NEW YORK — HBO hit series “Silicon Valley” has brought the tech world’s nerdy characters, bloated budgets and underhanded workings into public view. New novel “Startup,” a witty and cleverly-conceived satire, offers a different slice of the industry.
This debut book by Doree Shafrir is no California bro ballad. The Boston-born, LA-based, Jewish journalist works as a senior writer for Buzzfeed news and has spent over a decade working in online media.
Shafrir’s story is set in New York City’s new media universe, pivoting between the offices of a tech blog and a wellness app located in the same building.
Sabrina, a 36 year old Asian-American mother, recently returned to work after taking years off to raise young kids and is faced with the realities of the new social media-heavy workplace, where she feels — and is — old.
Katya, a hungry twenty-something reporter, who works for Sabrina’s increasingly estranged husband, is eager to prove her journalistic chops at all costs.
Mack, the founder of the wellness startup faced with endless funding stresses, is romantically (or is it just sexually?) involved with his employee Isabel, who is also Sabrina’s boss. The stories all overlap and interact, revealing different sides of each other in an intimate tale that ends in scandal.
It’s a compelling study of the sexual politics of the tech milieu and the ways in which boundaries, privacy and intimacy are constantly being negotiated in an always-online environment. At the heart of the plot is a workplace sexual harassment story — a case that hinges on the dynamic of sexual relationships molded by social media and the ubiquitous smartphone.
Shafrir’s characters are complicated, each one guilty of something. What Shafrir really points out is that at even in the exciting, youthful startup world — set in hip New York, filled with educated and fresh innovators, founded on the open democracy of the internet — the same old problems around tokenism and power crop up. The Times of Israel delved a little deeper with Shafrir just as her book was launched to warm reception in the US.
Why did you choose to set the book in New York, and specifically in the Flatiron district?
I spent nine years working in and writing about startups in NYC so I felt connected to that ecosystem. There were no books out there about New York’s startup world, or how it fits into the city’s larger network. NYC has a legacy of powerful industry — Wall Street, publishing, fashion — and tech began to elbow its way in; I thought it was interesting to look at how it did that.
During the first tech bubble, the startups were established in the Flatiron district (and later in Dumbo and Williamsburg). In Flatiron, office space was cheaper, and the old commercial buildings had big, open spaces available, which is what these young companies needed. The area was dubbed Silicon Alley.
I’m not sure if any of the characters in your book are Jewish — just New Yorkers. Do you see yourself in any way telling a Jewish story?
Historically, Jewish writers were expected to write a Jewish New York Story. But this wasn’t the story I was telling. I didn’t want to just throw in a random Jewish character.
You present a strong difference between the 20- and 30-something characters in your story. I once heard the theory that Gen X-ers separate their identity from what they choose to share online, while Millennials’ most basic sense of self is tied in with their online experience. Would you agree?
People in their 20s have grown up in social media. People who are older often don’t understand that 20-somethings don’t see a difference between their online lives and their IRL [in real life] lives. “Online is IRL,” they’ve told me over and over. I wanted to examine what that means when you’re interacting with other people. How do these people behave in the workplace? I wanted to explore what happens when these boundaries become blurred.
Sabrina, a protagonist and Asian-American mother of two, is 36, and has been out of the workforce for five years raising her young children. With a background in fiction writing, she’d been working in print magazines before having kids, but now, she maintains the Twitter account for the wellness app. When she returns to the workplace, the entire space is different. In those few years, a period that saw the rise of social media, the workplace totally changed.
Ultimately, though, we all experience the same emotions, regardless of age or apps. We’re all human beings. It was important for me to not be condescending or seem that I was judging a younger generation. I was just exploring it.
Do you think there’s ever been such a gap of experience between two generations?
I don’t know. Perhaps when the telephone was invented!
You certainly present the downsides of the tech world, and to some degree, men. Is there a utopian female version of this milieu that isn’t exploitative or grounded in power imbalance?
I didn’t intend to present a dystopian tech world, certainly not as grim as the one described in “The Circle” which felt extreme and was terrifyingly prescient. I wanted to present a tech world that is problematic, without being pessimistic. Technology is good! Tech on the whole has improved lives, and made us more connected. But, it also has many problems, in particular, a lack of diversity — in gender and race.
‘Young white men can’t just get a gold star for hiring a black woman’
This new, fresh industry is supposed to be changing the world, but it feels like old corporate America. And these problems are not going to solve themselves. Young white single men are going to have to put in effort. They can’t just get a gold star for hiring a black woman. The work culture makes it difficult for non-young white single men to succeed and so those white men need to make people of color managers and decision-makers. People of color and women need to be able to see that they can succeed and grow at that company and in their careers.
I enjoyed how you portrayed characters from multiple points of view. Your plotting must have been so meticulously planned. Did you do research for this book, to help with characters or setting?
I did do some reporting, in particular, in order to get at the essence of Mack [one of the main characters and the founder of the story’s central wellness app] as this was one area where I needed guidance. I talked to company founders and venture capitalists, hearing about their background experiences. I wanted to see how they saw the world. I hope I presented a rounded view of Mack’s character. I didn’t want the gender issues to come off as black and white, but complex, problematic.