Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books

January 26, 2010

Brooklyn Brownstone or Bust

Home to the overeducated and overconcerned, Amy Sohn's Park Slope offers a union labor-certified piñata stuffed with liberal excess.

Adam Rosen

A lot of people think Park Slope, Brooklyn, is a great place to live. In 2007, it was named one of the top 10 neighborhoods in the country, more than once, and its condos yield some of the highest prices in the borough, New York City's most populous. Probably unsurprisingly, Park Slope is also predominately white, educated, and affluent. Plenty of neighborhoods in America fit the same description—what up, Buffalo Grove!—but most of these places are in the suburbs, and have thus been exposed time after time after time. Perhaps it's just as well, however, as studies indicate Park Slope, not Wisteria Lane, is steadily coming out the winner in the battle for upper-middle-class white angst.

One of the first people with publishing connections to identify this trend is New York Times columnist David Brooks. Back from four years abroad, in 2000 Brooks published Bobos In Paradise, an anthropology of Americans who find it "more prestigious to look like Franz Kafka than Paul Newman." As the type to demand a "vente almond frappuccino" be made with organic, north slope-facing cane sugar, what this individual lacks in irony (s)he makes up for in sanctimony. Thus the Bourgeois Bohemian, or Bobo. Though never as well-received as yuppie, Bobo survives as a cultural category, and the way demographics are headed, may see a second life yet.

Amy Sohn. Photo courtesy Lisa Ross.
"I think a lot of the hostility was from people who are jealous that I wrote a Park Slope novel before they did. They should get off Brownstoner and write their own books."

Amy Sohn. Photo courtesy Lisa Ross.

Park Slope is Bobo Disney, a post-_____ dystopia brimming with Stuff White People Like. And, as the rumored $350,000 book advance for SWPL the book plainly indicates, there is a market for mocking these sort of Caucasians.

With Prospect Park West, Brooklyn writer Amy Sohn responds to that market. As an episodic and intertwining tale of four of the neighborhood's more prominent archetypes—obsessive, overbearing mother Karen Shapiro; "hasbian" (aka former lesbian) Lizzie O'Donnell; celebrity-gone-commoner Melora Leigh; and malcontent media elite Rebecca Rose—PPW bears more than a passing semblance to New York City's original frivolous foursome. It's not entirely coincidence: Sohn is a former sex columnist at New York Press, and wrote the film and TV companion guides to Sex and the City. None other than Carrie Bradshaw herself, it's reported, owns the TV rights to Prospect Park West. Sohn recently authored a pilot for HBO based on the book, and is currently working on a sequel.

Gelf caught up with Sohn, a 36-year-old Park Slope resident and mother of one, who reflected on alienating people with your writing, the vulnerabilities of precious neighborhood shops, and the instructive example of Tatum O'Neal. The following interview was conducted by email and has been edited for clarity.

Gelf Magazine: Is this Sex and the City: Brooklyn?

Amy Sohn: There isn't that much sex in the book. There will be more in the sequel. I love writing sex scenes and sex has been a big part of all of my novels, but I felt a particular obligation to do it while writing about parents. Sex makes babies, threatens to make babies, accidentally makes babies, can break up families if had extramaritally, and so on. The sex had to have consequences for the characters.
In terms of there being four characters on SATC and in PPW, that was probably in my mind somewhat—as I'm the author of two companion books to Sex and the City as well as the companion book to Desperate Housewives. But initially there were actually five characters in my novel. A friend of mine read an early draft and said, "Either you need one more character or one fewer." So I made it four.

Gelf Magazine: Your literary trajectory—sex columnist, quarterlife crisis chronicler, and most recently, mommyhood deconstructionist—reflects your own life rather closely, no? Can we expect a tale set in assisted living someday?

Amy Sohn: Wow—that would be depressing. If I went into assisted living it would be one of the places that lets old people drink and doesn't make them go to bed at 7 p.m. The sex column definitely grew out of my own angst and frustration and was nonfiction. My Old Man, a novel, had to do with a quarterlife crisis but I was really more interested in the idea of a multigenerational sex satire along the lines of Blame it on Rio. I was going through a bit of a quarterlife crisis—a term that came and went very quickly, by the way—but on a much more minor scale.
I am very flattered to be thought of as a mommy deconstructionist. It sounds a lot better than mommy-lit writer. I am not surprised that I wound up writing a novel about my neighborhood, but I didn't know I would when we moved to the Slope. I didn't realize how rich it would be, and I mean that in both senses of the word. As I work on the sequel, I am finding that it is even less autobiographical than Prospect Park West, and that was my least autobiographical novel. I hope I evolve as a writer in such a way where I can write about people less and less like me instead of more and more.

Gelf Magazine: I got a kick out of the frequent, unqualified references in PPW (Connecticut Muffin, Dangermouse, to name a few). Do you worry about these being lost on the uninitiated?

Amy Sohn: I worry a little about them becoming dated (for example if Connecticut Muffin were to close) but not about them being lost. Connecticut Muffin is simply a great name for a shop because it allowed me to make the joke about "Connecticut Muffin top." Most people know what muffin top is even if they don't know the store. The Tea Lounge (or Teat Lounge), Boing Boing, Southpaw, and the Gate are, to me, evocative names, even if they are new to the reader.

Gelf Magazine: Is there really as much latent racism in Park Slope as is depicted in the book? Surely these attitudes didn't develop at Wesleyan.

Amy Sohn: If you mean that Wesleyan grads settle in Park Slope, I think you are sorely mistaken. More Bushwick. Park Slope is so white that I don't think there is much racism within the neighborhood; it's almost like Denmark or something. The big clash I see within the Slope is between white people, two different kinds: the Old Guard and the New Money. The (largely white) boomers who made 321 what it is, founded the Co-op, and turned the SROs into co-op buildings are virtually invisible to the young families unless they live on a street like 6th that has a lot of mix of old and new. The new money has little sense of the history of the neighborhood beyond the pretty buildings and little respect for the boomers with whom they come in contact, even though the new money arrived on the backs of this older generation. I think this is an interesting clash. What is it like to live somewhere you could no longer by any stretch of the imagination afford? What is it like to be a grandmother in a neighborhood of mothers—or even a widow or empty nester in a neighborhood full of parents?

Gelf Magazine: Why is the character Melora thought to be Jennifer Connelly? Did Jennifer Connelly fart in yoga?

Amy Sohn: People put that on her because of the location of the mansion, Melora's Oscars, and the fact that she is married to a foreigner. J-Con was the obvious surface reference for me. But I was more interested in the idea of a child actress who broke through as an adult with a big role and has had mixed luck since then. There are other actresses in this category—Tatum O'Neal, Jodie Foster, for example. They all interest me. I was also thinking of other Brooklyn celebs like Emily Mortimer, Michelle Williams, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and the satiric potential of these celebs moving to Brooklyn. In terms of Melora's drug issues, age, and New York upbringing, the real role model was O'Neal. Jennifer Connelly actually lived in Brooklyn at one point in her childhood, so for her the Brooklyn move was probably like coming home (though she left). Melora is adamantly a Manhattan person and that's a big point of conflict for her.

Gelf Magazine: "Sarah said that lesbian moms were tools of the patriarchal hegemony;" "…between Al Qaeda and the Weather Undergound…" How are sales at Wal-Mart?

Amy Sohn: Don't think they're spectacular but it's doing well at various southern Borders stores. If I wrote a Wal-Mart book, I would be a lot richer but I would not be able to live with myself. We'll see how the paperback does at Target.

"I seem to keep writing books that stunt my personal life: My first novel prevented me from getting laid, my second prevented me from finding a boyfriend, and this one's prevented me from making new friends."
Gelf Magazine: Do you worry about your daughter's reaction once she reads PPW someday?

Amy Sohn: I try not to think about it. She's four. If she chooses not to read it when she's older, that's her prerogative. I have friends whose parents are authors and some have made the deliberate choice not to read their parents' work. You need to do what's right for you.

Gelf Magazine: Where would the Park Slope Mom have lived 30 years ago?

Amy Sohn: Marin. I'm reading a great novel now by Cyra McFadden called The Serial all about Marin in the '70s.

Gelf Magazine: How long did it take you to write the book? Given the neighborhood's wealth of potentially-irritating proclivities, were you surprised no one had done this before?

Amy Sohn: Paul Auster has mined the Slope and I'm sure there have been others. I did know this wasn't a book I could sit on for five years; I wrote it quickly and am glad I did. I think a lot of the hostility locally was from people who are jealous that I wrote a Park Slope novel before they did. They should get off Brownstoner and write their own books.
That said, I don't think anyone could have done it the way I did. I wanted to write a novel that got not only at the quirks of the neighborhood but at the quirks of modern parenting while also providing enough sex, drinking, and drugs for non-breeders to be able to appreciate it. I don't know that a Park Slope daddy novel could have caught on, but maybe I'm wrong.

Gelf Magazine: What are some other NYC neighborhoods ripe for this kind of treatment?

Amy Sohn: I've heard people complain about TriBeCa. They call it Triburbia now. I've had friends who live there complain that they had to dress up for dropoff because all the mothers at the nursery are supermodels. (I've also heard this said about Saint Ann's in Brooklyn Heights, which Björk's child now attends. Mothers can't slum it at dropoff because they're worried they might bump into Björk.)
As for other neighborhoods, Williamsburg is pretty ripe for satire because of all the creative professions and rocker moms and dads. I gawk a lot when I walk around there. There's also an interesting mix of breeder/baller—to use a phrase from Fuckedinparkslope.com.

Gelf Magazine: Why'd you move to Park Slope?

Amy Sohn: I was pregnant with my daughter and my husband and I felt it was time to buy an apartment. We also looked in other parts of brownstone Brooklyn but fell in love with our particular building.

Gelf Magazine: Are you more self-conscious walking around the neighborhood now?

Amy Sohn: It's been weird to have people come up to me at the pharmacy as I'm about to pick up a prescription and say, "Are you the author?" I guess the only thing worse would be in the locker room of my gym. I've had strange women come up to me on 7th Avenue, "When are you reading next?" which is very flattering, or even "Can you come speak to my book group?" I also get a lot of weird looks. I'm paranoid so I always assume the gawker is a hater, but half of them are probably just zoned out thinking of their own problems.
I seem to keep writing books that stunt my personal life: My first novel prevented me from getting laid, my second prevented me from finding a boyfriend, and this one's prevented me from making new friends. (Luckily I had some to begin with). I guess I'd want to be friends with the kind of women who would like my novel.

Gelf Magazine: I can imagine friends or acquaintances projecting themselves onto the characters you created. Has this happened?

Amy Sohn: One acquaintance of mine said, "Even though my story is in the 'crazy mother' section of the book, I still want to have coffee with you." We did and it actually strengthened our friendship. Other people have said, "I know you based Karen on _____!" and been totally wrong. I don't know if the people I mined see themselves. Often it's the most boring people who think their stories are worth material and the most interesting people who are too blind to see themselves caricatured. One of my favorite writers, Bruce Jay Friedman, writes in Even the Rhinos Were Nymphos that he was at a party and a model found out he was a writer. She approached him and said, "A tube of eyeliner once exploded in my purse on a midnight flight to San Juan—but don't you dare put that in one of your books."

Gelf Magazine: What's the strangest feedback you've gotten about the book?

Amy Sohn: A language-obsessed blogger pointed out that I used the word "infer" when I should have used the word "imply." He was listening to the audio version of the book and was upset by this. It was very embarrassing to me to have gotten this wrong and it will be fixed in the paperback.

Front-page image of Park Slope courtesy of magunski's Flickr via Creative Commons

Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.







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Article by Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

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