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Silicon Valley is less promised land, more black hole in new novel, 'Ripe'

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A new novel explores the darker sides of life in Silicon Valley and how one young woman, Cassie, is trying to make sense of her new career, as well as her growing sense of dread. That manifests as a constant companion, a looming black hole that grows or shrinks depending on the day.

SARAH ROSE ETTER: I know it's a bleak book, but you work really hard to at least make it as enjoyable to read as possible. And, you know, I try to pace it and break it up so that at least it reads like a really sad beach book.

SUMMERS: That's author Sarah Rose Etter describing her book "Ripe." I asked her if there's a world in which Cassie could have been happier if she had more faith in her career, herself or even God - anything.

ETTER: Yeah, I do think she's someone who's really lost. And, you know, she's obviously severely depressed and not, you know, getting help for that. And so I think belief in anything would probably have helped her a lot. But it's also hard because, you know, I feel the same way certain days when I wake up and I read all the headlines, and I find it hard to find faith. You know, I sort of - I was speaking to someone and they said this book is a panic attack. And I was like, you know, it does...

SUMMERS: Oh, my gosh.

ETTER: (Laughter) It does try to get to the feeling of us all being alone together, where we're looking at all this terrible news 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and we can feel this dread and there's not really any place to go with it.

SUMMERS: I mean, you know, you mention that you'd worked in Silicon Valley for a year. I've never worked there, but I worked for a tech blog and was dealing in that world for a while. And I really related to the atmosphere of pressure that Cassie talks about, the way that it changes your relationship to work, your relationship to yourself. Can you talk a little bit about that?

ETTER: Yeah, I think especially, at least up until my 30s, I really was one of those people who was working nonstop. But once I got to Silicon Valley, the pressure escalated so much. And, you know, I mention in the book her using drugs to keep up, and I did feel that way. I was kind of looking around at everyone who was - looking for any shortcut to be the best. It felt like being in the Olympics, but the Olympics was coding and staring at a laptop. So, yeah, I think all of us are maybe, right now, reexamining our relationship to work and labor. And I think we see that as we see more strikes happening. You know, I think we're asking a lot of questions about who it benefits for us to give everything we have of ourselves over to work.

SUMMERS: There are just so many familiar, in some ways, but also really fascinating details about this tech company that Cassie works at called Voyager. I mean, it's glowing blue. It's full of those people that Cassie refers to as believers. And there's this nameless CEO who is just CEO - never gets a name. And productivity there is prized down to the number of keystrokes that Cassie makes every day. And it seems like no matter how hard she works, no matter how much of herself she gives, she never can be enough. She can never do enough. Can you just tell us a little bit more about the culture of Voyager in this book?

ETTER: I think when you have a startup, especially at the stage of, like, 200, 500 people, you're wearing a million hats. It is inevitable that you're going to drop a ball because you're doing so many things. You're often at a company that doesn't even have HR yet. So there's a lot of unchecked behavior that can happen. You know, I used to call my father when I was working in Silicon Valley and tell him all the crazy things I was seeing. And he would be like, write it down. You're going to write a book about this one day (laughter). And here we are. So, yeah, I just - I kind of just kept my ears and my eyes open. And I did - when I was living there, I felt a huge sense of dread.

SUMMERS: Another unique element about this book is the fact that we meet Cassie, but Cassie is never alone. She is inextricably, it seems, linked to this black hole that has been with her since birth. Tell us about that.

ETTER: You know, I think I always want to have a surreal element in my book that leaves a place for the reader to meet me. And so, to me, for Cassie, the black hole is depression, right? And it's the part of us that we are constantly trying to get better about. And some days it recedes, and some days it gets bigger. And for me, it was grief. I - my father passed away right before we went into lockdown. And as I said, he had asked me to write this book. And so I found myself in this position where I was full of grief, and then I was alone. And all I could think to do was write the book that he asked me to write. And so I think the black hole, for me, was trying to understand grief and this idea of, like, where did my father go? And standing on the edge of - the end of the world and the end of what's on the other side - I really felt myself grappling with that. And so I sort of became obsessed with black holes, and, as a result, she had too as well.

SUMMERS: Can we talk a little bit about Cassie's relationship with her parents? And she has very different relationships with her mother and her father. So let's start with her mom.

ETTER: Yeah, I think the parents and their relationship really represent this kind of traditional lower-middle-class, you know, dynamic where the parents are maybe not the most financially literate. They're not making the best decisions with money. And that's something that just gets passed down to her. Her mother, I think, you know, loves her but doesn't really know how to love her in the same way that she wants to be loved. And I think even the same is sort of true for her father. Even though he's there and he's giving her all this advice, he also sort of is not letting her ever come home.

SUMMERS: You mention the fact that her dad never lets her come home. He's constantly telling her to leave, don't come back, there's nothing for you here. What is that about?

ETTER: You know, I was really thinking about - I grew up in a very kind of weird suburb, and it was very similar to the one in the book. We had the power plants next to my house, and so I kind of wanted to capture the idea of these towns in America where things start to fall apart and maybe the place where you, you know, bought a home isn't the way that it was when you purchased it, you know? And so I think, you know, she feels terrible when he says these things. But in his mind, there really is nothing left for her back there. And so even though it's harsh, I think there is some truth to the fact that he doesn't want her to come back, that if she goes back there, the odds are she's not going to be able to, you know, do better than them.

SUMMERS: So I never like to give anything away about an author's book. But in other books that I've read about or during peak COVID and those periods of lockdown and isolation, many of them - they seem to try to seek bright spots, but this story did not do that. How come?

ETTER: There was a version of this book where, you know, she girlbossed (ph) and she quit and she reported the company to The New York Times and, you know - but it felt very fake. It felt not true. And it also felt like it didn't solve the problem, right? Because even if she does report this company and kind of girlboss her way out of this, there's just going to be another startup that's going to take its place, right? And so, I don't know. I played around with a hopeful ending - and I think there is some hope in the ending, depending on how you want to read it - but I - it's hard for me to be alive at this point in time and offer a gesture of hope right now. And I feel like I have to let myself do that because I - listen, trust me, I know we all want happy endings. I have heard that from every major publisher in America. I know. But I also think the truth matters.

SUMMERS: Sarah Rose Etter, thanks so much.

ETTER: Oh, thank you for having me and thanks for your great questions. It was an honor.

SUMMERS: Her new book "Ripe" is out today.

(SOUNDBITE OF J COLE SONG, "FORBIDDEN FRUIT (FEAT. KENDRICK LAMAR)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Megan Lim
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.