The first piece of writing Deborah Copaken Kogan remembers being proud of appeared in the 1998 Red Book on the occasion of her 10th Harvard College reunion.
Published every five years and sent out to feverishly awaiting alums, the crimson-covered hardbound Red Book collects short autobiographical essays chronicling the latest professional and personal accomplishments of former classmates. Seeing her words in print—and feeling the euphoria that accompanied it—caused Copaken Kogan to impulsively quit her job as an assistant producer on NBC’s Dateline and embark full-time on a writing career. “I never looked back,” says the 45-year-old author, who won a writing award in third grade but was denied entry to Mary Robinson’s writing classes at Harvard for “lack of experience.”
Nevertheless, Copaken Kogan’s first book, Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War (Villard, 2001), a brash account of a postcollege stint as a war photographer (she arrived in Paris in 1988 and not long after was on her way to Afghanistan with her cameras and a renegade Frenchman named Pascal) became a bestseller. Her new book and second novel, The Red Book (Hyperion/Voice), is a more measured coming–of–middle age story, following four women from the Harvard class of 1989. Copaken Kogan uses fictional entries in the Red Book as a structural device to introduce the women and their classmates as they come together for a weekend in Cambridge, Mass., in June 2009 to mark their 20th reunion.
By the time Copaken Kogan attended her own 20th reunion the year before, she had written two books: Shutterbabe and a first novel, From Here to April (Algonquin, 2008), about a child murdered by her mother, and a producer/journalist female protagonist haunted by the crime. She also had three children and a husband and no complaints. But in the intervening six months between writing her Red Book submission and attending the reunion, her world changed drastically. Her father died soon after a cancer diagnosis (he had just published his first book and Copaken Kogan took over his book tour), her husband lost his job, and the family was forced to move to a more affordable New York City apartment. “Everything I had written in that Red Book entry was false—even my address was false,” she says over tea in the sunny parlor of her Harlem home.
This reversal of fortune became the impetus for The Red Book. Copaken Kogan sets the narrative against real-time events: the Wall Street collapse, the Middle East conflicts, and personal milestones including mid-life marriage woes and approaching menopause. The book concludes with the characters’ newly examined lives and their reality-tested 25th reunion posts.
Copaken Kogan had initially considered writing a humorous book about her father’s death, but the event was too fresh—and the feelings of her mother and three sisters too raw. Instead she proposed a nonfictional account of her own Harvard class, a look at how these intended masters and mistresses of the universe were faring in the worst of economic times. She pitched the idea over drinks at an Upper West Side Manhattan bar to Voice editors Ellen Archer and Barbara Jones. “Ellen said, ‘No one would be truthful,’” Copaken Kogan remembers. But by the time she left the bar, she was ecstatic: she could deliver a novel. She had already published Hell Is Other Parents with Voice in 2009, a very funny rumination on raising children in the minefield that is Manhattan, and the discussed Harvard classmate book became The Red Book.
This chasm between half-truths and true life discussed in the bar later became part of the novel’s trailer (“There are stories we tell the world—and then there’s the real story”), while the pre-publication copy describes The Red Book as “The Big Chill meets Mary McCarthy’s The Group.” But there’s the worry this playbook for educated women in their 40s could fall into the chick lit category. Copaken Kogan is not overly concerned. “If Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom had been written by a woman,” she says, “it would have been called chick lit.” Along fiction readers’ gender spectrum, there is a place where men and women come together, she explains. “I enjoyed it [Freedom] because it hit that sweet spot in the center.” She’s aimed The Red Book at the same target.
As for those clockwork reunions, Copaken Kogan responds with her classic humor. “I love reunions,” she says. “There we are: still alive, but we are all sprinting toward death.”
Carrie Tuhy is cofounder of SecondLivesClub.blogspot.com.