In Help Wanted (Norton, Mar.), Waldman follows a team of workers at a big-box store in Upstate New York.

What drew you to the subject?

It was totally unexpected. I love 19th-century novels and used to think like Jane Austen that writing about the romantic and psychological problems of middle-class people was a valid way to spend a career. But after my first novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., I found myself without an idea for a next book. Then the 2016 election happened and it jolted me. I got a minimum-wage job at a big-box store just to broaden my horizons. Instead, I found myself riveted by the setting and appalled by the work conditions. I came out of there wanting to write a book about the entire experience as fiction.

Not many workplace novels dwell on the stresses of low-paid workers.

A lot of novels about a working-class protagonist are often about a person who’s intellectually precocious who sort of leaves the low-wage work force through education or circumstance. The stories are often about transcending that environment. But sometimes a story isn’t about rising above—it’s just about this is the circumstance. This is someone’s life, and they deserve a lot more than they get. The people who work the kinds of jobs held by the characters in my book deserve a lot more, and they shouldn’t have to change themselves to get it.

Indeed, they see a path toward betterment when their inept team manager is promoted, opening up a slot for advancement.

Yes, the plot allowed me to dramatize their economic hopes and dreams, which is what I found very touching, and then I liked the comic element of wanting your bad boss to be promoted so you could get a promotion. The levity at play, combined with the reality of their economic circumstances, felt true to what I wanted to portray.

And what you wanted to portray was the humanness of these characters as they face precarity?

Yeah, I wanted to just make them feel human and sympathetic and to make sure their poor earnings are seen as unfeeling as I’ve come to think they are. We wouldn’t have a functioning economy if there were no people to do these jobs. I think they’re entitled to a reliable income that they can plan a life around. I find it horrifying we’ve somehow justified not doing that.

The nine workers dream of promotions and the narrative builds to a surprising conclusion. Did it illustrate what you hoped to convey?

It just seemed right. The problem the workers face isn’t a bad manager. They have one annoying manager, but she’s almost like a red herring. She’s not the real problem. The real villain is the larger system. It’s not about personalities.