Polymath: Betsy Carter

Photo: Samantha Schweitzer/Algonquin Books

Betsy Carter has stayed steady through a writerly obstacle course, as a journalist (at Newsweek, then Esquire), then a founding editor (of the smart, sassy New York Woman), then a memoirist (Nothing to Fall Back On), and now a novelist, with The Orange Blossom Special. Adam Sternbergh spoke with her about the relationship between optimism and loss and her two-book fascination with burning houses.

Was it a difficult transition from memoir to novel?
No, it was heaven. I wrote the memoir, and there are certain people I still expect to jump out of the bushes and kill me. People who think, That’s not how I remember it! This way, no one’s going to hold me accountable for anything. And to all my friends: None of you are in it.

But there are certain thematic links between your last book and this one—
You think?

For example, the way tragedy can be a force for bringing people together.
Yes, I suppose that’s true. And I realize there’s another house fire. I couldn’t help myself.

You’ve got a motif now.
No, no more fires. That’s it.

You’ve described yourself as a perpetual optimist, yet you write often about loss.
I think it’s not so much about loss, it’s about how you deal with loss.

And escape—in your memoir, you dream of becoming a journalist in New York, and in the novel the characters move to Florida in search of a better life.
I moved to Florida when I was young—at that time, it was such a mysterious place, especially to a kid with a kid’s imagination. All these mangrove roots looked like gnarly fingers. What New York does with people, Florida does with nature. All the strange characters you see in New York? You see them in Florida as plants or weird animals or insects. It seemed to me a place that people went to hide.

Do you think you’ll write another memoir?
I told everything in the first one, so I honestly hope I’ll never have enough material. Can you imagine? That would be terrible.

The Orange Blossom Special
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill; $23.95

Polymath: Betsy Carter