I’m super thrilled to have Cara Kagan, author of The Rise, Fall, and Return of Sarah Mandelbaum, a contemporary women’s fiction, as my guest today at The Writing Jungle. Welcome, Cara.
At what point in your life did you realize the writing bug had grabbed ahold of you? And which writers influenced you?
I have dyslexia, so I had a terrible time learning to read and do math in elementary school. So, I started writing my own stories in my horrible chicken scratch. One of my stories got published in a children’s magazine when I was ten, so I thought, “OK. Here’s something I can do.” But up until now, I’ve only done magazine and commercial writing. The first book I managed to read as a child was A Wrinkle in Time, so that will always be near and dear to my heart. I mostly read the classic British, American, French, and Russian writers. But I also enjoy a lot of contemporary writing, and for my writing, I am influenced by Elizabeth Strout, Gish Jen, Lilly King, Taylor Jenkins Reid, and Kate Atkinson.
Besides writing, what else do you enjoy doing?
Going to concerts—mostly rock and new wave. Playing guitar and singing—mostly to my cats but during the pandemic, one of my cats and I sat outside while I played and sang, and people walking their dogs would stop and sing with us. I also like to hike and walk on the beach, preferably with my husband, and see theater and ballet.
What types of films and music do you enjoy?
I am definitely one of the biggest Beatles and George Harrison fans, even though I guess tons of people say that. I also love Led Zep, The Allman Brothers, and Aerosmith. On the flip side, I’ve been known to groove to old-school hip hop, like Run DMC, Funk, and Disco. In terms of new music, I am crazy about Lizzo, Wet Leg, Celeste, and Courtney Barnett.
I love all the Audrey Hepburn films, especially Sabrina, Roman Holiday, and Breakfast at Tiffany. And Some Like It Hot was genius. My husband and I can never resist watching A Few Good Men and Forrest Gump if they are on TV. Almost Famous is probably my favorite movie ever.
Do you have a specific writing ritual (like listening to music) and/or schedule you stick with?
No. Not at all. But I spend just as much time thinking about what I will write about and jotting down notes in a small brown leather notebook as I spend writing. The only times I typically sit down at my computer to write is when I’m so excited about what I’ve been taking notes on that I can’t go another second without solidifying them into actual writing or when I feel disgusted with myself that I haven’t formally written in a few days and know it’s time to get moving.
What inspired you to write The Rise, Fall, and Return of Sarah Mandelbaum?
It’s very loosely based on my experiences as a mostly hippie/rocker girl in the world of high-fashion magazines. While it was often confusing and agonizing, once I left the industry, I could also see how funny it was for someone like me to try and succeed in that world.
From all the characters you’ve written, which one is your favorite and why?
Since I’ve only completed one novel, I’d say that Esme Levine of the Rise, Fall, and Return of Sarah Mandelbaum is my favorite character. She is a true combination of a few of my closest friends over the years whom I’d admired for their energy, bravery, confidence, honesty, and humor. But Esme also has some of my bolder personality traits that I wished I called on more. Still, she is distinctly her own person and told me exactly how she wanted to be written.
Do you allow your characters to dictate their paths or do you plot out everything?
It’s funny; I started plotting everything that would happen to Sarah, Penny, and Esme, but a few chapters in, they all started doing exactly what they wanted. For example, in the beginning, I created Sarah as a 20-something version of me. But soon enough, she took on a life of her own. Her independence from me was further cemented when a woman in one of my writing classes completely disagreed when I said that Sarah was a version of me. “There’s no way Sarah is you,” she said, as emphatically as I’ve heard anyone say anything. “She is way cooler than you are.”
Does research play a big part in your writing schedule?
Yes. Absolutely. I feel like a third of my time and energy is directed toward research.
Are there any other works in progress that you’d like to hint about?
I am currently working on A Glass of Oil about a mother, daughter, and grandmother struggling with their relationships with each other and their phases of life. It is only through cooking their traditional family recipes together and their involvement with the workers and residents of an assisted living facility that they heal their relationships and move forward together into a more positive future.
If your favorite author (past or present) invited you for dinner to discuss writing, who would that be, and what one question would you ask him/her?
Gosh, that’s a tricky question. But I think that Mikhail Bulgakov would be a riveting dinner companion. I’m dying to know how he came up with The Master and Margarita. By the way, I had dinner with Dominick Dunne once, and he was one of the most fascinating people I’d ever met. Recently, I had the honor and pleasure of meeting Gish Jen; she is remarkable. So smart, funny, warm, and interesting.
What wise words of wisdom would you give up-and-coming new writers?
Don’t Give Up. You only need one person to believe in you—in addition to yourself. Thank you, Lea!
No, thank you, Cara, for giving me the opportunity not only to interview you, but also the pleasure of reading your novel. Absolutely fell in love with your characters, Sarah’s situations, and going back in time to relive that era. A must read!
Here’s a peek at the back cover blurb:
After a soul-crushing stint at music school, Sarah Mandelbaum thinks her star is finally on the rise when she’s recruited by the fabulous Fiona Campbell for a top spot at high-fashion Sophistiquée magazine.
But almost as soon as she slips into her first pair of stilettos, Sarah realizes that between the plotting and scheming of the industry’s Fashion Flamingos and outrageous demands from Sophistiquée’s creative director Henri-François Bernard, her fall is imminent. Caught between the need to pay off her staggering student loans and the struggle to regain her self-confidence, Sarah seems completely stuck between that proverbial rock and a hard place.
But with the help of a tattooed guitar teacher, a statuesque Southern pastry chef, 90-lb financial analyst with anger management issues, and a rockstar muse, she discovers the true path to her return. The question is: Will she take it?
To purchase the novel, link here.