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10 Questions for Michael Idov

An Online Exclusive Interview

Photo by Lily Idov

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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

By Chris Ross

This interview took place at Café Regular du Nord, a narrow, tin-ceilinged coffee shop set on a sun-dappled street in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. Author Michael Idov chose the location, proclaiming it to be one of the rare purveyors of quality coffee in the city. Coffee — and the fragile entrepreneurial dreams so often attached to it — are something Idov knows quite a bit about. Following a failed nine-month stint as a coffee shop proprietor in New York’s Lower East Side, Idov penned a widely read essay on Slate, skewering the romantic bobo dream of kaffehaus ownership with a mixture of confessional woe and cold, hard math. Sadly, the protagonists of Idov’s debut novel, Ground Up, did not get the memo.  Aspirational married couple Mark and Nina become enraptured by the idea of opening an authentic Viennese coffee shop in Manhattan, and jumpstart the venture on a wing and a prayer. Financial, marital and social disasters ensue as the couple finds the carefully distressed walls of their café beginning to resemble the bars of their own personal hell. Idov brings his years as a cultural journalist at New York magazine, among other publications, to bear on his portrayal of early ’00s LES with a precision that verges on the anthropological. Despite the novel’s many funny passages, with newly shuttered storefronts on every American street corner, Ground Up projects a mood which is distinctly if unintentionally fin-de-siècle

Question 1: Your main character, Mark, observes that having opened a new café, he’s acquired X-ray vision that allows him to see how other cafés, restaurants and bars are constructed. Having written your first novel, do you feel you’ve acquired a similar kind of vision for how other novels are constructed?

MI: Obviously, it’s almost a cheap device, but I don’t regret putting it in. Mark’s specialty — being a reviewer of debut novels — gives me license to poke fun at the few available species of debut novels. There is the immigrant assimilation narrative, the occupational tell-all, the Bildungsroman, and if you notice, this book is a little bit of all those things. Basically I tried to own up to the fact. This whole business of the debut novel is pretty silly to begin with. You’re stuck with this terrible “write-what-you-know” maxim, which is killing literature, as far as I’m concerned. I think with the general debut novel, if the setting comes from your life, but the action doesn’t, I think it’s ok. I think it passes the test. My test is Nabokov’s Mary. We have a twenty-something aristocratic Russian immigrant in Berlin writing about a twenty-something aristocratic Russian immigrant in Berlin. It’s as transparent as anything. So I believe it’s kosher to take the setting from your life — it’s what you do with the setting. This is where you really need to go beyond the thinly veiled autobiographies, where you just change everybody’s name by one letter or something.

Q2: But has it changed the way you view specifically the construction of other novels?

MI: In a way, I have more respect for people who finish a novel. There’s actually a piece in the book about Mark reading this awful 500-page novel and feeling somewhat unable to criticize it because this guy sat down in the morning and wrote. You didn’t even need to read the book to understand it; you just needed to heft it in your hand. I think those were my thoughts halfway through it — it is an endeavor. Everybody’s got their own way of dealing with the bulk of it. My way was basically to subdivide it into scenes. I mean, I diagrammed the hell out of it. It did exist at some point as a three-page outline, a 10-page outline, and so on. I’m not sure I will be using that technique anymore, because the one downside of it is, when you’re almost done and you have diagrams of scenes, sort of connective tissue between the scenes, it just feels mechanical, like filling in the blanks. In the second half, that becomes kind of an unpleasant feeling. I think a better way would be just to overwrite, and just whittle away, and ram it into a structure when you actually have more material than you need, as opposed to mapping it out. You know, all I know is magazine writing. In a way, I sort of tried approaching it as a giant magazine article.

Q3: Was this your first real attempt at writing a novel or had there been failed attempts before?

MI: In 1999, I was working as an assistant editor at the Village Voice, which was a terrible job — basically glorified data entry. I decided to sort of play at being a novelist. I had saved a couple thousand dollars and was going to go back to Riga, where I’m from, and write a novel there. Write a novel in Russia, while also writing short stories in English — that was the plan. This was in November ’99, when I started to do that. I quit my job, went to Riga, rented an apartment in the outskirts of town, and then I realized unfortunately that something very distracting had happened. In the intervening seven years that I was in the states, having become sort of American, and an American writer, it turns out that I accidentally became attractive to girls. Needless to say, I spent all my money in a month, and I had written precisely nothing. Basically it was sort of the end of the millennium, and in December I came home and had to move back in with my parents for two weeks — just two weeks. I regrouped and went back to New York to start all over again, but I couldn’t even get the Voice job back. So that was my first attempt at writing a novel. But after that I wrote a bunch of short stories. They’re actually just now beginning to get published. There’s this great site called FiveChapters.com — it’s kind of a fantastic idea. They take short stories and break them up into five chapters, five pieces, and publish them during the week, Monday through Friday. In this way, it’s sort of optimized for office procrastination. It’s like a mini-serial. It definitely takes a lot of the chore out of it. You read something over the course of a week in increments. The guy who runs it is actually really good at putting the breaks in the right places. Even in a story that is barely plot-driven, it still feels like it has some suspense to it. And then on Saturday and Sunday the story is published in its entirety.

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