Archive for April, 2010

Back Yard Summer 2007

Sunday, April 4th, 2010

“A to B” =
Back Yard, Summer 2007

Where: In a black folding chair in our stamp-sized backyard, interrupted by frequent fussing over the fruit and vegetable plants my kids and I grow from seeds: cucumbers, pumpkins, tomatoes, beans, carrots, watermelons, cantaloupe, and peppers.

Music: Pink Floyd, Animals

Why: As I was writing “The Gold Cure,” I got curious about Bennie’s failed life in the suburbs, and about his wife, Stephanie. Before I began “A to B,” I’d figured out that Stephanie’s brother was the celebrity assailant from “40-Minute Lunch,” which I’d written some years earlier. I’d assumed that the drama of “A to B” would surround Jules’ return to life outside of prison — only as I was working on the piece did I realize that it was the story of the end of Bennie and Stephanie’s marriage.

History: I’ve never lived in the suburbs, but I do have a sense of country clubs — first from Rockford, Illinois, my mother’s hometown. My grandparents belonged to a golf and tennis club where my grandfather golfed assiduously in bright pants, where my grandmother played bridge, and where my mother declined to marry when she learned that two of her close friends, who were black, would not be welcome on the premises. In Chicago, my father and his family belonged to a tennis club with beautiful clay courts, where I played and swam during my visits to them each summer. I think the deep inspiration for “A to B” was really the sensory atmosphere of country clubs: the sound of tennis balls, the smell of the snack bar, the mothers tanning their pregnancy-stretched bellies, the fathers subtly eyeing the teenage girls around the pool.


Stephanie and Bennie had lived in Crandale a year before they were invited to a party. It wasn’t a place that warmed easily to strangers. They’d known that going in and hadn’t cared — they had their own friends. But it wore on Stephanie more than she’d expected, dropping off Chris for kindergarten, waving or smiling at some blond mother releasing blond progeny from her SUV or Hummer, and getting back a pinched, quizzical smile whose translation seemed to be: Who are you again? How could they not know, after months of daily mutual sightings? They were snobs or idiots or both, Stephanie told herself, yet she was inexplicably crushed by their coldness.

During that first winter in town, the sister of one of Bennie’s artists sponsored them for membership to the Crandale Country Club. After a process only slightly more arduous than applying for citizenship, they were admitted in late June. They’d arrived at the club on their first day carrying bathing suits and towels, not realizing that the CCC (as it was known) provided its own monochromatic towels to reduce the cacophony of poolside color. In the ladies’ locker room, Stephanie passed one of the blondes whose children went to Chris’s school, and for the first time she got an actual “Hello,” her own appearance in two separate locations have apparently fulfilled some triangulation Kathy required as proof of personhood. That was her name: Kathy. Stephanie had known it from the beginning.

Carroll Gardens December 2005

Saturday, April 3rd, 2010

“Selling the General” =
Carroll Gardens/Dec 2005

Where: Brooklyn Bread, on Court Street, where I drank strong café lattes and ate egg-and-cheese sandwiches after dropping off my older son at school. There was a wiseguy feeling to that neighborhood that I enjoyed, being a devotee of The Sopranos — a show I often heard discussed, with discerning enthusiasm, at Brooklyn Bread.

Music: David Gray, “Please Forgive Me”

Why: This may be the only story I’ve written in direct response to a newspaper article, but I don’t remember the original article; only that it sparked the thought of a publicist getting hired to rehabilitate the reputation of a genocidal dictator. I wanted badly to be included in an anthology called This Is Not Chick Lit, which was coming out the following summer. I’d been laboring for a while (in a health food café in Brooklyn Heights, near my younger son’s preschool) over a story called “After the Fact,” about an unidentified investigative squad that examines and catalogs artifacts from the daily lives of people who have just died — this had seemed like a fantastic idea when I first came up with it, but I couldn’t make it work. In desperation — the Chick Lit deadline was approaching — I hauled out my publicist/dictator idea, switched cafes, and wrote in a focused frenzy. It wasn’t until after I’d finished “Selling the General” that I realized that the faded movie star (originally named Pia) was of course Kitty Jackson, from “Forty-Minute Lunch.”


Dolly’s first big idea was the hat. She picked teal blue, fuzzy, with flaps that came down over the general’s large dried-apricot ears. The ears were unsightly, Dolly thought, and best covered up.

When she saw the general’s picture in the Times a few days later, she almost choked on her poached egg: he looked like a baby, a big sick baby with a giant mustache and a double chin. The headline couldn’t have been worse:


Dolly bolted to her feet in her dingy kitchen and turned in a frantic circle, spilling tea on her bathrobe. She looked wildly at the general’s picture. And then she realized: the ties. They hadn’t cut off the ties under the hat as she’d instructed, and a big fuzzy bow under the general’s double chin was disastrous. Dolly ran barefoot into her office/bedroom and began plowing through fax pages, trying to unearth the most recent sequence of numbers she was supposed to call to reach Arc, the general’s human relations captain. The general moved a lot to avoid assassination, but Arc was meticulous about faxing Dolly their updated contact information. These faxes usually came at around 3:00 a.m., waking Dolly and sometimes her daughter, Lulu. Dolly never mentioned the disruption; the general and his team were under the impression that she was the top publicist in New York, a woman whose fax machine would be in a corner office with a panoramic view of New York City (as indeed it had been for many years), not ten inches away from the foldout sofa where she slept. Dolly could only attribute their misapprehension to some dated article that had drifted their way from Vanity Fair or InStyle or People, where Dolly had been written about and profiled under her then moniker: La Doll.


Friday, April 2nd, 2010


“An American Boy”: Bosco as a young man, trying to become a rock star in New York. Haunted by the fact that he walked out on his wife and young daughter. Falls for a journalist writing a profile of him.

“Where Are You Going?”: Rolph in his twenties, in New York, having joined an experimental theater group to work on a project that involves walking up to total strangers, asking, “Where are you going?” and — if the strangers are willing — following them to their workplaces, or homes, or wherever. As I write this, I realize that this was basically the project of my book: to walk up to strangers and follow them home.

“Eyes and Ears”: My first attempt at a PowerPoint. Susan (Ted Hollander’s ex-wife) is a market researcher/spy whose job is to create a log of how people spend their time on airplanes. Her boss is Dolly Peale, who lives in the same upstate town. Susan visits her feckless son, Alfred, in Chicago, and has an accidental meeting with Ted, who is now involved with a Columbia professor writing her new book on pauses in rock and roll songs.

“Artifact”: Sasha in college at NYU. Thinking a lot about a fragile boy named Leif, whom she met and tried to rescue while traveling in China. Sasha goes to a party at Bosco’s loft after a Conduits gig and steals one of his Columbian artifacts. He confronts her and suggests she get help.

Other Songs That Mattered

With Pauses:

“Faith” by George Michael
“Good Times, Bad Times,” by Led Zeppelin
“Please Play This Song on the Radio” by NOFX
“The Time of the Season,” by the Zombies

Other Important Ones:

“Cemetaries of London” by Coldplay
“Unsquare Dance,” by Dave Brubeck
“The Passenger,” by Iggy Pop
“Sideways,” by Let’s Go Sailing
“Black and Red,” by Negative Trend
“Wish you Were Here,” by Pink Floyd
“Mother Mother,” by Tracy Bonham
“No More Heroes,” by the Stranglers