The Novel in Utopia




LAST MONTH in the New York Times Book Review Helen Schulman called Julia Pierpont a “talented young author whose prose is so assured and whose observations are so precise and deeply felt that it’s almost an insult to bring up her age.” Julia is 28 — she is a talented young author who is also my friend.

We grew up in New York City, where Julia graduated from Barnard College and the NYU Creative Writing Program. Her debut novel, Among the Ten Thousand Things, came out in July and is now a national bestseller. It tells the story of Jack, an artist, his wife Deb, a former New York City Ballet dancer, and their two kids, Kay, 11, and Simon, 15. The story begins when an anonymous box appears at the family’s Upper West Side apartment. It is filled with sheaves of printed emails, chronicling Jack’s long-term affair with a woman mostly referred to as “the girl.” The package, sent from “the girl,” was addressed to Deb but is delivered instead to her children.

Last week, Julia and I met for lunch at Utopia, a Greek diner on the Upper West Side, to discuss her book, its reception, and the fate of diner fare.

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ANNA SHECHTMAN: Are the diner scenes from your book set in Utopia?

JULIA PIERPONT: Not all of them. The last diner scene is definitely Utopia. Such an aspirational name.

And aspirational menus. You write about “diner fish” in the book.

Yep, scrod. There it is. She points to the scrod on the menu. We order omelets.

A lot of the press that you have been getting has emphasized your age — how incisive your observations are about marriage for a 28-year-old.

Yeah. I want to say, “I’m not even that young, you guys …” Or at least, “This is the oldest I’ve ever been.”

Was there a seed that started your book?

I started with the letter from Jack’s mistress to Deb. She sends it to Deb along with all of the emails — the dirty conversations — printed out that she and Jack had shared online.  I liked the idea of the printouts, the bulk of the data we all have accumulated.

“Invisibly complicating the air,” you write.

Sometimes that really alarms me: that this is internet. She waves her hand through the air. Obviously I don’t know how it works … Are we breathing it? Anyway, once I knew that the children, Kay and Simon, were going to read the letter and the printouts first, I knew that that would propel the plot forward on its own, ricocheting from character to character. I knew I wanted to explore the different perspectives and misinterpretations of a closely-knit family.

We do eventually learn the mistress’s name, but for most of the book she’s called “the girl.” She is the only character who is your age — the ingénue age — and yet we have extremely limited access to her. What inspired that decision?

I liked the idea that she was a specter.

Again, invisibly complicating the air.

Yes, and there are a number of reasons why Deb and Jack wouldn’t want to think of her by name. I wanted to think of her as a ghost character — her story is a completely different one from theirs. I come back to her in the epilogue. Unlike us, she has no idea what happened to this family that she walked into.

You mix a lot of genres in the book — including Seinfeld fan fiction, which Kay, the 11-year-old, writes. Where did you get that idea? And why Seinfeld?

I wanted a creative outlet for Kay, a way of seeing into how she was being affected by her father’s affair without her consciousness having to tell us outright. And as for Seinfeld — firstly, it seemed incongruous to the world of fan fiction. But Seinfeld also got away with a lot of sexual innuendo — things like “the master of your domain” — without saying any actually racy words. Even the sex on the show felt sexless: like Teflon, the characters could roll around in the mud and not get dirty. So to put truly raunchy stuff in those characters’ mouths, that felt like the greater departure.

There were parts of the book that almost read like a screenplay. And formally, there’s a lot of parallel editing that occurs between characters to move the plot forward.

I did study film in college. And I have played around with screenwriting. In some cases, in some scenes that are really dialogue-heavy, like the phone calls, I wanted to get to a place where it didn’t matter where the characters were or who they were talking to. Because they were really talking at each other.  I was reading Phillip Roth’s entirely-in-dialogue Deception while writing those scenes.

I was wondering about Roth. There’s a lot of Great Male Narcissism in Jack — especially in his emails to his mistress.

I’ve certainly read and loved a lot of Roth. I don’t understand people who despise Roth’s male characters. I’ve always felt a lot of empathy for them. Like, “I’d hang out with that guy. That’d be fun.”

Did you know you wanted to write about New York?

It seemed inevitable. It wasn’t meant to be a New York Story. But where else could I start?

I was wondering about that in relation to Jack. His art is somewhat facetiously called “site specific.” Does that term resonate with you as a writer?

There were definitely locations in New York that I wanted to write about. And each character does have its own zone or center of activity. Deb’s would be Lincoln Center — that’s her North Star. Jack’s very downtown, and his unseen mistress is St. Marks.

Are there certain New York clichés that you were trying to avoid or make better?

I did have a teacher say to me at one point, “It’s sort of a shame that you’re from New York City because, you know, it’s really already been written about.”

Like regionalism couldn’t be your crutch?

Right, but I didn’t want to it to feel like this could only happen to a couple in New York. Jack and Deb’s story is more of a universal story.

Or a 50% of the population story? What’s the divorce rate now?

Exactly.

Divorce is not an obvious topic for a first book, especially for an unmarried writer with still-married parents. What drew you to it? 

I honestly never thought of it as strange, though now I see how it would seem so. In the beginning, I think I only had an urge to write about family, and how betrayal within a family can break those relationships down — all of the relationships, not just the ones that involve the instigator directly. The way in which one person’s method of coping can be misinterpreted even by someone close to them, or how a parent can try to shield a child and wind up inflicting further harm. Adultery and divorce wound up being the lenses through which I explored those dynamics. I suppose I chose them partly because they’re so universal — the reader probably wouldn’t need catching up.

Your characters leave New York in the third section of the book for Jamestown — and briefly Newport. What motivated the decision to uproot this urban family in crisis? What did these cities provide that New York couldn’t?

I read a piece once about how many writers seem to write more freely about a place after they’ve left it. I think my characters were similarly freed up to consider their lives in new ways once they’d created some distance. For Deb, Jamestown was a respite, while for Simon and Kay it became an opportunity to meet kids who’d grown up in a very different environment.

I was interested in Simon. He’s 15, affluent, a New Yorker — and yet there’s no Holden or Igby in him. What inspired him?

I don’t know any 15-year-old boys. And I don’t know that I would necessarily be able to break bread with any 15-year-old boys right now, but Simon ended up feeling like my child. I had so much empathy for him. And I think there’s too much emphasis on gender — on a woman writing a man well, a man writing a woman well — but they’re all just people. If anything, Deb and Kay — the women — were harder to write than Simon and Jack because I had to make sure that I was following the story and not inserting my own self into it. Ultimately, I think it’s an artificial thing that we celebrate when we say, “How did they get into the head of someone of the opposite gender?”

But do you identify with the cohort of female writers — Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling — who are, among other things, politicizing the female potty mouth? 

I certainly admire those women and their work, and I’m happy if my book promotes a wider acceptance of the Great Female Potty Mouth. I can’t say it was something I set out to do, though. I didn’t really consider how those passages would be received by readers, except perhaps when those readers were my parents. I think it’s that way for many artists: you set out just to tell the truth, or the highest truth you know, and somewhere along the way you realize that the work is bound to take on a sociopolitical edge once it makes its way into the world. But count me in, sure. It still feels pretty retro that racy subject matter should fall under male domain. I hope that’s close to not being true anymore. 

The narrative of Among the Ten Thousand Things takes place within two weeks. It is broken up into three sections, where “Section Two” gives the reader a rough sketch of what will happen to this family weeks, months, and years after Jack’s affair. It leaves the reader with very little time to mourn — over the death of a cat, a grandparent, or the end of Jack and Deb’s marriage. What inspired that structure?

It’s something that I love about To the Lighthouse. There’s no mourning time for Mrs. Ramsay. But where Woolf moves the plot forward after her death, I return to the end of Section One, and pick up again. I think of Section Three as the reader’s “time to mourn.” Knowing what’s going to happen to them — knowing that Jack and Deb are going to split up — I feel more empathy for Jack as he fumbles around trying to salvage the thing throughout that whole section.

Did you want “Section Two” — knowing the narrative’s outcome — to feel like a burden or a relief for the reader?

Well, I don’t want to dictate how the reader should feel. But it is a burden to mourn the loss of your life as you’re living it. In the poem that is the book’s epigraph [Galway Kinnell’s “Little Sleep’s-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight”], the speaker comes into his daughter’s room, taking her out of her crib, holding her, and imagining her when she’s older and he’s gone. He can’t hold her enough to stop it.

Jonathan Safran Foer called your book “one of the funniest, most emotionally honest, I’ve read in a long time.” Those are clearly among his top “fiction values” — are they yours?

Emotional honesty is certainly an essential one, but in order for it to be affecting you need empathy, and in order for it to be accurate you need a sharp eye. It makes me think of a line in Forster’s The Longest Journey, when he describes a man with “the figure of a Greek athlete and the face of an English one … Just where he began to be beautiful the clothes started.” It’s nothing. It’s a throwaway line and probably a poor example of what makes Forster so great, but I never forgot it. And his writing is full of those nothings — as though it can’t help but be full of them because he has such a wickedly good eye. And, of course, humor plays a large part in that. You can’t have emotional honesty without acknowledging what’s absurd.

Our plates are cleared; we forgot about the toast.

So sad, all the toast that goes to waste in all the diners across America.

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Anna Shechtman is the assistant film editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.


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