Susan Rieger’s debut novel The Divorce Papers was a long time coming. It was inspired in part by Rieger’s own divorce, two decades ago. But before that, as a young law professor, Rieger made up law cases for her students and discovered that she loved the exercise. It is years before that, Rieger says, when The Divorce Papers truly started. When she was a teenager, her parents had a coffee table book of Vanity Fair stories from the 1920s and ‘30s. “One of the features I loved best was written by a man named Curr,” Rieger explains. “He would do a story or a novel completely in [bank] checks—through all the checks you got this wonderful sense of who this person was. He also did one with telegrams.”
The stories, and their unique structures, entranced Rieger: “I just thought they were so clever and funny, and that that kind of oblique storytelling could be very interesting. You come into everything on an angle.”
Then came the law classroom exercise, which Rieger also found herself delighting in. “I made up what they call a docket for the students to argue—I even remember to this day what the case was,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is a lot of fun.’ My friends who had to do it with me complained about it, and I realized, ‘Well I’m on a different wavelength.’ ”
Years later, when Rieger divorced, she found herself lost, despite her training. “Even though I’m a lawyer and competent and pay the bills and the mortgage, there’s suddenly this sense of panic,” Rieger says. “I thought, ‘Am I going to end up a bag lady?’ I didn’t think that was probably going to happen, but it floats around your head always.”
Since remarried, Rieger was inspired by her experiences in both love and work to tell the story of a young lawyer, Sophie Diehl, wading her way through a moneyed New England divorce—and her own complex career and love lives. The story is told in a unique way: through the divorce’s relevant papers, including memos, transcripts, emails, newspaper articles and more. The modern epistolary is smart and sophisticated, and Rieger never loses sight of the storytelling that lights the novel’s core.
Usually, it is an author’s struggle to write with authority on a complicated subject like law. Rieger’s struggle involved not bogging the novel down with everything she does know about divorce law. Many of the edits, she says, necessitated throwing out entire briefs, memos and other legal documents.
She admits that avoiding too much legalese was a challenge: “I’ve got a very powerful didactic streak. It’s nice to think that reading the book, you might actually find out what it feels like or what you need to do in a divorce, but I also had to make it entertaining.”
To help with the novel, Reiger enlisted her own daughter, Maggie Pouncey, the author of 2010’s Perfect Reader. Pouncey was Rieger’s earliest reader, and her most frequent. “She’s a great reader,” Rieger says. “After I had what I thought was a good enough draft, we went to a little Italian restaurant and sat for three hours and she told me what she thought.” Some of Pouncey’s ideas led to critical changes in the draft, like shifting what was originally just a memo about an intake interview, and therefore summary, to a transcript, bringing it to life on the page.
In the process of writing the novel, Rieger committed to the form completely, much as she had done years earlier in drawing up a mock case for her law students: “I made up letterhead, I made up the newspaper stuff, to suggest what I wanted the book to look like,” Rieger says. “I thought the look of the book was really important—I think of it as a graphic epistolary novel.”
Rieger found herself deeply fond of her protagonist, and says she is currently at work on another book with a similar structure, also about Sophie. “I know her so well,” she says. “I want to know what happens to her, so I think I’ll bring her back.”
The epistolary form is a comfort for Rieger. “I’ve said that I don’t know if I could write a real novel,” Rieger says with a laugh. “A lovely young novelist told me ‘But this is a real novel,’ and I said, ‘Yes, but I don’t have to get anybody in or out of a car, I don’t describe what a building looks like and in fact it’s very hard to give anybody a sense of what Sophie looks like or what Mia looks like without it being obvious.’ So what you get in an epistolary novel is voice, and the voice has to do a lot of work for everything else.”
Jaime Netzer is a fiction writer and content editor living in Austin, Texas. Her stories have been published in Parcel and Twelve Stories and are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review and the anthology Human Parts.