by Sonya Chung
B.G. Firmani’s debut novel Time’s a Thief immerses us in 1980s New York City, through the experience of Francesca “Chess” Varani, who plunges into college life at Barnard College after an unstable and working-class childhood in a small town. Chess’s friendship with privileged, troubled Kendra Marr-Lowenstein and the entire Marr-Lowenstein family becomes entangling and, arguably, addictive for Chess. The novel is both erudite and accessible, sad and funny—a coming-of-age story that braves the unbecoming emotional realities of social class as much as the material ones. Time’s a Thief was long-listed for the Center for Fiction’s 2017 First Novel Prize.
Sonya Chung: You are, in a way, a poster child for BLOOM: Time’s a Thief is your first published novel, and your journey as a fiction writer included, by your accounting, four “failed” books—two novels, and two story collection. Tell us about those novels and stories: what did you learn from the process of writing them? What does “failed” mean to you, and how do you determine when it’s time to move on from a project?
B.G. Firmani: Oh, I love hearing that about the “poster child.” The first novel was a big, bloated mess, which I more or less started in grad school. It really was an omnium gatherum for any idea or experience I’d ever had in my life—all of them chucked into a pretty plotless coming-of-age story. I worked on it for years. I had a top-drawer agent, someone I couldn’t fully appreciate at the time because I was too busy being a self-impressed little jerk, and after the poor guy had read many hundreds—maybe thousands—of these overwritten pages of mine, he told me, B.G., you did a lot of good work on this book, but I think you should just put it in a drawer. He was right but I felt like he had just shot me in the heart.
So I thought I would quickly write a short, “sparkling” novel that would have great commercial appeal, and this would get published instantly. In other words: I was a dummy. As I wrote the book it kept mutating in my hands, getting darker and sadder. Then I “over-corrected” and it became too flippant. And then I changed course again, and it turned into a schizophrenic mishmash, a casualty of the whiplash I was subjecting it to.
By then it was the early aughts and I felt like I was writing against the clock. I was also quite aware, in those times, that there were all sorts of people who had vouchsafed great belief in me and I was failing them. The fellow who eventually became the editor of Time’s a Thief, the great Gerald Howard, had actually befriended me in college—and that’s a lovely, long other story—and not only Gerry but writing teachers and other writers were waiting for me to write my big novel. I also think of a poet I knew who’d said (speaking generally), if you don’t publish a book by the time you’re thirty, you might as well hang it up. A stupid comment—but I really took it to heart. And so I felt like I was just staring into the abyss.
It was actually Gerry who got me out of this slump. We hadn’t spoken for some time, and I’m not exactly sure why I called him that particular day, except that a friend of mine was dying and I felt so defeated by life in general that I needed a pep talk. This was around late 2006. I remember I was lying on the floor of my apartment with my head by a bookcase, looking at the spines of Tristam Shandy and a biography of Jonathan Swift. Gerry, bless him, was telling me that pyrotechnics are great and all, he knows I’m smart and all, but there’s something I might want to think about as a writer: You have to communicate with the reader.
This was a revelation to me. Of course, I couldn’t have really heard Gerry’s piece of advice when I was younger. I was almost forty before I was ready for it. From there, what I did was essentially reteach myself how to write. I went to the Jefferson Market Library every day after work, put my butt in a chair, and wrote until the library closed. Since I was writing in public, it automatically disciplined me—I couldn’t space out or go eat a cookie. For this and many other reasons, I love the library.
SC: Your protagonist Chess has a day job that she isn’t terribly passionate about. Tell us about your day jobs over the years and how you’ve balanced the day job with fiction-writing.
BGF: The last day job I had was for a big company as a proposal writer, doing something that could be characterized as “helping rich people make more money.” Not only was this in the kind of industry that everyone who knew me thought I’d be spectacularly unsuited for, it was something that would have made my father, a good, old-school “liberal” Dem, roll over in his grave. Thing is, I had a boss that I just adored, who became a friend, as did many of the people there. We worked liked fiends. We had really beautiful camaraderie and, honestly, part of me really loved this job.
I was still working there when Time’s a Thief came out, and people were mystified that I had this very time-consuming job and yet had somehow found time to write a novel. I really have to hand it to my boss Lynn here. I’d evolved a pretty disciplined regimen of writing every weekend, but something about her enthusiasm and her work ethic really inspired me. So I pushed myself harder. If you care about the people you work with, you really want to pull your own weight—and the attitude I brought to my day job was actually an enormous help to my “real” job, my writing.
Of course, it’s almost impossible to maintain an attitude like this if you work in an environment like the place where Chess works in Time’s a Thief, or have a boss who is, say, a smiling sociopath. Sometimes you have no choice but to put on your headphones and plug in. If that’s the case, do it for a time—and then do yourself a favor and get out of there.
SC: In interviews you’ve mentioned many literary influences that inspire you and that have been, one way or another, absorbed into your own work: Mary McCarthy, Evelyn Waugh, Sigrid Nunez, Assata Shakur, Charlotte Brontë, Martin Amis, et alia. How conscious or unconscious is this absorption when you’re working on a book? Do you read fiction while writing it?
BGF: I’ll read all sorts of things—fiction and nonfiction that evokes the time, place, mood, what have you, of what I’m after in my writing. So, for example, my characters in the book I’m writing now spend a lot of time in Paris and sort of construct themselves Frenchly in general, so recently I read Virginie Despentes’ King Kong Theory, Pierre Guyotat’s Coma, Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories, Jacques Yonnet’s Paris Noir, Stendhal’s Lamiel, Édouard Louis’ (brilliant) The End of Eddy, Agnès Humbert’s Résistance, Sudhir Hazareesingh’s How the French Think, and Luc Sante’s The Other Paris, among other histories and travel writing. There’s also a real estate guy in my novel and, as everyone relentlessly tells you, the Robert Moses biography The Power Broker is required reading in terms of New York City’s development—as well as in terms of how to “broker” people and, in fact, screw them over. (I just have to say that Caro’s book is such a staggering accomplishment that you realize how shopworn words of praise are. And talk about work ethic! Robert Caro is a real hero of mine.)
And then I might also just need a “break” from research-y nonfiction or thematically related fiction, so I’ll read a novel for pure enjoyment—and on that note, Sonya, I’ve just picked up your book The Loved Ones.
(SC: Thank you, BG – I’m honored!
BGF: You are very welcome, Sonya!)
SC: I love this quote, from an interview with Los Angeles Review of Books: “I never want to get so old that I lose the sensibility of being the alienated adolescent. I feel there’s so much truth in that, and forgetting what that’s like makes people complacent and acted-upon.” You seem drawn to coming-of-age stories—the novel you’re currently working on, in your words, “traces three characters’ lives from adolescence to adulthood, mapping the choices that took them away from the notions they had of themselves when they were bright young things.” What is it about the mindset of youth that intrigues/excites you as a writer?
BGF: I think I’ve always been drawn to stories of a person “becoming.” When I was in my twenties I was really in love with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—how did the character become that way? I loved Flaubert from way back—I’m reading him in translation, unfortunately—and the book Sentimental Education had a huge impact on me, the journey of Frédéric Moreau from youth to defeated middle age. Similarly, Le Grand Meaulnes has that movement from childhood to disappointment, but of course that book has a much more romantic aspect than Flaubert’s, which is tragicomic and sort of exhausted.
On that note, I don’t think I could have written Time’s a Thief when I was still in the throes of youth—it sounds very dull to say it but, for me, I really did need the life experience to be able to understand what was else lost when youth was gone.
SC: Time’s a Thief follows the messy, complex relationship that a young working-class woman has with a wealthy, high-culture Manhattan family. I sometimes feel that—after Wharton and Fitzgerald—we have not had a lot of great American novels that take on social class. What do you think? What authors do you read/admire in this vein?
BGF: I’m sure you’d agree that there are plenty of great American novels that address social class whose larger focus is race. And I’d wager that this makes all the sense in the world, in that race is more consequential than class—a white person from any class background has the ability to “pass” as whatever class, but a person of color cannot shed her skin. So that’s a very different terrain.
So in terms of white writers, there are fewer (for me) that come immediately to mind. I love Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, and I love the work of Bonnie Jo Campbell—these writers are both more rural-focused. In a less dire form, Paula Fox looks at issues of class in her work—these are mostly city people of a certain means, so the calibrations are finer. Tobias Wolff’s Old School, such a good novel, has a protagonist keenly, keenly aware of class, who is trying to pass as rich. Richard Price surely takes on class, and he’s wonderful. A very recent novel that absolutely blew me away was Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, and it deals with class insofar as it’s focused on people living on the “invisible” fringes of New York City. There are other writers—“white ethnic,” Jewish and Italian—that I mention below. That I can’t think of a lot of them really does say something.
When I was in college, Raymond Carver was a huge influence on many writers, and you really did have droves of middle-class suburban white kids in workshops writing about characters who lived in trailers and drank Boone’s Farm wine … a bit later Denis Johnson was the writing workshop lodestar, and you had a lot of people from pretty privileged backgrounds writing about these very desperate characters beating each other with electrical cords. These are both writers I admire, but young writers should follow them at their own peril.
SC: The Marr-Lowenstein family, with whom your main character Chess becomes rather obsessed—addicted to, perhaps—are a pretty ugly, troubled bunch in terms of how they treat one another and ultimately Chess. Did you have a sense of wanting your reader to come away from the novel with a kind of newfound compassion for the wealthy? A newfound disdain? Neither or both?
BGF: Well, I think the Marr-Löwensteins are sort of pretty and troubled, don’t you? Seriously, though, I don’t think I had a notion in terms of “the wealthy”—I wanted to invent a specific, believable family, throw a naïf into their mix, and see what could happen. I love Alice Munro, and one of the things she does so well it’s astonishing is write stories that really do feel lived. They feel so lived that it’s as if the woman has had a hundred different lives. I wanted to try to create something that could approach that level of credibility. Although, of course, there are some things drawn from life. Someone I knew really did say, of her cleaning lady, “She should be happy to clean such a beautiful house!” It’s so awful that I almost didn’t use it, since what kind of clueless snob would actually say something so terrible? Well …
SC: For many years, you’ve written a blog called FORTE E GENTILE: REFLECTIONS ON THE MOTHERLAND, THE STATE OF BEING ITALIAN-AMERICAN, AND LITERATURE ITALIAN-AMERICAN AND OTHERWISE. Tell us about your Italianness, and how it’s influenced your writing journey.
BGF: When I was very young, I used to daydream that my father was someone quite like Evelyn Waugh. Seriously. Not that Evelyn Waugh was any kind of prize as far as dads go. But I was acutely aware of pecking orders from an early age, and I could imagine how unimpeachable it would be to the kind of British that was entirely “non-ethnic,” established, tweed-wearing, and solidly upper middle-class. No one could get the drop on you.
Representations of Italian-Americans were usually the opposite of that—all of that idiotic “Saturday Night Fever” type of stuff. I didn’t see my family or myself in that at all. This was also before the moment when Italy became what it is now in, let’s say, the American imaginary. The change seemed to happen in the mid-1980s or so. Suddenly being Italian was compelling, and I think it had to do with, I swear it, new and exciting foods being imported. It was as if your Italianness now reminded people of a wonderful dinner they’d had on vacation in sunny Tuscany. This was around the time when polenta became sort of a fancy-food item, and I’d see it in shops up by Columbia and think, polenta, are you kidding me? That was what my father ate as a child when there was no money in the house at all.
In college I believe I had exactly one Italian-American friend, whereas at my all-girls’ Catholic high school in Delaware, maybe 75% of us had a last name that sounded like a pasta shape, fashion designer, pastry or Renaissance artist. I remember in Williamsburg in the early ’90s, one day I was walking by Joe’s Busy Corner and at the time it had an awning that said: ITALIAN-AMERICAN SPECIALTIES. And I thought, Oh, that’s me—I’m an Italian-American specialty.
In that era I was in love with a certain kind of Jewish-American novel—urban, working-class, lyrical: Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money, Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep, Daniel Fuch’s “Williamsburg Trilogy,” Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March. Great, great books. I started looking for Italian-American correlatives to these, but I couldn’t find any and that was frustrating. I loved Don DeLillo but it wasn’t until Underworld, that astounding novel, came out that he showed his ethnicity. And I loved Gilbert Sorrentino, but the larger concern of his books, for me, was the form, so in my mind his ethnicity took a backseat to that. It was only after the crisis in my own writing that I found Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete. I love it, but it’s sort of a terrible book—but that’s almost immaterial, the book has so much heart in it. “Heart” in the way they say of prizefighters. Wanting to figure out how I felt about books like di Donato’s was part of what led me to start writing the blog. And spending time thinking in that space helped me better understand what kind of impact my Italianness had on my writing—all of it gave me more clarity to move forward with my fiction.
SC: What would you like to say to aspiring writers who are 40 & over?
BGF: Keep going. Don’t let anyone talk you out of it. Don’t talk yourself out of it. Believe in your story, whatever that story is. You have to become your biggest advocate, even if that thought makes you cringe. Write through all the parts where you’re telling yourself, Wow, this is really terrible. You will come out on the other side.
Something that I find helpful when I can’t quite get my hands around my writing is a beautiful phrase that Carole Maso used to say to us in workshop: It needs more dreaming. I thought this was genius. “Dreaming” could mean lots of things. Letting yourself chew on your ideas, or finding a way to change the way you think about something so that you’re not banging your head against the same constraints. Maybe you need to go another route to access what you need to access. Maybe you need to listen to a piece of music, look at art, read something very different from what you’re trying to write, talk about your ideas—whatever it is—to find your way.
Also, seriously: Do you really need to spend all that time with your smartphone? Do you? When you’re making up your dying bed, will you be like, Wow, I really wish I’d sent more tweets? Life is short. Take your smartphone and put it in a drawer.