City as Campus: A Conversation with B. G. Firmani

Did those experiences inform the novel? Except maybe Irish, all that leprechaun stuff around St. This sounds like some corny “Free to Be You and Me” thing, but there’s only one you, so you owe a debt to yourself to be the most you that you can be, instead of following in someone else’s footsteps. And I thought, you know what, I don’t want to hear about that, I’m in Italy. G. On a Sunday afternoon in early spring, Firmani and I discussed her debut’s long genesis, the terrible kingdom of Koch’s New York, and good old Italian-American nostalgia. Oh, I’d recommend it. And she’d also written a great little memoir called Sempre Susan about Susan Sontag. At any rate, they’re great places, for young people especially, to realize, “Wow, I can do this,” and get a vote of confidence. I never want to get so old that I lose the sensibility of being the alienated adolescent. The crash just killed the economy, and in the freelance economy nobody wanted to pay out any more money. I thought, are you a junkie? Of course, that kind of fell apart, and I didn’t want to have a one-to-one correlation, but there are little hints of it throughout my book. You’re in the middle of the woods in a little cabin, it’s beautiful, someone brings you lunch and puts it in the basket on your step. I thought, what happened to you? Another in the group was from right outside Boston, and we talked about how we didn’t feel that on the East Coast at all. There’s no real institutional hatred. I feel there’s so much truth in that, and forgetting what that’s like makes people complacent and acted-upon. It makes sense except for the know-it-all part — in person, she’s polite, effusive, and quick to smile. Why is that so hard? When I was in grad school, I was in London with a college friend — Kim, the character Trina is based on — and her brother Gene. Living in a declining household paralyzed by dysfunction and pretension, the Marr-Lowensteins find Chess invaluable as both an outlet and a target for their manifold insecurities. Two of them were talking about the shame of being Italian American in Chicago, this wretchedness. But there was plenty of pressure. ¤
Pete Tosiello lives in New York City and works in digital advertising. Another thing — the character Kendra. I think there’s a tipping point that we’re definitely on the other side of, as far as Italian Americans being “other.” There’s residue of that, but it’s not the sort of shamefaced thing it might have been for my parents. But these Americans at the bus stop were talking about all the Lehman Brothers crap going down. They were probably in their 50s, maybe early 60s, and they had this really ingrained sense of feeling despised, and hating it. She went out with David Rieff, Sontag’s son, and Susan would come in and sit on the futon and give them sex advice. My husband Damian once told me that my characters are very often reactive. But it was sort of like, oh hell, if you don’t like it, leave! I remember feeling like I had to hustle. Sun Ra and Sonic Youth were playing Summerstage in Central Park, 1992. Or the kind of pressure they’re all under? She can also ruin your writing in a big way. You could tell the owners were from Italy, and there was this ad on the radio for an Italian hoagie at Subway. Well, the crash really hit us. I think if I hadn’t been able to do that, there wouldn’t be a story, because there wouldn’t be any growth. That stayed in my mind. I’ll see a photograph of someone and say, “What is that? And then she came back a semester, or maybe a year later, and I saw her mom letting her out of her car on 116th Street. I really didn’t realize until I’d finished the book that there was so much of that stuff going on in it. It’s time to put it to bed. I remember this one girl. Also, my given name is Mary. Everybody was at that show. It was as if she’d cleaned up, maybe gone to rehab or something, and the punk rock stuff was all part of what she’d gotten rid of. G., don’t you know any normal people?” I thought, Jesus Christ, this is kind of funny, but maybe I’m pathologizing my friends. I also found myself cowering while watching many of the characters descend into mania — eating disorders, drugs, nervous breakdowns. I’ve been thinking about this because one of the issues I’ve had in the past was that I wanted my characters to be super smart, super aware, super cool. Firmani attests she was something of a know-it-all back then, a hotshot writer fresh out of Barnard trying to squeeze all she could from the waning days of late-’80s punk rock. I really had my head in the sand. I barely knew her, she was sort of in the extended circle, but she was a privileged kid. Surveying the wood-worn interior, she recalls days in which the bar bore a different name, vibrant scenes and stories — the jukebox here, the drunken catfight there. I made a conscious decision to make this character more manipulable than I’d admit to being, not the person with all the lines. I feel like I still see a lot of that, those really stupid Italian-American stereotypes. character the best lines!” So I gave the Kim character the best lines in Time’s a Thief, so she could be the smart one. What’s going on in your life that you have to do that? So it felt very dire. They either have to be taken down a peg like Emma Woodhouse — “I had all these ideas, and now I realize they were wrong!” — or the growth can be a negative growth. But anyway, I think it’s the case for any writer with too close a role model — the role model needs to be killed in order to do your own stuff. I don’t think there’s any real equivalent in white ethnic culture. There was a feeling of not having a haven. For instance, I didn’t know that Chess was going to get left behind for Christmas, but I thought, “Wouldn’t that suck! For example, she famously said while writing one of her last novels that she had a hard time writing a character who was half-Jewish because she was only a quarter Jewish herself, so she couldn’t imagine it. Otherwise you’ll always be laboring under their weight, coming up short, tormenting yourself. I remember having this conversation a couple of years back with a few writers from Chicago. That would be really mean — I should do that to her!”
Throughout the novel, New York City is a source of despair for many of the characters, but upon returning to their hometowns and families, they find further despair. I remember I was freelancing for a couple of different places that year, and I happened to be in Siena waiting for a bus. So I was a little bit aware of that, and it informed the writing to an extent. Other books that I’d written, I’d give to my best friend Kim and she’d say, “You always give the B. You could squander your time there really easily. When I came back to the United States, it was like, what’s going on? If time is indeed a thief, in Firmani’s case it has produced a wise and redolent first novel. FIRMANI: Well, I suppose there are a few factors at play. In terms of the influence, there’s probably not a lot coming from McCarthy at this stage for me. Then everyone gets together and complains about the lunch at dinner. I was casting around for any kind of freelance gigs I could get. She had a typical ’80s look — spiked collar, blonde spiky hair, exaggerated eye makeup. Basically everyone’s there to care about you. But last week, my husband and I were sitting in a pizza place on Carmine. There was a lot more possibility, but the entire experience was so in-your-face. In Delaware, where I grew up, it’d be easy to get in your car and drive somewhere, get something, put it in your car, and bring it home without having to run the gauntlet of weirdness. Oh, she’s terrific. Everything just totally shrank. Patrick’s Day? But somehow it’s still open season on Italian Americans. I looked at her, and she wasn’t wearing any makeup, her hair was grown out, and she had one of those spongy, floral overnight cases. G. She kind of cracked a smile at me, because she recognized me. It shouldn’t be okay! She seemed like she’d gone back to some preppy approximation of herself. There was the footage of everybody coming out of Lehman with their boxes. MAY 19, 2017

IN THE PROCESS of writing her debut novel, Time’s a Thief, B. It’s strange that it still has so much life. But it’s also kind of stupid to complain about it. It just wasn’t the way her brain worked. I hate being called Mary. If I went back now, I’d probably use my time better. I don’t know if I’m drawn to difficulty, or if something without that kind of resonance isn’t vivid enough on the page. I think so. I definitely felt this pivot, similar to how September 11 felt like a pivot in a different way, but similar in that you can sort of point to it in retrospect. As a first-person narrator, something I found frustrating about Chess was that, for all her self-awareness, she’s very easily manipulated. I felt embarrassed that these people had to listen to it, to this Italian-American shtick that’s so out of date and ridiculous. I was with a group of friends, and before it started I was looking at this girl walking ahead of us, and she looked familiar. Like, what? Narrated in retrospect from 2008 by a jaded, still-struggling working professional, Francesca “Chess” Varani, it avoids the predictable AIDS-crack-Bernie-Goetz touchstones in favor of a wide survey of adolescent class warfare. Of course, you’d fall flat. I was reading Sigrid Nunez — she had gone to Barnard about a generation before me. I don’t want to hear about this stupid American stuff. Does that say something about the kind of person she’s friends with, or attracted to? When Italian Americans plead this sort of, “Oh, this is terrible … ” I kind of want them to shut up. Especially because there’s already a Mary McCarthy, so the best I could be is a cut-rate version. Like, why is that still okay? We did a lot of hanging out, went to shows together. Mary McCarthy is a somewhat immediate touchstone for a book about ambitious young women in New York City, and is even mentioned here a few times. Firmani’s fiction first drew interest from Manhattan publishing houses while she was still an undergraduate. She waved to me. I thought, seriously, Mary? It was so offensive, so dumb! But you definitely meet all kinds of people that you’d never otherwise have met. The other thing I remembered recently. I remember going to other places and thinking it was easier to be there, but it became boring at the same time. What are her circumstances?” In this case, I had a memory of being at this big show — I think I actually mention it in the book. Its high drama and lingering scenery evoke a pragmatic New York City romance, one that need not resort to longing gazes at the skyline or “If I Can Make It There, I’ll Make It Anywhere” declamations. I can still see her — it’s strange, I can’t remember her name or anything. The frisson of danger is appealing to young people. Mary’s the person with the day job, the good girl. You couldn’t have any suburban indignation. It can also make you feel amazingly fraudulent — everybody’s so nice, they make food for you, you don’t have to pay for anything. You meet so many people, everybody wants to hang out, play pool, and drink. I never want to be that person. I’ve read a few New York–based novels from the last couple of years that treat 2008 as a turning   point in the history of the city. Sometimes I’ll get obsessed with a picture. But her New York experience is defined by her association with the Marr-Lowensteins, a family of literary royalty overseen by matriarch Clarice, a public intellectual half–Susan Sontag and half–Cruella de Vil. I didn’t want to see other Americans. The climactic scene where Chess’s boss makes the dismissive remark that “Catholics make the best workers” hammers home the notion that, for all her efforts and accomplishment, in some sense she couldn’t shake that part of her identity. I thought, in a way, that made for a classic Henry Jamesian innocence — young women who inevitably make wrong decisions. Maybe both? She wrote a book called The Last of Her Kind, and it was about a friendship between two girls at Barnard. Somebody dropped a cigarette, and she pounced on the ground and put it in her mouth, and then turned around to see if anybody had seen her! ¤
PETE TOSIELLO: How long was Time’s a Thief simmering in you? B. When I was younger, she was so influential to me, I kind of had to kill the mother. What sort of influence does she bear on this novel? Firmani, who first arrived in New York as a college freshman during Ed Koch’s third term as mayor, found herself flooded by memories of places like the dive we’d selected in her East Village neighborhood. Why did 2008 make sense as a place of perspective for a 1980s narrative? Do you attribute this to the uncertainty of the ’80s, the environment of New York City, or the Ivy League pressure cooker? But when I was young, I was enchanted by the dream of the British upper class, and I thought, what if I did an American version of that? Maybe it’s a turn of mind where something that’s tragic is more appealing to me. Is that something you found held true as recently as the turn of the century, given that Italian Americans had mostly assimilated two generations prior? The writer Gilbert Sorrentino — he was half-Italian, half-Irish — in an interview a few years back, joked about how there are all these ethnic stereotypes that are out of bounds now, as they should be. Here she is, picking butts off the ground and smoking them. How did you approach writing a character who, either consciously or unconsciously, is averse to analyzing her own motivations? And you can’t really have a character develop from there. After two abandoned novels and countless addresses on both sides of the East River, Doubleday is publishing Time’s a Thief, a bildungsroman about a group of undergrads at her alma mater, set in the late 1980s. But there was no joy in it, I just felt a flatness. We were talking at a reunion a few years ago, and it turned out that her two closest friends at Barnard killed themselves some time after they graduated. I read that you spent some time at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. Chess is an art history major from a rough mid-Atlantic Italian-American household who quickly falls in with a group of likeminded punk die-hards from middle-class backgrounds. Or maybe I find them intriguing because of their weirdness. It was partly generational, but more regional. You really would ride the 1 train and crack vials would roll down the subway car. It’s also regional. First, have you ever read Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited? It’s funny because New York in the ’80s was a hard place to exist, but in some ways it was wonderful because it wasn’t mapped out. You could find pockets of weirdness that aren’t going to happen again, certainly in Manhattan anyway. Her essays are so precise, just delicious in a specific way that makes you want to imitate her. I’m trying to think in Italian even though my Italian’s really bad. Her novels are less good because she had a harder time imagining stuff. And I recognized her from Barnard. You know when you go to Europe and you act like a snob? She was very interfering in Sigrid’s life, and I think I had the germ of that in my head too — an imperious mother who is in people’s business all the time and wants to be admired. G. Is it because mob culture is so compelling? I still remember: she was wearing a floral thrift shop blouse and some crappy-looking corduroys and these really goofy shoes. And time! The woman who’s my doctor now — of all random things — was in my extended circle of friends when I was an undergrad, although I didn’t really know her then. Her writing bears a specificity that suggests a sincerely compassionate spectator’s attention to detail. I was describing my friends from grad school, and Gene said, “B. Is that just a function of adolescence? I thought, what happened to her? I loved that book when I was very young, then I went back and read it in my 20s and realized how disgusting and classist it was!