One of our recommended books is Impersonation by Heidi Pitlor

IMPERSONATION


Allie Lang is a professional ghostwriter and a perpetually broke single mother to a young boy. Years of navigating her own and America’s cultural definitions of motherhood have left her a lapsed idealist. Lana Breban is a powerhouse lawyer, economist, and advocate for women’s rights with designs on elected office. She also has a son. Lana and her staff have decided she needs help softening her public image and that a memoir about her life as a mother will help.

When Allie lands the job as Lana’s ghostwriter, it seems as if things will finally go Allie’s way.

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Allie Lang is a professional ghostwriter and a perpetually broke single mother to a young boy. Years of navigating her own and America’s cultural definitions of motherhood have left her a lapsed idealist. Lana Breban is a powerhouse lawyer, economist, and advocate for women’s rights with designs on elected office. She also has a son. Lana and her staff have decided she needs help softening her public image and that a memoir about her life as a mother will help.

When Allie lands the job as Lana’s ghostwriter, it seems as if things will finally go Allie’s way. At last, she thinks, there will be enough money not just to pay her bills but to actually buy a house. After years of working as a ghostwriter for other celebrities, Allie believes she knows the drill: she has learned how to inhabit the lives of others and tell their stories better than they can.

But this time, everything becomes more complicated. Allie’s childcare arrangements unravel; she falls behind on her rent; her subject, Lana, is better at critiquing than actually providing material; and Allie’s boyfriend decides to go on a road trip toward self-discovery. But as a writer for hire, Allie has gotten too used to being accommodating. At what point will she speak up for all that she deserves?

A satirical, incisive snapshot of how so many of us now live, Impersonation tells a timely, insightful, and bitingly funny story of ambition, motherhood, and class.

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  • Algonquin Books
  • Hardcover
  • August 2020
  • 336 Pages
  • 9781616207915

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$26.95

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About Heidi Pitlor

Heidi Pitlor is the author of ImpersonationHeidi Pitlor is the author of the novels The Birthdays and The Daylight Marriage. She has been the series editor of The Best American Short Stories since 2007 and the editorial director of Plympton, a literary studio. Her writing has been published in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Huffington Post, Ploughshares, and the anthologies It Occurs to Me That I Am America: New Stories and Art and Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers. She lives outside Boston.

Praise

“Looking for a book that fires up the synapses? Check out Heidi Pitlor’s Impersonation . . . Pitlor’s voice is witty and brisk, bringing warmth and light to questions of identity, independence and, yes, intellectual property. Who owns your stories? How much are they worth? Allie Lang’s answers are complicated. Watching her reach them is like sitting down with a refreshingly honest friend who skips the part about how great her life is and dives right into the real stuff. We need more friends like this. Authors, too.” The New York Times Book Review

“Both the story and its resourceful heroine are fresh, intelligent, and charming.”Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“In a novel that’s smart, surprising, thought provoking . . . Pitlor offers an astute study of what it means to be a woman today.” Library Journal

“[A] searing and nuanced exploration of identity.”Booklist

“Pitlor’s smart and thought-provoking latest explores the complexities of feminism, privilege, and the telling of one’s life story . . . The sharply observed depictions of how lives are shaped by financial status ring all too true. Fans of Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion will want to take a look.”Publishers Weekly

“By turns revealing, hilarious, dishy, and razor-sharp, Impersonation lives in that rarest of sweet spots: the propulsive page-turner for people with high literary standards.” Rebecca Makkai, author of The Great Believers

Discussion Questions

1. How does Allie’s one-night stand with her agent, Colin, affect their future working relationship?

2. How much do you think a ghostwriter should augment or even invent for her client? Where is the line for you?

3. Did Allie reveal too much about her client, Lana, over dinner with her parents? Why or why not?

4. How present are traditional ideals of masculinity and femininity in our country? In what ways do they affect the characters’ lives in Impersonation? In what ways do they affect your life?

5. Throughout the novel, Allie struggles to read one book—To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. How does Allie’s life provide a counterpoint to the lives of Woolf’s characters?

6. Allie has an arrangement with her elderly neighbor, Bertie, for childcare. How do you feel about this arrangement? Is it wrong for Allie to ask Bertie to look after her son? Why or why not?

7. Is Allie’s neighbor Jessica a sympathetic or unsympathetic character? Why?

8. When Allie interviews Dr. Boyle for Lana’s book, he says, “I try to caution parents against assigning too much import to a baby’s gender in terms of it predetermining behavior.” How much does a baby’s gender determine, do you think? What is biological and what is learned?

9. Lana ultimately relies on Allie for much more than shaping her prose. On the other hand, Lana’s ultimate goal was to help women of all stripes. How did you end up feeling about Lana and her choices?

10. In the scene featuring Rescue Sitter, a mother is shamed for not being loud enough with her children. In what ways are mothers shamed by our culture? What about fathers and other parents?

11. Is Kurt a good partner for Allie? Why or why not?

12. Who or what is the real antagonist in this book? Why?

13. What kinds of incorrect assumptions have people made about you? Why do you think this happens? What are the consequences of this?

14. Have you ever made incorrect assumptions about other people? What were the consequences then?

15. How does your public self differ from your true self?

16. How important is authenticity in politicians? What is the most important factor for you when voting for someone?

Excerpt

I once saw a woman in a library pick up a biography of Mother Teresa.

A few seconds later, she returned it to its display, and next, she reached for a Kennedy nephew’s memoir. The title, The House that Uncle Jack Built, was printed in a faux handwritten scrawl above the nephew’s name, itself set in a bold Baskerville twice as large as the title. The book could have been called Why I Love Pants; it was the man’s last name that would move copies. After eyeing the front and the back, the woman tucked her hair behind one ear and read the first page.

I took the woman to be in her early forties, like me. Dressed in athletic pants, a Fendi T-shirt, and salmon-colored sneakers, she may have been just summering here in the Berkshires. I stayed less than a pace away and tried to catch a glimpse of her reaction to the moment that Peter Kennedy, as a child, stuck his hand into the eternal flame, “immediately searing three fingers. A cemetery official marched over, called me a ‘little brat,’ and ordered my whole party to leave, not knowing my relationship to the deceased.”

What ineffable quality made people want to keep reading any book after only a paragraph or two? At the time, I was reading a how-to book on teaching your baby to sleep. My goal was for my son—and me—to get more than three hours of rest without waking. I was also halfway through a book on the ins and outs of single parenting.

In my arms, my son chose that moment to eject his pacifier and shriek in a manner both rhythmic and alarming in its goat-like tenor. The woman glanced up, and what she saw was a short, bleary-eyed woman staring back at her, a woman with shoulder-length, unruly reddish-graying hair and an inconsolable baby dressed in a Red Sox T-shirt and a diaper. Cass had spit up on my jeans ten minutes earlier, and the left leg was still wet where I had rinsed it in the bathroom. The woman’s eyes went between me and my son while I tried to quiet him. I bobbed up and down, and made pressurized wave noises in his ear, but to no avail.

In order to give her some peace, I headed to the front lobby, at last reinserting my son’s pacifier once I found it lodged in the neck of my hoodie. With Cass settled, I turned to see a librarian checking out the Kennedy book for the woman. I was pleased, nearly triumphant. She headed toward the entrance, where we now stood, and a man bypassed her, making her stumble against us.

“Excuse me,” I said, although it was she who had bumped into my son. “I hope you like that book. I hear it’s good.”

“I don’t have my wallet on me.” She kept her eyes on my old flip-flops.

“What?”

“I can’t give you anything.”

“What? No.” I laughed a little, so taken aback that I could not think of what to say next.

She reached for her phone in her handbag and hurried out the door.

I stood there with Cass in my arms.

Had I not signed the nondisclosure agreement, I like to think that I would have asked her to please, in the future, try to avoid these snap judgments of people. Maybe I would have asked her to check her assumptions about class. I don’t know. At the very least, I would inform her that I was the one who had written the book in her hands.

What reason would she have to believe me, though? For all I knew, she was not what she appeared, either. She could have been a Kennedy herself—or maybe she once had a violent encounter with a panhandler. Maybe she even had some financial troubles of her own, although when I saw her sail past in a Mercedes SUV, I guessed not.

At the time, I had ghostwritten a handful of books for an assortment of minor celebrities, one billionaire oilman, relatives of the famous, and the once but no longer famous. Few of my clients were natural storytellers, but they were each dear to me in their own way. They had opened up to me, a few considerably so, and in turn, I had learned to omit any unflattering facts and highlight that which would benefit their personae. I kept in touch over the years with several of them. When Clyde Elliott, a former astronaut, passed away, I sent his widow irises, her favorite flower. She had written me a kind note: “You took an old man’s ramblings and turned them into music.” I replied with my own note. “Your words touched me deeply, as did my time with Clyde.” I didn’t tell her that, despite my best efforts to rebuff him, he had been a dogged flirt, or that he had complained to me about how, for the safety of other motorists, his wife should be prohibited from “driving while female.” My work to hide or recast the truth—something that had become second nature to me—often had to move beyond the printed page.

I should mention that what follows began not long ago, but before the #MeToo movement and the much-contested confirmation of Bret Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Before countless children were separated from their parents near the Mexican border and four congresswomen of color were told by the United States president to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” As always, much of the past looks different from the vantage point of the present or, more specifically, the first day of 2018, when I am writing these words. We lived in a different country, of course, even that recently. I mean this not as justification.

In January of 2016, my agent called me about a new book. I may as well have won a lottery; the money was multiple times what I had earned for any of my previous jobs. And Nick Felles would easily be my most well-known client. I hardly believed Colin at first.

“It’s true,” he said over the phone. He himself would take home 15 percent. “Now go buy yourself a spa weekend.”

I did not tell him that I had more pressing needs than a pedicure and a facial. It was approaching two years since my last book, a memoir for Connecticut congresswoman Betsy McGrath. What savings I had were fast disappearing. I had my side jobs landscaping and substitute teaching, work I did to fill in the gaps between ghostwriting jobs, but it had become tough to cover costs. My car had recently died. I woke each morning with thoughts of doom.

After we hung up, I went for Cass. “We can finally buy you a big-boy bed!” I held him tightly, as if to press all of my relief into his small body and soft face.

“Ok. That hurts. I have to pee,” he said.

We had just begun potty training, and I raced him to the bathroom.

 

A month or so later, I drove a beautiful preowned Toyota Tacoma with a double cab off the grounds of the car lot, Janis Joplin’s “Get It While You Can” blasting from the speakers. I had left a straitjacket of a corporate writing job in Manhattan a decade earlier in order to move back to my hometown in the Berkshires and become a freelancer. I worked in my kitchen; I made my own hours and rules. If I wanted to, I could wear an old T-shirt and pajama bottoms every day. I had never settled into a mediocre relationship. I had a sweet, lovable son all to myself. I was living life on my own terms, and as I came to a stop at a red light, I thought at long last, I was reaping the benefits.

I was the only person I knew who had never seen Skinwalker Ranch, Nick Felles’s TV series about shapeshifters, UFOs, cattle sacrifice, and a coven of bombshell witches. Before we spoke, though, I watched a season, and while it was more violent than my usual fare, Ranch, as Nick called it, did hook me with its cliffhangers, its seamless meshing of the ancient with the futuristic, its attractive cast that was frequently shown nude.

“How did you come up with the idea for the show?” I had asked him on our first phone call.

“I’ve always been into the supernatural,” he said. I began to record our conversation, as I had told him I would. “I inhaled Tolkien as a kid. And I’m fascinated with primitive violence, I mean, what raw force really looks like, domination and justice between two people, you know? Are you a real warrior if you just push a button or tell someone else to drop a bomb? So I thought, ‘Get rid of the guns and the bombs and the drones,’ and on my show, I’d just have pure human power. Mano a mano. It was important to me to braid this violence with a lot of fucking.” I was about to interject “Why is that?” but he quickly continued: “Can I be real? What’s more objectively beautiful than two bodies doing it? Hello, why do you think the great artists painted so many nudes? Picasso said that sexuality and art were the basically same thing. He’s one of my muses.” Nick paused again briefly, as if to allow me to ask, “Who are the others?” but then he went on. “Picasso and Tolkien, and Bukowski and Kerouac. Oh, and women. Can a whole gender be a muse? Why not, right? But, you know, I’m no sheep. If you asked me which actress I would do from any time in history? I’d say, Hell no to someone current like Dakota Fanning or Kristen Stewart, I mean before she switched teams. Give me Linda Harrison back when she played Nova in Planet of the Apes. Give me Mia Farrow from Rosemary’s Baby.” He cleared his throat.

I tried to clear mine and think of how to suggest he consider ways to shroud his id. It might have been more effective to joke with him in a pointed manner, but he hardly sounded like a person who would laugh about himself.

“I guess I just wanted to get at the dotted line between sex and violence, you know, love and hate. I had this idea of a story that put man against woman against animal against self against the occult in a hot pandemonium. In my earliest visions of Ranch, Ancient Rome met this kind of futuristic frontier territory. I could see it all in my head before I met with the suits at the studio. The rest, as they say, is history.”

I thought of Cass, and the fact that human beings required food and shelter. The money from this book would give us one very good year—even more if I was careful. If nothing else, I reasoned, Nick spoke as if I were already his friend, and his openness would only make writing the book easier.

No one could claim that Nick Felles suffered from a dearth of audacity or good luck. He had gotten into TV soon after his video game franchise, Honor Code, had exploded onto the marketplace, outselling even some Grand Theft Auto games. With the hope that I might see a different or at least more nuanced side of my new client, I tried playing Honor Code on a friend’s son’s PlayStation, but I couldn’t even pass level one. Within seconds, a woman soldier in a black bikini appeared, the words sexy cherry572 floating above her head, and ripped off both my arms and exploded my head like a ripe melon against my opponent’s fortress wall. She then stomped all over my brain matter.

“Your parents let you play this game?” I asked Connor, who was eleven. “How are you able to win?”

“Maybe you just need to practice more or be, like, younger,” he said.

By the time Nick was twenty-seven, he had won three Video Game Awards, three Emmys, two Hugos, and had bought himself a modern five-bedroom in Malibu with an infinity pool and views that stretched from the Santa Barbara Islands to Point Dume. How many other people, he said, could claim to have done any of these things before the age of thirty?

He sent the thinnest of drafts for me to fill out, and on the page, he came across as even more shameless than he had over the phone. I got to work and tried to make him more likeable wherever I could. I gave him a larger appreciation of his vast fortune. I played up his relationship with his mother and dialed down his many public escapades with a South American model. I opted not to include the monologue that he had delivered to me about the ideal nipple size.

Essay

The Path to Impersonation

The year that I switched from full-time book editor to the more part-time work of editing the Best American Short Stories series was the same year I published my first novel and had twins. Unsurprisingly, it was a chaotic year. And things began to get pretty tight for us. Twin diapers and twin day care do not come cheap. We lived outside Boston, not the most affordable area of the country, but we wanted to stay put because my father, who was single (my mother passed away when I was young), had some concerning health issues. I found myself shuttling between a fabulous work lunch at the Four Seasons with some well-known writer (thank you, days-of-yore expense account) and a dinner of Kraft mac and cheese—alongside bottles for the babies. I would pray that the twins would sleep at the same time for more than an hour at night. Maybe, just maybe I would finally get some rest and be able to fake the wherewithal to seem awake and alert, even semi-intelligent and literary the next day, so that I could continue to earn a living. When a more financially comfortable friend would mention an upcoming eco-conscious vacation or their locally made toys, I grew frankly jealous. I would have given my left hand for a trip to Costa Rica or a room full of beautiful hand-carved playthings for my kids. I began to wonder if living according to certain ideals was possible only for the economically privileged.

 

The narrator of Impersonation, Allie Lang, and I have a few things in common. We are both moms of sons. Neither of us excels at housework, though we genuinely admire those who do. We both work in publishing, and with far higher-profile people. We’ve both had some financial struggles. We are both mystified by the lasting power of toxic masculinity. Allie is a ghostwriter. I have done a small amount of ghostwriting, and in a sense, my work as series editor of The Best American Short Stories is a kind of “ghost editing.”

Each year, I read every American short story published in a literary journal, select the top 120, pass these along to my guest editor, and help them choose the top 20 that will appear in the book. The process varies widely depending on the guest editor’s personality and availability. While I try not to do my initial reading with them in mind, I am always conscious of their taste throughout our collaboration. So the role of invisible or less visible participant in the workplace has been interesting to me for years.

I set out to write a book that was a little satirical, and I did have some fun at the expense of the publishing industry, as well as the American political landscapeand the world of parenting experts. Although the story and characters are all fictional, some of the emotional terrain is not. I wanted to write about a worker bee, a woman who wants to live by feminist ideals but, due to various circumstances, cannot always do so.

In the novel, Allie is thrilled when she meets her new client, Lana Breban, a renowned women’s rights lawyer. Ghostwriting for Lana means no longer working for the morally dubious—something Allie has done more often than she would have liked to in the past. Both Allie and Lana share the belief that women should have equal access to all that men do. Lana proves to be more Machiavellian than she seems initially, though, and the two become foils for each other in ways that neither could have predicted. Allie must eventually learn to assert herself in various aspects of her life: social, romantic, economic. Lana learns a few things too, but no spoilers here.