I met with author and editor Caroline Zancan on one of those beautiful late June days when it’s still possible to believe that New York’s summer won’t descend into its usual midyear fetid hellscape. It was the kind of day that makes those of us without roof decks or backyards question what the hell it is we’re even doing with our lives—if, you know, you can even call what we do living. In short, it was lovely. Who even wanted to go inside? Not me. Luckily enough for me, when I arrived at the charming Park Slope apartment Zancan shares with her husband, writer Ben Mathis-Lilley, I was pretty immediately led through the bookshelf-lined and animal tchotchke-filled living room and into a cool, verdant backyard, where their cat roamed about on a leash (this was described as being “the twee-est thing about us” by Mathis-Lilley) and we had the chance to talk about everything from Brooklyn real estate to the enduring power of female friendships to the benefits of an MFA to the most crazy things about life in Florida.
And, of course, we spoke about Zancan’s debut novel, Local Girls. The book centers around one night at a dive bar in central Florida during which a small, tight-knit group of drifting 19-year-old girlfriends meet and chat up a mega movie star who will fatally overdose within 24 hours. Zancan’s prose beautifully captures this time in a young woman’s life, when she is just figuring out that her life is not something to be planned, but that it is already happening, and she better hurry up and start living it, or risk missing it altogether. More than that, though, it ably evokes the fraught relationships many female friends have with one another, in which their shared histories can bring them closer together or—in the case of one of the book’s characters—drive them far away. And while I hesitate to recommend books on a seasonal basis (what’s good in the spring is still going to be good in the winter), Local Girls is a particularly timely read now, in the sticky, hot dog days of summer, which so perfectly parallel the oppressive reality of small town life—particularly when, as in Local Girls, that small town is in notoriously crazy Florida. Below, Zancan and I talk about that most infamous of states, the kind of discipline it takes to have a day job and write a novel, life in Brooklyn, and the power of female friendship.
Brooklyn Magazine: How long have you guys lived here?
Caroline: Since 2009. We’ve lived here a really long time—almost as long as we’ve been dating. It’s funny because we moved here right after 2008, when Park Slope prices were dropping—along with prices everywhere else. We have amazing landlords, who don’t raise rent very much, so we kind of feel like we have this underpriced gem.
Pretty much anything with a backyard like this is worth what you’re paying for it.
We always say we need more space and that we’re ready to get a bigger apartment, but we re-sign the lease in March and of course that’s when we’re dying to get out in the backyard, so we’re always like, Ahhh… one more year.
I love your tattoo [part of the design is peeking out on Zancan’s shoulder}… what is it exactly?
It’s part of a dandelion. There’s a Bob Hicok poem in the New Yorker [Ed. note: “A Primer”] that we read a few weeks before we got married and we knew we wanted to use a poem for the wedding program and we hadn’t found the exact right one. This Bob Hicok poem is about I-75, which both of our hometowns in the Midwest are along, and the last lines of the poem are “let us all be from somewhere/ let us tell each other everything we can,” and we thought that was so perfect. We’re both writers, and that seemed right for that. And it’s along a highway that we both know very well. So we put it on our wedding program and then for our one-year anniversary we each got one of the lines of poetry on our back.
Ben: Correction: The most twee thing we have is matching poetry tattoos, not the cat leash.
Yeah, I would probably rank it that way too. But I feel like twee is making a comeback.
Good. We’re leading that.
So, let’s talk Local Girls. Tell me a little bit about what inspired you to write this. You’re not from Florida, you’re from Ohio. So what is it about this place and time that made you to want to write about it?
I grew up going there. I started when I was ten years old, and would go a few times a year, and I lived there one summer while I was in college. So it’s near and dear to my heart. And to me, it was just, the older I get, the more and more I appreciate the weirdnesses of Florida. First of all, the wildlife down there is crazy. And I always thought that. Anecdotally, I remember I was running once on a bike path and this car was kind of going neck and neck with me and I was worried it was some sketchball, and finally he pulls up next to me and he’s like, “Just so you know there’s a panther in the bushes 20 feet up, so be careful.”
So it’s that kind of place, you know. You’d be riding your bike and you’d have to stop because there’s an alligator on the big path. And as a kid I always thought that was crazy. You know, I’m from Ohio, we don’t have anything nearly that exciting. I mean, Ohio has its charms but certainly no, like, dinosaurs. So I always thought that was strange. And so then when I was here, it must have been post-2005, there was an article in the New Yorker, about how crazy the wildlife is there, and how the second or third leading industry in Florida is illegal, black market animals. Which is crazy!
Yeah! It is crazy, but it also makes a certain kind of sense.
But they also have bad weather. And there was this terrible hurricane where a bunch of pet shops were taken out, and now these illegal animals are flourishing, and it’s like between that and some of the very big characters who are out there…
Like, the Florida Man, obviously, is the best meme ever.
Yeah, and then in 2008… you know, up till 2008 you would go there, and there would be a new shopping development and new stores or something that had been under construction would be finished and you’d place bets on what they were going to name it. And then after 2008, everyone in the country was hit because of the economic crisis, but Florida seemed to take a particularly bad hit, and then later—and thank god for these New Yorker articles—again I noticed that economically it was like a ghost town. Not only were things that had been in progress stopping, but these thriving shopping malls that we had been going to were just shutting down stores. And then I read this George Packer article about how Florida real estate… you know, in Florida, the number one industry is second homes. But after people took a big hit, they couldn’t afford their first homes, let alone their second homes, so Florida kind of took it hardest of all. And I would see these young kids around these totally economically depleted areas and I would just think, “What is it like to be coming of age in the worst area in the worst economic year that America has had in so long?” And I would just see them running around, they still had the carelessness of youth, but it was also just, you know, “What’s it like to be you?”
I find this particularly fascinating because they had been of a socio-economic class that had if not super-high ambitions, at least visions of a certain kind of economic stability. They didn’t have the complications of other lower income groups of people or of the historically oppressed parts of our population, but instead had to recalibrate so completely what they thought their futures were going to be.
I am from a small town, a very different small town, but I just kind of paired my knowledge of being a small town girl and wondering what the wider world is like and that restlessness right after you become an adult and the kind of crazy culture and that’s when it started.
When did you start working on the book? In 2008?
It was a few years after it happened. I had some distance from it… When did I start? I guess two-and-a-half years ago? I honestly wrote the book so quickly. It’s kind of a long bar conversation, with some back story. So once I came up with the concept, it happened very quickly. And it was mostly just revising and adding it out. I am a book editor [at Henry Holt], it’s my day job, so I am aware that each book needs its own editorial journey. And sometimes it’s a rearrangement, sometimes it’s a cutting; and for me, as I kept writing from what was this bar conversation, I kept being more interested in the girls. It was originally just going to be a movie star in a bar with the patrons, but I became much more interested in the girls, so out of the back story, I fleshed out a lot of the girls’ lives and even the world of the bar. So for me it was always just getting bigger and bigger and bigger, rather than the opposite.
It’s a really interesting experience as an editor to have that perspective of what the process is that a manuscript goes through before publication. But is it hard to utilize that knowledge on your own work?
Well, it’s funny too, because you kind of realize that every book is its own unicorn.
Ben: That’s like the third twee-est thing.
That might be number one!
You never know what you’re going to get. That’s what makes publishing fun.
In the last couple of years, female friendship has become a predominating theme in culturally important books, with women’s relationships taking the stage in the work of writers like Elena Ferrante, Rufi Thorpe, Emily Gould, and more… And it’s even gone beyond books, like with Broad City. And it’s a major part of your novel. What do you think the recent appeal is all about?
I think that part of it is that we’re getting married so much later in life, in general. You know if I lived twenty years ago, I would have gone right from living with my parents and then college to living with my husband. And I think that there were five years when I was living in Brooklyn before I met Ben and I was living with my best friends from college. I feel like for the window that now happens for a lot of women, in between college and marriage, your female friendships—or even just your friendships in general, my male friendships are very important too—they take on this role in your young adulthood, that I don’t think they always did. That was a big part of it for me certainly, and I know that my college friends, because of our post-college times.
And this specific period that you’re writing about—the late teens, high school, and post-high school years—the breakdown of a couple means the friendships take on a different intensity. Was that part of the appeal of focusing on friendships to you?
Yeah, I’m still very close to my college friends, I lived with some of them for the four years I lived here before I met Ben. And I will say that my college friendships certainly have much less baggage than the friendships in the book. But it’s a little bit of that. Throughout my life, at every stage, female friendships have played a huge role. But I do think in high school there are these very intense, like, I think your first love is often your best female friend. And they’re just so intense, they almost have to end; they are these great love affairs. I think they’re these little powder kegs. I had a terrible first friend breakup. It was like a love triangle and it felt so dramatic and intense at the time. As I get more distance from it—I’m 32 now—I kind of have a sense of humor about it. When I went to Bennington [for her MFA], my first workshop piece, it was not the start of Local Girls, but it was about these two best friends and there’s always that kind of dangerous, electric alpha girl, and then there’s always the introverted girl who’s kind of like “Ah! She’s so intoxicating but ultimately not that good for me.”
And it was funny for me because the old grizzled professor was having none of it. He was not into it at all. And then afterwards, a lot of the women who were in the workshop of various ages, came up to me, and said, “Oh my god, I had a friend like that.” And the older I get and the more I think about it, and the more I talk to other women about it, the more I understand that, you know, you never forget your first girl love. That’s a big part of what inspired this.
How do you know when something is working and isn’t working?
I’ve been writing my entire life. In general, you know when something’s working and it isn’t working. You want to go to it; you want to write. It feels like there’s an urgency to it. I came up with this idea, a celebrity had just overdosed, who did not have the same profile as Sam Decker. But it came out that he’d been drinking in a bar, one that was not in LA or New York or that kind of city. And I was just thinking about how we all like to tell stories about our favorite celebrity sighting, and I was just thinking about how weird it would be to be hanging out with this celebrity and the next morning you find out that he overdosed, and that would be so sad and so crazy. So originally it was just going to be about that movie star’s last night and it was just going to be a short story and it was going to be about that bar conversation and then the girls obviously needed to draw his attention in order to get him to come over, and then it became more about them. And I already knew about the general profile and personality of Sam Decker and I just kept coming back to them and why they’re in this fight with this other girl. And the more I thought about them the more I realized they had their own story to tell, and so the second thread got started.
So, you have an MFA but you also work in publishing. What’s your feeling on the whole MFA vs publishing question?
I think to some degree they both need the other. And you know if a brilliant manuscript crosses my desk, I don’t care if that person has an MFA or not. It’s how good the manuscript is, how good the story is, and you can be a 40-year-old man living in your mom’s basement and you can write a beautiful novel, or you can have an MFA from Iowa. At the same time, when I went to Bennington, I had this one professor, the one that didn’t like the girls story, he had all these rules we had to follow and someone was like, “What about Jonathan Safran Foer? He does that all the time. And the professor was like, “Well, Jonathan Safran Foer’s a hack.” And if that is not serious writing in the MFA world then I don’t know what is. I mean, we should all be so lucky to write like that.
I guess the lesson is: Down with grizzled old men telling us what to do?
He actually was ultimately very, very helpful to me and I get a kick out of him, and he had a lot to give. But it just goes to show that, in general, there’s this sense of “so many bad writers are published and sell a million copies.” And there’s this sense of “don’t think about the publishing world, we have to keep our writing pure.” And then in New York, it’s like, I don’t care what your credentials are, I just care if your story’s good. At the same time, I think publishers need writers who are willing to polish their skills, and that could be through an MFA or a writer’s group or just from reading. Honestly the most helpful part of Bennington was just reading everything, and taking it apart like a science project.
As far as how helpful the MFA is, I don’t think I ever would have finished this book without an MFA, but I think that was more about just taking myself seriously. You know, I was always like “I’m going to be a writer!” But I was working for Alice Munro’s editor for six years and it’s hard to be like “I’m going to be a writer” when you’re reading Alice Munro and it’s like you’re never going to be Alice Munro. But even if I’m never going to hit that level, I still can take myself seriously as a writer. And it helped me in giving myself a deadline. If I’m giving up all those weekends to going to Bennington, and giving up all my disposable income, then I’m definitely going to need to take myself seriously. And I think that’s really what a good MFA experience is. It’s about finding good professors and mentors, and about giving yourself time, time to read all the books, and to polish your writing. It’s about committing. You can do that without an MFA, but for me I don’t think I would have ever gotten to that level of commitment or self-seriousness if I hadn’t gotten to it.
How is it writing a book with a full-time day job?
At the start it was kind of one thing or another. After the first residency, I realized how intense it would be. And then I got married during that time, and I had a job change and am now a full-time editor. And I was writing the book, it was like a tornado. It’s kind of like what my dad says about medical school: If you knew what it was going into it, you’d never do it. But you take it one step at a time and then you get through it. And it was honestly a wonderful time. It was a stimulating time, I was getting to do what I love to do.
But in the last year, since my book has been in production and I graduated and I became a full editor and don’t have the assistant responsibilities, I kind of look back on it and I’m like, “Wow, that was kind of crazy.” And now, I’m just… I’m enjoying the pace of my life right now
You can see Caroline Zancan—along with three other amazing debut novelists—at Housing Works next Tuesday, July 28, at the Debut Novelist Summer Smash. All info for that event can be found here.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen