Talking to Greenpoint Author Kris D’Agostino About Westchester, Mortgage Trouble and the Problem with Writing About Music

03/27/2012 12:01 PM |

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The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac, the first novel by Greenpoint resident Kris D’Agostino, follows Calvin Moretti, a grad-school dropout living with his parents. As he strives to find his own space in the world, nearly every other character must also face some sort of shift in their place in the world: his teenage sister’s pregnancy and the end of his father’s career as a pilot serving as two examples. (Between this novel and Adam Wilson’s Flatscreen, it’s been a good year for smart character studies of young media-savvy men adrift in the world.) In advance of his launch reading at WORD tonight, I checked in with D’Agostino via email to discuss the Moretti family’s background, the overlap of his music with his writing, and the history of Sleepy Hollow itself.

Sleepy Hollow was, until a few years ago, known as North Tarrytown. Given the novel’s themes of reinvention, was this something that you had in mind when choosing the setting?
I’m embarrassed to say I had no idea they had been calling it North Tarrytown. The real reason I set the novel in Sleepy Hollow was simply because it was a place I had always been envious while growing up in southeastern Westchester County. I’m from a town called Pelham and I always loved the Hudson River towns. Sleepy Hollow, Tarrytown, Irving, Ossining. All the old Victorian houses and the history of the whole area. All those towns in the valley along the water are very (for lack of a better word) “quaint.” And since I didn’t get to grow up there, I did the next best thing and set my novel there.

How much of the family history in the novel did you have charted out before starting to write it?
I had pretty much all of the family history charted out, in my brain, before starting to write. Where they wound up based on that history seemed to take shape as I wrote and as the characters dealt with everything that was happening to them. I knew where I wanted to bring the novel, what end I saw for all of them, but getting there, I tried to let that play out as naturally as possible.

Economic anxieties play a large part in driving the novel’s action; was that in place from the outset, or did contemporary events adjust how the book played out?
You know, it’s kind of funny, the economic stuff came into play later on in the course of writing the book. I actually saw that my parents (in real life) were almost certainly going to lose their house because of my Dad not being able to work. He has the same kind of cancer as the father in the novel. And as I saw this happening, I realized it needed to be part of the book, so I went back and put the house/mortgage crisis plotline in. I think it’s eerie how the financial situation the Morettis face in the book is analogous to the financial hardships that a lot of families faced/are facing in this country.

Ultimately, where do you weigh in on Cal’s decision about finding his own way in the world?
I’m not sure I know what his decision is. I think he ultimately accepts that there is no “escape” from his family, no matter what he does. It’s more about finding that balance, if at all possible, between responsibility and selfishness. I think Seinfeld called it “The Buffer Zone.”

Has your time playing in bands had any effect on the stories you’ve chosen to tell, or the way you’ve chosen to tell them?
I’m not sure the two have anything to do with one another. I’m actually strongly opposed to music writing of any kind in literature. I usually hate when authors try to “write” about music or describe music, or reference popular bands. I think it is very hard to do well. I also think music largely ruins otherwise good films. Instrumental soundtracks are fine, but this whole commingling of films and popular music and the idea of the “soundtrack” based on what’s popular or who’s popular at the time is really detrimental and distracting to the task of storytelling. I tried to insert the idea of music, and Calvin’s love of music, into the book in the least offensive way I could think of. He basically just rattles of what albums he’s listening to while he listens to them, but that’s it. He doesn’t “talk” about music. If that makes any sense. I think I just email rambled about music and films and I’m not sure it made any sense! Haha.

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And now! As a bonus, Kris D’Agostino answers our Questionnaire for Writer Types (TM):

For our readers who may not be familiar with your work, what’s the most accurate thing someone else has said about it?
The novel is a thinly veiled Roman a clef about some very strange times in my family’s recent history. After reading it my younger, metro-sexual, Republican, lawyer brother said: “All the good stuff that happens in the book you made up, all of the bad stuff actually happened to us. And how come you let Mom of the hook?”

What have you read/watched/listened to/looked at/ate recently that will permanently change our readers’ lives for the better?
I just completed a 4-month crusade to finish Cormac McCarthy’s entire catalog. I had read half of it but for some reason had never gotten around to the Border Trilogy, which I had always heard was “McCarthy lite.” But actually I found it to be profoundly moving and about as inimitable as any prose I’ve ever encountered. The secret gem in the trilogy is The Crossing.

Also, A Separation might be the most morally evenhanded movie since Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue.

Whose ghostwritten celebrity tell-all (or novel) would you sprint to the store to buy (along with a copy of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius so that the checkout clerk doesn’t look at you screwy)?
R Kelly. Without a doubt. That may seem like a really obvious and boring answer but I can’t get enough of this guy. At one point during the behind-the-scenes YouTube videos chronicling the making of the remix of his song “Echo,” he takes the time to explain, at length, what an echo is. I want to read a book where he just Benjy Compson-style free-associates all day. I don’t think I’d ever get bored of it. He’s like a mathematician who claims that 1+1 is 97 and has notebooks of theorems to prove it. He’s so wrong he might a genius.

Have you ever been a Starving Artist, and did it make you brilliant, or just hungry?
I’ve been a fake starving artist. The fall I started my MFA (2006) I came back from a trip to California with $15 in my bank account and $6,000 in AMEX bills and started sleeping on couches for a while. But this didn’t last very long and I got a job and student loans and got back on my feet. The interlude smacked heavily of posturing and it didn’t make me a better writer. And I’m always hungry.

What would you characterize as an ideal interaction with a reader?
They come up to me and tell me they love the book and then ask me a lot of questions about it and I get to talk about myself. I love talking about myself.

Have you ever written anything that you’d like to take back?
Every love note I’ve ever written to a girl. Also the two short stories I wrote when I was 21 that were published in two different lit journals back in like 2004. One can be found if you google my name. I’m pretty embarrassed by them now and the writing strikes me as cloying and naïve. But in some ways I’m grateful because at least I’m not looking back and being like, “Man, I was such a better writer in my early 20s!”