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10 Questions for Michael Idov

Q8: Do you find it more fun or challenging to write characters like Mark, who readers might find a touch unpleasant at first, rather than an immediately likeable narrator?

MI: I tried to write him as this sort of insufferable twit you just want to slap, but at the same time, he’s eloquent, he’s witty. What happens is, when you write for an eloquent character, you inevitably end up giving him all your best lines. As soon as you do that, you start feeling a little affectionate towards him. There’s no way around it. If you look closely, Nina is actually wittier. She gets a lot of better lines. Once you’ve given him a ton of your own observations, you can’t help it. Or at least I, as an author, can’t help it. It’s definitely not that I wrote him in a way that you were programmed to be disgusted by him. I just read Zoe Heller’s The Believers and it’s a great novel. It’s actually a novel where — it’s an amazing act of writing — where there are great characters who are supposed to be revolting, morally. Everything that comes out of everybody’s mouth, you just cringe, because they’re awful people. They’re all awful. I don’t know how you sustain that intensity. Heller is somehow capable of having her main character say “Hi” in a way that makes you vomit. Obviously I didn’t pitch it anywhere as highly. But in the interviews I’ve done, I’ve really had to battle this horrible perception that I’m Mark.

Q9: The novel provides a very detailed snapshot of a very particular time and place in New York City. Do you, as a reader and writer, find that such specifics add to a piece of writing’s authenticity or date it?

MI: The bulk of it was written in 2006 and 2007. There are a few places mentioned in it that have already closed. In the early draft there was a protracted riff on molecular cuisine that by the time I was editing the finished book, I had to take out because it had been covered a hundred times in the Times. Basically just watching Michael Pollan, all these books make their way through the public consciousness. But I’m hoping that in a few more years they just become snapshots of a particular time. It’s like when you read Bret Easton Ellis, his descriptions of ’80s Manhattan — it’s not dated at this point, they’re just period pieces. The zeitgeist changed so abruptly in 2008, that — I wish I could take credit for it — but if you notice, my characters take out a subprime mortgage at some point and basically what happens to them is what happened on a national scale. It was written in 2006 and I just wanted to come up with a situation where they would act stupidly enough so that by the end of the book they would have neither the café nor the apartment. So I came up with this idiotic scheme that nobody should ever try — taking equity out of their apartment, putting it into a high yield mutual fund, and living off of that. And then it was amazing because by the time the book was already sold and in production, I could sit back and watch it happen in reality, on a global scale.

Q10: On that note, one of the book’s epigraphs is a quote from Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, a novel in which boho types are similarly stripped of their illusions about the grandness of life when a public disaster occurs — the war. 

MI: I think the last page of Vile Bodies is one of the most harrowing pages ever written. Obviously nothing quite that drastic happens here. Definitely the last chapter of this book is much shorter than the others and it’s told in a slightly different voice, and it’s supposed to take place in a slightly different reality. Mark’s narration is definitely overwritten and self-admiring in the beginning, and the last is the one that’s actually written in reasonably short sentences. And this is something that I actually tried to make a point about. It is him facing reality but trying to toe this line, not make it as neat as wrapping up a TV series. I didn’t want him to learn a valuable lesson, but at the same time it’s definitely written in a more mature voice. That’s why I think it kind of works when he finally starts writing, and what he writes is actually this juvenile piece of crap, a swashbuckler novel, and that’s his redemption in a way.   


Ground Up: A Novel was released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux Paperbacks in August.




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