Carnegie Hill by Jonathan Vatner

Interview: Carnegie Hill Looks at Love and Marriage at a Co-Op 

April 1, 2020
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Carnegie Hill

by Jonathan Vatner

Inspired by a friend’s experiences on the co-op board of building on New York’s Upper East Side, Jonathan Vatner wrote Carnegie Hill, a novel that uses the travails of residents of an exclusive building to look at the institution of marriage.

Love, in all its various stages, is seen through the eyes of Pepper Bradford as she decided whether or not to stay with her fiancé.   Through power struggles, health crises, and secret love the residents of Carnegie Hill find their way to honesty and understanding.

Vatner discusses his journey to developing the novel:

AUTHORLINK: How did you make the transition from a BA in Cognitive Neuroscience to a career as a journalist and writer?

I knew I wanted to write novels, but I also needed a job.

VATNER: I was pre-med in college, and most of the pre-med classes counted toward the Cognitive Neuroscience major. I thought I might become a psychiatrist, but by the time I graduated, I couldn’t see myself as a doctor of any kind.

I knew I wanted to write novels, but I also needed a job. Book publishing sounded daunting—I didn’t think I could edit a whole book—so I looked to journalism. I applied to every job posting that sounded interesting and ended up at Meetings & Conventions magazine, the premier publication for meeting planners. It couldn’t have worked out better: I learned about a huge range of fascinating topics and every few months got to take junkets to the Caribbean. I was also the spa editor; as you can imagine, the research was grueling.

After that, I worked at O at Home, Oprah’s erstwhile interior design magazine; when that folded, my friend Molly suggested I get an MFA and finally commit to the thing I’d wanted to do my whole adult life. It was the best advice I’ve ever taken.

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a creative writer. Did you have a mentor at Sarah Lawrence who offered advice that has stayed with you? Or formative experiences at workshops or in a writing group?

VATNER: At Sarah Lawrence, every professor I had was a mentor. I can’t say enough positive things about that school. I could write you a long list of writing advice the faculty gave me, but the one thing that I return to again and again is Brian Morton saying, “Don’t be subtle.”

…to create that experience for the reader, the writer needs to bring the reader 90 percent of the way.”

Regarding “Don’t be subtle”: One of the pleasures of reading is sensing subtext and seeing parallels among characters and situations. Speaking generally, in order to create that experience for the reader, the writer needs to bring the reader 90 percent of the way. Too much subtlety and the reader will completely miss the point. So I try to make the “what happened” of my writing very clear. Any major points I want the reader to get, I spell out explicitly. Bonus parallels and juxtapositions, the kind of halo effect a reader might experience in the days after reading, might not be stated in the text, but I try to make them as clear as possible with careful placement of paragraphs and repetition of language. It’s the most useful piece of writing advice I’ve ever gotten.

AUTHORLINK: Where did idea for Carnegie Hill come from? Did it present itself to you in the form of an image? A first line? A plot point?  A character?

VATNER: A character! My close friend was on the board of his co-op in Carnegie Hill—it’s a neighborhood on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He’d tell me countless stories and forward me countless emails about dramas in his building: on the board, among his neighbors, and between the residents and the staff. It became a collection of 15 stories, and then I took about half of them and turned it into a novel.

AUTHORLINK: What authors and novels influenced your writing of Carnegie Hill?

“I was thinking about linked story collections as I wrote…”

VATNER: I was thinking about linked story collections as I wrote; it was only in the final edits that I let go of the idea of having every chapter stand alone—this self-imposed restriction was holding the novel back. So I’d been thinking a lot about A Visit from the Goon Squad and Olive Kitteridge, two books of linked stories I loved. Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories have also been a big inspiration, for the emotional release that they offer.

AUTHORLINK: While the story focuses on Pepper, the cast of characters serve to illuminate important things about love and relationships. How were you able to balance these characters and make them each so fully drawn? 

VATNER: The book was originally stories about a kind of madness that I’d observed in my friend and his neighbors, resulting from an inability to understand the source of their emotional hurt. During the editing process, I realized that I was also writing about marriage; it’s probably no coincidence that I got married during this time. Only after the book was rejected by the first ten publishers did I go back and make Pepper the main character, and really focus the book around marriage. Caleb, the porter, didn’t exist until the very end. I added that relationship between the staff to add an extra dimension to the novel—and tell a traditional love story, rather than the other three stories, which are more about marriage than love.

As you can see, the process wasn’t about a single moment of inspiration but rather a five-year process of writing and rewriting, of practicality and logic and persistence.

AUTHORLINK: You present this universe of people and their problems with a deft hand using humor along the way. Any advice on using humor in writing?

VATNER: I didn’t know the book was funny until Kathleen Hill, who teaches a transformative craft class at Sarah Lawrence, told me she was laughing as she read it. I guess my narrative stance is sardonic: I see humor in a lot of people and situations, even dark ones. I inherited this from my dad, who takes very little seriously, to an often maddening degree. To be honest, it’s been a handicap; I think it’s much easier to move a reader if you see the world earnestly.

Some of the characters are comic, in that they’re so misguided it’s unwittingly funny. Others try to be funny by saying clever things. I think it’s easier to make a minor character funny than a major one; people seem more ridiculous if you don’t know the reasons for their weirdness.

AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing Carnegie Hill, and how did you overcome them?

VATNER: I wrestled with unlikability from the beginning. Most of my characters have so much privilege, a lot of early readers couldn’t tolerate their unhappiness. In some cases, I used little tricks to enhance likability: making characters more attractive or generous or giving them greater challenges, for example. If a character is trying to achieve a goal, the reader can generally root for them. But for the most part, I just tried to go deep enough into their consciousness so that readers could fully understand them. And I love them all, which matters.

AUTHORLINK: Talk about the process of revision for this book. What was it like working with your editor? How many revisions did you do and what was your main focus when making changes? Advice on revision for apprentice writers?

VATNER: I hope you don’t regret asking this! As I mentioned, the first drafts of the book were linked short stories, and I worked to combine them into a novel. My agent sent the book out on submission, and after we collected ten rejections, I did a complete rewrite. I took out one of the four main couples and expanded Pepper’s story, making her the protagonist: She’s new to the building, so she could be a pair of eyes through which the reader could learn about the building, too.

“… I received thirteen pages of insightful but often contradictory edits from three editors at the house.”

After Thomas Dunne bought the novel, I received thirteen pages of insightful but often contradictory edits from three editors at the house. I looked for commonalities among the feedback and for criticisms that resonated with me. The three that I attempted to address were (a) we should see the perspective of the building staff, to add dimension to all the characters, (b) there was a lot of casual racism on the co-op board, but without any protagonists of color, it read as my own bias, and (c) the novel was about trying to keep marriages together, but there was no straightforward love story that readers could root for. I solved all of these by adding a storyline featuring Caleb, a black porter who falls in love with Sergei, a Russian doorman. I worked hard to make Caleb feel lifelike and particular; I didn’t want readers to see him as a device. I also wanted to reveal a link between privilege and racism without making Caleb a punching bag.

In the version I next turned in, my editors felt that Caleb’s storyline wasn’t integrated enough with the other characters. There’s a chapter near the end called “Wrath” that I had rewritten from scratch about five times, and I rewrote it once more to bring in Caleb. The climactic scene of that chapter, which becomes a flash point for the whole novel, is one of the very last I wrote.

If I were to offer advice based on my endless revision process, it’s to find a way to be open to every criticism but not to lose sight of your vision for writing the book. Ultimately, the book is the writer’s, and every change must come organically from the writer, even if the impetus for the change came from the editor.

AUTHORLINK: What advice do you offer to apprentice writers about improving their work and staying encouraged?

“The most important thing is to realize that every piece of writing can get better…”

VATNER: The most important thing is to realize that every piece of writing can get better, though sometimes you have to become a better writer before you can improve it further. I have no patience for writers who get defensive around feedback.

For most people, a writing workshop is helpful, but those are tricky to navigate. Generally, feedback falls into two categories: criticisms and suggestions. First off, you can ignore most suggestions, because that’s how other people would write the story, not necessarily you. Give yourself a few days to digest the criticisms and decide which ones (when you’re fully honest with yourself) are valid. Then plot a way forward that addresses those criticisms. This process takes an expansiveness and clarity that must be cultivated: You have to see what you’ve written from a bird’s eye view, then be ruthless in hammering the work into the shape you want. This is the hardest part.

“It took me twenty years and five polished manuscripts to get a book published.”

And yes, it can be a very discouraging process. It took me twenty years and five polished manuscripts to get a book published. Many people keep at it for decades and never get a book deal. If you’re doing it because you want your name on a book, I’d suggest reconsidering. Same thing if you’re doing it to make money. Pretty much everyone will make more money by working a minimum-wage job.

“For me, the pleasure of writing, of discovering myself on the page, was what drove me forward and still drives me.”

For me, the pleasure of writing, of discovering myself on the page, was what drove me forward and still drives me. I know others who hate writing but are absolutely compelled to do it by anxiety. Some of these are the most brilliant writers of our time.

If it gets to be a struggle to keep going, you can always take a break.

AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.

VATNER: I’m making revisions to my second novel, The Bridesmaids Union. It’s about a serial bridesmaid who starts an online support group for others who are underappreciated and mistreated by their brides. When she becomes the maid of honor to her spoiled younger sister, she relies on the group to survive.

Jonathan Vatner’s first novel, Carnegie Hill (Thomas Dunne Books, 2019), was praised by PeopleTown & CountryThe New York Post, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. An award-winning journalist, he has written for The New York TimesO, The Oprah Magazine; and Poets & Writers; and he is the staff writer of Hue, the magazine of the Fashion Institute of Technology. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College and a BA in cognitive neuroscience from Harvard University. His second novel, The Bridesmaids Union, is forthcoming from Thomas Dunne Books

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This post was written by Ellen Birkett Morris

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