Olivia Goldsmith has a guilty pleasure. It doesn’t involve hanging out on Hollywood movie sets schmoozing with such stars as Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton and Bette Midler, though she has done her fair share of exactly that.
What it does involve is the down-and-dirty pursuit of sitting in coffee shops and people-watching. It’s all a part of the benefits she’s reaping from the blood, sweat and (she assures) tears that went into writing her hugely successful first novel, “The First Wives Club.”
“My guiltiest pleasure is watching people at rush hour cram on buses and go to work,” she admits. “Everyone looks so unhappy.” For an author who identifies with, and ultimately rewards, the disenfranchised characters of her novels, pleasure is hardly the word one expects Goldsmith to use. “That’s why it’s guilty!” she nearly shouts from her curled-up position on a cushion-laden sofa in a comfy apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. For some of the characters in her most recent novel, “The Bestseller,” a 9-to-5 job would be a godsend. The story centers on five writers, some vying for spots on best-seller lists, others striving for mere recognition. All constantly teeter on the edge of failure. It’s a frustrating situation with which Goldsmith identifies.
She quit her day job at age 33 to begin writing, and got 27 rejection letters for her first effort. In “The Bestseller,” a character has the same experience and commits suicide.
“This book is essentially a spoof of publishing,” she says. Whenever someone writes a literary memoir, writers and publishers jump straight to the index to see if they’re mentioned, Goldsmith says. She included an index in the novel, saying it was “just a joke.”
The author of “Fashionably Late” and “Flavor of the Month,” Goldsmith, 42, sees her writing mission as one that illuminates the plight of women. “I wrote ‘First Wives Club’ in true indignation,” she says of the book about middle-aged wives whose husbands cast them off for so-called “trophy” types — young, pretty women. “It’s not right. You choose a woman who bears your young and then you discard her for a younger, taller, thinner, blonder model.”
For the record, Goldsmith is none of the above, but with her smooth Florida tan (she makes her primary residence there), highlighted brown hair and self-assured demeanor, she is hardly dowdy. Nevertheless, she considers one of her creative “totems” a Medusa pin she owns. The daughter of a civil servant and a schoolteacher, Goldsmith was born in the Bronx, grew up briefly in Manhattan and then spent her adolescence in “exile,” as she says, in New Jersey.
She was an education major at New York University, but she never had any intention of teaching. Instead, she entered the lucrative if vague world of management consulting, until she got so bored she began to write. Though her marriage ended bitterly several years ago, Goldsmith is quick to emphasize her “belief in relationships.” But she doesn’t like “the way society structures the man-woman dynamic.”
She is now in a long-term relationship with a man eight years her junior. She is also childless, but not by choice, having suffered two miscarriages. Women are under more pressure in more aspects of life than men, she continues. “We are expected to have jobs now. We are expected to raise the family. We’re responsible for the home, and we have to have thin thighs. Nobody can do it.”
Still, Goldsmith says women in powerful positions were why “First Wives Club” was published and made into a movie, though it didn’t happen in that order. “This world definitely needs more female leadership,” she insists, and for clarification snaps, “But not (like) Maggie Thatcher, who’s a guy in a skirt.”
Despite the seeming stridency of these remarks, Goldsmith has a remarkably agreeable disposition. She is quick to smile or offer to make up for having arrived late from Vermont, where she lives part of the year. “I’ll buy you dinner,” she insists repeatedly. And if she’s tough on the Thatchers of the world, she also casts a cold eye on her own foibles, even her limits as a writer.
“I know the difference between great art and solid craftsmanship. I do solid craftsmanship. I wish I were Tolstoy, but I’m not,” she shrugs. “Anyway, he’s dead.”