Excerpted from The Good People of New York by Thisbe Nissen. Copyright © 2002 by Thisbe Nissen. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with
The Good People of New York
Q. What made you want to write this book and how did you begin to formulate the story?
A. I first wrote the story "The Rather Unlikely Courtship of Edwin Anderson and Roz Rosenzweig" in an attempt to chronicle a somewhat fictionalized version of my parents' courtship. I had no real plans of turning it into a novel at all. Around the same time I wrote a story called ''Think About If You Want," which ostensibly had nothing to do with the other story. But some time passed and I think I realized that the mother character (I had called her Sheila in "Think About...") was actually and without a doubt a much later incarnation of Roz: divorced; raising a daughter; an outspoken, feisty, survivor-of-a-woman who has been unlucky in love and still has this stalwart strength about her. I started bridging the stories. A few years later, The Good People of New York was the result.
Q. You grew up in NYC. How did this affect the writing of your novel?
A. I did grow up in Manhattan, and I think that has, of course, been a source in much of my fiction. My mom recently went to a lecture by John Updike, where someone apparently asked him how much of his work was actually him and he said something like "Writing fiction is like handwriting." You can alter it, camouflage it, twist everything around, use different pens, whatever, but it's still your handwriting when it comes down to it. I think even if you're writing the most way out twisted stuff, it's still you writing it, and so of course it's impacted by who you are and the experiences you've had and the life you've lived. I lived in New York for eighteen years, I grew up there, it's part of me, for better or worse.
Q. Do you identify with any one character in particular?
A. All of them, actually, in one way or another. I guess, particularly Miranda and Darrin. And Wing, too. I think Miranda and Darrin are such close friends in part because they complement each other so completely; maybe they're more like two halves of the same person, and I see myself a little in that person that they make up together. And then Wing could almost be that Miranda/Darrin person a few years later, post-college, still a kid in many ways, and trying hard to figure out how to be an adult. I definitely put myself in that category.
Q. Do you ever feel "far away" from yourself, as Edwin has become from himself and his family?
A. No, not really, but I've known people like Edwin in that regard, felt the kind of fear that comes from being (and being around) such a person.
Q. How long have you been writing? When and how did you begin in earnest?
A. I've always written, always wanted to "be a writer when I grew up." I wanted to go to college at Oberlin in part because it was one of the few schools at that time that offered an undergrad Creative Writing major (which I didn't actually end up doing; I was an English major with a Creative Writing concentration) and I knew then that I wanted to be in workshops, to be able to focus seriously on writing in college. It wasn't until my junior year, though, that I wrote my first real "story" in order to apply for a Fiction Workshop. It was an incredible class —with a phenomenal professor named Diane Vreuls to whom I owe so much, and an amazing group of peers (of the twelve of us, most everyone is still writing: Myla Goldberg's novel Bee Season came out last year; Lisa Jervis founded and edits "Bitch Magazine: Feminist Response to Pop Culture," and has had essays appear in numerous anthologies and in such magazines as Ms., Utne Reader, and Bust; Brian Borowka is an award-winning playwright in the MFA program at Phoenix, Arizona; James Borda is writing sci-fi novels; Beth Chimera won a Pushcart Prize for her short fiction, etc.) We were all writing in earnest even then, and I suppose we just kept going from there.
Q. Your writing is very emotional. Do you experience these emotions as you are writing, or are they purely fictional?
A. I'm there inside all those emotions as I'm writing. It's not a trick or something I force myself through, that's just the way it goes: if I'm writing them well, then I'm feeling them, too. I'm a generally emotional person to begin with. I have no poker face. Everything's pretty much hanging out on my sleeve at all times. Tears are never too far below the surface.
Q. This is your first full-length novel. How does writing a book of this length compare to writing short stories?
A. It's my first published full-length novel, but not the first I've written. Maud and Drew is a novel with a home in my closet, and it was the first—the place where I really had no idea what I was doing. I gave myself the freedom to try anything: cut it all into little pieces and rearrange them, hack out huge chunks of text on a very regular basis and alter the course of events dramatically. I got to play when I was writing Maud and Drew, and even if it never sees the light of day (though I do feel bad for poor Maud and Drew, living there in that dark closet), it was worth the two and a half years I spent on it—for the process and what it taught me about how to do better the next time around.
Q. Was the transition from story-writing to novel-writing a difficult one?
A. Not difficult at all. It's the only way I've ever done it: writing stories that then turned into a novel. I also find it's satisfying to be working on stories while working on a novel. A novel's such a big, unwieldy beast, and there's not a lot of short-term gratification in the process, so to be working on a short story concurrently (better yet: a short-short!) gives me that sense of occasional accomplishment: I finished something!
The novel I’m working on now is a very different sort of project for me. It takes place during the course of one summer. The focus is on the inhabitants of a small eastern-shore island and the events that ultimately lead to the death of one character. I’m using a more omniscient point of view to write a story that’s much more somber than what I’ve written before.
Q. What do you feel is the fundamental message you are trying to convey with The Good People of New York, and how does your title relate?
A. I don't think I've really got a "message to convey" at all. If anything, I feel like I'm just trying to open up some portholes into some lives. As for the title: the anecdote included in the final chapter (of the same name) was told to me by my best friend, Michelle, to whom I basically owe my entire sense of humor. She's twenty times funnier than I could ever hope to be, and every time she tells me a story I'm on the other end of the phone line scribbling madly to get it all down, calling her back a million times begging "please tell me again about the time when..."
Q. How did you feel when you completed this book?
A. I finished the first complete draft while I was in New York staying with my folks. I took my laptop down to the Public Library at 42nd St., and in the course of a couple of weeks I finished the novel and sold it and also happened to fall in love with a man I spotted sitting across the Rose Main Reading Room. A lot of dreams I never ever thought could come true did. I guess I felt pretty incredibly wonderful.
Thisbe Nissen was on tour for the hardcover publication of The Good People of New York during the summer of 2001. For her author's desktop she kept a day-by-day tour diary on the road.
During her tour, Nissen had three joint events with Matthew Klam, author of Sam the Cat. Their e-mail exchange in preparation for these readings is also included on her desktop.
1. Are the characters portrayed in the novel actually “good people,” and, if so, what makes them “good”? Or, is the title meant to be sarcastic? How so?
2. Fran tells Roz on her first meeting with Edwin, “Things are hardly as they appear” [p. 5]. Where else in Roz’s life does her perception conflict with reality? What does this say about Roz’s character?
3. Why does Roz and Edwin’s marriage end? How does Miranda’s birth change them as individuals? Does their new daughter alter their marriage or merely accentuate differences that were already there? How does the author foreshadow the fate of the marriage long before Roz and Edwin themselves experience it?
4. Is Miranda and Roz’s mother-daughter relationship a realistic one? Roz had intended to be “the fabulous mom-who’s-more-like-a-friend-than-a-mom mom” to Miranda, not a “worrier” like her own mother, Adele [p. 67]. Does Roz live up to her expectations of motherhood? How does Roz’s perception of herself as a mother differ from Miranda’s view of her mother [see pp. 105 and 246]? How accurate is Darrin’s perception of their relationship [p. 237]?
5. What does it mean that Edwin does not have “one iota of New York savvy” [p. 7]? Was Edwin doomed from the beginning to return to Nebraska, “where the waves of grain were amber, the plains fruited, and the girls as simple and blond as sunflowers” [p. 10]? How are the native New Yorkers in the novel more “savvy”? How might Wing and Darrin, also “non-natives,” rank in terms of on Roz’s scale of savviness?
6. Aside from the references to public transportation [pp. 35 and 136], the tragedy of moving from Manhattan to Brooklyn [p. 137], the Metropolitan Museum of Art [p. 9], Zabar’s [p. 66], Bloomingdale’s [p. 133], and other New York City landmarks, what makes The Good People of New York a quintessentially New York novel? How might a non-New Yorker and a New Yorker read this book differently?
7. For which character do you feel the most sympathy? Which characters do not evoke as much compassion and why? How is the author simultaneously sympathetic and sarcastic toward her characters, and how does it affect your ability to relate to them? Is this more true or less true of the secondary characters, such as Ben, Alex, and Shaunna?
8. When Miranda tries to think of Spencer, why can she remember only the night her father left [p. 112]? Is Spencer a father figure to Miranda? What does he teach her?
9. How does Roz’s religion define her? How are Roz’s and Mona’s Judaism manifested differently? Is religion at the core of Roz’s identity? Is it a contributing factor to the failure of her marriage, or is it irrelevant? After Edwin and Roz marry, the author no longer mentions the religion of the people in Roz’s, Edwin’s, and Miranda’s lives. Why not?
10. The imagery of motion permeates The Good People of New York. For example, Roz imagines her courtship with Edwin in terms of arriving at a destination and establishing roots [pp. 11–12] and Miranda associates the paths her parents’ lives have taken with driving [p. 194]. What mood do these travel images and metaphors create? What do they convey about life in New York City? How is the implied sense of perpetual motion, the need to get from one place to another, reflected in the characters?
11. How do the letters from camp in Chapter 7 help advance the plot [pp. 75–90]? How does this chapter hint at the changes to come in Miranda’s family? Where else does Nissen use foreshadowing?
12. Compare the friendships in the book to the relationships among family members. Does one type of relationship seem to take priority over another? How does Ben and Miranda’s relationship demonstrate the way in which lines between family relationships and friends are often blurred? Does the novel accurately reflect how some people drift in and out of our lives and some people stay constant?
13. The novel spans a period of time from just before Miranda’s birth until her eighteenth birthday. Is this primarily Miranda’s story or Roz’s? Does the narrative voice shift successfully from Roz to Miranda? Is either one dominant? Does The Good People of New York fit squarely into the coming-of-age genre, and if so, whose coming-of-age does it portray?
14. Nissen often ends chapters before informing the reader of whether or not an event occurs and later fills in the plot (for example, the death of Adele [Chapter 5], the dissolution of Edwin’s and Roz’s marriage [Chapter 8], and Miranda’s rendezvous with Jeremy [Chapter 10]). How does omitting the description of events when they actually occur affect the development of the novel?
15. How is Roz like Adele [p. 67]? What physical characteristics and personality traits does Miranda inherit from her mother and father?
16. Nissen often includes cultural references to timely popular fads, for example, Roz’s return to law school [p. 65], the “latchkey kid” [p. 91], Obsession perfume [p. 133], the television show Moonlighting [p. 220], and sushi [p. 236]. Do these references successfully convey how society changed from the 1970s through the 1990s, or do they date the novel? How might they affect the reader who did not live through these times or is not familiar with these popular trends? How else does the author convey the changing times?
17. Miranda thinks, “That’s just the way things go: you never get to the place you once looked up to because once you’re there you’re no longer looking up and you realize that maybe it only really existed if you caught it on an angle from below” [p. 269]. How is this sentiment echoed throughout the novel?