Book review and interview: Andrew Ridker, ‘The Altruists’

Reading: Andrew Ridker, The Altruists

Prairie Lights — Wednesday, March 27 at 7 p.m.

Andrew Ridker reads at Prairie Lights on Wednesday, March 27. — George Baier IV/via

To read Andrew Ridker’s sparkling novel The Altruists is to find oneself inside the claustrophobic confines of a dysfunctional family. Brilliant prose adorns this gem of a novel, making it a delight to read. In the novel’s short intro, set in 2000, the Alters are apparently normal St. Louis residents; parents Arthur and Francine are respectively a professor of engineering and a couples’ counselor, and the children, Ethan and Maggie, are being prepared for successful careers. Yet under their upper-middle-class veneer, there is a profound disconnection.

The main bulk of the narrative is set in 2015. Arthur, now a widower, asks his children to reunite with him for the first time since Francine’s death. Maggie has graduated college and is trying to both support herself and eschew her inheritance; Ethan has quit his lucrative position and retreated almost entirely to his home; and Arthur’s career at Danforth College is stagnating. Maggie and Ethan’s choice to answer the invitation sets the three on roads that may serve either to reconnect or to drive each other apart.

Cleverly, the narrative spirals, showing significant, and in some cases formative, experiences of all the family members. This begins with the children, and moves into the parents’ early history together, while also continuing the story along in the novel’s present day. Each time the story comes back around to 2015, it brings a new understanding to the reader, fleshing out the roots of the conflict between family members and tying the past into the situations of the present. All three of the Alters are trapped, and only by facing their pasts will they be able to move forward.

This is a wonderful book for those who appreciate human insight, subtle humor and stories about the people who might just live next door. Ridker will read from the book at Prairie Lights on Wednesday, March 27 at 7 p.m. and will be signing at M and M Bookstore in Cedar Rapids next month. He spoke with Little Village about the novel recently.

Andrew Ridker’s ‘The Altruists,’ released March 5, 2019 on Viking.

Thank you for talking with me! I was extremely impressed reading The Altruists with both its writing and structure.

The structure — some people have pointed that out to me, and I’m really glad when they do because it was definitely very conscious. But if you do know how books are put together, it’s a compliment I’m very ready to take, so I’m glad you appreciated that part of it.

Can I ask what the inspiration for the book is?

I’d say primarily I was inspired by questions that were plaguing me after I graduated college — questions that concerned how to live an ethical life and how that intersects with money and career, and then, of course, family, and the secondary question of “Where do our values come from?” The book was an attempt to play out different scenarios to answer, “What it would mean to live a good life?” Those were the central originating questions for me.

That’s very interesting and shows in the work. I can see how tracing down those different aspects of the family members can be explorations of that. How long did it take you to write it?

The first full draft took about a year and a half, and then there was probably another six months editing and smoothing over. It probably totaled out to about two years of a regular, daily, couple-hours-a-day-before-the-workday-began tight routine. I was feeling a lot of pressure, being out of college, to get something done, to get something accomplished. I wanted to prove to parts of myself that I could do it, so it was frenetic work for about two years.

    Yes, I can appreciate that. As a first-time author, how difficult was it to sell your book?

I sent it out to agents at the beginning of the summer. That was an excruciating summer of waiting to hear back. A lot of it happens in email, so it was a long road waiting for the right person to pick it up. Then, when my agent did pick it up, things went pretty quickly from there. It’s a social industry in a lot of ways. Everything happens in a social setting, so it’s really important to be on a good social understanding with the people that are going to be working with you.

That makes good sense. What was your favorite part of the book to write?

I would say any chapter with Arthur was really fun. I found that writing the antagonist tends to be more fun than writing more virtuous characters, established there are no virtuous characters in this book. So whenever he was around, he took the story and ran with it, so I was keeping up with him more than the other way around whenever he was on the page.

Did you have a least favorite part to write?

Not a least favorite, but the hardest part to write was the beginning of the second half when the living members of the family are all in the same room for the same time. That moment where everybody was in the same room at the same time talking to each other — I realized it’s one thing to create an individual character portrait, and it’s quite another to have those characters, who each have their own agendas, interact and intersect. That felt like taking on a new level of complexity.

I can see that — you already started to weave the different strands together.

Yes, and whose point of view do you write from when they’re all together? And all those other questions. So that was probably the most difficult in a technical sense.

Do you have any other projects under your belt?

Technically, the first book I published was an anthology of poetry called Privacy Policy: The Anthology of Surveillance Poetics. It’s an anthology of contemporary poets writing about surveillance through different lenses. I wrote the introduction and assembled the poets, but it was primarily other people’s work. This novel is the first chance to write a book with my own stuff. Since I’ve come to Iowa, I’ve been working on a new novel that I suppose I’m hesitant to say much about. But it’s moving along, and I’ve been workshopping parts of it at the Workshop.

The Altruists was bought and sold just before I came to the Workshop, so once I got here, I devoted myself to working on something new. I don’t want to rehash or recycle this thing that’s already in the bag, so most of my workshop experience has been with this new novel. I’m very excited now that The Altruists is out, because all these friends I’ve made since coming here can get to read it. I’m excited to read from it at Prairie Lights because it’s not something they’ve seen from me in class.