Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Chris Interviews Lee Conell about The Party Upstairs

From Chris: I'm feeling quite lucky to have this chance to sit down - or rather, since that's out for a while, exchange emails - with Lee Conell author of The Party Upstairs. Some of you know that aside from being a bookseller, I'm a writer as well, and this is the kind of first novel that’s so good it makes me, when I've got my writing hat on, super-duper jealous. So it's pretty great to have a chance to get the author on the other end of the old typin' machine to dig a little deeper into what makes this book tick.

Here's the elevator pitch (a phrase that will have even more relevance as you read on): Conell takes on an upstairs-downstairs-in-NYC premise centered around the brewing fight between back-at-home-swimming-in-liberal-arts-education-debt Ruby, her meditating-birdwatching-trying-to-avoid-a-mental-breakdown-building-super father Martin, and her grew-up-in-the-penthouse-but-definitely-doesn’t-think-she’s-better-than-you oldest friend Caroline. Over the course of a single day, these tensions boil into a crisis that leaves everyone scarred and changed in one way or another.

Chris Lee: Thanks so much for taking the time for this chat. I love that your book is super focused on economics and the realities of how money influences every part of peoples’ lives - these are the big questions of the book, right? - but the at the same time, you’re able to fold that influence really deftly into the character’s lives and relationships – so much so that the realization of it creeps up on them and the reader. How much were you thinking about economics and money as you wrote? What sort of “ah-ha!” money moments did you set out to write about, and did any creep up on you?

Lee Conell:
Those are definitely the big questions of the book, but I think I found those questions as I went. I started with just really wanting to write about the small little power dynamics in an apartment building, hoping that those dynamics might speak to bigger things around class and money, but trying to not pay too much attention to those bigger resonances right away. I knew less about exactly what I was setting out to write than about what I didn’t want to do: As a kid and a young adult, I often felt that a lot of stories and movies around money seemed to deal with either 1) genteel poverty (sorta like “We once had money, now we don’t, but our former wealth makes our story worth telling”), 2) immediately life-threatening poverty (often shown in dramatic, peak-grit fashion), or 3) enormously rich people behaving badly. It felt like, in talking about class and money, certain types of stories were favored or let through over others.

I knew that what I was writing didn’t quite seem to fall into those three categories, and that the novel seemed to have a lot to do with the shame and anxiety that sometimes occurs when people try to pretend that class tension doesn’t exist or doesn’t affect them. Ruby and Martin don’t aspire to be like the wealthy tenants in the building, but they still have complicated feelings and fears concerning how these tenants view them, feelings that they are trying to sort out throughout the novel. The big questions of the novel were probably borne in part out of some of my frustrations with how class is often talked about (or not talked about), but the shape of the questions themselves emerged through these two characters.

One ah-ha creeping-up-on-me moment I do remember: As I went along, I saw the novel was interested, too, in the way stories around poverty and financial struggle sometimes get kind of co-opted by those with more power, as a display of moral goodness. At times, those kinds of displays themselves wind up being a sneaky form of conspicuous consumption. This wasn’t an initial concern of the novel but it wound up intermingling with a lot of the earlier money anxiety stuff I knew the book would deal with and proved surprisingly crucial to a lot of the novel’s action.

CL: Martin - father, super, watcher of birds, which I love, especially as, through the story, he gets tenser and tenser, we see him juxtaposed at the birds staring back him, impassively. How did birdwatching make its way into the book?

When I was a kid in the city, I was part of this NYC parks department group called Junior Rangers—every Saturday I’d go on these hikes led by city park rangers and learn about birds or plants or city geology. It always felt like a kind of secret to me, that all these different birds existed and made their life in the city. It was such a part of my experience of the city. And I wanted to give Martin another set of creatures to interact with, to watch, to respond to. I’m glad that you mentioned the birds staring back! That’s an important part of the whole dynamic—not only is Martin watching the birds, but he recognizes that he can be seen by them, too. A lot of the book wound up being about characters’ trying (and often failing!) to really see each other.

CL: The building itself is a character in the book – there’s the shabby comfort of the old blankets and couch in their basement apartment home, the terror-inducing childhood memories of the elevator-motor room. Can you talk about creating that space? If you were to take someone into it for the first time, what would you want to point out to them?

LC: This is a great question! (ed. note - thanks!) I’d probably want to show them the elevator-motor room, or maybe the boiler room. It’s something that I still find so wild, that residential apartment buildings contain these spaces that residents are supposed to forget exist—if the boiler room is functioning, you, as a resident, should never think about its existence. Creating the building space was a lot of fun and did involve a fair number of conversations with my father, a super himself, to make sure the details weren’t off. Thinking about the building’s physical spaces and how they interlock helped me to think about the interlocking parts of the novel, too.

CL: With the building’s residents, from Caroline’s penthouse-owning father to the homeless woman sleeping in the foyer to the pigeons nesting in the fa├žade and everyone in between, you’ve created almost a whole city of social strata in miniature. Was it important to you that the building and characters that people the book be representative of a wider world?

LC: If I’d thought too much about the building and the characters representing the wider world, I probably would have become totally paralyzed during the writing process. If anything, I worried that I was describing something too specific to have much wider resonance at all. But I love the idea of the building being a social strata in miniature, that in paying close attention to small things, all sorts of bigger resonances are achieved.

Ruby’s dealing with what I’d call some pretty archetypal millennial guilt – her parents have worked hard so she could get an education, and so she’s clearly feeling the pressure of expectations, but at the same time, the world just doesn’t have the opportunities it would have had for her 20-30 years ago, and so she’s confronting this tough truth that in spite of that education, she’s maybe not going to wind up that much better off than her parents. And there’s also the moments of “why-oh-why did I go into the arts?” regret. Can you talk about how you see her dealing with that squeezed-from-all-directions pressure?

LC: So much of Ruby’s movement in the book is about her traveling from a place of non-dealing to maybe-dealing-a-little-bit. And part of that move toward dealing, I think, concerns her becoming more cognizant of the way the rage and shame she’s been directing toward herself (and in some ways toward her father) needs to go in other directions. Only then Ruby’s anger starts ricocheting off individuals she views as privileged, rather than the systems that give them privilege (though of course these individuals are often supporting those same systems). Ultimately, a lot of her dealing seems to be reckoning with her anger and learning how to begin to… not exactly release… but redirect the squeezed-from-all-directions pressure you mentioned.

CL: In another article you wrote, you made it clear that much of the novel is based on experience – your father was the super of the building you grew up in – which makes me wonder if there’s anything in the book that you find readers are surprised to know is totally, 100% true-to-life? Or something that’s completely fictional, that came entirely from the characters, that everyone thinks came from your life?

One question I’ve been getting a lot is if I had any long-term friendships with others in the building like the one Ruby has with Caroline, in the penthouse. I’m happy to report that I did not! For the most part there actually weren’t many children my age in the building, though there were a lot of babies around the time I was twelve. So, if I’d been born a little later, who knows! The part of the book most based on my experience is probably the setting itself, the ecosystem of the building. Hearing calls on the answering machine, as Ruby does, was a big part of my growing up. I had a kind of constant awareness of the various needs in the building, and expended a fair amount of energy trying to squash this awareness. When I began to write the novel, I didn’t know much about what was going to happen, but I did know that I wanted to inhabit that setting again, to think about it from a different angle, one where I was permitting myself to be more aware of the building and its inhabitants.

As he mops, Martin sees the whole world in terms of wet and dry. Ruby tends to reframe the world around her into the kind of dioramas she studied and created in school. I love how your characters sort of reinterpret the world around them through the concrete things they’re doing. Was that a trick you used to get inside their heads?

LC: Definitely! It’s a useful way for me to try to get out of my own head. As a writer, I tend to see a lot of world stuff—probably too much world stuff!—in these arc-y narrative ways. I see a lot of patterns and almost-symbols and connections that feel like stories. Really, what I’m noticing is my obsession with storytelling imposing a kind of selective order on the mess of details I could draw from at any given moment. My characters often think in ways that feel very different from my own usual thought patterns, but having them reframe the world through their activities and obsessions is very familiar for me—and is a way into their minds.

CL: Be the bookseller for the day here, fill in the blanks – The Party Upstairs is the perfect mix of ____ meets _____ !

LC: Mrs. Dalloway meets Heathers! (I don’t know if this is true, but someone said it to me about The Party Upstairs once, and I’m clinging to it as a descriptor forever. Also, I know Heathers is a movie, so I’m maybe missing the bookseller point of the question! Ahh! I’m so sorry!)

- The point is definitely not missed, just like many of them in the book. Here comes the hard sell: snag a copy of The Party Upstairs right here from Boswell!

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