In The Unfortunates, debut novelist Sophie McManus explores New York’s obsession wIth ambition, wealth, and power.
“New York has always felt like a place where everyone you meet is ambitious,” says Sophie McManus, shown here in her Brooklyn studio.
When Sophie McManus was a high school student on the Upper East Side, she and a friend would occasionally leave school during lunch and sit at the bar at Elaine’s, a longtime literary mecca. “We’d watch the interesting people and writers,” trying to go unnoticed among the celebrities and notables, she says.
If Elaine’s were still open today, McManus might feel like less of an outsider: Her first novel, The Unfortunates—published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, an august house whose authors have included many Nobel Prize winners—debuts in June. But a career in writing seemed likely; her father, Jason McManus, is the former editor-in-chief of Time, Inc. magazines. “I’ve always felt that I was a writer because of my dad’s work,” she says. “The house I grew up in was one where connecting to stories about other people—understanding places and histories far from one’s own—was of vital importance. That’s the empathic core of journalism and also of fiction writing.”
McManus thinks herself too slow for journalism. “My dad has a phrase for writers like me—bleeders.” It took 10 years to finish The Unfortunates, sidetracked as she was by paying jobs and the birth of her daughter, who is now 2. She did a good deal of writing as a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center artists’ colony in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she met her husband, Jason Mones, a visual artist.
Provincetown also served as inspiration for the fictional seaside suburb of Stockport, where the book’s main characters live. But New York City is prominent, too. “It’s a book about misguided ambition and the scrambling of ambition, and New York has always felt to me like a place where everyone you meet is ambitious.”
The novel—about the unraveling of an heiress, her troubled son, and his outsider wife—covers topics like love, death, paranoia, pride, prejudice, and the corrupting power of wealth. “As long as I can remember I’ve been obsessed with that invisible wall between those who have and those who don’t, and just how harmful elitism is. Some of that comes from growing up in the wealthy version of New York,” she says. McManus, now 37, lives in Brooklyn, but was raised on the Upper West Side. She attended The Nightingale-Bamford School, graduated from Vassar College, and earned a master’s degree at Sarah Lawrence College.
“Three or four years into writing, it dawned on me that all three characters were cautionary tales—people I didn’t want to become, but could become,” she says, referencing the elder character, Cece, who is portrayed as harsh and controlling with her money, and her son George, who is entitled and lacks direction—traits he shares with his wife.
While plans for her next novel are mostly in the form of “messy notes and scribblings,” McManus expects to explore technology as a theme. “There’s this real evaporation of the self that’s happening through technology, and that’s where my brain is these days,” she says.
Hopefully the next book will take less time, but it won’t be less deliberate. In her writing, she says, she borrows a rule from the world of interior design. “If an object is neither beautiful nor useful, get it out of the house. Sentences should be one or the other,” she says, “and the best ones are both.”