Having read both your book and your bio, I now know the following things about you: a.) In addition to your writing being full of rich insight, your prose is also beautifully wrought on a surface level b.) You are originally from Cincinnati, Ohio. Considering these two things, please write a short paragraph in beautifully wrought prose describing Cincinnati’s famous Skyline Chili.
This is the assignment I’ve been waiting for, and honestly, this isn’t personal attack against you, Seth, but I don’t understand why it took 35 years to finally make its way to my home computer. I suppose I should start by telling you that I have seven cans of Skyline Chili in the top shelf of my kitchen cabinets in my New York apartment and whenever someone discovers the cache, pulls a can down, squints first at the unfamiliar yellow, blue, and red Skyline emblem, then at me, and makes a joke about hording dog food for the next nuclear winter, they are promptly asked to leave. I love Skyline Chili. It is the first thing I allow into my stomach whenever I return to Cincinnati, and I’ve even manipulated my father into thinking it’s a father-son ritual so he drives me directly from the airport to the nearest chain. For the uninitiated, let me explain: Skyline Chili is Cincinnati’s contribution to American cuisine. It’s a secret recipe of a spiced meat sauce (strangely Greek in origin, which I call strange because Cincinnati isn’t known for Greek immigrants but drunken Germans), served over spaghetti, with the customer’s choice of additions like chopped onions, grated cheddar cheese, and kidney beans (the chili can also be served over a hot dog, and when that minor miracle occurs it’s called a “Coney”). Now, let me speak to the critics. Some not born in Cincinnati—and thus not celebrating birthdays or bowling excursions with a plate of meat sauce hidden under neon-yellow cheese—do not have the proper palate to appreciate Skyline Chili: one friend in New York who describes herself as a “chef” commented that the secret recipe “is just cinnamon.” Another friend, a born-rival from Cleveland, calls it “watery diarrhea.” Those people aren’t welcome in Cincinnati. They must not be given shelter there. Skyline Chili tastes like a return home—familiar, different than remembered, at first disappointing, then, no, perfect in its own solemn refusal to pretend to be anything other than what it is.
I just moved to New York City from Toledo, Ohio. I’m still a newbie, but from my perspective your book did an awesome job of capturing what it’s like to be here. Was it difficult to write about a living, breathing city? Does all the craziness of being here get easier to articulate the longer you’ve been here? Also, how do I get to Greenpoint if I don’t want to use the G?
Welcome. I always say it takes six months to know if you like it here not. Then after that decision, it’s a roller coaster of impulses from joy to despair, and that range of emotions is the closest gauge I know to what being called a real New Yorker is. I didn’t find it easy to put down all the facets I hoped to of the city—and perhaps as the years pile up it only gets more difficult to pinpoint the most vivid details, neighborhoods, and characters to isolate just because there is so much more you’ve witnessed. Sadly, the cost of living here makes it harder and harder for so many disparate, surprising personalities to live inside the city limits. When I started writing Lightning People, I felt like certain parts of New York City had already been well mined in fiction—particularly affluent, middle-aged Upper East Siders followed by a relatively new genre detailing affluent, teenage Upper East Siders. But I couldn’t find much set down about the New York I knew: a sporadic, conflicted, barely-holding-on, younger, desperate, slightly less optimistic contingent who is supposed to be the inheritors of this cultural dream capital. That made the work of creating this side of New York seem a bit like an open field ripe with untapped stories. I let myself paint the New York from that angle, and I just hoped as I went that I was exploring some honest material. And while I was writing a “New York novel” I told myself I wasn’t. That way I didn’t feel the pressure of trying to get it all down in one go. I first moved to New York for college at the age of twenty and I expected to write my first novel right away. As it turned out I didn’t start until I was thirty. I don’t think I was ready to write about New York until I had been here monitoring that craziness you mention for some time—and becoming very much a part of that craziness inside and out. Now for directions to Greenpoint. Why not go by bicycle over the Williamsburg Bridge and then bike north on Bedford Avenue until you pass McCarren Park. When the older macrobiotic and vintage jewelry shops dissipate into recently opened macrobiotic and vintage jewelry shops you’ve hit Greenpoint. Lock your bike and get yourself a beer.
You are an editor at Interview magazine and I am currently interviewing you. Am I doing okay so far? Should I use more question marks???
You’re doing wonderfully. You’ve realized the one bit of interviewing advice I can offer: make the questions as interesting as the answers. I don’t recommend using additional question marks, but I’ve found as I grow older with email and text messages that I’ve inadvertently become my worst nightmare: someone who uses three and sometimes four exclamation points to emphasize—or do the work of jazzing up—a sentence. At this rate, by the time I’m forty I’m going to be writing like this!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! There needs to be a command that removes the exclamation point from a keyboard.
The heart of your book for me is a series of compelling, believable relationships, each of which possesses real resonance. How do you personally go about imagining a relationship? What are the building blocks that you use to get to such a genuine place?
I think the secret to building believable relationships in fiction is to try to expose as much what one character wants from another character as what they don’t want—the painful truths they are hiding behind the words they speak, the secrets they hope are never revealed, the grudges and insecurities they’d like to drown out. I think every honest relationship has so much love, hate, and indifference in it and all of these sides need to be suggested. The best compliment I’ve gotten from a reader is that they genuinely miss the characters when they are done with the book. I feel like that means I’ve succeeded in bring these entities to life, given them real shoulders and bad skin conditions and deep eyes. I really enjoy characters who aren’t one-hundred-percent likeable or perfect.
New York City plays a huge role in this novel, but this city is a place where people from all over come together and interact. So the scope of the book ends up feeling much bigger than just one (albeit massive) city. When you were writing about NYC, were you thinking about it as a world unto itself or as just an interesting cross section of the world at large?
Well, New York is, of course, the ideal place to jam so many divergent people together. And Seth if you haven’t discovered already, New York is a massive city but it’s tremendously small as well. One eventual wake-up call of living here is discovering exactly when the city is not limitless to you, and someone you never think you’ll see again pops up from behind a refrigerator door at a party or decides to move into the empty apartment below yours. That said, I could never have written Lightning People set in Cincinnati. New York allows a writer the freedom to cram two half-Sikh Florida siblings in the same constellation as an attention-addicted, out-of-work actor from Illinois. It’s a dream environment for imaginative casting. But I would hate for Lightning People to be limited to merely a New York book. There are moments where the characters do leave Manhattan, which my editor initially suggested I remove to keep everything on one island. I felt that was too restrictive. I like when one character returns to their hometown of Florida or jumps back in time to an older period in Ohio mostly because I think, even in this supposed city of reinventions, one eventually has to deal with where they came from and what that has made them. That’s a universal need, the maybe ugly but meaningful truth of being connected to roots you didn’t lay down yourself.
Please say three nice things about Ohio.
Ohio is surprising diverse, from the very northern cities like your lake-fronted Toledo or Cleveland to my slower, Southern-infused river town of Cincinnati; in fact Ohio alone can claim to be east or west, north or south, and because of that we residents can side any way we feel like depending on the conversation. Ohio’s state tree is the buckeye, which is the most beautiful of trees, with seeds like golf balls and high, thick branches producing rough, marijuana-shaped leaves, which provide ideal shade. Ohio, I was also told early on by my mother, doesn’t have an accent, we are the least-accented people of the United States, which means we can get jobs like being a meteorologist or a newscaster and everyone will understand us. That, of course, is a lie. I still pronounce my a’s and e’s through my nose, and everyone has a laugh when I say the word “bagel.” And a fourth just for luck: Ohio is realer than real; people know how to work hard there and they don’t expect what they didn’t earn. Delusions don’t have long shelf lives in our state.