Karen Quinn

Q&A

The Ivy Chronicles is about a woman who loses her big corporate job and then reinvents herself into a school admissions advisor helping rich Manhattanites get their kids into private school. Isn’t that what happened to you?

Yes, I left a big corporate job at American Express and then started a business helping NYC families get their children into nursery, public and private schools. In the book, my main character has to sell her apartment and take her children out of private school because she couldn’t afford these things after starting her own business. That did happen to me. My main character finds her husband in a compromising position and kicks him out of the house. That did not happen to me. At least not yet.

So the story is autobiographical?

In spirit, there’s a lot of truth to the book, but the details have all been changed to protect the innocent. Beyond being an inside look at the preposterous New York City kindergarten admissions scene, The Ivy Chronicles is the story of how a woman who loses much of what matters to her manages to pick herself up, wipe herself off, and create a new, more meaningful life. After losing my job and generous salary at American Express, I was at loose ends as to what to do next. By starting a small business, my family could no longer afford to pay all our bills. Selling our apartment, taking our daughter out of private school, canceling vacations and after-school lessons were just some of the sacrifices made to support my choice to start a business. Like Ivy’s kids, my children complained and begged me to get a “real” job. In the end, I was able to draw on all these experiences to write this book and ultimately create a new life for myself as an author. Ivy goes through a similar kind of transformation in The Ivy Chronicles.

What kind of person hires someone to help them get their child into private school? That seems awfully extreme.

In New York City, finding a school for your child can be so complicated and stressful that it isn’t unusual for the most sensible, down-to-earth families to hire a consultant for help. Most of the families we worked with were interesting, wonderful people who cared about their kids and were confused about the process. A small percentage of the people we worked with were demanding, unrealistic and difficult. You probably find that hard to believe.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced advising clients on private school admissions?

One of the toughest challenges was dealing with parents who had unrealistic expectations. Perhaps the child didn’t score so well on her ERB, perhaps the family had mannerisms that didn’t play well at the most elite schools. Still, the top schools were all they wanted because they’d heard they were the best.

Helping parents through the emotional rollercoaster ride that this process creates was a challenge. We saw CEOs reduced to tears over kindergarten admissions. Families had shouting matches over which school to choose. I was once with a client who got so worked up talking about her frustration with the process that I thought he might attack me. We were meeting in my house and I nonchalantly stepped into the kitchen to hide the knives. Emotions ran high and we found ourselves advising families on issues that went way beyond school admissions. Luckily, I’m an extraordinarily sensitive person (everyone says that, not just me) so counseling came naturally.

The characters in your book go to shocking lengths to get their children into school. In real life, did your clients go that far?

The clients we dealt with would never have dreamed of doing what the characters in my book did to get their kids into school. They were all so ethical and I just couldn’t convince them…no, never mind.

What are some of the most outrageous things you saw parents do to get their children accepted into private school?

How many hours do you have? Of course, there’s Jack Grubman, the stock analyst who allegedly changed his position on a stock after his boss made a million dollar donation to the 92nd Street Y to get Grubman’s twins admitted to that school. There was a woman who applied to thirty-five schools and didn’t get her child into one. There was a woman who paid an actor to pretend to be her husband in all her parent interviews because she thought her daughter would have a better chance if she weren’t a single mom. None of these people were our clients.

Some of my favorite stories happened to my business partner a few years ago when she was applying to kindergarten for her youngest son along with our clients. Once, after prepping a family for an interview at a very posh school that interviews two sets of parents at a time, she showed up for her visit only to find herself being interviewed along side our clients. Since the school was so conservative, my partner had insisted that the client’s husband wear a suit to the meeting. Her own husband, who was no fan of this school, showed up late (unforgivable!) and in a running suit. Another time, my partner’s son refused to go to an interview unless he was dressed in costume and carrying live birds in a cage. To avoid a meltdown, my partner gave in, only to find several of our clients at the same group interview, their children in suits and party dresses as per our instructions.

We did see some pretty extreme things happen in our practice. At one workshop, a particularly obnoxious parent almost provoked a fistfight. There were shouting matches between mothers and fathers at some of our meetings. There were tears, and not from the children, I might add.

Are some of the stories in your book true?

When I was with Smart City Kids, we worked with hundreds of families. My client characters are composites of the many people we worked with, with lots and lots of imagination thrown in. The specific facts and stories I tell are mostly made up. But almost every story in the book is inspired by something real that happened. For example, one story in the book was inspired by an actor client. He had been in a movie about the mob. So, I started thinking, what if we really had a “wise-guy” client? Out of that, Omar “The Butcher” Kutcher was born.

A few stories are true. For example, Ivy finds herself in the taxi of a cabbie who saves all his money and sends it to a school for girls he started in India. I met this cab driver myself in almost the exact way Ivy meets him.

There’s a story where Maria Kutcher wants to eat a pooped-on, filthy piece of lettuce from a rabbit’s cage right before her interview. Her dad says “no” at first, and she looks like she’s about to lose it. So he lets the girl eat the lettuce. That actually happened to the Director of the 92nd Street Y with her own child when they interviewed years ago. She told the story to my partner and me.

Also, there’s an incident about Ivy’s daughter taking care of the class guinea pig for Christmas and then killing it by playing with him too hard. That’s a true story. My daughter killed Star, the class guinea pig, over the Thanksgiving holidays in 1995. Apparently, this is a serious problem that happens to school pets around the country every year so I want to mention it to spread awareness.

Another child in the book has a cat that fell out her apartment window and died. That happened to our cat too. It was my fault for leaving a window slightly ajar (who knew that a cat could push open a window?). It was traumatic for all of us. I’m still reeling over the fact that my children called me a “cat murderer.”

Is it true that most of the one-liners spoken by the children in this book came out of your son’s mouth?

Yes, between the ages of four and five, my son said such funny things that I wrote down our conversations. I actually developed a comic strip called “Sam” dramatizing his funny take on the world. The comics are posted on this site. When I had to write dialogue for my children in The Ivy Chronicles, I went back to the Sam comic strip and drew from there. Sam is negotiating for a commission for every line of his that made it into the book.

Have you heard from any of your ex-clients? How do they feel about your having written this tell-all book?

Their responses have been extremely positive. Many of them called to congratulate me and I can’t tell you how many attended my readings. It is such a tough experience that most of them are delighted to see the system lampooned. I was very careful not to use real stories in order to protect everyone’s privacy. And none of my characters are based on specific clients.

The Ivy Chronicles explores themes of ethics and prejudice. Would you describe the book as a beach read or a book with a message?

First and foremost, the book is a gossipy, juicy beach book. But I did explore themes that were very real to the experience I had working in this business. For example, when you are struggling in a small company, you are often faced with ethical dilemmas forcing you to choose between what you know is right and what is most expedient or most likely to bring success. How do you make that choice? If schools and other parents aren’t playing by the rules, is it okay for you to break them? I also touched on themes of prejudice and racism, which came into play way too often for comfort. You can enjoy The Ivy Chronicles as pure entertainment. Or you can ignore all the humor and sex in the story and use it as a springboard for some deeper discussions.

Are the private schools in the book based on real schools? Have you heard from any of them? How do they feel about the book?

I did have particular schools in mind when I wrote about them in the book but I’ll never tell which was which. I haven’t heard from any admissions directors or schools yet. But when I do, I’ll let you know.

In the book, you say that people with money and connections have a huge advantage when it comes to getting their children into private school; and that if you’re a normal white upper-middle-class lawyer or banker, you’re screwed. Do you believe that?

We saw this played out time and time again. And it wasn’t just because one had money and connections that they got their kids into the most selective schools. It was because people with money and connections tended to be more like everyone else in these communities so the fit was better.

The book intimates that private schools sponsoring diversity programs aren’t sincere in those efforts. Why would you say that?

I believe some schools are absolutely sincere in their efforts to be more inclusive and some schools only pay lip service to the idea. We worked with a number of diverse families in our practice. The ones who did best tended to be educated, sophisticated, professional families who were culturally similar to the white majority families that were already in the school. The more different a candidate was, the less likely he or she was to get in. And isn’t that what diversity means – different? Schools would always say they welcomed children who were physically disabled, but we found it was practically impossible to get a child in a wheelchair into most of the private schools.

One of the fun parts of the book was seeing how the super wealthy live. Were your clients typically that rich?

Some were and some weren’t. I had one client who would send a stretch limo for me each time I went to see her. And we were invited into some pretty amazing apartments and townhouses. The interesting thing was, we also worked with some middle class and poor families who could barely afford to hire us but did because they wanted their children to have every educational advantage possible.

Did your clients’ attitudes about the importance of getting their kids into private school change after September 11th?

I’ll never forget that on the day of September 11th, we received calls all day from parents who were looking for help with school admissions. I lived downtown and could see the smoke pouring out from ground zero right outside my window. I would ask people why they were calling on that day and several of them said that they had been sent home from work. They thought it would be a good time to get a head start on their applications. That tells you how out of control some people are over this issue. We had scheduled a workshop on getting into private school for September 12th. We thought we should cancel, but decided not to because we couldn’t reach everyone. We didn’t think anyone would actually show up, but when we arrived, everyone was there. I believe that at first, most people put school admissions into a healthier perspective after September 11th. But eventually things went back to the way they always were.

Your story takes place in New York City. Do parents in other cities go to such extremes to get their children into private school?

People from other big cities have said that it’s just as crazy in their part of the country. I’ve heard the same thing from readers in the U.K.

Are your children in private school?

My son goes to private school. My daughter used to be in public school, but I just moved her into a private school.

Would you consider this book Chic Lit?

There are so many varieties of “lits” these days. There’s chic lit, gossip lit, mommy lit, urban lit. I suppose this is a cross between gossip lit and mommy lit. There’s a similarity to gossip lit books like The Nanny Diaries, The Devil Wears Prada, The Right Address, and Bergdorf Blonds. In these stories, the authors share an inside peek at a world which most of us never get to see. The Ivy Chronicles provides a look at the absurd, but oddly fascinating world of New York City private school admissions and some of the unusual characters that inhabit this surreal universe.

Chic lit tends to celebrate younger women trying to find their way through life and love. My character, Ivy, is older, she has two kids, a job, a pending divorce, stretch marks and plastic surgery fantasies. I’d compare her struggles to those of the Kate Reddy in the mommy lit book, I Know How She Does It.

You went from being a lawyer to a marketing person to an educational consultant to a writer. Do you have any advice for people who want to make major career changes as you did?

I believe that you know instinctively when it’s time to say goodbye to a particular job or career. The hard part is mustering the courage to proactively make the change. My advice is (with a few exceptions) never to let lack of training stop you from going into a new field. I didn’t know how to be a schools admissions advisor, but like the character in my book, I did the research, figured it out and opened my doors for business. I had never written anything other than my family’s annual Christmas letter before I wrote The Ivy Chronicles. After I sold it, I began studying books on writing. You can teach yourself to do almost anything.

When you started your business, did you do so with the intention of writing this book?

No. I had hoped that Smart City Kids could be a business I’d work in for many years. But I had a partner and we found that the company could support one person well, but not two. One of us needed to leave. I always said that if I ever stopped doing admissions consulting, I’d have to write about it because the world of admissions was so interestingly strange. The funny thing is, some of the real situations we found ourselves in were more outrageous than the stories I made up in the book. In some of my earlier drafts, I’d base an incident on something that actually took place and my editor would suggest that I lose it because it wasn’t believable.

How long did it take you to write this book? How did you manage to get an agent and a publisher?

I wrote the first draft in about three months working all day five days a week. When I told my babysitter that I was writing a book, she offered to introduce me to an agent she used to know in a job she had years ago. I jumped at the offer. Bev picked up the phone and called this woman whom she hadn’t spoken to in ten years. The agent agreed to look at my book strictly as a favor to Bev but warned me that she wasn’t taking new clients. I was grateful to have a professional read it and offer guidance, any guidance at all. It turned out that she loved it and agreed to take me on as a client. She sent the manuscripts out to seven editors and four ended up bidding on it. It was like a dream come true.