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10 Questions for Michael Idov

Q4: Towards the end of the novel, the landlord Avi berates Mark for complaining about how he’s developing the neighborhood into ruin with condominiums and corporate coffee shops. Do you see the general trend of development in New York City as cyclical or evolutionary — as merely one set of immigrants replacing disgruntled, former immigrants, or as an evolution toward a particular point, positive or negative?

MI: That dialogue, between Avi and Mark, is kind of a Platonic dialogue. It’s one of my favorite places in the book because having written it and rewritten it, I actually don’t know whose side I’m on. That’s why I’m happy with it because I’m really taking no side on it. The book definitely describes the process of gentrification, but it’s mostly fatalistic about it. I tend to think these things are cyclical, absolutely. New York is unique because it is so much about money — money is hardwired into it. Wall Street is right here. When someone makes an investment, when the market jumps, all these guys, they’re physical persons who can leave the building and buy a billion dollars worth of jewelry for their wives and lovers on that afternoon. Whatever happens in this abstract world of money hits New York immediately. We have these tides of money coming in and out, and the city just changes at a lag — the city just changes according to these tides of money. I think it’s been pretty conclusively proven that no market growth is sustainable and no market crash is sustainable. It will go up and down. You can also make the argument that, artistically, the ups and downs are also dependent on money, except that they exist in counterpoint. When artists are priced out of one place, they’ll go to another place. They will inevitably be followed by wannabes, and they will inevitably be followed by the middle class, and that’s the way it works until some sort of hiccup in our financial system just throws a wrench into it. And then suddenly you realize that you can rent a storefront in Tribeca again. Or the owner of a condo realizes there’s no way in hell he’s going to rent out this giant retail floor so he says, fuck it, I’ll put an art gallery there. So it’s definitely cyclical and I think it will be interesting to see at which point of the cycle we’re at now. I’m pretty fatalistic about these things. I feel that our sorrow about favorite places closing is never matched by the intensity of our joy at new places opening. So I’m still hurt that Tonic closed. But five great places opened since then. We tend to eulogize old New York with much more intensity.

Q5: Much of the novel deals with the interrelation of money and media. With both those institutions disintegrating in their respective ways, how do you see that relationship changing?

MI: You will see this disintegration at the book launch party, when I have to pay for the alcohol [laughs]. That’s something that I call accidental communism in the book, because basically this self-enclosed money and media machine creates these situations where money almost doesn’t enter into the equation because basically it’s just influence-trading on all sides. It’s especially obvious when you’re a journalist. In your first year, when you get those business cards, you start going to everything. You get on every PR person’s mailing list and you go to the stupidest events for the free drinks. And sooner or later you realize, this is not worth it because no free drink is worth getting hounded by some PR person for some two-bit designer for the next five years. There’s no getting off these lists. But the whole notion that you can survive in this city on gallery-opening cheese cubes, there’s some truth to it.

Q6: Was there anything Mark and Nina could have done better or was their venture essentially doomed from the start?

MI: It’s rather on the surface. They’re doomed because they think that owning a café will be like owning a salon, a perpetual dinner party. Small cafés can survive, and they do survive, it’s just that the economics of the small café are such that the owner has to be working in it. So you have to love the process. As soon as you step back and decide to hire a manager, not just a barista but someone who will actually handle orders and all that — as soon as you hire a manager and just start floating in and out on Friday night, that’s when you’ll fail immediately because the budget of a small café cannot support a manager salary. This is the businessman’s answer. In the world of the novel, Mark and Nina are just completely doomed by their attitude and romantic notions, or the fact that neither of them has experience at any point in their life, and Mark is horrendously lazy. It’s all over the book. In fact, one of his main traits is that he can do very little of anything. The reason he is a freelance book reviewer for Kirkus is that I needed to come up with — it’s not just a gimmick to make fun of debut novels — but I needed to come up with a job that would come maximally close to doing absolutely nothing at all. So for him to just write anonymous reviews of books for $50 a pop was kind of the perfect job because I literally couldn’t think of anything else that would be closer to just not working. When Mark moves to New York, he says, New York looked to me like a perfect place to do nothing and get away with that. And this is basically his entire life. Just to figure out how to do the bare minimum of things to just stay afloat. That’s why even his relationship with Nina is originally a little suspect because he’s almost a gold digger. I didn’t push it too hard, but he’s this close to actually being a gold digger. They genuinely love each other but he certainly moves in fast, that’s for sure.

Q7: If Ground Up partly functions as a portrayal of how exactly not to open a café, which character in this novel’s universe represents the consummate entrepreneur?

MI: Avi is obviously there just to represent pure capitalism. He just really doesn’t care what he does. He doesn’t have a romantic attachment to anything or any product. If it’s real estate, it’s real estate, if it’s neon track suits for rappers, it’s neon track suits for rappers. He’s based ever so slightly on Jacob the Jeweler, actually. He’s in jail now. He’s this guy who got absurdly rich selling these diamond-studded watches to rappers. He’s even name-dropped in a lot of Jay-Z songs. So, yeah, Avi represents pure capitalism as much as Vic represents sort of pure bohemia. There’s also Kyle, who’s this kind of Middle America guy. For the duration of almost the entire book, you only see him through Mark’s eyes as something he is definitely not. Mark sees him as this dumb-ass frat boy, which Kyle actually isn’t. There’s nothing in the book to support that view. He’s just friendly, which Mark takes as proof of stupidity.

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