Oct 8, 2013
Loving and Leaving New York: Talking with Sari Botton
What is it that you’re not supposed to talk about at dinner parties? Politics and religion? Well, there’s a new subject that can’t safely be broached if you want to maintain civil discourse, and that’s the question of living in New York City. Not long ago, I wrote an essay—“Goodbye to All That”: Why Is Everybody Talking About Leaving New York?”—which got such a passionate response (both favorable and decidedly unfavorable) because I defended my life in and my love of New York. Reactions varied wildly—some people agreed with my feelings about the city, while some thought that New York City is nothing more than an overrated, steaming pile of dog shit and that I must be a fascist shill for the Bloomberg administration who drinks the blood of baby pigeons and so am required to stay in New York for the sustenance I get from those ubiquitous winged rodents. Who’s to say that’s not at least partially true?
But so, one of the reasons I wrote about the question of leaving New York was that I had recently read several essays by writers on just that topic! And, in fact, a couple of those essays were taken from the just-today-released anthology “Goodbye to All That”: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, edited by Sari Botton. The anthology has contributions by 28 writers (including Roxane Gay, Cheryl Strayed, Ann Hood, Emily Carter Roiphe, Emily Gould, Emma Straub, Elisa Albert, Rebecca Wolff, Emily St. John Mandel, and so many more) and while it was in part inspired by Joan Didion’s iconic essay “Goodbye to All That,” it is in no way just a series of essays telling the same story over and over again. Rather it is a diverse selection of excellent writing that, yes, revolves around the intense relationship that so many people (especially young people, and, maybe, especially writers) have with New York City. However, each essay is markedly different from the others. One is written by a native New Yorker who left and came back; one by a native who left and has no desire to return; some by suburban kids whose dreams always seemed so closely tied to the idea of “the City,” until one day, they didn’t; and one, Roxane Gay’s, is about coming to terms with the idea of never living in New York at all. It’s an excellent anthology, perfect for anyone who has fallen in or out of love with New York, who has lived here or visited, who has left and never wants to come back, who has seen Saul Steinberg’s “View From 9th Avenue” and gets it, or who has seen it and thought what a load of crap—in other words, it’s a book for everyone. I spoke with Sari Botton (who left New York for the Hudson Valley eight years ago, and whose own essay in the book is funny, poignant, and involves a psychic named Terry) about her experience editing the anthology and releasing it into the world. Also, briefly, about Terry the psychic.
So, New York. Living here, leaving here, no other place evokes such a strong response. Which, I guess is why so many writers tackle the subject. So it’s kind of amazing that there hasn’t been a book like this before.
Yeah, it is a cliche. It’s such a cliche that I can’t believe I got to it first. I can’t believe this book didn’t exist already,
And so now it exists, but some of the attention it’s been getting so far has misconstrued what the book is supposed to be about, namely individual experiences with the idea of living in New York. But people just seem to take life in New York so personally, like if your opinion is different than theirs, you’re automatically condemning them. I was taken aback by the responses to my own essay, by the passion people had for or against this city. Is that what you found?
Right, there IS no middle ground. And I wonder, you know, people are always debating whether or not to leave New York. First of all it’s a hard place to leave, but it’s also a hard place to live. Age definitely factors into it, because anyone who’s interested in having a family? Who can afford to have a family in this city? Not a lot of people. For my husband and myself, we would never have left. We weren’t going to have kids…we we were in an enormous apartment that’s a hundred square feet larger than my house where I live now. And we would never have left…even though I was souring on the city. I feel you always have this love/hate thing with the city; you can be soured on one aspect and really happy with another. You can be struggling to get your career in order but you can also have a really great group of friends, which was my case in the early 30s. And then my friends all started to leave, but work was going great and I loved my apartment. There’s always a trade-off in New York, and at a certain point, you’ve got to decide whether you’re getting more than you’re giving up. And we got kicked out, and we were paying $1350 for 1800 square feet! [Ed. note: And in the East Village, no less!] Where were we going to go? This was 2005 and small studios were already costing up to $2000. We both had connections upstate and there was no fucking way we were going to go to the suburbs. So it was like, let’s go to the hipster exurbs and, you know, not the suburbs.
I loved your essay, so many parts of it, but one thing that really stuck out was when the psychic you visited—Terry—said to you something about “time not being linear.” This rang so true to me about people’s experiences with living in New York. Those experiences, at least conceptually, start before even getting to New York and continue even after they’ve left. And while that kind of mythologizing can be harmful, it’s also kind of beautiful because it does represent a certain kind of youth and vibrancy that is nice to feel like you can come back to. Which, people come back! Joan Didion came back, and some of the writers in your collection come back. And others don’t. This sounds so obvious, but what’s striking about your book is how markedly different everyone’s essays are, even those where the writers now live in similar places that are not New York, everyone feels different about the city.
I did not want to have twenty-eight replications of Joan Didion’s essay. Twenty-eight stories with the same arc…who’s going to read that book?
Do you think there’s a different ability right now in the current state of New York City with the insane rent prices and basically criminal income inequality to say that you don’t like New York without feeling like you’re giving up on anything?
Yeah, because I think it’s getting harder, unless you have the means, or unless you have some kind of great set-up, rent-control or your parents bought it for you in the 80s or something, to live here. Most people are not in any kind of situation like that, and so yeah, I don’t think you lose status because you have to leave. And I feel like, once a New Yorker, always a New Yorker. It’s funny, and maybe this is because I grew up on Long Island, but I’m always trying to prove that I’m not bridge and tunnel. When I come in now from Port Authority which is disgusting, I don’t want anyone to see that I came into Manhattan from Port Authority. I still don’t want to be that rube, even though I can never be that rube again. But also, it’s embarassing when I try to make plans with people and I say to meet me at a place but that place doesn’t exist anymore.
That specific suburban thing is so insidious, it probably takes people longer to feel like New Yorkers than if they’d grown up in, like, Montana.
Well, the native New Yorkers were so cool because they could go anywhere without asking their parents for a ride.
But there is one great essay in the book by a native (Rebecca Wolff) who hates New York now.
I really love her alternative perspective of someone who grew up in New York but just does not get it. It’s a really good counterpoint. There are people…who hate that essay, and are so offended by it. I love it. I love the counterpoint of the kid who grew up in New York, in Manhattan, and just doesn’t get what everyone else gets about it and can’t see it the way we see it.
Yeah, she’s totally saying that everything you love about New York, she already did in high school. Which also reminds me of Emily Carter Roiphe’s excellent contribution, and how she, as a native, says that there’s nothing more provincial than never leaving the town you grew up in, so why should it be different for New York? But why do you think most people, including natives, are worried about leaving?
There’s a fear of leaving, or at least there was on my part, of what am I going to miss? But at the same time, there were months on end when I didn’t do anything interesting! As a resident you’re not always doing super interesting things. So the work that I did sometimes brought me to do interesting things, and that’s part of why I did the work that I did, but, yeah, I would go months on end where I just went to my job in midtown, worked too late, ate bland food that you could get anywhere, went home, slept, went to the gym, watched Nick at Nite, and I think that’s part of other people’s experiences too, where it can also become Nowhere USA sometimes.
Come see Sari Botton, Meghan Daum, Emily Gould, Emily Carter Roiphe, and Melissa Febos at PoweHouse tonight at 7pm for a reading and the book launch of “Goodbye to All That: Writers On Loving and Leaving New York
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen
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