Monday, March 9th, 2009
Mary Elizabeth Williams doesn’t want it all. She just wants some of it—a home namely, one in New York City, the land that she loves.
Williams, a longtime writer and editor for Salon, as well as contributor to the NY Observer, the New York Times, and The Takeaway, offers up her desires in the form of her memorably funny, brutally honest, and occasionally gut-wrenching memoir, Gimme Shelter: Ugly Houses, Cruddy Neighborhoods, Fast-Talking Brokers, and Toxic Mortgages: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream. The book is her decision to take the universal desire to find a home and funnel it through her specific experience, bringing her family, her friends, and the subprime mortgage crisis with us down this yellow brick road. While timing plays a part in any memoir, hers is uncanny: Williams’ story began in the midst of the 2003 housing bubble, and her memoir publishes as American home ownership shakes in the face of bad mortgages, foreclosures, and community turmoil across the country. Read an excerpt here.
She’s a longtime contributor to SMITH (whose theories on bacon and chocolate have spurred many a debate on these and other pages), and good friend of mine going back to our scrappy San Francisco days. I was delighted to sit down with Mary Elizabeth Williams and talk the process, path, and aftermath of her search for one piece of the American dream. —Larry Smith.
Let’s ease into this conversation with a question I know you’ve already given some thought to. What’s your six-word housing story?
Priced out of Brooklyn, discovered Manhattan.
Perfect. And now we can really start the interview. Why did you decide to write Gimme Shelter?
It was 2003 and I was very early in the process of try to find and buy a home. I’ve always gotten everything I wanted pretty easily—hey, this is America!—and I thought this would come easily, too. And very, very early in the process, like my second open house, I realized this was going to be more complicated and horrifying than I ever dreamed. So I started writing about it. It was my way of turning this horror into something productive.
What was harder, finding a home or writing a book?
It’s neck to neck. It took me three years to do both. And both require you to look long and hard at who you really are, not who you wish you were, and be willing to accept the scrutiny that comes with that. It was harder than I’d imagined to find a home, and to find a publisher. The first time I shopped around the book nobody was interested—I guess it was too soon. Then, about a year later, housing became much more of an issue. So I got a new agent, reworked the proposal and it sold.
As you were writing about your own personal housing crisis, did you sense where the narrative of the American housing mess was going? And if so, how did that affect your writing?
I kept thinking that this was a lot like it was during the dot com boom, where people were handing you the idea of money rather than real money. The idea of value and the idea of prosperity, which is different than real value and worth and prosperity. And I remember going to these open houses and seeing people open up their checkbooks and feeling like I had the whole Gavin de Becker Gift of Fear feeling. I had realtors show me financing sheets where I didn’t have to pay any money. And then they’d show you what you’d be paying every month. I thought: this is bad, really bad, like, horror-movie bad. And this was definitely a story I needed to tell.
Was working in data around housing and subprime mortgages and all that a chore, or did it come out naturally?
You bet it was hard. My number one fear was riddling the book with clunky, book-report style exposition, of forcing data into regular day-to-day life. I didn’t want to be my own Jeff Goldblum character, you know? I’m the sort of person who just loves to give my little thinky thoughts and my wry quips, and I had to go a lot deeper and work a lot harder to get it right, without taking the reader out of the immediacy of the story. It helps that a lot of the information is so dramatic, it became like another character. When you read some of those hard, scary facts–like what an interest-only mortgage really is, or that over 40 percent of first-time buyers were buying their homes with no money down, that says worlds more than my editorializing ever could.
In many ways, I read this as a book about the death of the middle class in New York City.
Aside from my own obviously very personal stake in it all, I also believe we urgently need to keep the middle class and the working creative class in our cities. The U.S. is becoming a much more urban nation. We have more people living in cities than ever in our history. Yet the middle class population in New York City has been steadily declining since the seventies. Cities need to have regular people in them–people who work in offices and restaurants, people who are making music, and writing copy. If it’s all the very rich and the very poor and the tourists, there goes your public school system. There go your non-Phantom-of-the-Opera-related arts. That’s really bad for everybody. Because we’re not all going back to the farm. So we have to figure out how to make our urban areas sustainable. Basically, I think if I leave New York it’s the end of civilization. Not to alarm you or anything.
What’s the most heinous person, place, or thing you witnessed in your journey to find a home?
I can handle straight up bad behavior–I live in New York. So the pushy brokers and the flaky sellers didn’t bother me. I didn’t know them anyway. It was the pity that pissed me off. It was my friends who had bought early saying things like, “We’re just lucky we got in when we did” or giving me the sad trombone face when they’d ask me, “Still looking?” That would make me cringe. I felt like the Bridget Jones of real estate.
Still, a memoir is a great way to revenge on people you don’t like. It’s a one-way conversation.
There’s a woman in the book who had a bizarre overreaction when she knew that I was buying. She would say, “My husband and I make really good money, but it’s just really crazy to buy right now!” And she just had a freakout, a total meltdown when she found out we bought a house.
And subsequently, not long after, she went through a really ugly divorce. So I wrote this whole thing about this scene when she was kind of dickish to me and it’s like, you never really know what what else is going on in somebody else’s mind. It’s not really about you. But at the time she was a total douche to me.
Do you find yourself editing yourself–who you were and now are–in the process of writing this book?
A lot of what’s in the book comes from my own notes and emails from the time, so I hope it’s reasonably accurate. I definitely didn’t want to shy away from my own darker side–I wanted to be honest about feeling scared and jealous and frustrated because I’d like to believe I wasn’t the only person in America going through that. But I know that the way I remember things is different than anybody else’s version. The first time my best friend read it, she told me she’d had no idea how broken up I was when she moved. I did try to go easier on some of my friends and family, especially the ones who had less of a say in the narrative. I’m sure some people will still be pissed anyway.
You wrote the book you needed to write. Did you expect a certain feeling to be evoked for your readers?
A friend from college said that it reminded her of the conversations we used to have and that’s exactly what I wanted. I wanted it to be a really intimate read. And to the people who have told me they’ve gotten this feeling out of it, I said, “great!”
Did you give any of the very real characters in the book advance notice about its contents? Did anyone you write about object to the words you’ve written?
Well, my mom hasn’t seen it; I haven’t consulted her about it at all. But I did show it to most of my friends I talked to for the book before I submitted it. I’ve heard horror stories from other writers about people trying to rewrite themselves, but nobody did that. One person felt very vulnerable about one line he’d said, and initially asked me to take it out. We talked about it and sat with it a while and eventually he agreed to keep it. But had it come down to it, I’d rather keep my friend than a line of dialogue.
I still feel really vulnerable about the book, and the people depicted in it. My friend Helene Stapinski told me early on–”Somebody will get mad, and it won’t be who you expected or what you expected it for.” I’m still sort of bracing for that.
I felt kind of stressed out going through your apartment search. Do you worry that this book is going to stress people out?
Well, now I do… thank you so much [laughs]. But it’s not like I’m a child soldier in the Sudan and it’s not like my dad raped me. Still, there’s something empowering about seeing other people’s struggles, whatever they are. I was aware that my search for a home was funny and it was absurd. It was absurd how manic it got, and how manic I got, and how much I was swept up in all of it. I wanted to write it in that way. I didn’t want it to be like: I can’t spend $400,000, poor me. I wanted it to be crazy and silly and often really funny and often really weird. Because that’s how life is, that’s the kind of story I really like.
Were there any memoir influences? Maybe in the great canon of real estate literature…or just other books you looked to for inspiration?
I read Rob Sheffield’s Love is a Mix Tape while I was writing it. And I loved that he was able to write about something so sad in his life— the very sudden death of his wife—and somehow combine it with their shared passion for music and also make the book so funny. I read The Tender Bar while I was writing the proposal, and it knocked me out. I loved that it was a book about longing, but it was funny and quirky and very natural. It set the bar, so to speak, for what I wanted to do. And Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. I even named a chapter after it! Ehrenreich has been one of my heroes since college.
You’ve never shied about from writing about your life, and in fact wrote about your separation in a piece on Salon. Talk about the decision to not talk about your separation in the book.
The separation happened in 2008 and the book is set in 2006. It felt like it was too new to write about with any kind of distance. I felt if you went through 300 pages with this family and then to drop that bombshell in the last five pages of the book didn’t feel like the right call. I didn’t mean to be disingenuous, but also wanted it to make sense. But I do go there a little. I said in it that my life has changed and Jeff’s life has changed and we’ve paid the price for pursuing this dream.
To me the bigger story for the reader is going to be what happened to the economy and what happened to the country. It was interesting to me how so many players in my story that changed their home situations, and that the idea that you put down roots turned out to be so not true. Many people I know who told me they’ve gotten a home wound up getting divorced, wound up moving. And a lot of people’s homes are being repossessed right now. We all have this idea that we’re going to get it and we’re going to figure it out and then we’re going to be happy. The idea of happy ever after isn’t real. Life is fluid, while you’re living, there is no “The End,” you just go on to the next thing. Permanence just doesn’t exist. And it certainly doesn’t exist in terms of your mailing address.
Larry Smith is the editor of SMITH Magazine.
READ an excerpt of Gimme Shelter.
VISIT Mary Elizabeth Williams’ web site.
WATCH the Gimme Shelter video preview.
WIN a copy of Gimme Shelter by telling us your six-word housing story in the comments section below the interview.
BUY Gimme Shelter.