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




IN THE PROCESS of writing her debut novel, Time’s a Thief, B. G. 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. 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. 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. It makes sense except for the know-it-all part — in person, she’s polite, effusive, and quick to smile. Her writing bears a specificity that suggests a sincerely compassionate spectator’s attention to detail.

Firmani’s fiction first drew interest from Manhattan publishing houses while she was still an undergraduate. 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. 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.

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. 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. 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. 

If time is indeed a thief, in Firmani’s case it has produced a wise and redolent first novel. 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. 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.

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PETE TOSIELLO: How long was Time’s a Thief simmering in you?

B. G. FIRMANI: Well, I suppose there are a few factors at play. First, have you ever read Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited? 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! 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? 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.

Another thing — the character Kendra. Sometimes I’ll get obsessed with a picture. I’ll see a photograph of someone and say, “What is that? 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. Sun Ra and Sonic Youth were playing Summerstage in Central Park, 1992. Everybody was at that show. 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. I still remember: she was wearing a floral thrift shop blouse and some crappy-looking corduroys and these really goofy shoes. 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! And I recognized her from Barnard. Here she is, picking butts off the ground and smoking them. I thought, what happened to her? I barely knew her, she was sort of in the extended circle, but she was a privileged kid. I thought, are you a junkie? What’s going on in your life that you have to do that? She kind of cracked a smile at me, because she recognized me. That stayed in my mind. I can still see her — it’s strange, I can’t remember her name or anything.

The other thing I remembered recently. I was reading Sigrid Nunez — she had gone to Barnard about a generation before me. She wrote a book called The Last of Her Kind, and it was about a friendship between two girls at Barnard. And she’d also written a great little memoir called Sempre Susan about Susan Sontag. She went out with David Rieff, Sontag’s son, and Susan would come in and sit on the futon and give them sex advice. 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.

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. Why did 2008 make sense as a place of perspective for a 1980s narrative?

Well, the crash really hit us. I remember I was freelancing for a couple of different places that year, and I happened to be in Siena waiting for a bus. You know when you go to Europe and you act like a snob? I didn’t want to see other Americans. But these Americans at the bus stop were talking about all the Lehman Brothers crap going down. And I thought, you know what, I don’t want to hear about that, I’m in Italy. I’m trying to think in Italian even though my Italian’s really bad. I don’t want to hear about this stupid American stuff. I really had my head in the sand.

When I came back to the United States, it was like, what’s going on? There was the footage of everybody coming out of Lehman with their boxes. The crash just killed the economy, and in the freelance economy nobody wanted to pay out any more money. Everything just totally shrank. I was casting around for any kind of freelance gigs I could get. I remember feeling like I had to hustle. So it felt very dire. 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. How did you approach writing a character who, either consciously or unconsciously, is averse to analyzing her own motivations?

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. And you can’t really have a character develop from there. 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. I made a conscious decision to make this character more manipulable than I’d admit to being, not the person with all the lines. Other books that I’d written, I’d give to my best friend Kim and she’d say, “You always give the B. G. 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.

I think if I hadn’t been able to do that, there wouldn’t be a story, because there wouldn’t be any growth. My husband Damian once told me that my characters are very often reactive. I thought, in a way, that made for a classic Henry Jamesian innocence — young women who inevitably make wrong decisions. So I was a little bit aware of that, and it informed the writing to an extent. For instance, I didn’t know that Chess was going to get left behind for Christmas, but I thought, “Wouldn’t that suck! 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. Is that just a function of adolescence?

I think so. I never want to get so old that I lose the sensibility of being the alienated adolescent. I feel there’s so much truth in that, and forgetting what that’s like makes people complacent and acted-upon. I never want to be that person.

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. There was a lot more possibility, but the entire experience was so in-your-face. There was a feeling of not having a haven. You really would ride the 1 train and crack vials would roll down the subway car. But it was sort of like, oh hell, if you don’t like it, leave! You couldn’t have any suburban indignation.

I remember going to other places and thinking it was easier to be there, but it became boring at the same time. 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. But there was no joy in it, I just felt a flatness. The frisson of danger is appealing to young people.

I also found myself cowering while watching many of the characters descend into mania — eating disorders, drugs, nervous breakdowns. Do you attribute this to the uncertainty of the ’80s, the environment of New York City, or the Ivy League pressure cooker?

I really didn’t realize until I’d finished the book that there was so much of that stuff going on in it. 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. Maybe it’s a turn of mind where something that’s tragic is more appealing to me.

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. I was describing my friends from grad school, and Gene said, “B. G., don’t you know any normal people?” I thought, Jesus Christ, this is kind of funny, but maybe I’m pathologizing my friends. Or maybe I find them intriguing because of their weirdness.

But there was plenty of pressure. I remember this one girl. She had a typical ’80s look — spiked collar, blonde spiky hair, exaggerated eye makeup. We did a lot of hanging out, went to shows together. 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. She waved to me. 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. I thought, what happened to you? She seemed like she’d gone back to some preppy approximation of herself. 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.

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. 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. Does that say something about the kind of person she’s friends with, or attracted to? Or the kind of pressure they’re all under? Maybe both?

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. What sort of influence does she bear on this novel?

Oh, she’s terrific. She can also ruin your writing in a big way. Her essays are so precise, just delicious in a specific way that makes you want to imitate her. Of course, you’d fall flat.

Her novels are less good because she had a harder time imagining stuff. 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. I thought, seriously, Mary? Why is that so hard? It just wasn’t the way her brain worked.

In terms of the influence, there’s probably not a lot coming from McCarthy at this stage for me. When I was younger, she was so influential to me, I kind of had to kill the mother. Also, my given name is Mary. I hate being called Mary. Mary’s the person with the day job, the good girl. 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. Otherwise you’ll always be laboring under their weight, coming up short, tormenting yourself.

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. Especially because there’s already a Mary McCarthy, so the best I could be is a cut-rate version.

I read that you spent some time at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. Did those experiences inform the novel?

Oh, I’d recommend it. Basically everyone’s there to care about you. 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. Like, what?

You could squander your time there really easily. You meet so many people, everybody wants to hang out, play pool, and drink. If I went back now, I’d probably use my time better. But you definitely meet all kinds of people that you’d never otherwise have met.

At any rate, they’re great places, for young people especially, to realize, “Wow, I can do this,” and get a vote of confidence. And time! 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. Then everyone gets together and complains about the lunch at dinner.

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. 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?

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. It’s also regional. I remember having this conversation a couple of years back with a few writers from Chicago. Two of them were talking about the shame of being Italian American in Chicago, this wretchedness. They were probably in their 50s, maybe early 60s, and they had this really ingrained sense of feeling despised, and hating it.

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. It was partly generational, but more regional. I feel like I still see a lot of that, those really stupid Italian-American stereotypes. 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. But somehow it’s still open season on Italian Americans.

But it’s also kind of stupid to complain about it. There’s no real institutional hatred. When Italian Americans plead this sort of, “Oh, this is terrible … ” I kind of want them to shut up. But last week, my husband and I were sitting in a pizza place on Carmine. You could tell the owners were from Italy, and there was this ad on the radio for an Italian hoagie at Subway. It was so offensive, so dumb! I felt embarrassed that these people had to listen to it, to this Italian-American shtick that’s so out of date and ridiculous. Like, why is that still okay? It shouldn’t be okay!

I don’t think there’s any real equivalent in white ethnic culture. Except maybe Irish, all that leprechaun stuff around St. Patrick’s Day? Is it because mob culture is so compelling? It’s strange that it still has so much life. It’s time to put it to bed.

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Pete Tosiello lives in New York City and works in digital advertising.


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