Author Q&A: Karl Taro Greenfeld

  • September 18, 2012

Q&A with the author of Triburbia A powerful portrait of unlikely friends and their neighborhood in transition, Triburbia strikes chords that range from haunting and heartbreaking to darkly funny and deeply poignant.

Thrown together by circumstance, a group of fathers — a sound engineer, a sculptor, a film producer, a chef, a memoirist and a gangster — meet each morning at a local Tribeca coffee shop after walking their children to their exclusive school. The sound engineer looks uncomfortably like the guy on the sex offender posters strewn around the neighborhood; the memoirist is on the verge of being outed for fabricating his experiences; and the narcissistic chef puts his quest for the perfect quail-egg frittata before his children’s well-being. Over the course of a single school year, we are privy to their secrets, passions and hopes, and learn of their dreams deferred as they confront harsh realities about ambition, wealth and sex. And we meet their wives and children, who together with these men are discovering the hard truths and welcome surprises that accompany family, marriage and real estate at midlife.

Intriguingly layered and multidimensional, these linked stories, arranged like puzzle pieces, create a powerful portrait of unlikely friends and their neighborhood in transition. Triburbia strikes chords that range from haunting and heartbreaking to darkly funny and deeply poignant.

Questions for Karl Taro Greenfeld: Triburbia

The biographical blurb on the book cover says that you have lived in Tribeca. Did you live there while planning or writing Triburbia? Can you share a bit about the genesis of the book and its influences? Does the Tribeca of the book accurately reflect your perception of real-life Tribeca, or are there significant differences between the two?

I have lived there on and off for the last nine years. But in 2009 we moved to L.A. for two years, and that was when I wrote the book. I often find that I am able to write effectively about the last place I lived; the distance helps to freeze a place in time. If I’m not there I’m not taking in any new data about a place and I can sort of walk around it as if it is a three-dimensional model on a table and study it from different angles and make connections between places and people. It’s very hard writing about a place while you are experiencing it. Too often, that becomes a kind of travel writing, which can be interesting but is not the same thing as trying to explain or reveal a place in a novel.

Each chapter of Triburbia is written from the perspective of a different character. Can you talk about some of the particular challenges of writing in so many different voices?

This was what I set out to do. For some reason, I was able to get in and out of these people’s minds without too much difficulty. I would have been in trouble if I had set out to write the whole novel from one character’s perspective or voice, because I don’t think they were engineered to be as deep. I’m not saying they were superficial, but if you are building a character for 25 pages that’s a very different thing than building one for 250 pages. There are different considerations.

There are several small thrills for the reader when connections between seemingly unrelated characters are suddenly revealed (for example, the reappearance of Shannon). In a way, the Tribeca of the book is like the classic small town where everyone is connected to everybody else. How did your planning process work? I’m imagining a wall covered with characters, with a spider web of lines mapping their various connections.

I wanted Tribeca to seem like a small town. Winesberg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson was the model, or “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder. I wanted this pointillistic picture of a community to emerge and for there to be this realization that this is just like any town in suburban America today. The connections between stories came easily while I was writing, and I was adding them up until the last minute, literally after the galleys, right before the hardcover was printed.

Some of the characters are written in first person, others in third person. Is there one deciding factor that led you to place each character in one camp or the other, or was it more a matter of what felt right for each one? Do you have a favorite and least favorite character? One whose voice was easiest to write, or one who was most challenging?

I was conscious about switching between first and third person, just to keep the reader focused and energized. I don’t have a favorite character, but I do have a favorite chapter, the one on the boat, the one that’s NOT in Tribeca.

One of the most dominant recurring themes throughout Triburbia is the hypocrisy of Tribeca’s residents and the steady gentrification of the neighborhood. There’s this constant tension between “bohemians and bankers” — “most of them ostensibly artists but actually businessmen. They believe their awareness of their own hypocrisies keeps them from being hypocrites.”

These concerns belong to a very privileged set, endowed with wealth, property and elite educations. The flip side is presented by Sadie, whose puppeteer father is one of the few remaining members of Tribeca’s former fringe society. Sadie is not concerned with appearing bohemian and artistic — rather, she must become ruthless to be successful in her pursuit of some measure of equality with her peers.

I found the story of Sadie and her father rather poignant. Do they serve as a reminder of what happens to the “true bohemians” when a neighborhood becomes gentrified? If Sadie eventually achieves her goals, will she be happy or will she inherit the dissatisfaction of Triburbia’s elites?

Sadie is a poor girl who lives in a sort of rent-controlled loft. Her father is loft-lawed into Tribeca, which is a very New York kind of thing that allows artists to pay way below market price provided they have been there long enough. But Sadie is deeply impacted by the wealth around her, by the kids she is baby-sitting for, and she gets a little bit infected by their ruthlessness to the point where she blackmails another character. I didn’t understand what she was doing precisely, but then a friend of mine, Bob Roe, who had been my editor at Sports Illustrated years ago, read the manuscript and pointed out that she was the innocent, corrupted by Tribeca, and I thought that was exactly right, so I think I began to lay that in a little more carefully.

Most of Triburbia’s characters are married parents, and there are a lot of observations about the agonies of marriage and parenting. How would you characterize the marital and parent-child relationships of the social set depicted in the book? What are Triburbia’s most important observations about these relationships?

There are a few riffs about how all marriages are built on the lies agreed upon. That the truth of every marriage is that one spouse loves the other more than he or she is loved, and that imbalance shades the relationship. It can even change over time, for a time one will be the loved and then for a time the balance will shift and the other will be the loved. But the agreement in any marriage is that it is never discussed, never acknowledged. Isn’t that a fundamental deceit? I think a very good relationship, or at least a long-lasting relationship, can be built on lies and half-truths. Look at our government and the mutual lies agreed upon on all sides.

I don’t think I can conclude this interview without touching on your riveting and incisive portrayal of Cooper — the intensity of the ruthlessly dominant little girl and her ability to destroy lives:

“How, exactly, did it benefit the species for prepubescent girls to be making each other cry? Nobody could answer that, but in the years since Cooper’s first assertions of dominance, her behavior had transformed the school so much that some children were terrified of attending, others were moved to private schools, and still others attended expensive and ultimately fruitless child psychiatry sessions, which invariably resulted in the prescription of antidepressants.”

How did Cooper’s character come to be? As a man, how did you come to understand the horror that little girls are capable of unleashing upon one another?

I watched my daughters and felt helpless as they were bullied by mean girls. And I hated myself for thinking, if only my daughters were the mean girls, then wouldn’t their lives be easier.

Ashleigh Andrews Rich is a writer living in Fairfax, Va. She studied English at Cornell University with a focus on the history of the novel and works for an environmental organization in Washington, D.C.

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