How She Does It: Stephanie Clifford

Connecticut

I read Stephanie Clifford’s Everybody Rise without even realizing how many friends and connections we had in common (it turns out we went to the same high school).  The book is compulsively readable, fascinating, and entertaining.  Clifford makes salient and sometimes uncomfortably true points about the emphasis a specific part of today’s world places on money and heritage and amusingly, compellingly evokes a certain corner of society.

Many critics have called Everybody Rises heroin, Evelyn, a modern day Lily Barth, and the novel certainly reminded me of Wharton, updated for the social media generation.  Clifford’s book transports you to another world, makes me laugh, and makes you cringe all in space of a few pages.  I highly recommend it!

Stephanie Clifford herself has many balls in the air (more, ultimately, than Evelyn does!).  She’s a reporter at the New York Times, a successful novelist, and a mother.  I was so happy when she agreed to be this month’s How She Does It feature.  Without further ado – her answers.  And I urge you to buy and read Everybody Rise!

Thank you, Stephanie!!

*****

1. Tell me about the first hour of your day?  (I often describe mine as being “fired out of a cannon”)

It is, counterintuitively, one of the most peaceful parts of my day. When I was writing “Everybody Rise,” I’d get up at 6, make myself a decaf coffee, and go to my desk, where I’d write until 8. (It took five years of doing this!) I had my baby – he’s now 2, so not so much of a baby anymore – when I was close to having a draft of the book done. Happily, he’s a late sleeper, so I was able to keep up the 6-8 routine, working on new drafts, once he settled into a sleep pattern.

These days, he starts chatting to himself at about 7:40, and by 8, that becomes full-on yodeling. My husband and I tend to trade off – one of us gets him up and dressed while the other one showers, and the other gets him breakfast while the first one showers. Then I feed the cats, feed myself, and put my lunch together (there aren’t many healthy options near where I work, so I bring my own lunch). My son and I often have a little time to play before I have to leave for the day – he’s really into toy fruits and vegetables right now, so we’ll pretend to cut them or put them in a shopping bag.

2. Do you have a work uniform that you rely on for getting dressed?  What is it?

I hate pants. Can’t explain it, can’t defend it, but I tend toward a skirt and sweater in fall and winter, and a simple shift dress in spring and summer. I used to wear glorious shoes, but I hurt my foot a few years ago, and I have a standing desk, so now I’m resigned to really functional shoes: Frye boots (the hard soles help my foot), Dansko sandals, and – horror of horrors – clogs.

3. How do you and your spouse reserve conflicts about scheduling?

We talk the night before about who needs to do what the next morning – if I need to leave early, he’ll get the baby up and fed, and vice versa. I’m a reporter for the New York Times, and since I cover Brooklyn courts, I mostly work out of the courthouse. That’s closer to home than my husband’s job, so I am usually the one who’s home at 7 to take over from our babysitter. We do have a regular Saturday-night sitter, which has been fantastic – it means we get out together at least once a week, without having to scramble for a sitter last-minute. It was easier than I expected to get one – I looked on Sittercity, a babysitting website, for neighborhood sitters and was up-front with them that I’d like them to work most Saturday nights, and we’ve had great luck with that.

4. Do you second-guess yourself?  What do you do when that happens?

Oh, yes. Most of the time I summon my sister, who is wise and frank, especially about parenting. Her basic message is “Whatever you’re doing, you’re doing well. Don’t worry about it.”

 5. What time do you go to bed?

I try for 10:30. It doesn’t always happen.

6. Do you exercise?  If so, when?

Yes. Six days a week. It’s not for fitness, though that’s a nice side benefit, but for mental health. In a high-stress world, it’s one thing I can count on to calm me down. I usually fit it in when I get home from work, but if that’s not going to happen, I’ll get up even earlier than usual, or even slip to the gym during lunch if it’s a slow day at work. I came up with lots of exercise options – a gym near my work, a stroller that I can run with, a space in our house where I can work out while the baby plays, exercise DVDs (I’m currently into PiYo, and those are as short as 20 minutes) – so that however little time I have, and wherever I am, and whatever the baby’s up to, I can fit something in.

7. Do you cook dinner for your kids?  Do you have go-to dishes you can recommend?

I don’t right now – he eats at 5, before I’m home, so our terrific babysitter does this. On weekends, I’ll often make him something like an omelet with cheese and vegetables, to sneak in those vegetables before he realizes they’re in there.

My husband and I try to cook most nights for ourselves, and the baby often gets leftovers. I love to make things ahead: if I have a slow Sunday, I’ll sauté and freeze huge amounts of greens in small batches – spinach, collard greens, Swiss chard. That means on weeknights, we can have greens without any hassle. I do the same with tomato sauce, doing a huge vat of it at the end of summer and freezing it in small portions. I add pepper flakes for arrabiatta, or vodka, cream and parsley for vodka sauce, or put it on polenta with some sautéed mushrooms. And, whenever I’m making a stew, or Swedish meatballs, or pot roast, or anything that freezes well, I triple the recipe and freeze the extras. It means we can have dinner on the table within 15 minutes of arriving home.

8. Do you have any sense of how your children feel about your working?

He’s such a little guy that it’s hard to tell, but he cheerfully waves to me every morning when I head out – it’s not something that upsets him. He does get actively annoyed when I’m on my laptop or cell phone when I’m spending time with him, so I’m trying to stop that.

9. What is the single piece of advice you would give another working mother?

Go easy on yourself. There’s such pressure to do it all right now, and it’s ridiculous and way too hard on women.

And, inspired by Vanity Fair, a few quick glimpses into your life:

Favorite Artist? Piet Mondrian. There was a great exhibit a few years ago on his lifetime of work. Seeing how he started with realistic paintings of trees, and how that turned into his colorful blocks as he tried to simplify everything, was fascinating.

Favorite jeans? Current/Elliott white jeans.

Shampoo you use? Maple Holistics sage shampoo. Good for itchy scalp and doesn’t feel as aggressively chemical as some of the options out there.

Favorite book? Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth. Lily Bart was a big inspiration for Evelyn in Everybody Rise – someone on the fringes of a group who wants so badly to be at the center of it.

Favorite quote? T.S. Eliot: “For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” I found this in a pleasingly tiny red book called “The Mindful Writer,” by Dinty W. Moore. I read it nearly daily when I was writing Everybody Rise. He pulls quotations from authors and artists, then applies Buddhist thinking to those. I’m not Buddhist, but there’s a lot to learn from that spirit of mindfulness. The book, and this quote in particular, was especially helpful when I had bouts of writing anxiety.

Favorite musician? Stephen Sondheim. “Everybody Rise” is a line from one of his songs, “The Ladies Who Lunch.” His lyrics are so clever and sharp, and no one captures New Yorkers as well as he does – their wit, their yearning, their difficulty in connecting. Evelyn is dealing with all of that in “Everybody Rise,” and I listened to Sondheim on repeat while I was writing.

Favorite item (toy, clothing, or other) for your children? The BabyBjorn soft bib. It’s plastic and machine washable, and has a big pocket to catch spilled food. It’s genius.

 


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4 Comments

  1. Posted October 19, 2015 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    This series is so wonderful, a kind of comfort food, really. I love the quote.

  2. Jane
    Posted October 19, 2015 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    I love this series and loved Everybody Rise.

  3. Posted October 19, 2015 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Love this as I do all in this series. And the T.S. Eliot quote? I think I need it tattooed on my brain!

  4. Posted October 19, 2015 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    Love this. So much.