Move over, chick lit. Make way for “clerk lit”!
Over the past few years, we’ve seen a number of novels focused on the clerkship, a professional rite of passage for many a prestige-obsessed young lawyer. In these books, plucky law-clerk protagonists have tried to do justice while also holding on to their jobs (and their sanity, and even their lives).
One of the first was The Tenth Justice (1998), a thriller by Brad Meltzer that went on to become a bestseller. More recent examples of “clerk lit” include The Law Clerk (2007), by Scott Douglas Gerber, and Chambermaid (2007), by Saira Rao. (Rao’s buzz-generating book, which generated controversy because it was seen as based heavily on her clerkship for the notoriously difficult Judge Dolores Sloviter (3d Cir.), was discussed extensively in Above the Law’s pages.)
Today we bring you news of a new novel featuring a law clerk protagonist: Tropical Depression, by Arin Greenwood. It tells the story of Nina Barker, a neurotic young lawyer toiling away at a large New York law firm, who decides — after losing her job and her boyfriend — to leave it all behind, by accepting a clerkship with the chief justice of a faraway tropical island.
Let’s learn more about Tropical Depression and its author, Arin Greenwood — who, like her protagonist, graduated from a top law school and worked at a leading law firm, before accepting a clerkship on a remote Pacific island….
If Arin Greenwood’s name sounds familiar to some of you, it should. She is no stranger to ATL’s pages. She writes for magazines and newspapers, and we’ve discussed some of her prior pieces here (on doing document review) and here (on a scam that ensnared a number of attorneys).
Since I am generally not a fan of the phone, I interviewed Greenwood over Gchat. Here is the (lightly edited) transcript of our conversation:
LAT: Congratulations on the book, Arin! As a former clerk myself, I really enjoyed reading it.
GREENWOOD: Thank you!
LAT: So let’s start where we often start when interviewing lawyer-writers. Can you tell us a bit about your career path?
GREENWOOD: Sure – mine’s not the straightest path.
LAT: Those are the most interesting kind! (The non-straight paths, that is.)
GREENWOOD: I lived in the UK and a couple of other places after college doing odd jobs, like waitressing and working as a housekeeper for the former Princess of Luxembourg’s parents in Munich. Then miraculously I got into Columbia Law School, and kept thinking I’d drop out to write a book.
But three years passed, and next thing I knew, I found myself with a job at a firm in New York.
LAT: Did you go straight to the firm from CLS?
GREENWOOD: I did. I was a summer associate, then came on as a litigation associate. I have no complaints about the firm – there were really good people there, the work was interesting. My roommate at the time and I both worked there, so that was fun, too.
LAT: Which firm (if you’d be okay revealing)?
GREENWOOD: Sure – Dechert.
LAT: Oh cool. In New York, right?
GREENWOOD: Yeah, 30 Rock. The SNL elevators were near ours.
LAT: Oh neat! Any celeb sightings?
GREENWOOD: Gwyneth Paltrow is the one I remember. For some reason I remember that she was wearing nice jeans.
LAT: I am not surprised! She’s a stylish lady.
Okay, sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt – so you’re at Dechert, billing away…..
GREENWOOD: Ha – yes. Not billing enough, though.
So even though Dechert was a very nice place to be, I was restless, and was looking for a job overseas. I knew a woman in law school who’d gotten a clerkship in American Samoa, so I had it in my head that you could find a job on a tropical island and still work as a lawyer (which was good, given the crippling loans I came out law school with). Eventually, I found a job at the Supreme Court of the Northern Mariana Islands, working for the Chief Justice.
LAT: So you left Dechert for the clerkship then?
GREENWOOD: I did – in February 2002. I was laid off but had one of the situations where I could stay for a while, until I found a new job.
LAT: And where is SCOTNMI – on Saipan? (I don’t know if they have a SCOTUS-like acronym.)
GREENWOOD: It is indeed – in a building right across from a gorgeous beach. They don’t have a SCOTUS-like acronym but they should really get one.
LAT: How long was the clerkship?
GREENWOOD: The clerkship was originally for one year – I didn’t know at the time that clerks often stay on longer, and I ended up staying a little over two years at the Supreme Court there.
After that I moved over to their local Attorney General’s Office (AGO), where I got to do by far my favorite law-related job: I got to help start a refugee protection program for the NMI, and be an administrative judge for it. I really loved that.
LAT: So you were a judge, how many years out of law school? That’s pretty awesome.
GREENWOOD: Five years out, I think? Four?
LAT: That’s great…. And how long were you at the AGO? Was that your last post before you returned to the mainland?
GREENWOOD: I was there for two years. After two years I decided to strike out and freelance full time while I worked on my book.
LAT: And you were still living in Saipan?
GREENWOOD: Yes – I was there another year and some. About 5.5 years altogether.
LAT: Cool. So I guess that leads to my next question – why did you decide to write the book?
GREENWOOD: A combination of things – one was really just to see if I could do it. I’d wanted to be a writer for a long time, and even though I’d been doing article writing for a few years, I hadn’t written a book, and wasn’t sure if I could.
But I’m not sure I really have a good answer for why! Now that I think about it. I mean, yeah – why?
GREENWOOD: Ego? I finally had enough to write about?
LAT: Ah, that leads to my next query quite well. There are some similarities between you and the protagonist, Nina Barker. Like Nina, you’re a Columbia law grad, who worked at a big firm, who moved to a Pacific island – Saipan in your case, and “Miramar” in hers. So: how much of the book is based on your own experiences?
GREENWOOD: That is a good question. There were earlier drafts of this book that were much more autobiographical. A lot of the autobiographical stuff had to be cut and changed in order to give the book a “plot.”
LAT: Did you think at some point about writing it as a memoir?
GREENWOOD: Luckily, my life isn’t interesting enough to be a memoir! I wanted to be able to make things up.
LAT: HA! You’re too modest. But fair enough – making stuff up is part of the fun of fiction. So it seems then that maybe the basic premise might have come from your own life, but with a lot of changes after that?
GREENWOOD: Yes, definitely. Well put! There are details in common – and I don’t think many people who know me read the book and think, “Where did she think up THAT?” But the stuff that happens, the particular characters – even the island itself. Made up.
LAT: At first when I got it, I wondered to myself, “Is Miramar real, and am I just a geographical ignoramus?” It’s a very realistically drawn portrait.
GREENWOOD: You know, that would be a good blog name. Geographical Ignoramus. Then you could just write about interesting places, some that are made up
LAT: Totally – that would be fun!
So can you tell me a bit more about the process of writing the book – how long did it take you, for example?
GREENWOOD: Oh, goodness – a long time. I’m very slow.
LAT: Many lawyers out there dream of writing books, but balancing it with day jobs is tough….
GREENWOOD: I had a really completely reasonable set of jobs while I was working on it and I still found it tough. I’d say altogether it took about five years to write. One year that I spent really focusing on it. The year I left the AGO.
LAT: Oh yes, you did mention that. Apologies if this is too snoopy, but you were able to make it all work financially during your 5.5 years on Saipan? Because lots of associates dream of fleeing their firms for the tropics — we wrote about a guy who left Skadden for Nepal (not the tropics, but similar concept) –
LAT: But people wonder, “How will I feed myself? Or pay my loans?”
Yup, Nepal – his wife is there on a fellowship with an NGO, and he went there to hang with her.
GREENWOOD: Fantastic. So, no problem with the snoopiness…. The clerkship’s pay wasn’t fantastic – I think it was $40k, plus another $500 (I think?) a month for housing allowance. I just paid my loans out of that – it wasn’t a big deal. They were about $1000 a month at the time.
The AGO was better – I think by the time I left I was getting $60k per year plus a housing allowance. I was also making about $10k per year writing magazine articles. So that helped a lot, obviously!
But I managed to squander all the $, anyway, going traveling all the time.
LAT: I’m guessing the cost of living there was decent?
GREENWOOD: The cost of living is higher in some ways and lower in others.
LAT: Ah, so it’s like Hawaii maybe? The island thing does raise some prices.
GREENWOOD: The guy I was living with there and I shared a fantastic house in the jungle, overlooking the lagoon, for $1200 per month (I think that’s what it was). Food could be more expensive since it was largely imported.
LAT: Okay, so housing seems cheap, and food expensive.
GREENWOOD: But not preposterously expensive. Some things are more expensive, but there are a lot of poor people living out there, and they have to eat, too. There is cheap food available.
LAT: Well, there’s that great scene in the book involving the super-fresh mangoes….
GREENWOOD: Thanks! I am so glad you liked the book.
LAT: How did people react when you told them of your plan to move to Saipan, btw?
GREENWOOD: Oh, my plan! Some people were like, “Oh, Arin. Really?” But I don’t think too many people were surprised.
LAT: And I guess you had done some interesting eclectic things before law school, too.
GREENWOOD: I think people who know me were more surprised when I got a job at a firm in New York than when I ran off to the tropics.
LAT: HA! Nice.
So, back to the book – did you finish the manuscript while you were still there? Tell us a bit about the path to publication.
GREENWOOD: I did. I’d finished a draft a couple of years earlier, and was looking for an agent. There was one agent who liked the drafts but kept telling me they needed work. So I started writing new drafts and sending them to her, and then right before I left Saipan she said she thought the book was ready. She signed me then and started sending it out.
That was in 2007, I think?
LAT: That you got your agent and she started submitting?
LAT: Yes, that’s right! That was a great piece.
GREENWOOD: Anyway, the book didn’t sell. It broke my heart. I’d had this crazy idea that I would write the book, it would sell, I would go to India for two years and write another book, and that would be it, I’d be a novelist from now on.
(I also imagined that I’d do one or two long-form stories for magazines per year and write some travel pieces, too. You know, I was being very realistic.)
LAT: HA – hey, dream big!
GREENWOOD: Oh, I dreamed huge – but I was crushed when it didn’t work out.
After about 13 rejections, my agent came back to me and said she thought that I should write another book, then after that one sold we could go back and sell this one. But, honestly, I was too heartbroken at the time to think about it. I was completely broke, and was heartbroken about the book not selling.
LAT: Oh wow. Were you still in Saipan at the time or in D.C.?
GREENWOOD: D.C. But I had no real reason to be here. I just didn’t know where else to go at the time – my brother was moving here with his then-fiancee (now wife), I had some other family here, a couple of friends. But no professional purpose – and no money at all.
LAT: What led you to come back to the mainland from tropical paradise?
GREENWOOD: It was just time. I’d been out there 5.5 years, and I thought if I didn’t come back soon I never would. I’m close with my family and wanted to be able to see them more. That was a big thing. I was also just ready for a change – I missed cities.
We used to go to Manila for the weekend and I’d be enthralled with all the filth and chaos – that’s how much I missed cities!
LAT: Oh yes! My father’s family is from there – filth and chaos is right.
GREENWOOD: But it’s a thrilling place, don’t you think?
LAT: Oh yes, definitely.
Sorry, I diverted you – this was after book didn’t sell initially – you’re back in D.C.
GREENWOOD: OK, so back in D.C., the book’s not selling, and I’m like, “Jeez, this means I have to get a job? What fresh hell is this?” So I did some temping, picked up some freelance brief-writing work, started teaching LSAT classes. For a while I had a job working on the Hill, too. I got a terrific gig writing policy papers for a free market think tank (and through that I met the man I’m marrying in a couple of months).
LAT: Oh wow – that’s awesome, mazel tov!
GREENWOOD: Oh, thanks! Yeah, he’s great. He is completely patient with me, too. It’s amazing.
LAT: And you were still doing magazine and newspaper pieces too, it seems? E.g., City Paper?
GREENWOOD: Yes, still writing. Anyway, my fiance was encouraging me to look for a new agent, or try to find a publisher on my own. He felt like the novel was unfinished business.
LAT: Interesting. What year was this btw?
GREENWOOD: And I kept putting him off, saying that I’d driven myself crazy with it once – for years – and just couldn’t put myself through it again. This was last year. My agent at some point during all this stopped even being an agent. So there was really no hope.
Then one day on Facebook of all places a guy I know from Saipan put up something about another guy we knew from Saipan becoming a publisher, and looking for a first book to publish.
LAT: Oh, interesting!
GREENWOOD: So I emailed him and said, “Hey, I’ve got this manuscript that’s just sitting around, you’re welcome to take a look at it.” Yeah, and he decided that he wanted to publish it as his first book. And that was sort of that!
LAT: Wow, that’s awesome – what a great story!
GREENWOOD: Oh, thanks!
LAT: And also nice for all the anti-Facebook people to see.
GREENWOOD: Ha – def. Suck it, anti-Facebookers.
LAT: Agreed! (I feel the anti-Facebook stance has become itself clichéd.)
So when was the book accepted and when did it come out? It seems it all came together very quickly.
GREENWOOD: The book was accepted sometime in the fall – September or October 2010, I think? The print version of it came out in January 2011. It was incredibly fast. Whirlwind.
LAT: Wow, that’s great. So have you had to do promotion?
GREENWOOD: As much as possible! The publisher is new to this, and it’s my first book, so we are still trying to figure out how to do promotion.
LAT: Interesting! How have you been getting the word out?
GREENWOOD: A lot of word of mouth.
LAT: That’s the best kind of promotion, they say.
GREENWOOD: Trying to connect with bloggers and writers who seem like they might enjoy the book. We’ve been doing some of that, too. It’s been really fun, actually – that part of it has been a lot of fun.
LAT: Awesome – glad to hear! So I guess one last question (I have to run along soon and I should let you go too): What’s next for you? Or for Nina? Maybe a sequel? (Okay I guess that’s three questions.)
GREENWOOD: Ha! I am working on a new book now. It’s called Sandwich: A Love Story.
LAT: Intriguing title! Fiction also? Related to Tropical Depression in any way?
GREENWOOD: It takes place in D.C. – it’s about a young-looking woman in her mid-thirties who decides she screwed up 25-35 the first time around, and decides to redo them. Not related to Tropical Depression.
LAT: Oh, neat! Sounds like a great read.
LAT: How far along are you on it?
GREENWOOD: Maybe 40 pages? It’s still early going.
LAT: Oh one other question, sorry – what is your writing process? When do you write (in between all your other commitments)?
GREENWOOD: That is an excellent question. When I am very busy with other things I don’t get much writing done. But when I’m not super busy then I try to write first thing in the morning – just make myself sit there till I get a certain amount written. Usually once I get into the routine I really enjoy it, but it’s easy to get out of the routine. Like, erm, now.
Are you working on a book? You must have a hundred book ideas!
LAT: Oh, lots of ideas, but not enough time to act on them! That’s why I’m always curious about writerly routines.
Okay – I should probably run along, need to publish the next post – but thanks for taking the time to chat!
GREENWOOD: Great – well, thanks so much David!
LAT: And congrats again on the book!
GREENWOOD: Thank you!
Disclosure: Lat received a reviewer’s copy of Tropical Depression.