How did this book come to be?
While I was moving in Manhattan, I managed to brilliantly lock myself out of two separate apartments two, count them, two on the same day. Since moving from walk-up to walk-up in New York is already one of those infamously difficult tasks that really shouldnt be difficult, I thought that having the same epic struggle within a 12-hour period was a good story. So I typed up what was essentially a play-by-play about the experience and sent it to some friends over e-mail, including an editor at The Village Voice. He worked with me on editing it, cleaning it up, and making it a larger story. And I found that I loved doing it and it worked. So he printed the piece and I started writing regularly for The Voice, followed by other places. Before that, I had only written longer fiction and suddenly I found myself enamored with the other side. Writing the essays specifically for I Was Told There'd Be Cake was such a wonderfully fun experience. With a book, you have the room take yourself out for a spin. You can let each essay take its own shape and to really tell a story over time. Whereas writing 800 words for a newspaper or magazine can be a bit like speed dating.
How does any essayist avoid being self-indulgent?
By answering questions about themselves? No, that cant be right. Really, though, I can only say what I do. Which is this: open a page, scan for the capital letter i and remove as many as possible. Really. Beyond that, theres a maze effect to most peoples brains, including mine. It seems like a big jumble and it can be frightening to dig like that into your own life and your own observations. There is the fear that what you produce will make sense to no one but you, that it will resonate with only you. And perhaps your mother. But 9 times out of 10, if you keep going remember more, get a little weirder, think a little bigger you can actually come out the other end of the maze where its clear. To me, this is the most fascinating aspect of all genres of writing, this idea that the more detailed you get about a person or a place or a kitchen appliance, the more readers will actually relate to it. It seems like it should be scientifically impossible. Like how bees technically arent supposed to be able to fly because their wings are too short. But they do.
Do you feel like the narrative voice is an extension of your own voice, or did you have to do some tweaking?
It is my own voice. There are certainly times when I wrote something that seemed adopted or borrowed. I felt obliged to treat a topic in either a more gentle or more critical manner. But the next time Id go through the material, Id think: who invited this a-hole? and change it back. Im not sure if those moments would be perceptible to anyone else, had they been left in, but they felt false to me.
Do you find funny is the hardest thing to write?
No. Serious is. If funny doesnt work it seems like a much easier screw-up to absorb than failing at being genuine. But its never really a strict matter of funny vs. serious, is it? Its finding one in the other thats probably the hardest thing.
Are you partial to any particular essay?
Its difficult to pick a favorite child. Then again, there are 15 essays. If I gave birth to 15 kids, you can bet Id be partial to some of them. I like The Pony Problem and The Ursula Cookie because they stick with me personally in a way that is a bit surprising. The last thing any debut is supposed to be is therapy. For one thing, its not very funny or smart or interesting. For another, readers can smell it from a mile away if youre just working out your own psychoses on the page. So part of the reason I chose those two is because Im proud of them technically I like how strange they are and I think every writer knows deep down when theyre on to something but they have also taken on a life of their own and helped me make sense of the events I described in them.
Are there things you could have gone back and done differently in some of these essays?
I know the answer to this is supposed to be penitent or some combination of resolving to be a better person and yet not having any regrets. Life is not supposed to be about regret, right? But the truth is I wouldnt have given the $20 bucks to that homeless guy in Sign Language for Infidels.
Did any essays get cut from the collection?
A few got cut because they really didnt fit with the point of the book, especially if one were to read I Was Told There'd Be Cake from start to finish. I personally dont read essays or story collections like this. I flip through the table of contents or the first paragraphs and choose that way. But even if one were to skip around, there were some essays that just felt out of place. And we didnt want readers landing on those or feeling as if anything had to be crammed in there that wasnt really meant to be there.
Did you have a particular readership in mind when you were writing these essays and putting them together?
I would spot-imagine people reading an essay. It actually helps with the editing to pick up a single essay and imagine someone from high school, your cousin, your best friend or, say, Richard Simmons reading it. Not that you would change it to please all those people it would be a bland sloppy mess but it does help you measure whats working if you can conceive of all these people appreciating it in their own way. Beyond that: people in their mid-late 20s and early-mid 30s, both male and female. So you dont have to have played Oregon Trail as a child, but it helps to know what it is. And you dont have to live in an urban center to enjoy the essays, but I would imagine an appreciation of city life is key. So this means if you are below 18 or above 38 and you live rent-free in Greenland without a computer, you should certainly not purchase this book.
You say that I Was Told There'd Be Cake is about disappointment. Did that theme emerge as you were writing the essays, or did you intend to infuse it in each piece.
Because the voice really is me, it emerged naturally. This is how I am. I tend to try to do well and then when something goes wrong, Ill still try. Now, if that doesnt work if a person cannot be reasoned with or a situation is beyond repair I enjoy going down in a blaze of socially awkward flames. And once I saw that that every essay started with high hopes and those hopes kind of plummeted into a pit of comical situations it was hard not to see it. (Unsurprisingly, Im a big Curb Your Enthusiasm fan)
New York is definitely one of the main characters in this book. How do you feel about the changing face of Manhattan?
Trying to write or even say anything new about New York is like trying to write or say something new about War or Love or The Opposite Sex. There are massive subjects that have been tackled by poets and playwrights and historians for years. To do it from scratch takes a fearlessness which, frankly, I dont have. I fear the trite and the patently lame. What I do have is kind of what I was touching on above that hunch that the details of my New York will resonate and connect with other peoples New York. But that also means that I cant really comment on the changing face of Manhattan in general. I read articles, go out at night, and I live in a neighborhood thats getting nicer. I know its gentrifying. I can see it on the streets. I can smell it in the Time Warner Center (gentrification, apparently, smells like Whole Foods). But my feelings about Manhattans changes, though theyre there in the abstract and ready to be shared in casual conversation, dont really matter in the essays. In the essays, only one small, personal slice of New York exists.
Every generation thinks the one that follows has lost some of its innocence. What are some pop cultural aspects of your own coming of age that you are sad to see go?
This is a tough one. I could say flannel shirts or crimping irons but Im going to go with slap bracelets. Slap bracelets were these inch-thick pieces of stiff cloth with two parallel sticks of metal sewn into the seams. And when you slapped this flat stick onto your wrist, it would curl around and become a bracelet. You could bend them and unbend them. It was awesome. They were cheap and plastic and florescent and they banned them in our school, partially because the activity was distracting the students and the noise was distracting the teachers. But also because they were deemed dangerous. You could hurt yourself, slice your wrist open or at least turn it red. What could be more of a clichéd generational nostalgia than that? Memories of what used to be dangerous
In your professional life, you're a literary publicist. Is it different than you expected to be on the other side of the fence now as an author? In what ways have you had to restrain yourself with your own publicist?
Restraint? Wait, wait, wait I hope that my publicist isnt trying to tell me that when I buzzed her apartment on Sunday night with outreach ideas, that was inappropriate? Or when my publicist said she was thinking of getting a tattoo, I thought it would be helpful to send her sketches of the art from my book jacket. Was that not cool? Fine then. Tomorrow shell be receiving a set of bed linens via messenger with I Was Told There'd Be Cakes ISBN number silk screened on them. They should be returned to me at once. They were very expensive.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher.
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