Sheltering: Emily Gould is ‘Not Remotely As Cool’ As Her Protagonist
The Author of Perfect Tunes Talks to Maris Kreizman
On this episode of Sheltering, Emily Gould speaks with Maris Kreizman about her new novel, Perfect Tunes, a book about music and motherhood set in early 2000s New York. Gould discusses the difficulty in writing a novel that spans 15 years, wishing she could install an “empathy chip” in her younger self, and wonders if she’s reached the “lifetime capacity” for the number of listens to “Hey Ya!” by Outkast. One of Gould’s favorite local bookstores is Greenlight Books; please order Perfect Tunes through their website or through Bookshop.
From the episode:
Transcription generously provided by Eliza M. Smith
Maris Kreizman: Welcome to Sheltering. I am delighted to be talking to Emily Gould today. I really wish we were talking in person, but I’ll take what I can get. Welcome!
Emily Gould: Thanks for having me!
Maris: Emily, do you want to introduce yourself and talk about how you’ve been?
Emily: Yeah, sure. I’m Emily Gould. What else is a pertinent thing about me?
Maris: You wrote a book. [holds up Perfect Tunes]
Emily: Oh, thank you! I should have brought some… to our interview. (laughs) This is my third book; it’s my second novel. I haven’t published any books for the last—I think my last book came out in 2014, so it’s been a minute. A lot of stuff has happened since 2014.
Maris: Yes, it has!
Emily: Even just in the past week or so. For me, personally, just to zoom in on my individual circumstances for a second, those years have brought—I got married, I had two kids, so that was all happening while I was like working on this book.
Maris: Amazing. Before we go into the book, just a quick check: how are your husband and kids doing now?
Emily: Those losers, I have abandoned them. I’m at a friend’s apartment right now, so as far as I’m concerned, in my mind right now, they just don’t exist. (laughs) I have this thing that I’ve heard from other people is relatively common, which is that one of your children is an angel and the other is the devil. And the thing that really trips people up, I have heard is if you get the good one first, and you’re like oh, we’re great parents, and then you get the second one and it’s like, womp womp. That’s not what happened to us. We got the very spirited—that’s the euphemism that people prefer—child first, and then our younger child is so lawful good, it’s crazy. His brother, who’s almost 5, will be tearing around the apartment throwing tomatoes at the wall, and Ilya, who’s 2, he’ll be putting his toys away, like stacking them neatly in little rows over in the corner. It’s like, I don’t know what we did to deserve you, clearly you have none of our genetic material. Because when I look at Raffi, his older brother, I’m like oh, yeah, it’s just the worst of me plus the worst of my husband combined. That’s obviously how genetics work. But when we had Ilya, we were like, oh, it’s just this random crapshoot and you have no control over it. So, that’s—
Maris: That’s how you’re doing, huh?
Emily: It’s like all of our problems—and I think this is true of every system in the world—but everything that had cracks in its foundation, the infrastructure needed some upkeep, those things are coming into really high relief. You can’t paper over anything anymore. All the flaws are right there on the surface.
Maris: That’s a good segue, because your book covers a bit of that. I was really struck when I went back to look over the book before talking to you today, there’s a scene in which a new mother—single mother—is sick, and her baby is sick, and that captures a lot of the horror, I think, that people are feeling now.
Emily: Yes. I am really proud of that scene. That scene was actually so much fun to write because I knew that I wanted to have a set piece in the middle of the book that zoomed in on one particular day, 24 hours in the life of the protagonist, Laura. There’s some flashback in it, but really it starts when she wakes up and it ends when she goes to bed. For me, that was more of a comfortable writing zone too. Not just because I was drawing on autobiographical stuff—obviously I have had a barfing illness while my children have had a barfing illness, and it’s very bad—but also the rest of the book takes place over the course of fifteen years, and for me that was the biggest challenge in writing this book. It’s part of why—there are a lot of reasons why it took me so long to finish it; I had two kids, there was so much upheaval in the world that I really started feeling like fiction itself was irrelevant, I was teaching, all of these things were intervening in the process. But also, I really didn’t know what I was doing. I bit off so much more than I could chew in terms of having a novel that spanned that much time. My first novel took place over the course of a year, which as a structure, that’s so easy. There’s so much built-in narrative that happens in a year. When you think of the Harry Potter books, there’s Christmas; they keep doing the same things over and over again. Not to have those signposts and to have to figure out which parts of fifteen years would be important enough to become scenes—there was a lot that I wrote and then cut, because it was like this clearly happened, but does it need to happen on stage?
Maris: Tell me about writing the beginning of the book, which is just the best nostalgia tour of Manhattan in the early, early, early aughts.
Emily: Thanks for saying that. I think for people around our age, it’s going to be extra resonant, but I’m really curious to hear from people who are much younger and much older too, about how much feels familiar or interesting to them. It was really fun to write that part of the book. There were parts that were fun to write, and there were parts that were really not fun to write. But to try to evoke what life was like as a young person in the East Village in the early aughts made me feel young again. Which is a goofy thing to say because we’re not that old, but it made me feel like that part of youth where you’re just like, each day has limitless potential, I’m going to put on a different outfit and it’s going to make me a completely different person; I’m going to meet someone today and that’s going to change my life. That’s something you really only get to have when you’re new to a new place, to a new way of being in the world. That’s really special. It’s like a pre-cell phone today.
Maris: Internet cafes! You write about internet cafes, and it’s like, oh yeah! That was a huge thing.
Emily: I’ve tried to explain this to students. Sometimes I’ll teach undergraduates, and it’s like, “Back in the day, children, if you wanted to make plans with your friends, you had to just go find them, wherever they were.” If they worked in a store, you would go to the store. There are lots of great things about technology, obviously. Here we are! I wouldn’t be able to have any contact with you; it would be horrible in this situation. But there was something really special about that time too. Also because it was the end, I think. By 2007, everything had changed so dramatically.
Maris: Yeah, I think that’s true. Tell me a little bit about the music of that time, because that’s a very important plot point of that book.
Emily: To get myself in the mood of the early aughts, I was listening not just to music that was made during that time but music that for whatever reason, I was listening to during that time. Something that was really helpful to me, I don’t know if you’ve seen Matthew Perpetua playlists that are by year? They’re amazing, and they were really helpful to me in terms of getting into the mindset of, what was 2003 compared to 2005? Actually, a huge difference. You can really feel it in the music. There was a little of it for me of even listening to music that I don’t even really like. Or just stuff that I wore it out so much that I don’t ever want to hear it again. Like, we never really need to hear “Hey Ya!” again. Although “Hey Ya!” is a great song!
Maris: One of the greatest.
Emily: Maybe there is a lifetime capacity for “Hey Ya!” and I have exceeded it. It could be. Actually, you know what, I take it back, that is a slander against “Hey Ya!” We should all go listen to “Hey Ya!” right now.
Maris: It might improve the world, I don’t know.
Emily: Just simultaneously, yeah. Or we could just put on all Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. The other album from that time I can’t listen to for the opposite reason, it’s like too good and I don’t want to ruin it by wearing it out or taking it out of the vault when it’s not totally necessary, is Cat Power, You Are Free.
Maris: Oh, yeah. I had that in my CD pile.
Emily: Probably one of the last CDs that we bought and owned as CDs. That album is so good, it’s nuts.
Maris: I know you’ve seen all of the quarantine house memes that are going around, and there was one for early aughts music.
Emily: Oh, I didn’t see that!
Maris: I forget who won. It wasn’t the Strokes or anything like that. Again, your characters evoke a very specific time, just like they do.
Emily: It’s funny about the Strokes; the Strokes are so emblematic of that time. I was not remotely as cool or interesting as this character, but I definitely was really, really pretentious. If I could go back and change one personality thing about myself from probably 16 to 25, other than just installing an empathy chip, I would take myself by the shoulders and say, “You can like things that other people like!” A lot of people liking a thing does not mean that it’s off limits. You’re not making yourself special by doing that, you’re just cutting yourself off from a bunch of stuff that’s very good.
Maris: I still feel that way sometimes, though. If I like something that’s popular, it’s kind of like, am I not smart enough to appreciate why it’s bad?
Emily: Totally. I am a big snob still about some things, but my snobbery is more earned. (laughs) When I was writing this book, I went back and listened to Is This It and I’m like, why didn’t I just admit that I liked this? it’s fine. I’m not too good for it. it’s a perfectly fine album. And it definitely has gained some resonance just because it reminds us of a time.
Maris: Tell me a little bit about—this is where it gets a little sad—what your book tour might have been, and how you’re adapting.
Emily: Oh, it’s just shitty because I was really looking forward to seeing a lot of friends and internet friends and people I just admire and know from afar in all the different cities that I would’ve been able to go to. So, that’s a bummer. I was looking forward to seeing the writers who I know who live in Boston and in Portland; I have a lot of friends in Portland, in LA. I was going to meet some people for the first time who I internet know, but I don’t really know them. This is the one really great thing about when a book comes out, is you make those relationships that are virtual and sometimes kind of one-sided, and you get to touch base with people in reality and all be in a room together. But life is long, and the only goal of my writing career is to be able to continue writing books, and I think at some point in the future I will get to write another book. I will get to do the stuff had been planned for these next couple of weeks. We’ll all just be older and wiser, and more deeply scarred.
Maris: I think that’s probably true. What is your local bookstore?
Emily: I have a couple. I live in bookstore central. My launch event was going to be at Greenlight, and they’ve actually been really good at shipping books. I know people who have ordered my book from Greenlight, some of them already have it, so that’s great. Also, Books Are Magic; I live really near Books Are Magic, and I go there all the time. WORD Bookstore will always have a special place in my heart because I was living in Greenpoint when it first opened, so that was my local bookstore for a really long time. It’s really, really important to get books shipped. I’m about to put in a book order today from one of those places because I need more books, but perhaps much more importantly, Raffi needs more books, because we have read all of the Dog Man books so many times, and there are only so many times that you can put a new spin on it for yourself by making up that the character has a new accent that they didn’t have before. It’s a dire need. Dav Pilkey, the author of the Captain Underpants and the Dog Man books, if he could just do what Disney+ did by releasing the Trolls movie early, if he could just release the new Dog Man book early as a personal favor to me, that would be literally the best thing that could happen in my life right now. It’s just the truth.
Maris: Well, I hope he’s listening. I hope he’s watching.
Emily: Hey Dav! I know your name isn’t pronounced Dave, even though it’s spelled Dav.
Emily: I know, right. Who knew? Who else is it—a little-known author name pronunciation? Oh, Liane [pronounced Ly-anne]. Liane Moriarty, the author of Big Little Lies.
Maris: There you go. Emily, thank you so much. Perfect Tunes, out now. Order it from your local bookstore. Thank you!