Jul 1, 2014
Amy Sohn on THE ACTRESS, Brooklyn Nostalgia, and the NY/LA Dichotomy
Amy Sohn (Motherland, Prospect Park West) has a new novel, The Actress, coming out today. We spoke with Sohn about her literary departure from Brooklyn, nostalgia (or lack of it) for the way the borough used to be, and what makes the perfect summer beach book. Or, rather, let’s just call it a book. (Down with the tyranny of the “beach read.”) Sohn will be reading at BookCourt tonight, and The Actress is now available wherever books are sold, but, you know, buy local.
Your prior novels were pretty firmly rooted in a Brooklyn world that is all too familiar to anyone who’s spent any time here in the last decade, but THE ACTRESS is a clear departure from the brownstone Brooklyn bubble. Had you been wanting to explore new fictional worlds for awhile? And what was the attraction to this particular world?
I had been wanting to explore new settings—especially after writing a sequel to Prospect Park West, Motherland, which was also set primarily in Brooklyn. My first two novels were also largely set in Brooklyn so I was ready to break the streak. I go to Los Angeles a couple times a year and have the typical love/hate relationship that New Yorkers have with it, probably more love because I don’t live there and am in half-vacation mode when I go.
Much of The Actress is about Maddy’s rise to fame, so she needed to move to L.A. There are a lot of dichotomies to explore in N.Y.-versus-L.A.: actor vs. celeb, theater vs. film, art vs. commerce, brains vs. beauty. But of course, Maddy finds herself becoming more L.A. than she ever thought she might be, which of course brings into question whether she was ever N.Y. to begin with.
The attraction to the world was the glamour, the sadness, life inside a car, parties and premieres, and Beaux Arts architecture. One special pleasure I had was that I got to make Maddy a better driver than I am. I use my driver’s license primarily for boarding planes.
Did you miss writing about Brooklyn at all? Are there ever things that you see that you feel beg to be skewered?
I think all the time of life imitating art imitating life, like someone stealing Citibikes, which I read about recently on Gothamist. Though I no longer live in Park Slope, I spend most of my days there. I see the moms on the street saying things like “Beckett, can you please not hit Mommy in the face because it hurts Mommy?” and wish I were still taking notes. I go to real-estate open houses and see the apartment hunters and the brokers and the mendacity and I have thoughts about writing a new installment of the Park Slope novels.
Lately I have been observing brownstone Brooklyn tweens and teens, probably because I have a child who will soon be a tween. Up-talking, phones, rude manners. I have to stop myself from being the crotchety adult who tells them not to block the subway doors because when they do that, people can’t get on or off the train.
A friend of mine, a middle-aged mom, was walking ahead of some teenage girls on the street, eavesdropping as they eviscerated a schoolmate who was not with them, using every profanity in the book. My friend finally stopped, turned around, and said, “You shouldn’t talk about people that way. How would you like it if someone was saying those things about you?” One of the girls replied, “But she really is a bitch.”
As someone who was born and raised in New York and has been documenting her experiences living here for years now, you’ve been involved in the Brooklyn literary scene in many incarnations. What do you think some of the positive and negative aspects of it are? Or maybe you don’t even see it as a cohesive community at all?
It was never a cohesive community because there are so many mini-communities: the young experimental fiction writers, the domestic realism set, the academics who teach at Brooklyn College, the slaving in cafe writers, the journos, bloggers, and so on. There was kind of a nice, affable, pre-2001 moment at the Brooklyn Inn with twentysomething and thirtysomething novelists. I do miss that. Now “the scene” is more spread out and consists of various reading series and parties.
The positive aspect of the explosion of Brooklyn as an idea is that my hometown is now an international destination. The negative is that it has made Brooklyn a locus for the 1%. I don’t feel nostalgic for the crime-ridden seventies, but I feel nostalgic for the neighborhoody feel—even while I know that I over-romanticize the past.
But the street I live on now feels like more of a community. People on my block know each other’s names and socialize and sit outside on their stoops. I’m a Jane Jacobs fanatic. So you can still find a sense of community but I think it’s very block, demographic- and even traffic-specific. Also, we got a dog, which is an immediate connector.
THE ACTRESS could easily be called the epitome of a summer read, by which I mean it’s highly readable, fast-paced, and, well, has lots of sex. What are some of your personal favorite summer reads? Or do you not categorize books that way? (I actually tend to not, and once brought a trio of Elie Weisel books to the Dominican Republic, but that’s not really the point.)
I loved it when Curtis Sittenfeld tweeted, “Summer reading—or as I like to call it, reading.” It’s a shame that some people read only in summer. I have a lot of conflicting feelings about the “beach read” label and I personally do serious reading on the beach. There’s something great about reading something dark and difficult while people are slathering each other with oil and chugging Sam Adams twenty feet away from you (yes, I vacation in Massachusetts!).
My summer reading consists of library books. For many reasons, I don’t own an e-reader and the library is the perfect way to go through a lot of books in a short period without having to pack a single one. A lot of the local libraries where I’ve vacationed are strong on 1960s and 1970s lit, so I get to travel back in time and read under-appreciated writers. My personal favorite summer recommendations, some seventies, some not, are Geoff Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, Bruce Jay Friedman’s About Harry Towns and Far From the City of Class, Alec Wilkinson’s Midnights, James Lasdun’s It’s Beginning to Hurt, Meg Wolitzer’s Sleepwalking, Hilma Wolitzer’s Hearts and In the Palomar Arms, and Mary Gordon’s Final Payments.
What’s up next for you? Or are you just going to bask in the post-publishing glow? Or is that not even a thing that people can do or have ever done and certainly can’t do in today’s publishing climate? So, uh, what’s next?
Right now I’m working on a script I’m really excited about that deals with the lives and minds of women in the 1960s. I also have an idea for a young adult novel. But I’m going on vacation with my family so I’ll be working and writing while also trying to spend time with my child. Of course, my pastime will be spying at the beach to see who is reading The Actress.
There will be a launch party and Amy Sohn will be reading from The Actress tonight at BookCourt at 7pm, details here.
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