Partying While the World Burned: An Interview with Andrea Bartz
By Daniela PetrovaMay 1, 2019
Edie’s body was found during one of their epic parties in a loft complex in Bushwick, modeled after the legendary McKibbin Lofts. But Lindsay was so drunk that she can’t trust her memory of that night and fears her own involvement in her friend’s death. As she stitches together the events of that year — with the help of her old camcorder, Facebook posts, and conversations with her long-dispersed friends — we’re transported, along with her, to Bushwick circa 2009:
Our drunkenness swelled, not just from the shots but also from the frenzy: strobe lights, spilled drinks, gyrating masses, a pounding band sporting silver and gold jackets and sequins on their eyebrows. We allowed the surf to sweep us up, dancing along, a pleasant tornado. The night faded to black afterward, like so many after it, when the light of my consciousness would blink back on hours later …
A journalist, Bartz was previously a senior editor at Glamour, Fit Pregnancy, and Psychology Today. She’s also the co-author of the blog and book Stuff Hipsters Hate. I spoke to her over brunch at a Brooklyn cafe not too far from where The Lost Night is set about nostalgia and the unreliable nature of memory, setting a mystery in a particular time and subculture, the portrayal of women in thrillers, and how her protagonist breaks the mold.
DANIELA PETROVA: In the past, you’ve worked as a magazine editor and a freelance journalist. Was the transition to fiction challenging?
ANDREA BARTZ: I started writing The Lost Night while I was still on staff as an editor, and I kept working on it while I became a full-time freelance writer. In some ways, my training as a journalist helped me get words on a page; I’m disciplined and comfortable hitting a target word count and writing against a deadline, so I got myself to draft by setting fake deadlines and having daily goals. (I kicked off the first draft with NaNoWriMo, which was hugely helpful!) Now I primarily write fiction, and I sometimes miss the quick turnarounds and changing rhythms of freelance writing. I could write something and have it published an hour later — now I write words that won’t see the light of day for years! In the end, though, I love letting my imagination run wild instead of being beholden to the truth, so I feel immensely lucky to be writing novels for a living.
Was there anything that surprised you about the process of writing a novel?
The Lost Night was my first foray into writing a full-length novel, and I had no idea what I was doing. So I guess you could say every turn was a surprise! Through the process, I learned that for me, outlining doesn’t work: I need to write a “discovery draft,” much of which I’ll later toss out, to figure out the shape of the story. Many authors can plot the whole thing out beforehand, and frankly I envy them, but I’m working through the mystery in tandem with my characters — and often, they surprise me.
What inspired you to write this particular story?
I knew I wanted to write a thriller, because they’re my favorite thing to read. I tend to enjoy books with a strong sense of place and time, so I started thinking back on my own postgrad years in north Brooklyn — there’s something special about that enthusiasm, that energy, that hubris, that sense of invincibility, even. I graduated from journalism school in 2008 and spent those first few years in New York partying while the world burned. The stock market crashed, adults’ net worth tumbled, unemployment soared, companies instituted hiring freezes, we bailed out Wall Street and elected Obama — wild, unprecedented stuff that gave the impression the world had been thrown off-balance. But we were 22 or 23, too young and broke and optimistic to feel personally affected, so we partied and danced and took photos and wrote poetry and printed zines with abandon.
Looking back on this era, I was thinking about McKibbin Lofts, which could rather generously be called “artists’ lofts” in Bushwick — it was a cheap, massive, labyrinthine former warehouse brimming with weird arty kids and booze by the barrelful. You could walk in on any Friday night without any plans and have a whole adventure just wandering the building. You might find a poetry reading in one loft, a bluegrass jam in another, an EDM dance party in another, and so on. I thought: what if, after one of those sprawling, raucous Friday nights in 2009, there was a dead body in one of the lofts? That was my jumping-off point for The Lost Night.
Your protagonist, Lindsay, is revisiting events that happened 10 years earlier, and her narrative is infused with nostalgia. Is that particular to the character, or do you think it’s a universal sentiment about youth — that time in your 20s when your whole life is ahead of you and you feel invincible?
2009 was a particularly odd time to be 23. Our whole lives, we’d been almost guaranteed a decent job and a 401(k) and the ability to buy a home and provide for our families, as long as we played by the rules: get your degree, complete some internships, apply for jobs, check, check, check. Instead we tumbled off the end of the conveyor belt and discovered the promised safety nets weren’t there. That was baffling and disorienting and outrageous and, in many ways, freeing. People who are graduating in 2019 will also face tough job prospects and a lot of instability, but they’re expecting it, they know it’s coming. I think that rug-pulled-out-from-under-you phenomenon is what led to the rise of the so-called hipster, a counterculture marked by disdain for everything: med school, traditional relationships, mainstream music, capitalism. Now it seems quite normal for young people to be disillusioned with capitalism, but not so in 2009.
All that said! There’s definitely something special about being in your 20s and on your own for the first time, with your whole life ahead of you. I know this isn’t unique to 2009 because some Generation X readers have said things like, “The Lost Night is a book set in New York in the ’90s.” It’s most certainly not, but they’re transposing their own early 20s period onto it. One line I like from The Lost Night is, “I miss that about my twenties, that vastness, that sweeping sense that there’s room for everyone worthwhile, all the time and space in the world.” You couldn’t pay me to go back to my 20s — I’m so much less insecure and more comfortable with myself now, plus all that partying was exhausting — but it’s fun to look back on who I was at 23 and all the wild, boundless fun I was having as a newly minted adult.
A central theme in your novel is the unreliable nature of memory. Did you set out to write about it or was there something in the process of telling the story that drew you to it?
I decided to set the novel in the present, 10 years after the mysterious death, for practical reasons: I wanted my narrator to be an amateur detective trying to solve this mystery, and having her return to a closed case made more sense than having her sniffing around amid the police’s own investigation. But once I’d made that decision, The Lost Night very quickly became a novel about memory. There’s an interesting irony to my own recollections of that era: I felt I’d never had more fun in my life, yet because we were doing so many things and going to so many shows and parties and bars and barbecues and moving so fast, my memories from that era have a hazy pall to them. This era I loved the most I remember the least. It’s sort of like how when we’re the hungriest, we eat the fastest — tasting the food the least. (Yes, like Lindsay, I cite random factoids in casual conversation!)
Memory is obviously a key component of many great whodunits (there’s a whole genre of memory-loss thrillers!), because getting to the reality of what happened is the ultimate goal and clashing memories remind us that reality is always filtered through our experiences and recollections. It was fun to take that idea to an extreme with Lindsay initially thinking she remembered the night of Edie’s death perfectly, and then watching her memories fall apart under scrutiny.
Friendships play an important role in your novel, and I found your treatment of this topic very interesting. Can you talk a bit about that?
Thanks for saying that! “Calhoun Lofts” is a close-knit, closed-door world, and within it I wanted to zoom in on one central clique. The group I settled on — three women and two men, including one couple and one gay guy — set the stage for a lot of interpersonal drama and surprising backchannels. I remember having extremely close, probably codependent friendships in my early 20s, and I wanted to capture that intensity. In an almost obsessive way, nothing in life felt more important than those relationships, although my friendships are much healthier and boundary-filled these days.
Edie is the star of the closely knit group of friends, one of those people with magnetic energy who draws you in. Everyone is clamoring for her attention, vying to be considered her best friend, even 10 years after her death. How did you come up with her character?
I liked the idea of Edie, this magnetic, mercurial shining star, as kind of a cipher; everyone thinks they alone know the real Edie, but in fact they all see different parts of her — and hold different secrets of hers. That’s why I included interstitials from different character’s POVs; the other people in her life knew different facets of her, and to solve the mystery you can’t really look at Edie in just one light. In a way, Edie almost represents that era for all of them: she’s young and gorgeous and wild and fierce and importantly, from what they can tell, she DGAF. Her death brings that era to a close and also immortalizes her in a sense, and that sudden end of an era leaves Lindsay reeling and unable to truly move on.
Can you talk about the portrayal of single women in thrillers and how your protagonist breaks the mold?
My protagonist isn’t a widow, a divorcée, or someone trapped in a bad marriage. That’s unusual in the genre. In fact, the jacket copy of myriad thrillers starts with the same cliché: “So and so seems to have the perfect marriage…” I wanted Lindsay to be single because it leaves her to deal with this huge and life-changing investigation solo. That was important to me: Lindsay needs to solve this mystery to save her own life, and she doesn’t need a partner to rescue her. She has close friends who love her and a huge amount of intelligence, determination, and grit, and that’s all she needs to piece together this part of her past, which hooks into her own female friendships. I’m single myself and I so rarely see myself in the heroines of thrillers. Often the drama centers around their primary romantic relationship, past or present. (There’s a reason domestic noir is an entire category, one The Lost Night doesn’t fall into.) Finally, it was super important to me that Lindsay not wind up in a relationship as a way to demonstrate growth — as if growing up makes you suddenly “deserving” of a partner, the universe’s reward for working on oneself. She is smart and fierce and capable from the first page, and she doesn’t need a husband to prove it.
Why was telling this story important to you? What do you hope readers will get from it?
First and foremost, I want people to be entertained. I’m not changing the world or conducting emergency surgery and I am very, very aware of that. All that said, I hope the book makes readers reflect on their own memories and past friendships and relationships, and see them with a little softness and kindness and empathy. Writing the book helped me look back even on events that I found hurtful at the time, and with the benefit of distance I could acknowledge that people were just doing their best at the time … and that not everything is personal!
It’s interesting — some people find Lindsay off-putting, childish, egotistical, annoying, or just plain “unlikable.” Which is fine, art is subjective and Lindsay and I are very much not one and the same. (For one thing, she is imaginary and I am a real person. You’d be amazed how many people forget this.) Anyway, something I like about Lindsay is that she’s very vulnerable and self-analytical as she deals with her own shame. Recently, a friend reached out to tell me she loved the book but hated Lindsay. I pressed her on it, and she admitted, “Maybe I should say she made me uncomfortably aware of how often I’m just waiting for my own turn to speak.” Any reader of the book is spending several weeks entirely in Lindsay’s head; while she holds things back from the people around her, we, the readers, hear it all. Of course she sounds manipulative and self-involved and insecure at times — wouldn’t anyone who read a transcript of your inner monologue say the same thing about you?
I hope readers who feel a knee-jerk aversion to Lindsay can pause and ask themselves what they find so discomfiting. If we’re judging fictional characters for drinking too much in their past, not having had a “real” relationship, or wishing they could find the closeness they experienced in their 20s, we’re certainly not opening up a space for real people to bring their shame into the light.
What was the most rewarding part of writing the book?
Readers reaching out to tell me they loved the book — is there a better feeling in the world? When someone sends me a note or writes a review that makes it clear they got the book, it’s like we’re cosmically connected for a moment: they’ve walked around in my brain, and I’ve left fingerprints on theirs. It’s absolutely mind-blowing.
So what’s next for you?
My second novel, The Herd, will be published in spring 2020. While I can’t say too much yet, it’s also a thriller and I think fans of The Lost Night will find a lot to enjoy. It’s also set in New York City, but we’ve moved out of gritty Bushwick and into Manhattan, and it’s about ambition and obsession and what happens when high-achieving women’s perfect veneers begin to crack.
Andrea Bartz will appear in conversation with Daniela Petrova at The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City on June 27, 2019, at 6:30 p.m.
Daniela Petrova is the author of the upcoming novel Her Daughter’s Mother.
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