Why Dan Kois Created a Laurie Colwin-Esque Character in His New Novel
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
This week on The Maris Review, Dan Kois joins Maris Kreizman to discuss his latest novel, Vintage Contemporaries, out now from Harper.
Subscribe and download the episode, wherever you get your podcasts.
On creating a Laurie Colwin-esque character:
MK: Lucy is a stand-in for Laurie [Colwin], yes?
DK: In a way. So Emily, who works at this literary agency, gets hooked up with this college friend of her mother’s who lives in New York, and who her mother doesn’t know very well anymore but who was very important to her when they were young women, who describes her as this aspiring writer. But it turns out that Lucy is a real writer… in the sense that she’s published several novels with a small press that went nowhere and got zero attention as so often happens, but she has a certain kind of writerly flair and personal warmth that Emily it turns out really needs in that point in her life.
[Emily is] slow to understand what is good about the books because she’s so wrapped up in her own version of the Bright Lights, Big City version of New York City literary writing. But when she does, she finds it’s really meaningful to her. The harder and more complicated her own life gets, the more that the books that Lucy writes, which do resemble in a way the books that Laurie Colwin wrote, mean more and more to her, and her friendship with Lucy means more and more.
I wanted to have that counterexample right here in the book. The more I was writing this book and the more I realized what it was about and what it was arguing about—writing about happiness and about writing the kind of books that don’t require someone to imagine a dark future for themselves—the more I wanted to have a character who embodied it. It seemed to me like I might as well just embody that sort of Laurie Colwin-esque embrace of sociability and happiness and joy and love.
MK: And food.
DK: Yes, because that allows me to put a couple of recipes here and there in this book as well.
On community and the squats of the Lower East Side:
DK: I loved the idea of Em, who comes to New York from Wisconsin after a brief foray in college, and for whom the city evolves over time from being intimidating to feeling like home. I love the idea of her finding a true New York community. I had been reading about the squats of the Lower East Side and the drama surrounding them in the 90s. I had known a little bit about them, embarrassingly mostly through the musical Rent.
But the idea of these very stormy yet very cohesive communities in which people were living very rough and tumble lives but were still applying themselves, their skills and talents and energies, towards a very specific collective purpose, one that was inarguably good for them and for their neighborhood—they were then facing this implacable opponent in the City, which, in the 90s, spent an enormous amount of money and effort to evict people from squats on the Lower East Side and at one point, sending in waves of police in a tank to clear them out.
Latecomers by Anita Brookner • Asa, as I Knew Him by Susanna Kaysen • Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
Dan Kois is a writer, editor, and podcaster at Slate, where his work has been nominated for two National Magazine Awards and a Writers Guild Award. He’s the author of How to Be a Family, a memoir of parenting around the world; The World Only Spins Forward (with Isaac Butler), an oral history of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America; and Facing Future, a book of music criticism and biography. He lives with his family in Arlington, Virginia.