Sunday, September 13th, 2009
“My editor said, ‘Why don’t you do this as fiction? You could riff with more impunity.’”
The mommies in Amy Sohn’s satiric third novel, Prospect Park West, are nobody’s idea of first pick at the babysitting co-op: There’s on-the-prowl Rebecca, fuming because, 16 months after the birth of their daughter, her husband has still not deigned to have sex with her; Lizzie, haplessly up for anything after leaving her girlfriend (and her job) to raise a son with a constantly-on-tour black musician; Karen, the over-protective “helicopter mom” with a scary celeb fetish; and Melora, a former child star who wants to resurrect her career only slightly more than she wants to avoid interaction with her adopted toddler. (Read an excerpt from Chapter 1.)
As over-the-top and loony tunes as the characters are (and really—they’re nuts), they exist in a landscape of Google Street View-level reality: the shops, cafes, and playgrounds of the book are actual mom favorites in Sohn’s own Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope. What’s more, Sohn, a former sex columnist whose first book, Run Catch Kiss, was a “69 percent autobiographical” novel about a sex columnist, mixes some local occurrences into the plot as well: A spate of pick-pocketing that happened at the food co-op; rampant diaper-changing on the benches outside a popular mom spot called the Connecticut Muffin shop; an infamous online parenting board post, purportedly from a couple looking to swing.
This stagecraft might be part of the reason why so many have taken the novel’s acidic observations for a straight-forward assessment of Park Slope and its denizens. The local blogs have (shocker!) harbored strong opinions, from calling the novel “insulting to Park Slope moms” to labeling Sohn “the most self-aware Park Slope breeder in the history of breeders.” But even The New York Times titled its profile “A Park Slope Novel Seems a Little Too Real”—an interesting frame for a book in which, to name one just one antic example, a hipster accidentally sets a celebrity on fire.
With Sarah Jessica Parker’s production company having optioned the novel for an HBO series, I caught up with Amy Sohn on, appropriately enough, the first day of school in Park Slope. In what for Sohn one senses is a typically spirited conversation, we talked about the thin line between fact and fiction, love and hate, and the (unsurprisingly) strong reaction to PPW.
What’s the history of this book?
I like to say that I was marinating in it for about two years before I wrote it. I wanted to do a collection of comedic essays about motherhood. So when my daughter was around one in 2007, I started writing original nonfiction pieces beyond the few I’d had published. I was calling it “a Gen X I Feel Bad About My Neck.” Then I think it was my editor who said, “Why don’t you do this as fiction? You could riff with more impunity.” I could use all these funny one-liners about the alienation I was feeling as a mother in Park Slope and not have to worry about getting people to sign legal waivers and stuff like that.
Now, I’m writing a sequel, so I’m still with all of the characters. I didn’t deliberately end the book with thoughts of a sequel; but I’ve been working on it for the last couple of months.
So it worked. You were able to riff with impunity.
It certainly helped me with the writing, because I was able to create fictitious amalgams of the most extreme Park Slope mothers I’d come in contact with. I deliberately took the most over-the-top and easily satirized aspects of the neighborhood, such as attachment mothers, the food co-op, unhinged celebrities, sexless marriages and sort of took a ride with all those things. Park Slope’s such fertile ground because of the unique combination of affluence and liberalism. There’s a line in the book: “It has the worst of Berkeley, California combined with the worst of the Upper East Side.” In three weeks, I wrote the first four chapters.
But whether or not I have more impunity, I think remains to be seen! I guess I find it somewhat charming that there are people that have such a deep and abiding love of the uniqueness of Park Slope, that they feel … the only analogy I can think of is that saying bad things about Park Slope is like saying bad things about the Jews. Even when it’s very clearly satire, it’s unkosher. Which is ridiculous to me, because anyone, even someone who doesn’t live in quite as extreme a neighborhood, has things they like and don’t like. I used to joke that this would be the book that would force us to move. But ultimately, I don’t want to. I love Park Slope much more than I hate Park Slope.
Do you think the backlash comes from you making fun of motherhood, or you making fun of your own neighborhood?
I do think that motherhood is a sacred cow, to the detriment of motherhood. And there are jokes in the book about Park Slope mothers being overweight or wearing cargo shorts. But all of that is coming from the perspective of a specific character, Rebecca, who because of who she is needs to distance herself from those women. She’s galled by what she sees as the unattractiveness of the mothers for the precise reason that it just might be they’re having more sex than she is.
So, for example, I personally think that the perception of Park Slope moms as unattractive is exaggerated. Yes, you see the women who don’t color their hair, the women in t-shirts, the women breastfeeding until the children are very old. But I’d say the 60 to 70 percent majority are doing their best to maintain their appearance with all the challenges of going to the playground and pushing the baby around and all that.
But I feel like suddenly I’ve turned this into a defense of the book and I don’t know if that was your angle, ’cause I don’t want to elevate the humorless.
I was interested in whether a novel could be as self-exposing as a memoir. It does feel like it was a little for you, from what you’re saying.
I do understand why I’m a particularly easy target for speculation on the real true-life grounding in fiction. My initiation into book publishing was that I had this nonfiction column in the New York Press, and I used a lot of [that material] in my first novel. So people go, “Wait a second, she’s using nonfiction in fiction …” I always tread the line.
But the easy comparisons of Rebecca to me have been frustrating. I wrote four characters, I want people to talk about all of them! Rebecca is the first introduced, she’s Jewish, she’s a writer. If this book has a protagonist she might be it, therefore, people tend to associate that with the writer. But I was really drawing on a person who uses her body because her face isn’t as attractive, which is a specific type of person not based on me. She’s way more interested in fashion than I am. And I love my husband and have a wonderful relationship with him—and I can safely say that I’ve had sex in the last 16 months!
There’s something that’s going on in book reviewing where the personal speculations are printed as objective fact, and that bothers me.
How do you feel about your characters overall?
Well, I have my favorite which I won’t name—
It’s like you can’t say that about your children, right?
Yes, you can—they’re characters.
I guess I liked writing Melora the most, because I just love downward trajectories. That’s been a theme in all three of my novels: A series of negative events happening to someone precisely at a time when she has a lot riding on good things happening.
Who was the furthest from you?
That’s Lizzie. A little overwhelmed by childcare, maybe not the most verbal person. She’s not a plotter or a planner, she’s more of a feeler. I’m a very literal person who overanalyzes situations. So that was a challenge.
But Lizzie was a very important character because she’s the only one that you see showing any physical affection to her child. That was very important for me to include, because some of these others are so dysfunctional with regard to their children. Karen logs the most time with her son, but you don’t see a lot of hugging and kissing, it’s more protecting and bandaging.
That’s one of the things that I’ve noticed in my neighborhood. I watch for mothers to be kissing or holding their children. After they start walking, I don’t tend to see a lot of smiling, touching, kissing. I don’t see mothers’ joy reflected in their own faces in the playground. Maybe I look too hard. Maybe there’s another woman in that corner of the playground and I’m not noticing her. But I think there’s so much worry, that’s the primary emotion. Oh god, he’s going to fall.
Maybe because of that sort of thing, I half expected you to say you felt most distanced from Karen.
Yeah, but see, Karen has ambition. She’s a go-getter. She’s a conniver. And I definitely have that side, too. Lizzie, I think part of the reason that she’s struggling is that she doesn’t have that one [desire], aside from maybe a husband who helps her out a little bit more. She’s really at bay.
OK, so you’ve talked a little about the points of difference. Where is the memoir within this novel? What parts are you?
I’m definitely in the riffs, [such as] that stuff about the inanity of new mother dialogue. For example, there’s a moment when Lizzie’s talking about the new mothers’ group ["It was depressing, all that bullshit about how many ounces of milk a baby needs and whether it can sleep on its stomach. It was like Consumer Reports: The Play."] Wait, was it Lizzie? The fact that I can’t even remember the character means that ultimately it was the authorial voice coming through.
I think of you as a very New York writer. Is it fair to say that it’s a richer experience reading the book if you have this local knowledge of what’s real and what’s not?
I hope for the people that live here, it’s really fun because suddenly these bits and pieces of true stories are coming to life in fiction. I’d be like, “Oh my God, the swinging, I remember that post!” My personal opinion is that the swinging post was a joke, but I thought it would be much more interesting if it turned out not to be a joke.
So is it fair to say that’s the richer experience?
Yeah, right. For the people who don’t know any of these stories, the question would be: Oh my God, does this stuff really happen? Is the co-op really like that? Is it so PC?
I have to add that the only thing that makes me really nervous [in this interview] is my husband and the Rebecca thing. People are so literal in this neighborhood. If you quote me as saying, “I’ve had sex in the last 16 months” do you think that makes it sound like, “but not much more recently than that”?
No. I think that points out the differences between you. Plus, I actually think it’s her acerbicness that might make some people think that Rebecca’s you.
Right, that you get the authorial voice in her perspective on the neighborhood.
And she’s pretty critical…
But so’s Melora. And I don’t consider myself critical. I love my neighborhood and don’t traffic in snark. I could use a little work on my own “Connecticut Muffin top.”
How psyched are you that Sara Jessica Parker optioned the book?
It happened a few months after the sequel deal, and I have the opportunity to write the script for the pilot. It’s only an option deal and only a script deal so nobody knows where it might go, and it’s very early in the development process, but I was thrilled, of course.
You’ve written a few six-word memoirs, including, “Gave commencement address,
became sex columnist.” What’s your current one?
Sweetest bête noire you’ll ever meet.
BUY Prospect Park West.
READ an excerpt.
SEE Amy Sohn on tour.
VISIT the author’s website.