IN THE CENTER OF THE TORNADO
A Spotlite on Author SUSAN KIRSCHBAUM
By Sarah Heikkinen
In her debut novel, Who Town, Susan Kirschbaum gives readers an inside look into the world of journalism in the downtown scene of New York City. Written from the perspective of a journalist covering the lives and exploits of the “It Girls” of the city, Who Town avoids the common stereotypes of artists and socialites. Kirschbaum’s quick wit and insight into this world strips away the vibe created by contemporary media like Sex and the City or Gossip Girl, revealing the human nature of the elite society idolizes.
Sarah Heikkinen: How long have you lived in New York City? And how has living in the city influenced your writing?
Susan Kirschbaum: I”m here one year short of two decades. I arrived in “95 via the siren”s call, wanting to be in the center of the tornado.
Living in New York, entering the cultural worlds around me–both uptown and downtown–through the mask of journalism, allowed me to experience people without needing to reveal too much about myself. But it didn”t mean internally that I was not reacting to the environment around me or evolving. In reporting the beats that were assigned to me, I acquired a both a thorough history of fashion and an extensive knowledge of contemporary art and artists. But when I wanted to go deeper, tell the human truths about the folks I had met and the fantasies or nightmares they inspired, I began to write fiction. It was almost as if I had filled up on so many adventures in a decade plus and then I was bursting to write novels. New York City made me brave enough–coming of age here–to look in the mirror at my reflection in so many scenarios and the energy inspired me to craft such tales.
SH: How has the “downtown scene” evolved since you first arrived?
SK: Well, it”s certainly changed. When I first came to town, remnants of the Warhol days still existed. Not Andy, but places where artists, socialites, rock stars, gays, straights, drag queens, stylish freaks and spectacle were celebrated. The difference is that you had to BE THERE and it wasn”t documented on Facebook or on Instagram. So nights felt like happenings not branding events. Fashion shows still felt intimate, exclusive. People danced a lot more in clubs like Tunnel and the Life Club. My friend Kelly Cole had a place called Spy Bar where my friends and I used to hang out with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and the Smashing Pumpkins. Dustin Yellin, who is now a famous artist, was inviting everyone back to his Soho loft with cans of spray paint so we could “explore” on his walls. I remember Amber Valletta and Shalom Harlow were often there. In certain ways the night felt more raw, unchartered, exciting. Not all of it was fun. Some people got involved heavily in drugs and died. People still go to these dark places, sadly, in every generation. But the sense of adventure downtown was palpable before the internet hoodwinked people via social media into believing you could be part of the action via “friends” online. That kind of chronicling every move kills spontaneity. It”s NOT sexy. And it feels very UN-New York to me.
SH: Your book Who Town is based on some of your own experiences and people you know. What inspired you to turn your own experiences as a journalist in NYC into a novel that questions the very motives behind the work you did?
SK: It”s funny. I”d walked a thin line between the media, of which I was a part, and the scene I had covered, because I engaged off the record in the off hours. My friends were mostly artists of different genres and in certain ways, because I went to performing arts schools, I identified more closely with them. I steered away from gossip because it reminded me of vultures preying on the dying. The more I became a so called “insider” on the scene, the more certain editors weighed on me to exploit friends in personal ways that I found creepy. I was always more interested as a journalist, in both the creative process and how trends presented themselves on a sociological, anthropological level. As certain media got more hype driven and blogs (sometimes written by prepubescent kids) exploded, journalistic standards dipped. Concurrently though, I was very excited to write fiction, as it allowed me to explore deeper truths in my characters about human nature. If I looked at their drug addictions or dysfunctional families, in fiction, I didn”t have to worry about gossip or slander. I had free reign to really dig in. And I did in Who Town.
SH: There have been a number of books focusing on the elite of the city that have come out in the past decade. Did using your own experiences help you to break away from that genre’s mold?
SK: I”m not exactly sure to which books you are referring, but I can tell you that my first agent always compared Who Town to Bret Easton Ellis, an NYC hipster Less than Zero, if you will. Bret actually read Who Town and told me “it was fun.” He”s not one to care about other folks” opinions of him, so I take it as high praise. My writing has also been compared to that of Mary Gaitskill, who wrote Veronica, a book about a model from the Eighties who watched an unlikely friend die of AIDS. I think what differentiates Who Town from other NYC novels is that it”s one of the first of its kind to depict “the hipster” if you will, a generation that symbolized downtown cool as we transitioned into the 21st century in NYC. If you want to look at it from a pop culture standpoint, perhaps is the bridge between Sex and the City and Lena Dunham”s Girls generation. I”ve been told that what sets Who Town apart is that it”s “tactile,” very descriptive. And it also gives an insider look to these twenty-somethings who can manipulate their public personas in the media, but who are very different individuals behind closed doors. So in terms of my own experiences, as a creature of the media and as a girl on the scene, I know both perspectives. And I used them to fuel my characters.
SH: Who are some of your favorite writers? Who has inspired you the most in your writing career?
SK: I definitely appreciate both Bret, in the absurdity and satirical bite of his characters and Gaitskill, whose work offended me when I first arrived in NYC. It was that honest, scary.
For a girl, I”ve gotta say, I like the guys a lot, a real misogynistic bunch: Nabokov, Henry Miller, and Philip Roth. Roth, especially post Who Town, really cued my writing. I also enjoy Kurt Andersen”s novels, but he”s not one of those gal haters. LOL! Thaisa Frank is pretty awesome. Her sentences seduce me like spirits of the night. I”m drawn to Leonard Cohen”s poetry and Jim Morrison”s myth. And my grandmother, Eva Seigle Kirschbaum, was probably my earliest influence. Under her babysitting watch, never a night went by without a tall tale of someone with a comical name.
SH: What”s next for you after Who Town?
SK: A couple film folks have Who Town right now. So, I”m open to film or television collaboration if it”s the right match. My second novel is now being read by a top guy at the William Morris agency. It”s about a nebbish Jewish filmmaker obsessed with finding a shiksa virgin bride. It”s actually much more than that, but you”ll have to wait!
Susan Kirschbaum is an writer. Her book Who Town is available in bookstores everywhere.
Written by Sarah Heikkinen
Photography by Paul Bruinooge for PatrickMcMullan.com
Design by Mina Darius
Susan Kirschbaum, LITTLE FAILURE: A MEMOIR By Gary Shteyngart Book Release Celebration Presented by INTERVIEW, The Leadbelly, NYC, January 6, 2014, ©Patrick McMullan, Photography by Paul Bruinooge/PatrickMcMullan.com.