Imposing a narrative on your life is not always the most practical, or even the most helpful, way to understand why things are the way they are, but it's still a seductive impulse. Maybe if you can pinpoint your personal before-and-afters, you can understand why you are the way you are, and what it is possible for you to become in the future.
Emily Gould has a lot of experience processing life — both the fictional ones of the characters in her two novels, 2014's Friendship and the just-released Perfect Tunes, and her own — through a narrative lens. Gould first rose to prominence in the media world over a decade ago through her work at Gawker, as well as from essays published everywhere from personal blogs to the New York Times Magazine to her debut book, And the Heart Says Whatever, all of which display not only a rare willingness to explore the most uncomfortable parts of being a woman in the world, but also a gift for communicating the supreme awkwardness of life in a frank, funny, compulsively readable way.
Though Gould still writes essays, like a recent one in The Cut exploring the lingering effects of a nightmarish interaction with Jimmy Kimmel (don't ask, just read it), she has more recently become known for her work in publishing, both through her novels, and for Emily Books, the just-closed, much-lamented publishing imprint she ran with Ruth Curry. What has remained consistent throughout Gould's career is her ability to understand, amplify, and explore the essence of a moment, in turn offering her readers the opportunity to better understand the exigencies of life, those weird after-effects that ripple out from a major catastrophe.
Perfect Tunes has many of those big before-and-after moments and many of those rippling after-effects; it shows the ways in which we are all, always, having to reimagine the story of our lives. It opens on Laura, a young woman in her 20s, who has come to New York City in the early 2000s, to live with her best friend, Callie, and make a career as a musician. So, of course, Laura becomes a waitress, navigating the streets of the East Village, performing for the patrons of a handful of small cafes, and hooking up with another young aspiring musician, Dylan. Laura's life gets redirected multiple times, though, by the kind of huge events that range from being universally catastrophic (the September 11th terrorist attacks), to personally devastating (the untimely death of a loved one), to mundane, yet totally transformative (motherhood). Gould follows Laura over more than a dozen years, as Laura puts aside one version of herself, sees her future being lived by her best friend, and struggles with raising her daughter, Marie, who goes from being a malleable, if messy baby, into being a possibly messier teenager, with unrealized dreams of her own. Through it all, Gould's insights into what makes up the sometimes barely perceptible beats of our lives are sensitive and spot-on — as is her perfect description of what it's like to have sex in a too-close-to-the-ceiling loft bed.
I spoke with Gould over the phone recently, as she sheltered-in-place in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, Keith Gessen, and two young sons, Raffi and Ilya. We talked about motherhood, maturity, Edith Wharton, the East Village, the questionable value of timeliness in writing, and the inherent optimism of being a parent — and a novelist.
I’ve been thinking about optimism, lately, in the sense of how the choice to be a parent speaks to an underlying belief that things are going to be okay, or, at least, that the future isn't totally doomed. Did a mindset of optimism come into play when you were writing Perfect Tunes?
I was working on [Perfect Tunes] for a while — including my pregnancy with Raffi and his early babyhood — so it felt like it took so long, and that every sentence of it was very hard won in terms of the amount of time and bandwidth that I had to work on a book. The moment that I finally ended up selling it was in the fall of 2016, right before the election. And so then when I got the edits back from my editor, it was January, I think, and Trump had just been inaugurated. And I read the book, and just thought, This is so stupid, This is so stupid and irrelevant and I totally don’t care about this.
I couldn’t imagine anyone else caring about the fictional lives of these fictional people — like, who gives a fuck? None of this has anything to do with the real world that we are currently living in. I felt like I should just throw it away and give the money back and write something that is relevant to this specific historical moment, and everything I felt like I now knew and that I was so embarrassed not to have understood before Trump was elected.
I’m glad you didn’t throw it all away.
It’s not what happened, I didn’t give the money back. [laughs] But I also didn’t work on it for a year. Because it felt too irrelevant, and then when I did end up going back to it, I was really thinking of the idea that when you write a book, you are automatically presuming that there is going to be a future when the book is read, a future where people aren’t necessarily going to be associating the book with the world during the time of its publication or the time when it was written. Like, I just re-read The Age of Innocence and I think because I’d never studied it in school I’d never thought about the circumstances of the writing of the book. I just thought Edith Wharton had written it closer to the time it was set, instead of 40 years later, and I was thinking how you could read the book and get so much from it without understanding that or even noticing it. I think it’s optimistic to assume there will be a future where people don’t necessarily need the books that they’re reading to correspond to an exact date or be a metaphor for anything for the exact circumstances of the moment that they’re published in.
So, The House of Mirth was way earlier; they’re separated in her career by decades. The Age of Innocence is a more mature work, but The House of Mirth… I like it more in some ways, because it’s sort of more her, like it’s the book you’re able to write early in your career when no one has shat on your work yet. [laughs] And so the later work, there’s something that’s more hardened about it. That being said, you should totally read The Age of Innocence right now. It’s so fun. It’s really fun and really gripping and it’s kind of reassuring to read, because that New York, there’s these things about it that are completely gone and never to return, and it’s nothing like the New York we currently live in, but then there’s something about it that’s also like, Oh yeah, New York!
It’s always some kind of Gilded Age here.
Or, some kind of age that’s always going to end. Or, you know, like right now, ending. Ended.
Perfect Tunes opens 20 years ago, a time in New York when everything fundamentally shifted, and it was such a clear reminder for me of how many different before-and-afters there are in New York, and in life, and all the different directions life can take us after these shifts. What was it like inhabiting this specific time again, this "before," a time when people had to go to cafes to check their email?
Yeah, my historical novel. [laughs] I’m — probably obviously — really nostalgic for that time; I think it’s because it’s when I was young and everything was new. But there’s something about the East Village, in spite of all the changes it’s gone through — I mean, every neighbourhood in New York has gone through lots of changes — but somehow it’s more painful to see the changes happening there. I will never be able to know if I just feel this way because it’s where I was young, or whether it’s an objective fact about the East Village, but it’s so rich in visual details. When you look at any block in the East Village, if you were going to draw it, it would take forever to draw all the details, the different architectural styles and storefronts, and what the streets are like. And, I feel like it’s a really resonant place because a lot of different people’s memories are there. There’s so many different versions of that neighbourhood, and it has so much cultural significance to so many people. It’s been written about so much. You can feel all these ghosts walking around with you, and all the ghosts of your various former selves, too. At this point, I try not to go there. It’s almost too much.
Maybe because it’s so consistently attracted young people and all their ideas of what the future should be. It’s a place where dreams go either to be realized or die, and that’s a really specific kind of energy for one place to retain. It certainly drew Laura and her dreams, and the fact that she lived there defined the way she experienced September 11th, the big before-and-after of anyone living in New York back then. What was it like to write about such a pivotal time in history?
It was hard and annoying to have to write about 9/11 to the extent that the timeline of the book required me to. And I remember realizing that I would have non-negotiably have to, and being like, Oh, fuck.
You can’t skip over it, but I feel like the way you handled it was very representative of how someone in their early 20s, who was not directly affected by knowing anyone who’d been killed or injured, would have experienced it, which is as both a dividing line but then also background noise to their own personal drama, which is what it was for Laura, who indirectly becomes as a young single mother because of that day.
It ended up feeling to me that it was an opportunity to reveal something about Laura, and to underscore how young she is, and to make the contrast really clear, how much she would be forced to grow up in the intervening year, from fall 2001 to when we see her taking care of Marie, when she’s almost one. Like a lot of people in her early 20s, Laura’s living very, very intensely in her own head and in her very circumscribed world of herself and a couple of people who are really important to her, but not really thinking of herself as part of a larger world. And that’s part of what having a kid does for her — it shifts that dramatically. That’s part of what having a kid does for, I hope, most people. Clearly not all people, but it’s almost a universal experience [laughs] But, yeah, her response to 9/11 is really immature, and I wanted to portray that honestly, but without judging her or inviting the reader to judge her, which is tricky. I don’t know how successful I was, but that was the intention.
Maybe I have a soft spot for delayed maturity, but I think it’s hard for young people — or any people — to know the right way to behave during a situation that is literally incomprehensible. As long as they’re not hurting anyone, it’s kind of nice to think that people can have an opportunity to think about themselves in a way that’s irresponsible but maybe generative.
I’m not some wise authority on being a grown-up, but I think maturity is not always linear. As far as I understand how trauma works, a lot of people will be really mature in some ways and not in others. We all have our huge glaring blind spots in terms of how good we are at being compassionate or considering other people’s perspectives. That’s one of the reasons [post-2016 election] felt like a hard moment to be in charge of writing a novel. I really felt that, in order to write novels, you had to have a fully thought-out and articulated moral map of the universe.
That’s a tall order!
I thought you should know how everything worked, and how you thought everything should work — like, how should a person be, basically. And then I sort of gradually scaled it back to just describing things, describing how things are, rather than try to understand everything. [laughs]
I think that was the right move. But, in Perfect Tunes, you are still dealing with the idea of how a person should be, only it’s a more interior struggle, the one a woman faces when she becomes a mother, as she determines how she can still be able to be herself. It’s probably not unique to mothers, this reconciliation of how to be the version of yourself you thought you’d be, and the person you actually are — but it’s definitely predominant in mothers. And, I think it’s important that there aren’t really any answers that you supply. Instead, you show how it gets messy, figuring out who to be. Then, too, there are actual messes — the grossest parts of motherhood — a type of body horror filled with a child vomiting and shitting all over you. How was it exploring that part of parenting?
Well, I’ve been thinking about that scene a lot lately, because Keith and I were both sick. I hope we had coronavirus, but I guess we won’t know until there’s an antibody test. I think writing that chapter came a lot from my desire — I always do this but it never works, I often try to exorcise things from my life and from my brain by writing about them. And so there’s something about early motherhood that felt like I was putting it in the past, like, I’m done with that. I described it and I’m literally closing the book on it. I’ve filed it away within the pages of a book, for other people to visit, but I don’t have to live there anymore. And when I was making some boxed mac and cheese while having a fever and wanting to barf recently, I was like, Oh fuck, foiled again.
Were you preemptively trying to exorcise the hard parts of having a teenager by writing about the difficulties that Laura and Marie grapple with? How was it inhabiting that time of parenthood? The book is dedicated to your mother and her mother, which just makes me think of all the ways it’s a meditation on all the different stages of childhood and parenthood and lives spent caring or not caring for each other.
In a way, I feel like the Marie part of the book is a lot more autobiographical and informed by my own experiences than the Laura part, because I was able to think much more about what it was like to be a teenage girl — which I’m very, very familiar with — and I have no idea what it’s like to be the parent of a teenager. I was constantly fighting with my mother, and I’m feeling even more guilty and bad about what a little shit I was to my mom as a teenager. When I was first coming up with the idea of the book, it involved time travel. I’m so interested in the idea of what if you could know who your mom was before she was the person who was transformed into your mom? It’s in no way a portrait of my actual, literal mom, but I wanted to do a portrait of what that relationship can be at the time when it’s structurally impossible to be good, because everyone’s best interests are directly opposed. It’s so hard. I guess fate has spared me ever having to be the mother of a teenage girl, for which I’m grateful, actually. [laughs]