Interview with Andrew Cotto

I’m delighted to launch my 2019 Interviews with Andrew Cotto. He is the author of The Domino Effect, Outerborough Blues: A Brooklyn Mystery, and Cucina Tipica: An Italian Adventure. I’m intrigued by his work because he doesn’t write to genre. His stories are driven by the protagonists’ personal quests, which they pursue with a clueless determination that ignites the everyman place in the reader’s heart. Cotto’s novels illustrate the value of taking risks, the strength in vulnerability and the power of kindness.

Thanks so much for sharing your stories and for joining me today, Andrew.

1— Correct me if I’m wrong, but my sense is your choice of setting for The Domino Effect (split between urban New York and a boarding school) and Outerborough Blues (placed in a deeply-rooted African American community in Brooklyn on the dawn of gentrification) came as a package deal with your protagonists because of the issues they needed to resolve. But in the case of Cucina Tipica, my guess is Italy was the front-runner and Jacoby Pines was designed to showcase the setting. How does the combination of location and protagonist shape your story choices?

There’s a great quote, though I’m not sure from which writer (maybe John Ashbery?), that claims the most important character is always setting. I tend to start with a place and give birth to characters within those confines. This is probably less obvious in the first two novels than it is in the last as Italy is so important to not just the events but also the motivation and the food/wine soaked milieu. Regardless, I’m always trying to use the setting to inspire the realities that inform the narrative. As a reader, I’m drawn first to setting. I devour the James Lee Burke novels set in southern Louisiana primarily because of what his work with setting does for my imagination.

2— What factors help you determine if a story idea is worth the time and investment needed to turn it into a compelling novel? Can you walk us through the process that takes you from an idea to the point when you’re ready to start writing forward?

Besides a compelling setting, I’m really looking for interesting characters and the type of events that lead to a satisfying process and ending. Most “interesting” people, at least the ones I know, are products of complication or trauma. I enjoy putting characters in challenging situations and seeing how they deal. I want them to suffer, persevere, and prevail.

Of course, themes have to be a factor. I guess, overall, I ask myself if the story “works.” And this is contingent upon a lot of effective elements (character, motivation, conflict, etc.), but I really have to imagine the ending being one where the reader is satisfied and happy to have spent all that time getting there. I want to leave readers with a sense of satisfaction.

3— In addition to writing, you have experience as a line chef for a fine-dining restaurant. One of my previous jobs was as a short-order cook. A lot of writers seem drawn to the culinary arts. Any thoughts on why? Are there any culinary skills that have directly impacted your journey as a writer? What is your favorite Italian meal, and is it highlighted in Cucina Tipica? 

Oooh. Nice connection. I imagine it has a lot to do with the attention to sensory matters, which are interesting to creative types, and the attention to specifics, the whole “Devil in the details” thing. I dunno for sure, but I’m all for it.

As far as my favorite Italian meal, I don’t technically have one because what I love about Italian food is the regional diversity, so I’m taking the specialty of whatever region I happen to be in and loving it because of the cultural appreciation. That said, if I could take three Italian plates, it would be bucatini all’amatriciana as the primi, lamb chops scottaditta for the secondi, and a three-cheese plate for dessert; I’d drink Chianti Classico Riserva throughout and have a grappa when it was all over.

4— You wrote The Domino Effect while living in a refurbished barn above the tiny village of Antella in the hills of Florence with your wife and daughter. This barn is the setting where Jacoby Pines finds himself in Cucina Tipica. Any tips on how to select and transform real life experiences into effective elements for fiction?

There’s stories everywhere, so paying attention to our own experiences and of those around us is an endless resource. I love local news for ideas since the context is familiar and therefore easier to build a story upon. Plus, there’s that “Truth is stranger than fiction” mantra. On a more romantic and adventurous level, travel is a great way to have experiences and also inspire imagination, though – that said – it took me ten years to get around to writing about Tuscany after living there. The delay was probably caused by my not having a character to drop into the setting; I wrote about Italy a lot for magazines, so I remained connected to the setting, but a fictional experience didn’t come to me until years later. This is probably due to my return for a long period, five weeks teaching in Rome, which reminded me of how magnificent it is to be in Italy day in day out, as opposed to the experiences of a tourist.

5— In your interview in The Brooklyn Rail with Anne Tammel you said, “All novels are about the journey of searching for self.” Your books certainly reflect this viewpoint. In a world where external forces like social media are pulling so many people away from center, what insight can you offer from the lessons your characters have learned to help readers stay grounded?

I’m not certain that there are any lessons in literature beyond that life is a struggle. The struggles of today are in (large) part informed by social media and technology in general, but my only way to connect any sort of remedy with regard to books is to simply read more. The escape provided by immersion in literature is probably never more important yet unheeded. I don’t have the numbers, but people read a lot less literature these days, and technology is to blame. Irony noted.

6— Your choice to use so much Italian dialogue in Cucina Tipica literally accents Jacoby’s displacement. Did you have any fear that the Italian would be off-putting to readers? If so, how did you adjust for that concern as you wrote?

I did! It was a concern, though I was also wondering how to realistically depict an experience in Italy (especially one off the beaten tourist path) that didn’t involve people speaking Italian. And I really wanted the reader to recognize how displaced one can feel when not knowing the language, so what I did was use dialog in Italian in context that could be figured out and/or I had the subsequent English prose provide the translation. It was a complicated scenario regardless, and I have heard from a few readers who were put off by it. I still feel like I handled it correctly, though – I have to admit – it does bother me that their experience was affected by this. I want the people who are kind enough to read my work to love every aspect of the experience.

7— I was surprised to discover we have a shared history with the South. You received a BA in Literature from Lynchburg College in Virginia; I lived in Lynchburg for ten years. You also love New Orleans and travel there often for writing assignments; I lived there for nearly a decade. My time there was so transformative, I couldn’t resist setting what I hope will be my debut novel in New Orleans. In what ways has your time in the South influenced your writing? Caesar from Outerborough Blues spent time in Louisiana learning how to cook Creole, but is there any chance you’ll set an upcoming novel there?

I’d like to spend enough time in New Orleans and southern Louisiana to tell a story there. I’m fascinated by the mix of cultures and, of course, the love of food and music. There’s a Caesar Stiles story in my head that is set there involving the Creole lover he had to leave behind. Of course, I’d have to go down there and maybe spend a year or so…Work. Work. Work.

8— Your next book, Black Irish Blues, is a sequel to Outerborough Blues. Why did you decided to dive back into Caesar’s life? Any idea when it will be available? Any chance Jacoby Pines will make another appearance?

I just had to tell another Caesar Stiles story. I mean, when Publisher’s Weekly writes that a novel reads like “Raymond Chandler taking dictation from Walt Whitman” you don’t walk away. The reality is that the voice wouldn’t leave me; I even ended the original with a sequel in mind. It’s finished now and (I believe) really good. I’m not sure when it will come out, though I imagine possibly this year or next. Then I can move on to New Orleans to research the subsequent novel in the series…Sounds like a plan to me.

As for Jacoby Pines, yeah, I have a sequel with him in mind: Cucina Romana: Another Italian Adventure. This would involve Jacoby accompanying Bill (his ex-pat friend) to Rome in search of something that I’m not sure of yet, but I am sure it will, once again, not be a DaVinci Code type adventure and it will involve lots of eating/drinking.

9— I understand your current work in progress deals with a professor/author who turns to a life of crime. Can you tell us a little about the inspiration behind this breaking-bad story?

This novel-in-progress is called Kingsborough, and it’s based on two respective TV shows I wrote that were shopped but not picked up. My feeling was that neither had enough of the sex/violence requisite in TV dramas, though I did feel that they could be combined into a compelling novel about the new face of desperation in modern America. In this case, it’s a professor and an author who can’t make ends meet (a real scenario for many, especially those – the majority – of college instructors who are adjuncts, combined with how hard it is to make a living as a writer) who connects with a police detective manipulated into an early retirement. It’s very much the story of gentrification, corruption, cultural acrimony, and income inequality in modern American cities. It will make a great TV series once the novel comes out.

10— You’re more than a novelist. You’re a regular contributor to The New York Times and several other magazines. How do you organize your time as a writer? Do you have a particular routine? What advice can you offer young writers who want to make a living in this field?

For starters, I have to be writing on a very regular basis. I do this early in the morning, when I’m fresh and then able to reload during the day in preparation for the next. This is the key: Either you write or you don’t. As to what I’m writing, it depends, but I can take time to break from a novel in order to work on an article. As long as I’m writing, it’s all good. In fact, I kind of like the breaks as it keeps things interesting. My only advice is to do the work and find a mentor.

11— When it comes to reading who are your go-to authors? What was your favorite book of 2018?

I don’t yet have a favorite book from 2018, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem, which I’m reading now. My go-to authors are James Lee Burke, Flannery O’Connor, Breece D’J Pancake, John Cheever, and Joan Didion.

Thanks so much for taking the time to provide an inside look at your writing life, Andrew. Wishing you all the best.

  Andrew Cotto is the award-winning author of three novels and a regular contributor to The New York Times. His work has also appeared in Parade, Men’s Journal, Rolling Stone, The Huffington Post, Condé Nast Traveler, and Italy Magazine. Andrew teaches writing at LIM College. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. For more about Andrew go to

INTERVIEW with Erika Robuck

I’m a huge fan of Erika Robuck. Her ability to make the personal lives of artists such as Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald and Edna St. Vincent Millay accessible to readers is the reason I fell in love with historical fiction. In addition to providing me with hours of pleasure, Hemingway’s Girl, Call Me Zelda, Fallen Beauty, and The House of Hawthorne have given me guidance for how to craft an emotionally powerful story. Then at the end of 2017, Erika surprised me by stepping away from the historical fiction genre she’s known for and self-published a modern-day satire.

#Hockeystrong is timely and thoroughly engaging. Although I rooted for characters, I was appalled by their behavior in equal measure. It is a fabulous ride; a ride that prompted me to re-evaluate how I feel about Social Media and the pressure placed on kids in sports, while reminding me of the importance of a strong, loving family unit. In the midst of this country’s social and political unrest #Hockeystrong is a must read.

Robuck’s decision to layer satire over her successful historical fiction run aroused my curiosity about her debut: Receive Me Falling. This historical drama weaves together the lives of Meghan Owen— who inherits a plantation house on the Caribbean island of Nevis— and Catherine Dall whose family owned and operated the plantation in the early 1800s. Like #Hockeystrong, Receive Me Falling nudges the reader to grapple with their social and moral beliefs as it examines slavery through the rise of the Abolitionist movement through Robuck’s signature storytelling style. Each page is filled with heartfelt prose that forces characters to uncover the truth about themselves and those around them, and although the lives of Meghan and Catherine converge in tragedy, the reader comes away wrapped in love and hope.

Receive Me Falling was a marvelous, uplifting way to start 2018, and I’m thrilled to launch this year’s Interviews with the author, Erika Robuck.

In Receive Me Falling, Meg learns that her father’s estate was built on stolen money. How much did the 2008 Bernie Madoff scandal influence Meg’s storyline?

I had already crafted most of the novel when the Madoff scandal hit, but it was timely in its arrival. I couldn’t help but wonder how the children of criminals feel, especially when their entire lives have been built on lies and exploitation. Do they have any inkling about their parents’ illegal activities? Are they in denial? Or do they legitimately not know about the crimes? And finally, once the deception is revealed, what do they do with their inheritance of sin?

In Hemingway’s Girl, Ernest says, “You never talk about a book till you’re done with it.” Do you believe this is sound advice for writers or superstition?

I’m divided. With my intellect, I know it’s superstition, but there are very few with whom I’m willing to discuss works in progress. It seems as if the collective unconscious begins bubbling ideas up to the surface the moment they are mentioned aloud.

Nurse Anna is so vulnerable and open about her experience of working with the Fitzgeralds in Call Me Zelda, the story often felt like a memoir. How are you able to slip into your characters’ skins and deliver them with such vibrant authenticity?

My grandmother was a psychiatric nurse, so I was able to use my knowledge of her work, combined with interviews of current nurses and readings on the subject, to take on the persona. The combination of extensive interviews and research allows me to become my characters.

In spite of her fame, the character of Edna St. Vincent Millay in Fallen Beauty is clearly the antagonist. Her selfish, child-like behavior, on top of her neediness, is most unlikeable. Yet, whenever we feel the magic of the poet inside we easily forgive and root for her as much as we root for Laura, the novel’s protagonist. What do you believe is the key to developing empathetic characters?

I believe vulnerability is the key. When we see a character’s fears, anxieties, and self-doubt, they become human and redeemable. Vulnerability is almost always revealed in journals, letters, and photographs. They are treasures and, if I’m able to get my hands on them, key to helping me develop multi-dimensional, empathetic characters.

The first chapter of Hemingway’s Girl and The House of Hawthorne begins in the protagonist’s present, and then the story moves into the past, while Call Me Zelda and Fallen Beauty have no timeline shift. What determining factors do you use to help zero in on the best opening moment?

Each story asks something a little different from me, and I try to be faithful to what is asked. I allow decisions on point of view and time period to arise organically from the research, and I’m often surprised about the directions my novels take. That said, I almost always change the beginning of the novel once it is complete.

Can you give us an example of how one of your openings changed, and why you felt the change was necessary?

Hemingway’s Girl initially began at my protagonist’s interview for the cleaning job at Hemingway’s House, but I decided the reader needed to see my protagonist in her element before placing her out of it. Opening the action with her at a boxing match on the wrong side of town, gambling to support her family, provides the right contrast between her world and that of Hemingway’s genteel parlor. The irony, of course, is that Hemingway is also more at ease with the poor boxers and fisherman than he is in the luxurious surroundings of his home.

One of the most intriguing relationships in The House of Hawthorne is Herman Melville’s admiration and obsession with Nathaniel. Melville dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne. I’ve also read that MB showed a shift in writing style for Melville. That novel displayed a stronger deftness in the handling of chapters, as well as a richer vocabulary than in previous works. Did you find any evidence that without Melville’s access to Nathaniel, Moby Dick may not have been written?

I found evidence that Melville was borderline obsessed with Hawthorne, and while the relationship initially intrigued and flattered Hawthorne, it ultimately appeared to suffocate him. Melville was an intense, mercurial man who wanted a lot from his friend, that—due to his marriage, his family, and his private personality—Hawthorne was unable to deliver. It was a fraught relationship that has been speculated upon by many a biographer.

If you had the opportunity to talk with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Millay, and Hawthorne what would be the one question you would ask each of them?

There are different questions I’d have for each to do with his or her own life, but in terms of my portrayals of them, I’d want to know if they felt as if they had been rendered fairly and with redemption.

What prompted you to turn to satire? Was it a reaction to the recent frustration with historical fiction that you spoke of during your poignant post, “Remember Why You Started,” on Writer Unboxed? Or was #Hockeystrong’s story brewing over time because of your experience as a hockey parent?

#Hockeystrong has been brewing for years. I didn’t think I could write satire, but I felt called to social commentary after almost a decade of watching adults lose their minds over youth sports. I gave myself a month to attempt contemporary satire, and within six weeks, had a working first draft of the book. It was an excellent palate cleanser after a rejected historical novel, but my first love will always be historical fiction, and I’m back in the saddle.

John Banville— the winner of the Man Booker Prize for The Seabelieves books should be shelved alphabetically by author, not genre. A genre label is an important marketing tool early in a writer’s career, but can that label become an obstacle later on?

After a time, it definitely begins to feel constrictive. I’m a reader before I’m a writer, and—while I reach for historical novels first—I choose from and enjoy a variety of genres. Authors like Jojo Moyes, Chris Bohjalian, Nora Roberts, Anne Rice, Judy Blume, Stephen King, and A. S. Byatt move between genres with ease, and I enjoy following them. It keeps the writing and the reading fresh.

You’ve written five historical novels and a modern day satire. Research aside, is one easier to write? Will we see more satire from you in the future?

While the contemporary satire was by far the most amusing and easiest novel to write, I don’t imagine returning any time soon. Writing about dead people is ideal; they make far less fuss.

What is your biggest stumbling block as a writer?

When the business side of publishing about market, brand, and sales infiltrates my mind during the first draft, I know I’m in trouble, and have had to abandoned projects because of it. Business aside, I have to be totally, truly, personally consumed with my subjects for them to work.

You have a family and a successful writing career. When you do you find time to read? And when will we be able to settle in with the next Erika Robuck novel?

I’m an avid, obsessive reader. From my prayer and mediation books in the morning and before bedtime, to the newspaper while I eat lunch, to novels while I wait in lines, sit rink-side during my son’s hockey practices, and before I go to bed, I read widely and prolifically. Poetry warms me up to write each day, and there are research books all over my desk. I can’t get enough.

As for my current project, I’m hard at work on historical fiction, but I’ll have to take Hemingway’s advice, and keep the subject quiet. I hope I can tell you more soon.

Thank you so much, Jocosa.

My pleasure, Erika.

Erika Robuck is a member of the Historical Novel, Hemingway, Millay and Hawthorne Societies. She is a contributor to Grand Central: Original Stories of Postwar Love and Reunion, and Author in Progress: A No-Holds-Barred Guide to What It really Takes to Get Published. She also writes about and reviews historical fiction on her blog, Muse.


INTERVIEW with Kristopher Jansma on WHY WE CAME TO THE CITY

Today, Jocosa’s Bookshelf expands to include interviews, and I’m delighted that the award-winning, best-selling author Kristopher Jansma agreed to launch this new endeavor.

Kristopher Jansma received his B.A. in The Writing Seminars from Johns Hopkins University and an M.F.A. in Fiction from Columbia University. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at SUNY New Paltz, teaches graduate courses at Sarah Lawrence College, and the winner of the 2014 Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award.

His first novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leaopards (Viking/Penguin 2013) was described by The Village Voice as “F. Scott Fitzgerald meets Wes Anderson.” Why We Came To The City (Viking/Penguin 2016) was nominated for the Brooklyn Eagles Prize and its French translation, NEW YORK ODYSSÉE by Sophie Troph and Rue Fromentin is the winner of the Priz du Livre de Voyage Urbain.

WHY WE CAME TO THE CITY follows a tightknit group of friends living in New York who are suddenly forced to confront mortality when one of them falls ill. The book is both a love note and a breakup letter to New York, and Jansma captures perfectly the way young people give themselves to the city, and what the city gives to— and takes from— them. It’s a heartfelt novel, tender and painful and cathartic all at once, and even if the characters belong to New York, the story belongs to us.— Michael Straub, book critic

You painted the energy, hope, doubt and fear of life of being twenty-something in NYC with such accuracy, it was impossible not to recall my own dreams and disappointments of that time in my life. Were you consciously attempting to reach out universally to touch multiple age groups and cultures, or do you feel the universality of the story is simply a by-product of the specificity in your writing?

That’s a great question, and thanks, by the way for reaching out to me to talk more about the novel. I think that when you’re writing, the way to the universal is usually through the specific. When I first arrived in New York City in 2003 and began to start a life there as a writer, I experienced a particular set of things that were unique to that moment in the city. It was shortly after 9/11 and that was still an everyday topic of discussion for most people I met there. The iPhone and the iPod weren’t ubiquitous yet on the subways and sidewalks. The gentrified neighborhood I was in, Morningside Heights, was pushing up into Harlem and there were protests going on all the time about the war in Iraq. So when I think about those days, that’s the New York I remember, which doesn’t quite exist anymore.

The characters in Why We Came to the City are living through the 2008-2009 financial crisis, and so they have a different view of city-life and what finding your dreams looks like than I did a few years earlier. The specifics are different, but that universal thing of “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” is always there. And I hear from readers often who lived in the city in the sixties, or seventies, who recall that same energy and spirit and chaos—and when they come to the city now they can’t even recognize it.

And I should say too that this is something universal about cities everywhere—it happens to be New York City, mostly Manhattan, in my novel. But that experience is the same in Toronto or Miami or Seattle or Toledo… the universal parts, anyway, not the specifics. Hopefully that makes the novel relatable, not just now, and not just to New Yorkers, but to anyone at any age, who has dreams and ambitions to pursue.

From 1994 to 2004, the sitcom Friends resonated with your generation the way Thirtysomething previously spoke to mine. The friends in Why We Came To The City feel like the flip-side of the Friends collective, and yet, I sense your characters are going to impact twentysomethings for generations to come. Why do you think this story, set during the financial crisis of 2008, has such an impact today? And what elements do you feel make it timeless?

That’s very true, and there is a little nod to Friends in my book. Some of the characters like to watch a show called Vamanos Muchachos! in Spanish that is like some version of Friends set in Mexico City. And I did that because there’s a little fantasy of city life that I think many of us do get from television. Maybe from novels too. There’s something in my first book, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, about two young men who come to New York thinking it will be like an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel!

But one thing that Friends and Thirtysomething both get to in different ways is how, in a city, you make a sort of second family out of your friends. You can count on them to be there for you in times of joy and crisis. Meanwhile your real family, that isn’t there with you, may not really understand what’s going on the same way. So you turn to these friends for guidance and comfort as if they were your brothers and sisters.

In Why We Came to the City, the larger crisis in the background is the collapse of the financial system. This event really threw a whole sub-generation of Americans for a loop—and came directly in the way of those dreams and ambitions we were just talking about. People lost jobs, had to leave school, sell their apartments at a huge loss. There was suddenly very little momentum. Things just sort of stopped—if you were lucky enough to even hang on. And that presents a big crisis for them in the novel that they have to face… along with some other pretty major crises!

The novel is told from five points of view: three males and two females. Did you ever have doubts about your ability to capture the two female characters? What helped you make the female characters as complex as the men?

Thank you, first of all. I hope that they are as complex. I wanted Irene and Sara both to be very full and human characters—they’re both strong women, but I didn’t want that to be the whole thing. I think lots of male writers think they can sort of fake a good female character by just making them entirely tough and “badass” and strong, which is sort of an overcompensation, I think. That’s just as bad as making them all soft or weak or motherly. Any character, male or female, has to have more than just one side to them. Because all people, male or female, have those sides. And that’s the trick, really—we have to just think about people we know and really see them for all of who they are. What are they afraid of, what do they pretend to be, what do they hope for?

Sara, in the novel, is sometimes very maternal to the rest of the group—which is something she often winds up feeling trapped and frustrated by. She’s excited to marry George, her long-time boyfriend, but there’s some debate about whose apartment they will both move into, and when they finally do get married there’s not a quick happy ending there either. Irene, on the other hand, is even more complicated. She’s an orphan, she’s bisexual, she’s trying to be an artist, and, as the novel opens, she’s struggling with a potentially terminal cancer diagnosis. She falls in love with William, somewhat by accident, in the opening chapter, at what kind of turns out to be the worst possible time for both of them. She’s not very trusting of him, but she’s also very curious about him and his family and his private world. And then as fate would have it, these two misfit lovers end up together during this very scary time in her life.

Sarah, George, Irene, Jacob and William are all flawed as characters, but we love them because we’re able to feel their vulnerability in spite of the flaws. How do you navigate into the hearts of characters with issues?

Well, I love characters with issues because, again, I love people with issues. I love their issues. I am fascinated by my friends and my family and people around me. Watching people I love struggle through these things is something that brings me a lot of hope for us as a species, you know? And I think it is necessary to present people honestly in books like mine because that is the exact thing you want to replicate for the reader. Flaws are what draw me to people in real life, and I think they are what draw us to characters in fiction.

We have, in this book, Jacob, who is in an unhealthy relationship with his boss and hates his job and is somehow both kind of repressed and too loud at the same time. William, who is majorly repressed and a little immature—both maybe partly coming out of a love-hate conflict with his Korean family and traditions. George is, seemingly, something of a saint, but he secretly has a drinking problem, which is a way of covering his massive anxieties. Sara’s a bit of a control freak, and Irene can’t trust people… as we just spoke about. So yeah—I don’t know. Who couldn’t love them? They’re incredibly real to me. They’re trying so hard.

In your Acknowledgements, you say Why We Came To The City was written in loving memory of your sister, Jennifer, who pushed you first. I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m also inspired by your ability to tap into what you learned about the grieving process to create a story that, in many ways, feels like a tribute to your sister’s spirit. In your interview on largehearted boy, it’s clear that you used a lot of threads from your personal life to enrich the novel. How do you know when an experience of your own can be extracted, then twisted or transformed for the benefit of a story? Are there signs that tell you, “Oops, if I use this event it’s going to be too much like a therapy session? Or do you feel writing is fundamentally a bit of therapy for writers and readers?

Thank you so much for saying that. I do hope that the novel is a kind of tribute to my sister, Jennifer, who was a wonderful young woman and, I want to say, every bit as flawed and complicated as we were just discussing before. We did not always get along, but we tried, I think, and in the last year of her life she came to stay with my fiancé, Leah, and I, while she got treatment at Sloan-Kettering in New York City. It was one of the most difficult and awful experiences of my life. We took care of her every day, during treatments and side effects… and while just dealing with all the usual catastrophes of life in a big city in your early 20s. It was a dizzying and heartbreaking time. But we also got very close, finally, and I think we came to know each other better as adult people in all the kinds of ways we just talked about.

And I think because of that, I did know that there was going to be something worth writing about in there. For a long time I really fought against my impulse to write about her illness and then her death, for many reasons. I somehow felt like if I wrote about it then I was validating it. Like I was saying that it was OK that this awful thing had happened because at least I’d gotten this book out of it. It all felt so unfair and I couldn’t allow it to be made sense of—and writing fiction is a way of making sense of reality. (And it is a lot like therapy, which I also needed to get plenty of!)

Eventually I basically had no choice. It literally started coming out in my writing whether I wanted it to or not. And when I finally saw what that novel was going to look like, and what it could show people, and me too, then I knew it was going to be worth the pain of getting it all down.

After Jennifer passed, you took a writing hiatus then started a project called Forty Stories. One story called The Murphys’ Odyssey was about a couple on their honeymoon in the Greek Islands, who are trying to get rid of the ashes of a friend who recently passed away. This story became the basis for the characters of George and Sarah, and a variation of the story found it’s way into your novel. You’ve also said your debut The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards was developed through short stories. What can you offer writers about the use of short stories as a tool for novel development?

I think it is a perfect way for many writers to get going. I teach writing as well, at SUNY New Paltz and Sarah Lawrence College, and we start small because that’s how it is easiest to get comfortable with the fundamentals. A really amazing short story is a work of art unto itself—some can take as long to write as whole novels. But it lets you tackle things on a manageable scale for a while. For me, I had tried to jump right into novels because I had all these huge ideas and I wanted room to play with them. But I tried, several times, to write longer works and they always sort of lost steam or fell apart. That was when I started 40 Stories because I wanted to get back to those basics and see if I could get more practice. And it made a really big difference. I just got more and more comfortable with characters and plotting and all that stuff. And then, sort of by accident, I realized one day—this was on the 13th story—that I had written about three people I was in love with and had to write more about. So I sort of cheated, and over the year, I finished the 40 Stories project, but about 8 of them were secretly part of this longer book. But I didn’t focus on the big picture with them as I went. I wrote them out of order and just whenever an idea for those characters came along. And it was, really, amazing. Then of course it took me another year to figure out how the hell to assemble it all into something coherent! But that’s also part of the fun of it.

Based on The Murphys’ Odyssey, you ended up writing the second half of Why We Came To The City first— the portion of the book that deals with how the characters deal with Irene’s death— then you went back to discover how this group of characters formed. How does knowing specifically where the story is going to end help a writer determine where a story needs to start? Can you share a bit about how this process worked for you?

So I also wrote Why We Came to the City in a bit of a scattered way. I did write “Murphys’ Odyssey” first, and that was originally the title of the whole book. But I later figured out it would need to be later in the book because George and Sara were on their honeymoon already. So I tucked that away. Almost a year later I wrote another piece about William, looking for a lost girlfriend who has died and I just knew… hey, this fits. A while after, I wrote what turned into the first chapter of the novel, which was then called “The Vicarious States of America”… and then I had already written the prologue years earlier as its own standalone prose poem. So little bits and pieces started to come together, and soon I could sort of see what the whole thing looked like. I had five characters and I started to work out how they’d all get their points of view into the book. 

The novel begins with the prologue “Why We Came To The City”, the second half is marked with— for lack of a better word— the mid-logue “Why We Left The City” and ends with the epilogue “The City That Is”. These sections read like prose poems and could easily stand on their own. What went into your decision to use these sections to frame the story? And when did you know that they were actually going to be written by Jacob’s character?

So the prologue was, originally, its own piece and it was always a bit of prose poem. I had taught Thoreau’s “Why I Went to the Woods”, which is a piece of Walden, many times to Freshmen, and I wanted to see what would happen if I inverted it, basically. And that came out. But as a standalone story I had never really been able to do anything with it. Finally, with this book, it had a home.

The “mid-logue” (I like that!) came very late in the game. I knew I needed something like that in there between the first and second parts of the novel, but by then it had been so many years since I wrote the prologue that I was nervous about trying to replicate the tone and match the detail. But I finally sat down with Walden again and found the part at the end where he talks about deciding to go back to civilization. And it just came right to me.

The epilogue, “The City That Is”, came suddenly too, but I was less sure I needed it. I think this, and the mid-logue were both actually things written late in the editing stages of the novel. We all felt like it needed some balancing. I had originally ended the novel with George and Sara flying back from their honeymoon and seeing the city down below through the plane window, and them thinking about it from this great distance finally. And it sort of worked, and sort of didn’t. It seemed wrong to end with just their points of view, and I wanted to make it more universal again. And to also acknowledge that their collective experience of the city was just one tiny facet of it—that the thing about a place like New York, but again, almost any city—is that we’re all down there living in slightly different cities from one another, and they overlap but we hardly ever see so much of it. For this I looked at another old favorite of mine, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, and it worked beautifully.

Lastly, the idea of Jacob being the author of these poems did not come to me until very late, again maybe not until the final edits. I wanted something for him to be contributing to the wedding—a gesture of his participation and approval after all his naysaying, and also for us to see him getting his poetic voice back again after all this time. So it all pointed in that direction, and I hope there’s some catharsis there for the Jacob lovers, of whom I am one.

Jacob’s last words to Irene, which we don’t discover until nearly the end, are unexpected, and at the same time capture their relationship and his heart so well. Did you know while you were writing the death scene what he said, or did the words reveal themselves later? Jacob gives Sarah and George two completely different answers when they ask him what he whispered to Irene. Were those answers ever serious options, or simply part of your process of discovery?

Yes, I did know what those words would be from the very beginning. It was, to me, what the entire emotional journey he undertakes is about. He is a natural skeptic, though as we find out in that section, he is the kind of skeptic hardened so much because he used to believe. I’m not a very religious person, but I try to keep an open mind and heart. I’m mostly interested in people and how faith helps or hinders them in their progress. This was, I think, a very spiritual book for me to write—Jacob is Jewish, George is Catholic, Sara is a Protestant, William is tied to a Korean mysticism through his mother. Irene alone is not religious, though she does have something of an artistic/spiritual vision in the hours before her death—she sees the city, connects to ancient Greek and Roman myth, and realizes she ultimately wants to be with her true family, her friends. But anyway, I knew from the beginning that Jacob’s last words to her would be what they ended up being. “When you get there, just let me know you made it, all right?” It is what his own mother says to him before he boards a plane earlier in the section. And it means that, underneath all the skepticism, he believes she will live on in the universe in some way.

Let’s go a little further into the character of Jacob with a passage from the first section of the novel.

Though the 1 Train was quiet in an early-afternoon sort of way, Jacob transferred to the express 2 train at 96th Street, hoping to move even more swiftly to Fourteenth Street and the coffee shop that he required to sit in and write his poem. It was the only place he could breathe easily enough to tease it out. The challenge, as always, was to hold his impish idea in his threadbare net until he could get there…

For this was what writing poetry had become: a delicate extraction, done in quarter-turns, where the slightest jostling meant starting all over…

In high school he’d written like blinking. On the backs of napkins. In textbook margins. On the edges of his desks. On the dividers in the bathroom stalls. On the chalkboards of empty classrooms.

When I read that passage I thought, “I get it. I’ve been there, and yet, a part of me recognized his perspective as a kind of fearful procrastination. Is fear Jacob’s biggest obstacle? How do you tackle fear in your writing?

I think Jacob’s biggest obstacle might be fear, in the form of a kind of perfectionism or purity? Writing is hard work! It is messy and requires a lot of patience. And faith, I suppose. Jacob wants to think that he will just sit down at the page and write brilliant things almost reflexively. I think that’s how a lot of us feel, especially in the beginning when we’re maybe almost a little amazed by our own abilities. It can feel like a super power when it is going well. He thinks about being young and having it all just flow out… but as you get older and you read more and you realize how difficult it really is to write something good, that can be paralyzing. He’s had some success the old way—in the beginning of the novel we learn he once won a prize for an epic poem called “In the Eye of the Shitstorm” which he wrote all in a rush after his uncle’s suicide. But now he looks back on it and hates it! So he’s not sure what to do.

And the only way through this, I think, is to just accept that drafts are flawed—that it takes time and dedication to work things out. But you have to keep at it and not get discouraged, even as you recognize everything that is wrong with what you’ve put down on paper!

Jacob actually works in a private psychiatric facility, where he eventually uses his background in Classics to help the patients on his ward. Unfortunately, Classics are no longer an integral part of our educational system. Did you ever worry that the references to the Iliad and the Odyssey would be an obstacle for your audience? Or did you hope the use of Homer’s work would spark a fire in your readers? Or was the Odyssey just a perfect fit for the tale you were telling?

It’s funny, I don’t know if I thought that much about that. I do remember reading The Iliad in high school English class, though I don’t remember liking it much. I studied Latin in middle school and had to translate The Aeneid as a project once. I think that there are texts like The Odyssey that, God knows, we should teach more to students—but which are so ingrained in our culture that we come across them in some way. We talk about going on an Odyssey. You can go on an Odyssey in your Honda Odyssey™ right? I remember as a kid watching a Duck Tales episode where they are sailing around and there’s a Scylla and Charybdis thing—there’s a Simpson’s episode probably, I’m sure. Anyway, I think that most people have some sense of the basic idea that mattered for me in the writing of this book, which is that you have first, The War, and then, the Journey Home after. And I did have fun playing with specific references to the actual poems, which are there for readers who want to dig around and who know their Classics. There are also a number of references to The Waste Land, by TS Eliot and The Bridge by Hart Crane, which were two more epic poems that helped me figure out the emotions that Jacob and William, especially, were going through.

Another interesting character choice was George’s work in astrophysics. Is astrophysics an interest of yours? Or did you see the moment when George feels the last four years of his research has been a waste of time as a reflection of the stressful transformations these friends would undergo?

Yes, this has long been a weird side interest of mine. I joke sometimes that I know more writers who used to want to be physicists… I think in an odd way it makes sense. Both writing and physics are, at heart, about answering big questions about life and the universe. Why are we here? Is there some order to everything around us? George solves for these things with equations and numbers. I solve for them with characters and plots. Of course, as an armchair physicist who barely passed Calculus, I had to make sure I checked a lot of George’s parts out with people who really know what they’re talking about. I had some great help here from a friend of a friend, Dr. Joel Green, who is currently working at the Space Telescope Science Institute at my alma mater, Johns Hopkins University. And, no spoilers, but I will likely be calling on him again soon for some more help, as my new book (which is coming along!) has a lot more of this stuff in it. I think it is fun, and I like knowing I can write about more than just writers and artists sometimes!