A Conversation with Laura Scalzo

  • By Mary Kay Zuravleff
  • May 2, 2023

The novelist talks Gotham, multiple POVs, and finally meeting her protagonist.

A Conversation with Laura Scalzo

Laura Scalzo lives in Washington, DC, and is the author of The Speed of Light in Air, Water, and Glass. Her new book, American Arcadia, which comes out today, has been praised as “a gorgeous riff of a New York City novel.” This lyrical tale of ambition and loss features two young women, Chry and Mina, who are each in love with the other’s life. Set in 1980s Manhattan, with its soaring stock market and the beginnings of the devastating AIDS epidemic, the story grapples with the yoke of unearned privilege and shimmers with the music of Jaco Pastorius.

NYC in the 1980s — what surprised you about diving back into that era?

It’s almost impossible to comprehend the policy and discourse around AIDS as it was becoming a public-health crisis. First it was ignored, then it was a joke, then it was framed as a moral issue. The 1982 White House press room transcripts are merciless for not only the Reagan administration’s indifference but also the press pool laughter. 

Larry Speakes, Reagan’s press secretary: AIDS? I haven’t got anything on it.

Lester Kinsolving: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” [laughter] No, it is. It’s a pretty serious thing. One in every three people that get this have died. And I wonder if the president was aware of this.

Larry Speakes: I don’t have it. [laughter] Do you?

Lester Kinsolving: You don’t have it? Well, I’m relieved to hear that, Larry! [laughter]

By 1984, 4,200 [Americans] had died from AIDS, and nothing had changed. Reagan gave his first formal address on AIDS in 1987. By then, 20,000 people had died. Silence = Death was a slogan; it was also, and remains, a bitter truth.

Chry disparages her wealthy, pedigreed family, which Mina yearns to be part of. The carelessness of the rich, along with the idyllic house away from the city — was The Great Gatsby in your head?

Only from a structural point of view. The first (of many!) titles was The Nights and Days of Chry and Dare, and I had a clear idea of the narrator not being part of the story. When I’d ask writer friends how to do that, they all pointed to Nick Carraway. Around that time, I read Dracula for possible solutions, and man, that is a good book. It’s a POV-o-rama. Meanwhile, my supposed invisible narrator was insisting on being part of things. Come to find out, she’s not only the narrator but the protagonist! That’s always a good writing day, when you finally hear what the characters are trying to tell you.

These women are improvising their lives, coming together and apart, while the music and mystery of Jaco Pastorius runs through every chapter, and seeing him is the book’s Holy Grail.

I saw Jaco play in a secret late-night show at the Lone Star Café on December 21, 1985. It’s not uncommon to hear the word transcendent in reference to seeing him play, but I didn’t know that. I had never heard of Jaco Pastorius until that night, which made the experience particularly startling. And, yes, it was transcendent. This moment of understanding, of seeing, was the starting point for American Arcadia; the writing expanded out from there.     

The idea of the transactional seemed to be coming up a lot in my personal life, and I found it confusing. A Wall Street trading floor is transactional, sure, sure, it’s purely that, and we think of artistic genius as transcendent, but I wanted to explore the sliding scale of these two concepts, particularly in relationships and social situations. Beyond that is my ever-burning inquiry into who gets to make art and whose art gets to be seen. It’s simple and complicated and pure and power-laden.

You use storytelling beautifully, as both an expository device and a lullaby. Mina, who is what Dickens would call a foundling, has no past other than her single mother who raised her, while Chry is awash in family and tells Mina family stories so that Mina can fall asleep at night.

Thank you. After struggling to figure out how to tell this story and realizing Mina was the protagonist, I still wanted to tell Chry’s story from her own POV. I gave Mina a sleep issue, where the act of falling asleep is terrifying. She can’t even lay her head on the pillow without Chry telling stories of her daily life. Now the novel had two full-on POVs. I was proud of this little bit of writer jujitsu, but as things went on, there was something else: Mina’s nightly terror bonded her to Chry intensely and raised the stakes on their friendship.

Because most books take longer to write than the general public thinks, I like authors to talk about their publishing journey and would love to hear yours.

Oh, I wore the burden of a nonwriting writer for years. When I turned 50, I thought, “I’ll be dead soon and will have failed this part of myself.” A few things happened around that time. I learned that Joe Strummer died at 50, and it sounds crazy, but I started to live this fact. Every day, I’d think, well here’s a day I get to try. I felt for a long time that he was nearby when I worked. If that sounds crazy, I don’t care. In fact, try it. Any angel, muse, memory, [or] idea you want, feel free to pull them out of thin air and have them take a seat.

I wrote my first book by dragging my laptop all over town: dance class, ice rink, on the floor outside the movies while my kids were watched singing chipmunks or whatever. American Arcadia was an entirely different thing. I worked in Susan Shreve’s studio, typically Monday through Friday, 9 to 3. It was an extreme privilege, that time and space. I started in January of 2019 and finished at the end of that September. Straight through, one shot.

[Editor’s note: Both Laura Scalzo and Mary Kay Zuravleff will appear at the Washington Writers Conference on May 13th, as well as at the Gaithersburg Book Festival on May 20th.]

Mary Kay Zuravleff is the author of the forthcoming novel American Ending, which was featured on Oprah Daily’s Spring Reading List.

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