As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Michael Idov has accomplished three things I have, at some point in my life, wanted to do: he is a features writer at New York Magazine, he wrote a book, and he opened a coffee house on the Lower East Side. And while his café is no more, the book is loosely drawn from Michael’s own experience trying to make it work. (And nothing is really a failure if you’re able to draw a novel from it.)
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What I found in his debut novel, Ground Up, were characters just offbeat or self-absorbed enough to push along the narrative, but with struggles that grounded the story and made it feel real in today’s gentrified New York City. Mark and Nina, married and both children of successful immigrants, attempt to open their own Viennese-inspired café, only to let the failure of the business threaten their own sanity and marriage. The novel effectively gives a face to a block in the Lower East Side, smartly commenting on how the character of a neighborhood changes as quickly as business open and close. Michael and I talked about just why everyone wants to open their own coffee shop, the appeal and danger of writing what you know, and the tentative future of writing in this city.
Emily Nonko Let’s start with your own coffee shop closing, and how the book came out of that. I read your Slate article which chronicled your own failed attempt to open a coffee shop and was wondering if the coffee house was what you immediately wanted to write about, after it closed.
Michael Idov Well, I don’t think it was quite that linear. To be honest, I always wanted to write a Manhattan social satire and this was partially an excuse to write it. After the Slate article, I got a few calls from agents and they wanted me to write something non-fiction, or a “how not to” about opening your own café, or some sort of premature memoir. I’m really allergic to those things, and I couldn’t imagine myself doing the corporate lecture circuit… I just used that as an excuse to hang my dream of writing a satirical novel. And that worked. I told most agents I saw the book along the lines of Evelyn Waugh, and then (making a telephone gesture) ‘click,’ that would be it.
My agent was intrigued to do it as fiction. And it is very much fiction, the truth of my café owning is simply not as dramatic. We set out with a certain amount of money we could afford to lose, we lost it, we cut our losses, and got out. It didn’t have the progressive momentum when you start throwing money out and destroying your entire life, which a lot of people do.
To be honest, the book was mostly inspired not by my own story but by the stories I got from the readers of the Slatepiece. I got over 500 emails from people whose business ideas ranged from completely harebrained to fifth-generation owners of a provincial supermarket where people stopped going and the writer’s father shot himself. I got one letter from a couple that owned the only English store in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.
This is where the characters of Mark and Nina started taking shape. The basis I put them through is very much informed through my own experience on the Lower East Side. The setting is more or less real, although if you’ve noticed the street their coffee shop is on doesn’t exist. It takes readers a long time to realize ‘Fullerton’ is not a genuine Lower East Side street.
EN I had to Google it! I thought it was one of those secret little streets winding somewhere in the neighborhood.
MI Even the people who know the city very well will admit that there might be a Fullerton. I’m very happy with that street name. It’s like the 8 ½ floor in Being John Malkovich.
EN I know you mentioned the memoir earlier, and I’m boggled by why there is such a huge demand to always read something labeled as truth. I like the line in your book, “It’s my story and I can lie if I want to.” As a fiction writer, do you really enjoy that freedom? What are your thoughts on memoir vs. fiction?
MI I think the obsession with memoirs is a symptom of our larger obsession with authenticity, almost an infantile desire to know that your reading is how it happened. Every time the lights go down in a movie theater and I see “Based on a true story,” my reaction is, who the fuck cares? Is it a good story or a bad story?
I think I’m especially sensitive to the immigrant narrative, because it’s always the same. It’s always an assimilation narrative. Step one: parochial values of the old country vs. the post-modernists of the United States. Step two: Pining for the smell of the homeland.
It comes from our belief that the American experience is not interesting in and of itself. We need to keep seeing it and re-seeing it from stranger’s eyes, or go farther and farther into people’s extreme experiences. Wanting to read about someone who was a child soldier, I understand that. But then the desire for authenticity spills out into the mundane as well, and we get memoirs about going to a fucking prep school, you know? You can take any experience and ram the triumph of the ingénue narrative into it. No matter who you’ve been, a nanny or a bouncer or a model, there will always be the triumph of some bright-eyed kid who came to New York and conquered the system. And with that, having published the memoir is the happy ending. The happy ending is always the same: I grew up and I published a memoir. They all go for this meta-ending.
EN How much of the ‘American experience’ did you want to portray in your own novel? There’s a tag on your book, ‘Living the American Dream in Reverse.’
MI It was very important for me to have the main characters, Mark and Nina, to be children of successful immigrants. It just formally becomes more elegant to start them there and drop them off on the Lower East Side, where their own ancestors landed three generations ago. So they are sort of living this American, pilgrims-progress, backwards. They start out as the immigrant’s dream, the privileged yuppies of the Upper West Side, and then they basically end up impersonating what their grandparents would have been doing. Once I realized they had to be not just rich, Waspy kids, but also children of successful immigrants, I might as well made Mark Russian just to draw in something I know. Hopefully I didn’t have any factual slip-ups in the places I mention Nina’s heritage.
Mark is much less Russian than I am, Mark is second generation, and I moved here when I was 16. Mark thinks he knows Russian; he has a terrible translation of a poem in the book. But it doesn’t make this an immigrant or an assimilation novel. They’re basically doing, for a laugh, what their ancestors would have to do to get ahead in society.
EN I thought the Lower East Side was an interesting setting for this book, because once—no one wanted to live there. It was a neighborhood people struggled to live in. But now you have to have so much money to live there, open a business there. It’s interesting to look at how dramatically the character shifted in the neighborhood.
MI The book is very much about gentrification and the fact that this is cyclical. My favorite character in the book—the landlord—I liked coming up with his story of getting rich by selling neon tracksuits to rappers. There’s a lot about how these things are cycles, and they get caught up in a boom-bust cycle. The book is not indignant about gentrification; it takes some of this yuppie, romantic notion of entrepreneurship. It’s mostly kind of a folly, but in real life, just because someone decides to open a well-curated butcher shop in Brooklyn… it might be ethically suspect because you know these people always have a Plan B and can fall back on whatever higher education they’ve had. At the same time, what’s the real world result? More good meat. In Mark and Nina’s case, their coffee probably was very good.
EN You know, I’ve always had this dream of, if I were to fall into some money, I would open a coffeehouse on a sort of whim.
MI See, everyone has this idea, right? It’s definitely not [just in] New York… I see this around the country. I’m translating the book into Russian right now and the central idea of the book is somehow completely alien to the reader because Russian intellectuals don’t have this dream of opening their own cafés, bars, or restaurants.
EN It’s strange how it’s so romanticized, wanting to open a space to express yourself without worrying about the business of it.
MI It’s a very American dream, of a more European way of life. It’s referred to, in the book, as a “perpetual dinner party.”
EN So what were your reasons for getting into the café in the beginning?
MI They were pretty close to that. It was definitely a lark and we wanted to see if we were cut out for it or not. It can succeed, a lot of people misinterpreted the Slate piece to mean that small business can’t survive.
EN Were you writing before you opened the coffee house?
MI Oh, yeah. I’ve been a journalist since I was 13. First in Russian, then in English. The café was definitely a detour from writing—I think it would be romantic if I was a savant who had this one experience and then started writing about it, but unfortunately not. The café was definitely not a project: “My one year I did a wacky thing to sell a book about.” I definitely didn’t think the café would merit any artistic consideration.
EN Did writing a book about the café change your perception on opening and closing one?
MI It hasn’t. In the novel, the characters go through things I never had to go through. If this book sells a million copies then I’ll open a big café and then it would feed off of itself.
EN I’ll come.
MI That’s what people always promise me.
EN Does your own experience coming to America change your perspective as a magazine writer or a novelist?
MI As a magazine writer, almost certainly not. As far as fiction is concerned, I have a primarily New Yorker kind of view. I’m a New Yorker first and foremost. This is something I used to put up as a counterclaim to being American—‘Are you an American?’ ‘No, I’m a New Yorker.’ I think the New York point of view is very informed by some sort of outside experience. Almost everyone is from somewhere else.
EN That’s why it’s such a great city. I also wanted to ask you your thoughts on switching between journalism and fiction. With journalism, you’re always digging for what’s already there. But with fiction, you have this daunting task to come up with it all yourself.
MI Well in the first chapters of the book, this florid, overwritten language is not my natural writing style I’ve been suppressing in my journalism. It’s something character specific because Mark is a writer and his is a very self-admiring voice. It’s definitely great to be able to write in a voice that’s not your own, and create dialogue from scratch. That’s something journalism is incapable of providing.
EN So was it an easy shift, to start writing a book?
MI I’ve always written fiction, but I’ve never written anything longer than 30 or 40 pages. I definitely had to diagram and mentally subdivide these short stories that I had to bind together.
EN What did it feel like to finish a full-length book?
MI You know, it’s a multi-step thing. You walk on air for a few days, then you read it and are completely manic about it, and then you find one thing that you hate that immediately poisons the entire experience for you. You spend another month thinking you’ve wrote a horrendous piece of crap no one will ever want to read. You oscillate between these two extremes and then you come to rest in the center. I finished a year and a half ago, so I feel like it was a good snapshot of what I was then. It’s like finishing a giant crossword puzzle.
EN Like those puzzles you can buy at the SkyMall! Have you seen those crossword puzzles you can hang on the wall?
MI Every time I see it, I have to stop myself from buying one. I have to remind myself how awful it would look on the wall. There’s a passage in the book where Mark is making fun of crossword puzzles. This is sort of me taking over, on his behalf. (laughter)
EN Is Mark a character you feel like you’ve pulled from yourself?
MI Well, he’s an asshole. He’s a pretentious twit. Mark is a willful projection of my worst qualities. Once you write for an eloquent character, you end up giving them your own best lines. Once you’ve done that, you can’t help but feeling a little affectionate towards them.
Mark would be about 40 percent me, the worst 40 percent. Two of my favorite characters are the ones not based on anyone. Vic Fioretti [Mark’s old friend in the book, a struggling anti-folk musician who finds fame with ridiculously named songs] is a character born of my own frustrations of trying to get a rock band going for three years. I achieved precisely nothing. And after I gave up, my backing band reformed into this jazz-rock group that is doing very well. All they needed for success was for me to fuck off. In the book, I needed to have someone Mark despised in the very beginning, and as Mark goes down Vic becomes richer and very famous at the same pace. What could be better than making this guy an anti-folk, Sidewalk Cafe type? I wanted Vic to come back in the end of the novel and actually buy the café. Then I felt like it would be wrapping up a TV series, too neat.
EN Are there writers or novels you kept coming back to when you were writing your own?
MI I was reading a lot of Evelyn Waugh. And The Emperor’s Children, a good guiding light in terms of what a great sprawling New York novel can be. Mine is not either great or sprawling, it tries to create a tiny microcosm of New York on one block. It was also really good to see someone who is less chicken-shit than me to do a whole canvas of New York, and have 9/11 in there, and come up with what I think is really genuinely a great novel.
EN Are you planning on writing more New York-based books?
MI I’m certainly not setting out to do it, or carve out some sort of niche. It’s too early, isn’t it? I should be thinking about it, but I don’t have such a holistic view of my career. It’s just whatever happens.
EN Here’s a question I’m sure you’re sick of talking about but, where do you think journalism—and the novel—is going? Are you fearful, hopeful?
MI I’m not sick of it at all, I’m just terrified of being wrong.
EN How do you feel about people reading your book on a Kindle?
MI Great. Why not? If having a physical product out there just becomes a way of advertising yourself, then that’s the way it works. If writing and journalism becomes a sort of sponsored activity that requires patronage from rich people, look at the big picture. That’s how it was 100 years ago and in a way that’s how it is now. Rich people like owning media properties. And I think the sooner we own up to that the sooner we’ll be over this period.
As for the novel, I would definitely love to see more novels out there that aren’t thinly veiled biographies or thinly veiled collections of short stories. I’m shooting myself in the foot by saying that. I’m certainly guilty of everything I’ve decried. I just think that ‘write what you know’ is a double-edged sword and that sometimes people should write about something they have absolutely no idea about.
‘Write what you know’ gets coupled with writing that’s more cosseted and you end up with hundreds of novels about being in grad school and having girl troubles.
EN And I think we’re becoming a culture where everything is too quick. And we’re so impatient.
MI I think it’s going both ways. What we’re seeing is that the high end of everything just gets more sophisticated and the low end just gets trashier. We’re in the Golden Age of Television, not just HBO and Showtime, and then we have this reality crap. Food, same thing. We’ve never eaten better, but we’ve never eaten worse.
There’s this movement to two extremes and I wouldn’t be surprised if more people start reading serious novels just as more people stop reading at all, or don’t read anything longer than a Tweet. We’re becoming a really pluralist society, and it’s great because there’s enough of us to cover all the bases. We just need to forget about being Michael Jackson, about selling 50 million copies of something. We need to find our niche.
EN Yeah, it’s interesting to see where the novel is going in a sort of tell-all, cover-all culture.
MI I think it’s going everywhere at once, that’s great. If someone wants to read about the one time in suburbia they got stomach flu, great. The more information that’s out there, the choosier we get.
EN How do you feel about your own future as a writer in this city? Does it feel safe to you?
MI (laughter) Oh, God. No. Do I sometimes wake up thinking in 10 years I’ll be forced to write video game scripts? Sure. But sometimes I wake up thinking 10 years from now writing a video game scripts will be more rewarding than what I’m doing now. Who knows.
Ground Up is out now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.