Meet Bettina Grosjean, a professor of Women’s History, and her husband, a high-ranking environmental policymaker in the New York City mayor’s office. Once a pair of student radicals, they are now raising their two brainy children on New York’s Upper West Side.
Here is the tale of their fierce parental love as it is tested in a startling eruption of racial hostility and political chicanery within the very community they have long loved and helped to build. Despite the deep love and affection they have for each other, their domestic life is suddenly thrown into crisis by a shocking and tragic event: During a school field trip, their son Max and his best friend, Cyrus, are horsing around when, in a freak accident, Cyrus falls down a flight of stairs, and dies a few days later.
The fact that Cyrus is black, that his mother is Bettina’s closest friend–that jealousy, suspicion and resentment have long been simmering in the community, and that there are powerful political forces at work as well–all conspire to reveal an ugly underbelly of the community the Grosjeans have worked so hard to fashion into a model of an enlightened, multiracial world.
Upper West Side Story is also the story of a remarkable multi-racial friendship, of two women united by their ideals and their devotion to their children, then divided by events that spiral out of control.
With cries for racial justice rising up all around our country, we must stop and consider how recent headlines are impacting our children, kids raised to believe in an America that is different from the one now showing its face.
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It is my pleasure to welcome Susan Pashman, Author of Upper West Side Story, to Room With Books.
When did you first start writing, Susan?
I began this book in 1999, before nine-eleven and, significantly, before Obama became the first black president. I was out of the country on election night and, having cast my vote for him before I left, I was watching tensely as the results came in. In that glorious moment when he and his family stepped out on the platform in Chicago to accept the victory, I was deliriously happy as so many others were. But lurking in the back of my mind was a terrible worry that the book I had almost finished—in its first draft—would become irrelevant because I thought this would be the beginning of a new post-racial society. Of course, it’s terribly sad that that did not happen. But it places my book at the center of the national conversation right now.
Did your background in law help with the research for your story?
There’s a lot of legal knowledge that went into the twists and turns of this book, but most of that are common enough knowledge. What really surprised me was how much I learned from an internship I did while I was in law school. I interned at the New York City Council President’s office. There, I picked up—by osmosis, I think—so much about the tone of New York’s City Hall, the mayor, the city politics. And, as you know, that figured quite a lot in the plot of this story.
To what extent does this book reflect your years as a philosophy professor?
I have taught philosophy for so long and in so many contexts that a philosophical viewpoint has got to be part of my DNA by now. The fact that unanswerable questions intrigue me and never let go of me is probably evident in this book. But on a more concrete level, it was not so much the subject I taught but the academic atmosphere that I have come to know so well that worked its way into the book. The main character, the other, is a professor of women’s studies and women’s history and the academic politics of the school she teaches at figure in the story and in her marriage.
This book took fourteen years from start to finish. What happened along the way?
In chronological order? I designed and built a house. I planted the landscape for the house. I decided to study landscape design and enrolled in a five-year program at Harvard so I spent a lot of time learning to draw designs and name trees and shrubs in Latin. Then I decided to write a Master’s thesis at a design school in London because I had contracted Lyme disease trying to do landscaping on Long Island and opted for writing about landscape instead. Once that essay was finished, I realized that I was really doing philosophy, which is not surprising, so I applied to SUNY Stony Brook to be admitted as an advanced doctoral student based on work I had done forty years earlier at Columbia and, to my amazement, they took me in. So I spent another year writing a doctoral dissertation. Now during this same period of time, I met and married a second husband after thirty years of being a single mother. That took a lot of adjustment. In between times I was writing and re-writing, sending the book out and getting criticism that I put to use in the next re-write. So, I hope that explains the fourteen years it took to put this book before the public.
Susan Pashman is a philosophy professor and former attorney. While in law school, she served a year in the New York City Council President’s office; some of what she learned there has found its way into this story. But most of this book derives from her experience of raising two boys on her own in Brooklyn. Many of her sons’ childhood exploits, and the hopes and fears she had for them, became the heart of this novel.
She now resides in Sag Harbor, New York, with her husband, Jack Weinstein.
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Win one of 15 copies of Upper West Side Story (Print for USA & Canada – ebook for international) One winner will also get a $25 Amazon Gift Card.
Ends June 18, 2015.