Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Caroline Zancan talks about LOCAL GIRLS, celebrity worship and its discontents, Amy Schumer and more.

I am a sucker for debuts, and I was quickly engrossed in Caroline Zancan's phenomenal LOCAL GIRLS. About celebrity, coming of age, and growing up in the swampy heat of a beach town, the novel is powerful and profound. Caroline is also an editor at Henry Holt, and she loves Hanya Yanagihara's A LITTLE LIFE as much as I do. Thank you so much, Caroline for coming on my blog!

 I always ask writers what the “spark” moment was for his or her book. What was haunting you that led to this story?

The idea came to me when news hit that a young, very well-liked celebrity—one very different from Sam Decker in many ways, I should addhad overdosed. He had a pretty clean image, and I, at least, was totally surprised when I heard. It was reported that the night he died was drinking in a bar in mid-sized city. And I just kept thinking about how much meaning we put on our celebrity sightings these days—we exchange them with each other like personal trivia about ourselves, and almost feel a sort of kinship with the celebrities we've crossed paths with. I associate certain celebrities with the friends of mine who have seen them, or have stories about them. And in addition to just being really sad for this particular celebrity's family and friends, I kept thinking about the patrons of that bar, imagining how crazy and sad and profound it would be to hang out with a celebrity--drink with him across the night--only to learn the next morning, along with the rest of the world, that he had died. Incredible excitement giving way to something much darker and sadder, and the kind of meaning it would be tempting to place on the whole thing. I just kept thinking, "Man, imagine the story those people have." Originally it was going to be a short story set just in the present of the bar, but the more I kept writing, the more drawn I was to the girls. The story ultimately belongs to them, and I think my hope is that people's reading experience will mirror the writing experience a little--at first you're leaning forwarded to hear what this celebrity has to say, kind of giddy from the proximity--but by the end you realize the girls' lives are just as interesting and profound and worthy of your attention.

And then on the total flip side of that, F. Scott Fitzgerald has always been my favorite writer, and
his story “The Freshest Boy” is one I return to again and again. It’s about a young boy who witnesses a loaded moment between his heroes and makes a major life decision based on what he overhears. This book is by no means an adaptation or retelling of that story—the boy was way younger and a lone wolf, bullied at his upper crust East Coast boarding school, and his heroes were a college baseball star and a theater actress, and he never speaks to them. (And they fare better than poor Sam Decker!) But I've always loved that idea of a brief encounter with someone you’ve loved from afar that changes your life forever.    

There’s such a riveting sense of place in the novel--the beach, the bar, the killing heat--the sense of it all being a dead end. Did you grow up in a town like this?

I'm not from Florida but I grew up going there, and lived there for a summer in a college. It’s a wild place, and I say that lovingly and with awe. I find it fascinating—the creatures and landscape there are stranger than fiction or legend or fairytale. I started visiting regularly when I was 11 or 12 and as my brother and I were pedaling off on our bikes that first day my dad was like “watch for gators!” and I was like “Haha, DAD.” But truly, gators are the least of it. It feels a little like anything could happen at any moment, and when you pair that ruggedness and that wildness with the cheerfulness of the vacation culture, it’s just kind of like “how is everyone not writing about this place all the time?”

I’m from a small town, about an hour outside of Cincinnati, one that I love, and still go home to often, but the thing I shared with these girls at that age more than that is that sense of restlessness. The epigraph I chose for the front of the book, by John Steinbeck, is “All of them had restlessness in common” which is true of my own experience as a young person. I remember being 18, just so ready for whatever was going to come next to arrive, even if I wasn’t sure exactly what that was going to look like, and then again after I graduated from college. It’s that slice of time when you suddenly have some agency over the course of your life—any complaints you have about your life are kind of on you; you’re no longer under anyone’s thumb--but you aren’t quite sure what you want to do with it yet.

These girls--19, not off to college--are both best friends and worst enemies, and they’re so alive, they snap off the page.  How did you go about crafting them and why?

I love the company of women--I've never been one of those "Oh, most of my friends are guys, I'm a guys' girl" despite how much I also enjoy the company of men. And it never fails to surprise me, the levels of intensity and the complexities--some thorny, some delightful--that relationships between women can bear over time. And I think this is particularly true when we're young, in high school or just after, because there are so many additional emotions and complications--it’s a pressure cooker of a stage of life, and close female friendships exist within that. Not to mention that the older you get, the more outlets you have to discuss problems or seek advice through, whereas teenage girls often turn in to each other instead of outside to the rest of the world when it comes to coping or exploring something they're thinking or feeling. As a result, I think we've all had our Nina or our Lila, or both, and I think it does have an impact on our lives, one that I've been surprised to discover is quite lasting. While these characters are all fictional, they're meant to capture a dynamic between girls that is very real.

I was fascinated that the girls found their outlet in reading about celebrities--and even more astonished when they actually got to meet one in their town.  Why do you think we actually need our celebrities, our royals, our heroes--especially when a part of us knows they must be very different than whom they pretend to be?

Storytelling held a sacred place in my childhood--when I wasn't reading books, I was watching movies. I grew up wanting to work in book publishing because it's one way to immerse yourself in stories for a living. And while not everyone makes a career out of it, I think I share that passion for a well told story with a lot of people--I think it's a way of trying to make sense of the world, or give it meaning. I think every culture in the history of human kind has incorporated storytelling into their way of life in some form or another. And these days celebrities are the face of a lot of the stories we hold most dear. I would die if I was ever in a room with Christian Bale not because I actually think he's a magical person, or better than any other person I pass on the streets on any given New York afternoon, but because to me he will always be Jack Kelly, one of my childhood companions. It feels personal. It's funny, living in New York City for the last decade and working in publishing, I actually will meet or interact with celebrities, and while it's exciting, there's always that moment of "please don't be a dick, please don't be a dick," because you never want to discover someone you admire is actually terrible. It would be like breaking up with a longtime friend. And at the end of the day, they're just people, which sounds obvious, but there is that strange juxtaposition of being like "holy shit, it's you"--total titillation--and hearing them talk about the most ordinary things. And I think it's that dichotomy that drives the weird celebrity culture of the 21st century--we place so much importance on these celebrities we all revere, we've elevated them to such a vaunted status in our society, and yet at the end of the day, people are people. I don’t think anyone could live up to the expectations we’ve set for them. Camera men follow some of them around all day, and sometimes they really are just buying toilet paper or taking their dog for a walk.      

I always want to know about process. What kind of writer are you? Do you outline? Do you write in stages or every day?

I find that I'm a different writer with every project I take on. This book kind of came out in a burst--it's taken me longer to write a lot of short stories I've done than it took to write this. I was kind of never not writing it. I scribbled notes on cocktail napkins in bars, and sent myself stray lines or plot developments in email form as I was going over the bridge during my morning commute. It became a little bit of an obsession, which my poor husband had to suffer through--we'd be sitting in front of the TV at the end of the night before going to sleep and I'd say "urg--why am I not working on my novel right now, I'm being so lazy." And he'd be like "What are you talking about? You've been working on that thing all day." I kept talking to him as if the characters were real, which he was a very good sport about. I remember when I finished my last revision before my agent sent it out to editors, I turned to him as I shut my lap top and said "Well, I guess Sam Decker's really dead now" as if it was the saddest thing in the world.    

In general, though, I always carry an idea around in my head for awhile, letting it marinate, before I try to put it down on the page. There's nothing more frightening to me than a blinking cursor at the top of a new word document, so if I'm going to sit down in front of a computer, it's because I’m ready to go; I know what I want to say and I have a general sense of how I'm going to say it.    

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m not sure I’d call it an obsession, but a book that I’ve found really hard to shake—in a good way—is Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. It’s the first book I read in 2015, and nothing has really been able to capture my attention in quite the same way since. Because I am almost constantly reading for either work or pleasure, things tend to come and go quickly, but this one seems here to stay. It’s a remarkable, stunning book that’s so big and powerful I almost don’t know how to talk about it. I had lunch with Hanya’s agent and she gave the galley to me and was like “I don’t really know what to say about this one, just read it” and that’s pretty much how I feel about it.

And then on the other end of our culture, I could binge watch Broad City and Amy Schumer all day. It’s a great time for women in comedy, and I love to laugh.  

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

I think you were pretty thorough—I loved these questions!

1 comment:

Nancy/Caroline said...

Caroline, I was trying to find out why Caroline Z. knew Central Florida, and your great Q&A told me! Thanks!

Nancy Pate