Bookforum talks with Andrew Ridker

The Altruists: A Novel BY Andrew Ridker. Viking. Hardcover, 320 pages. $26.
Andrew Ridker. Photo: George Baier IV

Andrew Ridker’s debut novel, The Altruists, opens with a house on fire. It’s a scene full of energy, urgency, and dark comedy. The rest of the novel uncovers the tensions hidden in this opening, telling the story of the Alter family after the death of Francine, the matriarch. Francine leaves behind her husband, cynical and narcissistic Arthur; her daughter Maggie, who wants desperately to do good in the world; and her son, the reclusive and anxious Ethan. Early in the book, we learn that Francine cut Arthur out of her will. Strapped for cash, Arthur cooks up a plan to siphon some of Maggie and Ethan’s inheritance. Set in locations as disparate as Boston and Zimbabwe, The Altruists raises questions about inheritance, community, and generational tensions.

I caught up with Ridker in late February to chat about money in fiction, writing hard-to-love characters, and the intersection between realism and the absurd.

The Altruists is book about inheritance, in many senses of the word, especially the financial one. What interested you in writing about money?

I feel like every writer has a preferred taboo. One might write about death obsessively, another might write about sex or politics. For this book, it’s money. It’s something that we all know it’s not polite to talk about, and yet it’s a defining force in all our interactions. A lot of relationships—including familial ones—have a transactional side to them that is uncomfortable to acknowledge. The way that parents and children relate shifts not the moment the child leaves home, or graduates college, or has their bar mitzvah. The moment the child becomes financially stable, if they become financially stable, is when the dynamic significantly changes. That’s when you can break away from your parents. And those were the years during which I wrote this. I think that’s no accident. I was obsessed during that time with money, social status, and upward mobility.

What other definitions of inheritance interest you?

The other kind that interests me is values. When do children take on their own values? How do you navigate the gap between your values and your parents’?

There’s a section in the novel where Maggie says she’s defined herself in opposition to her father. But even that is an acknowledgement of his influence, because she’s molding herself in such stark opposition that in fact he’s just as influential on her as he would’ve been had she followed everything he believed.

It’s a book that’s set in a lot of places: St. Louis, New York, Boston, Zimbabwe. How do your characters relate to place?

When I started, I don’t think I would’ve said that place was important. But I realize now that I’m incapable of setting my stories somewhere that, if I haven’t lived there, then at least I’ve done a great deal of research on, or have some personal connection to. I think it’s something that probably happens a lot with first novels, which is drawing on anything and everything available. You are formed by the places you’ve been, and then those places in the book start talking to each other.

Characters do a lot of talking in the novel. What do you aim for when writing dialogue?

With dialogue you’re leaving your characters on a limb. All they have are their own words, which probably shouldn’t be as eloquent as your third-person author language. I’ve been learning to treat dialogue no differently than exposition, in that it should be strange and unexpected.

I did have a moment of panic when the family finally gets together and they sit down for a meal, because I’d gone to the trouble to create these individuals, and once they were in a room together, I had no idea what they were going to say to each other. In that dinner, and a lot of the rest of the book, there’s always subtext. Each of the three characters has a stated motive for being there and an ulterior motive for being there, which means anything that anyone says has to work on one or both of those levels. How honest can they be with each other? And when they’re not being honest, what are they talking about?

It’s a Jewish family—and the majority of the characters in the novel are Jews. Would you call this a Jewish novel?

Like many secular Jews, I have a complicated relationship to Judaism, which can be summed-up as: Being Jewish has had a major role in shaping who I am, but at the same time, I sort of resent being put in a box or a group designation of any kind. I think a lot of writers have an independent streak, and a desire to be outside looking in. With that in mind—all the characters are Jewish. There’s a Jewish wedding. There’s a Shabbat dinner. There’s a bar mitzvah. In one sense, it’s about as Jewish as you can get. And yet it’s not about “Jewishness.” In a way it mirrors my own relationship to it. It’s there, it’s informing everything, but it is not the number one subject.

One of the comforting things about group belonging is that you have a script to follow. The characters in this book relate to their Jewishness sort of the way I do, which is looking at the script and following it at times, and observing it with puzzlement at other times. I grew up with family that would say things like “Jews do this, or Jews do that” which is a fascinating idea to me. On the one hand, of course that’s not true: you can do whatever you want. On the other hand, there’s often a grain of truth in whatever these big sweeping rules are.

There are some characters in the book that could be labeled “unlikeable.” How do you feel about that designation?

To me, they’re all lovable characters. I think it’s rare for an author to create loathsome people for the sake of beating up on them, especially if you’re going to write a novel and live with these people for years. Nothing happens in this book that hasn’t happened in real life. I’m interested in the dark sides, or even just the petty sides, of human behavior. I’m interested in people doing shitty things, but also in looking at those things with a shrug, a wink, and an understanding that we’re all part of this ridiculous human comedy.

When you meet the characters in this book, they’re at their lowest. I hope that in excavating their backstories, a reader comes to a place of sympathy. I’m a firm believer in reaching a point of sincerity and sympathy after fighting through something else to get there.

Ariel Katz is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and is at work on a novel.