08/09/12 - 0 Comments
Gritty NYC: A Q&A with “Who Town” Author Susan Kirschbaum
We’ve always loved reading about the lives of the rich and famous. But, let’s be honest, we’re a bit tired of the novels that paint the celebrity starlets as existing in dream worlds where everything’s idyllic. Susan Kirschbaum’s debut novella Who Town takes a beautifully gritty look at what it means to be a celebrity in New York, and we love it.
Spoiler alert: this is not another fluff piece about women who move to the city to live the life of a character from Gossip Girl or Sex in the City. Though her work has been compared to Less than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis and The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant, Kirschbaum’s writing is entirely unique. Her unidealized prose paints it like it is in a style that is all her own and very true to today. If you’re looking for a novel for our generation in this city, this is it.
To get an in-depth look at what it took to write her first book, we sat down with Kirschbaum for some coffee and a conversation.
How did you become a writer?
I always wrote. When I was a child, I was a big reader. There were always books in the house, my parents always read to me, I was part of the vacation reading club. So, I think when you love books, it’s a natural expression.
I think I became a journalist initially because I was afraid to be myself. I came to New York and New York is overwhelming when you’re young. I was out of school. I had failed as a dancer because of my body and I just didn’t really know who I was. Being a journalist enabled me to walk into scenarios and have a purpose to be there. And it really showed me New York in a way that I couldn’t have known in any other way. But, what happened in that process was, the more I got to know my subjects, there was a mirror reflecting back to me about who I really was.
What made you decide you wanted to move from journalist to novelist?
After so many years of working as a journalist and getting excited about getting to go behind closed doors, meeting artists, meeting creative people, I was always inspired by the creative process. I liked the idea that I got to work with people who were either somewhat insane or creative, or both. But what I was finding was I couldn’t tell the whole story as a journalist. I was finding that there was so much more to the human experience than I could tell in a page or two pages in a magazine.
What about Sarah [the main character of the book]? Is her character a little autobiographical?
I want to state on the record that I am not Sarah Rosen. Although I think that, until I die, people will think that I am after reading Who Town. Sarah and I are both from Philadelphia, we’re both from middle-class Jewish families. Some of the details are true, but, basically, I set her up coming from a place similar to where I grew up so that it would be an accurate perspective.
Was writing Who Town more difficult than writing a shorter piece for a magazine?
It was much more satisfying. Difficult, yeah, but—I’ll equate it to dancing again. When you spend years of training in ballet and you nail a pirouette, or you nail a jump, or you nail a combination, is it difficult? Yeah, it’s difficult. But you’re working all the time to get to that perfection, or to get to that place where it speaks. And I felt that same process in fiction where, yeah, it’s difficult, but it’s also divine bliss. You’re really molding and creating something. Whereas, when you’re writing an article, sometimes it can be like an amusement ride—something that’s really fun and then it’s done.
How did you choose what to write about?
It chose me. Who Town has been compared to Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis, and I’ve been compared to Mary Gaitskill, which I think is incredible because I admire her a lot—she wrote gritty New York stories. I’ve been compared to both of them, but they’re from a generation that came before me. And, since then, since the ’80s, I don’t think there have been writers who depicted the coming of age New York story well. So, I felt like I had to write something. I was absolutely compelled to write this book.
If people take one thing away from the book, what do you want it to be?
Don’t believe everything you read and half of what you see. Especially in terms of people’s public image and the glamour quotient of the beautiful people.
Do you think that this message comes after having been a journalist yourself?
They feed each other. The same way that my characters are building their own public image, there are these 20-somethings who want to be recognized as artists or celebrities, or whatever. They’re using the media and manipulating the media, but the media also helps create these monsters. So it’s an interesting hybrid. One can’t exist without the other.
Now I’ve heard a rumor that you have a second book in the works.
Oh, it’s done. The second novel is called Cherry Picker. It’s about a geeky, nebbish 33-year-old Jewish-American filmmaker who is obsessed with finding a shiksa virgin bride. It’s inspired by [Vladimir] Nabokov, Philip Roth and Henry Miller. And my grandmother—my late grandmother Eva Marge Kirschbaum.
Do you think you’ll continue to work as both a journalist and a novelist, or do you think you’ll pick one?
Oh, I’ve picked one. I would like to continue as a novelist. My dream is to wake up every morning and to write for five hours then be able to take a ballet class to stretch my body. I love writing fiction, I really do. There are a lot more books in me. I also wouldn’t mind collaborating with a film director—specifically, I wouldn’t mind collaborating with Sofia Coppola. Her manager is reading Who Town now, so fingers crossed, America!
Photo credit: “One Night Stand” Phyllis Leibowitz, Billy Farrell