March 26, 2012
Kris D’Agostino’s debut novel, The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac, captures perfectly that anxious time after college graduation — the time when you realize everything you’ve been told about your education is wrong. Many of us, especially among the middle class, are raised to believe that with a college degree in hand the world is yours. For the majority of us, it doesn’t quite work out that way.
We’re never told of that in between period where we move back to our childhood homes, go on endless job interviews, possibly pick up a local retail job in the interim, and wonder when the glorious life we were promised is going to begin. In his afterword, Kris sums up the story he set out to tell: this is a coming-of-age story about a “generation’s grossly delayed plunge into adulthood.”
Instead of a position at the hometown bookstore, as was the case with me, Cal Moretti, our floundering protagonist, finds himself teaching autistic children at a local preschool, hoping to one day put his film degree to use. However, for Cal, life becomes more complicated. His father is diagnosed with cancer and his job as a pilot put on hiatus; his mom, having a tough time making ends meet, is forced to look into selling the family home; and the older brother, his younger’s polar opposite, steps in to help, putting the pressure on Cal to pitch in as well. Then there’s his teenage sister, who accidentally becomes pregnant and decides to keep the baby.
The Morettis are a family to root for, and The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac is the sweetest story about family dysfunction you might read all year. [Note: It is also the TNB Book Club‘s March selection.]
I sat down with Kris at a local coffee shop to talk about the personal nature of his story, the influence of screenwriting on his prose, and the lies we’ve been told about college graduation.
The first question I have is going to be the hardest. Your first sentence is “I work with retards.” This book is so sensitive . . .
And that isn’t.
Right. I feel like that had to be a conscious decision.
Yeah, it was. Part of it was inspired by the fact that I was a huge fan of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape when I was in high school—probably college, actually. His treatment of that word, he does the same sort of thing. Not as overtly, but Gilbert has his challenged brother who they definitely use that word to describe and it came from someone who has some angst and is angry about some things.
But then, it’s also not about that. I have a problem when people get shocked about things like that. I worked at a preschool with autistic kids for eight months and there’s this weird gallows humor. I don’t know if it’s totally analogous but doctors make weird jokes about patients dying because they’re so in it. It’s not from a place of insensitivity; it’s just that sometimes things are funny and sad and I don’t like to draw black and white lines. I just think everything is gray.
I feel that when I come up to defend it, it’s many little things that equal a view of life.
I don’t want to overemphasize that this is based on your life, but your older brother is in the book and you changed your younger brother to a younger sister.
Both my brothers are younger. So, I made one older and one a girl. [Laughs]
Talk about that switching. Why did you do it?
It’s kind of a funny story, or perhaps funny to me. Originally the brother was younger and he was just basically my brother and my editor misread a few paragraphs and assumed the brother was older based on the way he was acting. Then he was writing me these emails, “an older brother” this and “an older brother” that, and I wanted to write him back and be like, “no, actually he’s the younger brother;” but in my head I was like, “you know what? It makes so much more sense for him to be the older brother.” He has an older brother type of mentality. That’s how that got switched into him being an older brother. It wasn’t something I’d originally done.
And the sister. Honestly, that had to do with plot. I wanted a plot device that would bring this family together and it seemed like I could do it with a baby. And I also think I was influenced by the fact that I wanted to attempt to do the teenage pregnancy thing better than I’d seen it done elsewhere. It’s something that can become — for lack of a better word — lame.
Did you have anything specific in mind?
Juno. What I really dislike about Juno — and it’s funny because this book gets compared to it a lot — was the dialogue. I don’t think I’ve come across dialogue that has struck me as such a trope and so contrived. Also, I don’t think that movie portrayed teen pregnancy nor did it portray anything about humans interacting with one another other than to support it’s ultimate message, which was “life sucks sometimes but it will get better later” or that “you’ll have to do that hard thing now but things will get better later.” I don’t feel like it brought up much of a conflict. It didn’t seem like much was at stake.
How did you want to improve on this portrayal of teen pregnancy?
As far as dialogue, I’m interested in capturing the way people talk in real life. I know that sounds ridiculous because that’s probably what everyone’s trying to do but I read so much dialogue and, even from people who are established as amazing writers and who are really talented, people always talk too long-windedly. In real life people speak way more concisely, and in these weird snippets, and they convey the same things. I don’t know if anyone in Sleepy Hollow talks for longer than two lines.
How do you research the way people talk?
I don’t. I imagine people talking in my head or imagine real people I’ve heard talk about something analogous to what is going on and then take parts of that. Take two people having a fight about a relationship, I’ll think, “Wait, when have I heard two people arguing about their relationship in my presence?” and then I’ll pull little things from there.
I don’t do any research — unless I’m reading other books, taking things in, and not realizing I am.
When you read other books do you feel you pay more attention to dialogue?
Yea. I’m a huge movie person. I dropped out of film school. I consider myself way more versed and knowledgeable about film than I do about books. When I was in my MFA program at The New School I was the worst read person there. I’d be in class and everyone would be like, “And we all remember in Madame Bovary when this happened” and I’d be like, “I’ve never read that.” And all of my examples would always be movies. I think I got this reputation for being illiterate.
Did you study screenwriting?
And how was that? How does it compare to writing prose?
I like it a lot better. I got this criticism when I was in school, that there’s too much dialogue in my writing, or that it’s too cinematic, or too much like a screenplay, which is actually my intention. I just find it easier. You can write two people talking back and forth. I’m not a fan of descriptive writing. I find it tedious and I can’t do it very well so it’s just as well that I don’t like it.
That’s what makes you feel so modern. Your writing feels as if there’s a lot of space.
Space is a good word.
There’s a lot of room.
Yeah. There is a lot of room. I agree with that and that’s intentional. I would never stop cutting things from that book if I could. I mean I look at it now and I’m like, why are there so many commas in this? I feel like the more I look at my own writing, the more I realize I could do away with more than half of what’s on that page and still say the exact same thing; that “less is more” mentality. I really, really agree with that.
All my favorite writers are that way. I’m careful because I feel like I’m the kind of person who can get carried away with that and be too stripped down. So I’m trying not to get too nuts but what I’m working on now, I’m in the process of removing every comma. I’m trying to see if I can do that. I might be taking it too far.
Since it was important for you to be authentic, how did you research teen pregnancy?
I’m really bad at researching. I need to get better at it because I feel the best writing is writing that’s well researched and it kind of bums me out that I have no aptitude for sitting and reading things — in a nonfictiony way. But anyway, I read a lot on the Internet about pregnancy and I spoke to at length, many times, to a friend of my parents who is an anesthesiologist and I would just ask him questions about pregnancy. I knew what information I needed.
I found some website that had a really detailed chronology of a pregnancy and what the fetus looks like every step of the way; and I tried to keep it in mind because really, the chronology of the book is sort of like her pregnancy. Aside from Calvin’s school schedule, when school stopped and started, the pregnancy was the other thing — and it kind of got goofed up a couple times — that needed to be kept straight.
I learned in writing a book that chronology is difficult. I learned as I edited it that if you just take things out it helps. Once you start to be like, “Tuesday . . .” it can get complicated quickly.
Did the pregnancy help you outline and plot your story?
No. The mistake that I made with this that I’m hopefully not going to make [with the next one] is that I didn’t outline this book. I felt that when I started writing it, perhaps I didn’t need to; but I probably should have. A lot of the structure of it and the plot structure of it came after the fact. When we first shopped that book around, one of the criticisms was that — and we sort of knew this going in, my agent and I — that it just didn’t have a plot, and I actually had to go back and put it in, in the form of the possibility of the house being lost. I feel like a lot of that stemmed from not having an outline.
Outlining is a huge thing for authors. It’s always a topic of discussion.
I did an outline for the book I’m working on now. Every part, I did a twenty-page outline for. I might have gone overboard.
How are you finding that?
I’m finding it a lot better but perhaps it doesn’t matter because I deviated from it; or in some parts I stuck to the outline completely and then in my rewrites completely changed it.
But I think it’s good to have something because, with the outline, I could then sit down and know what I needed to write that day.
I thought you caught that period after college so perfectly.
That was one of the main things I wanted to do.
That anxiety. I remember graduating from college and thinking, “Wait, I thought I was supposed to have an awesome job.”
That’s exactly what I was saying. I feel like it’s so true. I talked to someone who had read the book who is 23 and it’s the same. Nothing’s changed. I was very immature, not ready for anything, when I graduated from college. I had no idea how to navigate the real world. I had no ambition to have a real job. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I mean, I had majored in literature and writing and all these people that I went to school with were putting on suits and getting these business jobs. Even they didn’t have it figured out but I had no idea what I wanted to do and I didn’t want to graduate. I was like, I’ll go back to film school and party for two more years; and that totally backfired on me.
After I dropped out of grad school the first time, I moved back home with my parents because I had no money at all and I had no job. I think I was 23. There were a bunch of people I knew who were in the same situation; it wasn’t just me. I had three friends in the same situation and we would do what I tried to portray in the book. We’d drive around in our cars and listen to music and watch movies and just talk nonsense the whole time. It was the post-college floundering around. That whole period — two…three-and-a-half years — it was the weirdest time.
I was raised middle-class and it’s this weird thing. You go to college, you get out, and then you have this whole model that you were raised on: your own house, paying for expensive hobbies . . .
Exactly. That paradigm doesn’t exist the way that it did. I really don’t think that it does. I talk about this a lot in relation to the book. And this goes back to me talking about Juno. I don’t know that there are many examples of fiction or, I think, movies that handle this well.
That time period was a total shock to me. There was no pop culture to explain it.
It was a total shock to me, too. That whole having life experiences or coming-of-age stuff that felt too old to be having based on preconceived notions of when you’re supposed to come of age. Like my parents, for example — and I think all the people of our parents’ generation — my father, he was 28, had a career, he owned a house, had gotten married, and I was on the way. I’m 33 years old and I have none of those things and I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just different.
My mom definitely told me that if in ten years I didn’t do x, y, and z, I was gonna regret it. I didn’t do any of those things and I don’t regret them and I’m doing pretty well in spite of it. There’s always generational gaps and it’s always going to be the case but I feel it needs to be explored.
This is pretty much based on your family.
How was it creating them and living with them inside your head? Did you feel like you were somehow around them because you were writing this story?
I was around them. I’m always around my family. I haven’t been able to get far from them. [Laughs]
Literally and figuratively?
Literally and figuratively. I’m from Westchester, it’s a twenty-minute drive. My parents are very hands-on. My mother loves to have dinner with us. My youngest brother lives down the street from me so my mother always drives in. Also, my father being sick really put us in the crucible of having to be with each other all the time. And then sort of having to deal with the fact that there’s finite time with him, my father. I’ve just made an active effort to spend more time with him, which is fine; it’s what I want to do. So I was with them in a sense, with them around all the time. We’re just that kind of family.
I think I remember you saying your dad wouldn’t read the book until it was finished.
That was my brother Chase, who’s the older brother. I thought this was really interesting on his part. It wasn’t from a place of him not wanting to read about himself. He just wanted to hold a book and read a book. He was like, “No, I’ll just wait.” He understood the editing process. My other brother, who’s been really supportive too — Tom—he read every draft. My father read it every step of the way, as has my mom.
I was really worried about what my dad was going to say. It’s interesting to write about someone who is sick. My dad is still alive. He’s alive but he is sick and that’s just a strange thing.
I was concerned that they might think I was putting their personal business out in the street but then I realized that’s what my family does anyway. My mother will stop and talk to anyone in the supermarket and within five minutes she will tell strangers everything. She will literally talk to someone for five minutes and they will turn to me and say, “I heard you just broke up with your girlfriend.”
It’s very removed while at the same time, it’s real things that happened. Real life is a lot more complicated. For my parents, reading that book and having everything that’s happened to them in the past five years kind of encapsulated in one place; it has to help put it in perspective. For me this is the case.
Your family has dealt with a lot.
Thank God we didn’t have a pregnant teenager.
Who was the most fun to write?
My dad was a lot of fun to write, I hate to say it. My brother was a lot of fun to write, too.
But for my dad . . . the father’s mentality in that book was the way that my dad was mentally and how his disposition was but it didn’t manifest itself in the way it does in the book; so I feel like what was fun about writing that character was that I tried to think about what my dad was like; the things he said and how I could dramatize them. My father did not wear his bathrobe all over the place. He had a doomsday mentality but did not stockpile end of the world supplies in the garage; but I was like, that would be kind of fun. I got to extrapolate someone’s mental state and put it into concrete actions.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on [another novel] and I’ve finished the draft of it, and it’s way too long. I’m in the process of rewriting and cutting it down. I’m working on a science fiction book. It’s grounded in realist sort of writing, those are my favorites kinds of science fiction novels: Never Let Me Go, Children of Men. Part of it is family stuff.