One need look no further than the covers of Dana Czapnik’s and Sam Graham-Felsen’s debut novels to be struck by similarities: both feature abstract watercolor-lined illustrations of their teenaged protagonists set against white backgrounds and scrawled text. And in this case, the covers say a lot about what’s inside. The books are natural complements: In Sam Graham-Felsen’s Green, we follow David as he begins to understand racism and his family’s connection to the Holocaust and Judaism — all the while nursing an obsession with the Boston Celtics. In Dana Czapnik’s The Falconer, Lucy is a basketball player rather than a fan, but the sport also allows her to navigate a New York echelon that isn’t always accepting of her gender or heritage. In the following conversation, the two authors connect over their experiences fictionalizing the 1990s, remembering their own teenage years, describing pregentrified versions of Boston and New York, and their reactions to the term “pizza bagel.”
Dana Czapnik: When Green came out, I picked it up immediately. I was on my last round of edits for The Falconer, and everyone I was working with on it was paying close attention to your book because there were so many overlaps — the early 1990s, a young protagonist coming of age who is obsessed with basketball. I absolutely loved Green—I think it’s a beautiful book that addresses one of the most complex, important topics of our time in a way that’s fresh, true, and honest. One of the reasons our books are similar — though yours is more specifically about race and mine is more specifically about feminism — is because they address the concerns and the preoccupations of the kids of that time period. One reason I set my novel in the nineties was because it felt like there hasn’t been much literature written about our tiny sliver of a generation — late Gen Xers raised by Boomers. I saw similar themes of generational strife in Dave’s relationship with his hippie dad. Why did you choose to set your novel when you did?
Sam Graham-Felsen: I felt the same way — like there were so many wonderful novels about the sixties, seventies, and eighties … and hardly anything that really grappled with what it felt like to come of age in the nineties. I was dying for a book that spoke to my generation’s experience, so I wrote one! And this is also why I was so excited to read your book. Unsurprisingly, I loved it — felt seen and heard by it on a deep level.
I’m curious about how you reimmersed yourself in that era. Everyone asks me about the research I did for my novel. The truth is, I didn’t do that much research beyond some Wikipedia-ing and a little YouTubing. That period was so formative for me — the hip-hop of the early/mid-nineties is still the music that moves me the most, the way Dylan still moves my sixties lefty parents — so a lot of the details are just muscle memory for me. But the details in your book are so pointillistic — you recalled so many things from that era that are hyper-specific, and which, upon reading them, I was like, “Oh I totally remember that!” Like the Kate Moss Obsession ad!
DC: That Obsession ad will forever be seared into my brain … That was the face that launched a thousand eating disorders. Like you, I did very little research because that time period is so clear and present in my mind. I did a bit more research when it came to the characters of Violet and Max to make sure I got the atmosphere of the art scene back then right. It’s funny that you thought my novel was more detailed when it comes to nineties ephemera, because I thought Green was super specific. The way David and his friends talk and dress and all their references were so sharp.
I went to college just outside of Boston and lived there for a bit, too. Recently I went back to visit with some friends. I hadn’t been back in about ten years and, wow, Boston is a totally different place. Gentrification hit New York earlier than Boston, and part of the reason I set my novel when I did was because I wanted to capture that moment right before the money took over. I felt similar pangs when I read Green. Your experience of Boston was so unique. What did you want to capture about the city? How did it influence you as a writer? And what was it like, writing about Boston while living in New York?
SGF: Growing up in Boston (and I’m loathe to admit this in print, because it will piss off my Boston buddies), I often fantasized about escaping to New York City. My parents are both New Yorkers, and we’d visit the city during holidays to see my grandparents. I was always totally struck by how miniscule and off-stage Boston felt in comparison. But of course, once I left Boston, it began to tug at me in powerful ways. I know I’m mostly obsessed with Boston because it’s my home, but it also fascinates me because it’s the perfect microcosm of the American personality, and the American dilemma. It’s the home of the Revolution, the home of abolitionists, the educational epicenter of America — the liberal bastion of liberal bastions. And yet. It’s also famously the poster child of Northern racism and resistance to desegregation. What better place to set a book about a white kid’s experience with race and racism?
But beyond the race stuff, I loved writing about the “dirty old Boston.” When I was growing up there, the city was losing its population, it had pretty high crime and high unemployment rates, and it looked like it might be going the way of Detroit or Newark or other once-thriving cities that are now seriously struggling to stay afloat. I loved writing about the pre-fancy Boston, the Boston of bodegas and grimy Irish bars and sooty overpasses. This is a big part of what I loved about your book too: you were writing about the New York City that was still grimy, edgy, full of mom-and-pops, not totally saturated with wealth and brands. My wife also grew up on the Upper West Side, so it was a particular pleasure for me to read your book, because I felt like I got to better understand the city she came of age in.
DC: That’s so true about Boston … It does seem to be the perfect example of failed white liberalism. Though there is a lot of that in New York too, it just manifests in different ways.
SGF: One of the most moving scenes, to me, in your novel, is the scene in which Lucy loses her virginity. First of all, it’s just a virtuosic piece of writing; you managed to make something that’s been written about many times feel totally new, uniquely strange and painful and human. A funny thing happened to me when I reread the scene, though. On my first reading, I was so angry at Percy for being such an unfeeling ass. On my second reading, I actually … felt for him. The way he can’t make eye contact, his inability to allow himself to feel or connect in this totally vulnerable moment. I loved the way you managed to pull this off — to not just do the easy thing, which would be to make Percy a villain, but to do the harder thing, which is to show how sad and emotionally amputated Percy, and so many other teenage boys, can be, especially when it comes to sex. To me, this says so much about the patriarchy — how it punishes and imprisons women and men.
DC: Of all the scenes in the book, people seem to respond to that one most viscerally. I’ve had people come up to me at readings and express how much they hate the Percy character because of that scene and I always immediately start defending him. He’s just a kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing or who he really is yet. I wanted to make sure I got the emotions of that scene right so that it felt true to Lucy’s experience — which mirrors a lot of women’s experiences — without him being a total bad guy. I have great affection for him … He genuinely cares about Lucy, just not in the way she wants him to. And as hurtful as that feels, it’s just a part of life.
SGF: I do think The Falconer is a feminist book, but it doesn’t feel preachy at all. I struggled with this a lot in Green. I, of course, personally have a lot of ideas about anti-racism and systemic discrimination, and I was tempted to let my politics fly in the book; but of course, preachiness doesn’t make for very good fiction. Did you struggle at all with this? Or did the non-preachiness come naturally to you?
All the data suggests that marriage and children shorten women’s lives, make us less happy, and thwart our careers and chances of success. But a good portion of really staunch feminists marry and have kids, because who doesn’t want love? That shouldn’t be incompatible with feminism, but sometimes it kind of is.
DC: I didn’t go in with a definitive take on feminism and because of that, hopefully avoided writing a polemic … though I definitely indulged in some rants. But I enjoy a good rant in fiction. I’m equal parts a third-wave and second-wave feminist, and so I’m in constant argument with myself, which is why I don’t think of my book as being a feminist book, but one in conversation with feminism. It’s easy to be a political feminist, but it’s much harder to practically apply the lessons of feminism in our real lives. Partially because the culture conspires against us, but also because we often make choices for ourselves that appeal to our individual emotional and biological needs as opposed to our collective political needs. For instance, all the data suggests that marriage and children shorten women’s lives, make us less happy, and thwart our careers and chances of success. But a good portion of really staunch feminists marry and have kids, because who doesn’t want love? That shouldn’t be incompatible with feminism, but sometimes it kind of is.
Green operates in a similar space when it comes to the conversation surrounding race. On the one hand, Dave is awakening to the injustices he sees around him, on the other hand he doesn’t outright reject the better future he’s been handed. It’s very easy to take a vocal, political stance on systemic racism, but it requires effort and organization to practically apply those lessons and dismantle the system in real life. I’m sure working for the first African American president must have been incredibly influential in terms of shaping your worldview, especially because you starting working for his campaign when you were very young, right? What was it like writing this tough, honest, but hopeful book about race while he was in office — and then having it come out during the Trump presidency?
SGF: Working for Obama had a big influence on me. There’s a lot I could say about this, but the main thing is that I was absolutely convinced, while I was working for Obama, that if he won, race relations would change for the better, and this was by far the main motivator for me as I put in those long hours on the campaign. Then, once he was elected, and the backlash to him was so swift and enormous, and racism seemed to be getting even worse, and there were so many incidents of unarmed black men being killed by police, and Trump started gaining traction … All of that was profoundly, unbelievably heartbreaking to me (and, of course, millions of other people too).
That swing — from utter idealism to deep disappointment — is a big part of what made me want to write Green. I tried to write a book that isn’t idealistic or cynical about race in America — about how hard it is for an interracial friendship to work in this country.
DC: I think that’s so important, the idea that interracial friendships are hard. But they also can be very close and rewarding in ways that friendships with people who are just like you, or with people who are constantly affirming your world view, just aren’t. I can think of very few books or movies or shows that address this with any honesty in the way Green does.
SGF: Thanks, I appreciate that. I lol’d hard at “pizza bagel” — the term Lucy uses to describe herself as a half-Italian, half-Jew. I, too, am a pizza bagel! Did you come up with that term? Either way, it’s great. I’m curious — what kind of Jewish upbringing did you have? Did you grow up celebrating holidays, doing seders? Did you ever go to shul or were you totally secular? Were you conscious at all, writing this book, of being a Jewish American writer? Did you think of yourself as having written a work of Jewish American fiction, or just plain old American fiction?
DC: I so wish I’d come up with that term! I wonder if it’s regional. I have another friend from Boston who loved that term and had never heard of it before, but it’s pretty well known in New York. Maybe because we have the highest number of pizza bagels per capita.
I’m a whole bagel — a second-generation Jewish American, born to parents who come from extremely religious homes who knew very early on in life they wanted to lead secular American lives. My father’s parents were Holocaust survivors, and his entire side of the family is Hasidic. My mother’s side is borderline Hasidic, though almost all of her siblings are now secular. I grew up going to temple on the high holidays, celebrating Hanukkah, and hosting seders. I was bat mitzvahed — but not in a temple, because none of the religious members of my family would have come since they don’t allow women to read from the Torah. But otherwise, my life was totally secular. I’ve always felt like I’ve had one foot in Judaism and one foot out. I find being in all-Jewish environments claustrophobic and tribal in a way that makes me uncomfortable, yet I feel true alienation when I’m in environments without any Jews, partially because nobody gets my jokes! There’s a line in the book where Lucy says, “Yiddish is not a romance language.” I read it at a book talk in Philly and I paused for a beat to get the laughs I usually get with New York audiences and … silence. That’s why I’ll never leave New York.
SGF: Even though you didn’t explicitly focus on Jewish identity much in the book, I very much felt like The Falconer was a Jewish book. To me, the main indicator is Lucy’s voice. It really reminded me of Dave’s voice — that constant, buzzing, self-conscious, often overthinking, half-earnest, half-wry, always eyes-wide-open way of taking in the world. I, too, feel alienated when I’m not around Jews, and even though I don’t consciously seek out books by Jewish authors, almost all of my favorite books are by Jews — and I think it’s because I love the familiarity of the Jewish voice.
I chose to write about an intermarried, secular Jewish family in Green … because I felt like it was important to portray an intermarried family. So few Jewish books are about intermarried families — and yet, the vast majority of my Jewish peers either came from intermarried families, or ended up marrying non-Jews themselves.
DC: What about you? What’s your background?
SGF: I grew up totally secular, in an intermarried family. But my parents were extremely active in the Boston Workmen’s Circle — for a while my dad was president. So I grew up going to a Workmen’s Circle shule, learning about the history of the bund and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, singing Yiddish songs and labor songs, rather than niguns. My parents are both members of the world’s largest Yiddish choir. We celebrated all of the holidays growing up, but always with a secular, lefty slant. My dad was also the child of Holocaust refugees from Germany, and the Holocaust had a huge, spectral effect on my family, which I get at a bit in Green.
I chose to write about an intermarried, secular Jewish family in Green not just because it echoed my own upbringing, but also because I felt like it was important to portray an intermarried family. So few Jewish books are about intermarried families — and yet, the vast majority of my Jewish peers either came from intermarried families, or ended up marrying non-Jews themselves. I know a lot of Jews are troubled by the intermarriage statistics, but they are a fact of Jewish American life — and it felt important to me to write about the struggle to find an authentic Jewish identity within a mixed family.
Sam Graham-Felsen’s debut novel, Green, was a New York Times Editor’s Pick, an Amazon “Best Book of the Month,” one of Barnes and Noble’s “Six Debuts to Watch for in 2018,” and one of The New Yorker’s “Novels We Loved in 2018.” His nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, The Nation, and elsewhere. He was the chief blogger on Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.
Dana Czapnik’s critically acclaimed debut novel, The Falconer, was published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in January of 2019, and is forthcoming from Faber & Faber in the UK in August. She has earned fellowships in Fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Center for Fiction, and the Hertog Foundation, and received her MFA from Hunter College.