! Their son, Benjamin, a jock, goes off to Brandeis, with its vivid political history, to find out if there's more to him than sports, while his teenage sister, Vanessa, looks for herself in the burgeoning D.C. punk rock scene. The novel carefully plumbs all of their psychologies while interweaving them into the backdrop of history.
History and the way it exerts an undeniable pressure on a family— shaping, imprisoning, and freeing its members—animates Gilmore's imagination (Golden Country also follows 20th-century immigrants through generations). “I don't want to think of myself as someone who writes about history at the expense of character,” says Gilmore. “What allows me to get into the characters is looking at history and the context of my characters in history. I realized while writing both of my books that research gives me ideas. When I started to set my books in other times, it really freed me up to do all this other work. A writer is more confined by setting a story in the present. What I like about family drama is how we're haunted by our grandparents and our parents and all their decisions.”
Gilmore found the turn of the 1980s a particularly fruitful period. “If you're writing about the '60s, you expect certain things. We expect certain things of the '70s, too—that was the hangover from the '60s. But part of what I love about 1979—1980 is that it's so haunted by every other time period.”
Of course, setting a book in the past, especially the recent past, which many of her readers will have lived firsthand, means the future—the years between when the book was set and now—is also part of the story. “I love the idea that the reader knows something the characters don't,” says Gilmore, “but it's not about who the characters are, it's about what will inform them, in terms of history.”
And as publishing—and America—forges ahead into the uncertain future, it's comforting to take counsel from a writer who always sees the future in the past. Through her writing, Gilmore sees history's cycles come into focus. “We are just repeating ourselves over and over again,” she says, “and it's fascinating.”