Birnbaum v.

Francesca Delbanco

It’s easy for twenty-somethings to believe their lives are monumental and truly complex, but what if it’s true? A conversation with first-time novelist Francesca Delbanco about the pleasures of Los Angeles, solidarity in friends, and going nuts in Montana.

Francesca Delbanco grew up in Bennington, Vt., where her parents taught at Bennington College. She graduated from Harvard University and received a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Michigan, where she later taught. She has worked for Seventeen magazine and currently lives in Los Angeles, where she is a freelance writer for a variety of magazines. Her first novel, Ask Me Anything, has recently been published. When she isn’t talking with her far and wide friends, Delbanco is at work on her second novel.

Perusing the cover of Ask Me Anything, with its underwear-clad young girl reading a book atop a maroon-duvet, you would have good reason to lump Delbanco’s debut with a boxcar of other literary efforts by young and, sometimes, smart women. One immediate difference marks this book—one would be hard pressed to find a more impressive group of blurbs by such heavyweights as Richard Ford, Amy Bloom, Charles Baxter, Francine Prose, Diane Johnson, Ron Carlson, and Ann Hood (if there had been more room on the dust jacket one would have found Andrea Barrett’s praise also).

Ford opines, ‘…it is smooth and knowing, wry and caustic and makes me think that twenty some-things might be more than emerging adults but instead are characters of complex consequences…’


Robert Birnbaum: The things I read last frequently are the things that find their way into my conversations first—I was reading something by Iris Murdoch about writing and the difficulties of beginnings (and endings)—that being in the place where you determine everything about a character, though I never seem to have a problem starting a conversation—

Francesca Delbanco: [laughs]

RB: I thought, ‘Where I shall begin this talk with young Francesca?’ I flipped a coin and still had no firm idea, so this is totally off the cuff.

FD: I like it, and I love Iris Murdoch.

RB: You live in Los Angeles.

FD: I do. I am a recent arrival there, so it is strange to see it on the back of my book. I have been there less then a year, so when I look at the book, I think, ‘God, do I really?’ I lived in Boston much longer. I lived in New York—

RB: Is the conventional wisdom that Los Angeles is an illiterate, unbookish town accurate?

FD: I wouldn’t say it is accurate. In any enormous city there are bound to be enclaves of every kind of person and I don’t know if it is luck or what, I run in a set of people who read a lot of books and talk about books a lot and go to readings. It may be because of the writing program at Irvine. There is a pretty big scene of young writers. I have more friends and acquaintances that are young novelists in L.A. than I do in New York, for example. I am sure that isn’t a representative number—

RB: First off, it exists—

FD: It exists, yeah.

RB: —and by the way there is also the U.S.C writing program with [T. Coraghessan] Boyle and Percival Everett—

FD: Exactly, there’s a big presence. And the Los Angeles Times book section is influential—

RB: How about the frequently unacknowledged fact that it is the biggest book market in the country?

FD: Yeah, and it feels like that to me. Independent bookstores there are bustling and full of people. Everybody knows about them. Book Soup is open until midnight—

RB: Why did you move there?

FD: For a few reasons. First of all I have been living in Michigan for a long time and I needed some kind of big change. And I hadn’t lived some place that was totally unknown and strange to me, in a very long time. I felt like I needed that experience of a completely unfamiliar landscape and geography.

RB: To wake you up?

FD: To wake me up, sort of—to get my imagination crackling. Also, I have a lot of friends there who I went to college with and my boyfriend lives there and it seemed like an adventure. When I think about setting down roots in Southern California I do get a little bit hivey. But for right now—

RB: ‘Hivey’ as in skin eruptions?

FD: ‘Hivey’ as in skin eruption. ‘Hivey’ as in nervous.

RB: In literature there are numerous references to L.A. as the loneliest place in the world. Had you not had friends there, would you have moved there?

FD: I don’t think so. I applied to the University of California, Irvine, writing program and I was accepted. I went to visit it and I thought it was more than I could handle—in terms of having to get on a six-lane freeway to get a gallon of milk, trying to figure out which one was my building among 16 identical huge high rises in a building complex. I was really frightened of it.

RB: No resemblance to Ann Arbor.

FD: Exactly. The opposite of Ann Arbor. Of course, I had a big advantage of having good friends and a boyfriend, etc., to pave the way for me there but I am really glad now that I am almost a year into it, that I have done it. Because it is completely other, [chuckles] and it does give a person a lot to think about. And it’s warm and sunny there [laughs] and cold as hell here today.

RB: Well, that explains something. The U.S. is such a big country and we allow ourselves to come up with what are, frequently, inaccurate characterizations of other places. Here’s a serious question to give you something to think about.

FD: Uh oh.

Francesca Delbanco, photograph by Robert Birnbaum

RB: Could you have been anything other than a writer?

FD: Yes, I think so. I am always surprised when I hear people say that, ‘Don’t do it unless you absolutely have to do it and it would kill you not to do it,’ about writing. Because I think I could’ve—I really loved acting when I was in college. But when I graduated from college I never made a serious run at it the way the characters in Ask Me Anything do. For a long time I thought that my heart’s greatest delight would be to be a star of the stage. I still think right now—it never works out that way for someone who wants to be an actor—if somehow the paths had been cleared for me and I could be going on tonight at some play at the Public Theater in New York, I would be just as happy as I am now. This is mind-boggling to me now but I was a pretty serious student when I was in college and I thought about getting a Ph.D. in something—this runs in my genes—trying to be a professor of this or that. And that would have been OK for me too. [slight pause] Actually, I am not so sure about that one. I am not sure I had the real endurance for it.

RB: The study habits?

FD: The study habits, right. The patience, the attention to minutiae that is actually required. But there are other things I like to do. I like to do this [writing] most of all.

RB: I am asking because I was reading Eva Hoffman’s After This Knowledge and it’s among other things an examination of the so-called second generation, children of Holocaust survivors. And she writes about how children learn things from their parents that are not obvious or expressly asserted. Somehow these are things in the air. But then how would you know?

FD: Yeah, how would you know? I always say, and I am sure it’s true, I didn’t really come to writing on my own. It was more of a feat when I got to graduate school, one of my classmates who is incredibly talented and has a book coming out next year, grew up in County Tipperary, his name is Patrick O’Keefe. [He] grew up in Ireland, went to school with his eight brothers and sisters, and couldn’t read until he was who knows how old.

RB: Damn those Irish.

FD: [laughs]

RB: They are all so damn articulate and all of them can really write.

FD: Yeah, how do they do it? He went to a vocational tech high school, dropped out of school, got in to a community college here. People like that who grow up to be writers, you think to yourself, ‘How in the hell did that happen? ‘ Whereas I, from my second birthday on, and on every holiday, was given a tall stack of books. And was read to by candlelight, morning, noon, and night. I see that as a great advantage out of the starting gate—in terms of even knowing it was possible to do that with my life. But it is still not the same thing as really taking to it. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way, that I took to it easily, but in thinking I might like to do it myself.

RB: Let’s talk about Ask Me Anything, presumably why you and I are here.

FD: It’s fun anyway. We don’t have to talk about it.

RB: Would you call this a New York book?

FD: I feel like it’s a New York book for me, I suppose. It’s a really hard question. It could be transplanted to other cities. But now that I think about it, it couldn’t. It really feels like a New York book to me. This collection of people, there are so many of these people in New York. And so many of them are my dearest friends and it almost feels like an infinite number. People who I would never even run across who are working through their lives in much the same way that the young people in this novel are. I don’t know how true that is in other places. I know it’s true that coming of age and coming into wisdom and making all sorts of huge mistakes in one’s romantic and professional life is universally true for people my age across the board-—

RB: There is something in culture that makes NYC the huge magnet to draw people to make it there.

FD: Yeah.

RB: I thought of Allan Gurganus’s book Plays Well With Others and much of Alan Lightman’s Reunion and if I remember Ethan Canin’s Of Kings and Planets—this is that kind of story that New York City—

FD: It’s a breeding ground.

RB: Additionally, you have the expected earmarks of New York City life, apartments the size of postage stamps, that people in New York seem to talk about. For someone who has spent so much time in the Midwest—do you call Michigan the Midwest?

FD: No one is exactly sure. Ann Arbor is in Eastern Standard Time and one hour and five minutes by plane from New York. It doesn’t feel like a proper Midwest—like if you went a couple states west. Ann Arbor is a college town full of people who actually come from New York. I guess if you go north from there, or west or even south, that’s the Midwest.

RB: So how does this kind of story play in the Midwest for people who I expect have a fair amount of anti-New York City sentiment?

FD: New York has become more and more familiar to people through the world of television and movies. I don’t know about more and more, this isn’t meant to be a historical argument. The number of people who see the cover of my book and see that it is set in Manhattan and say, ‘Oh it’s Sex in The City,’ makes me think that this is actually a very familiar world and kind of quote-unquote glamorous. And that everybody is struggling in their small apartments is something that everybody in the country tunes in to a couple of times a week on their television set. A comparison like that makes me, on the one hand, a little bit uncomfortable because it’s not a TV show. On the other hand, that’s something that people love and enjoy. I certainly don’t turn my nose up at anything. I have all sorts of things that I love and enjoy [that] aren’t necessarily the most highbrow.

RB: Why did you want to tell this story?

Francesca Delbanco, photograph by Robert Birnbaum

FD: Another hard question to answer.

RB: I’ll make some of them easier—some multiple choice and true-false.

FD: I wanted to tell this story because I feel like there is something about being in your 20s that is kind of a magic age, in which you are sitting on the fence between two worlds—childhood and extended adolescence and the beginning of wisdom and adulthood. Not that those two things always go hand in hand. My mom always said that your 20s are the decade of most change in your life because you enter as kid and leave as an adult. It is true that in the moment that part of you just wants to keep playing each day in the cozy nest of friends and being wild and staying out all night and part of you realizes that this is the time when you get things on the right track for the rest of your life—whatever that means—finding your career, finding the person you love. In some ways people in their 20s can be incredibly naïve about things and in some ways they are getting life experience under their belt—I should say ‘we,’ not ‘they’ I liked the idea of that’s a kind of moment where you have all sorts of perspectives that you might not have as you get older. And sympathies and empathy.

RB: And hope.

FD: Yeah.

RB: Normally, I wouldn’t think much about a character and their autobiographical reflections. There was something about this protagonist that made me think that it was very you (beside this being your first novel).

FD: [laughs]

RB: You couldn’t create this character unless you knew her very well.

FD: There is a lot of me in there certainly—which of course makes me nervous that you wouldn’t want to make this person unless you knew her.

RB: Well, as her older lover says, she is a little difficult. And a gut feeling tells me that a well-nuanced character like this comes from intimate acquaintance.

FD: Right, right, exactly. And there is.

RB: One could say she was a little bitchy.

FD: Others have said snobbish. Some have said selfish. Of course, in none of the details is this me. I wasn’t an actress. I didn’t have an affair with someone’s dad. But in terms of the feeling—some of her essential feelings—she runs with a crowd that has access to things that she doesn’t have access to, that was true for me for a long period of my life. And I don’t mean that in a complaining way. She is a little bit on the outside of the milieu that she is trying to throw herself into the center of—in the sense that she can’t quite make up her mind if she should really go for what it is she wants to do or she should have the kind of respectable professional life or identity that she can give an easy answer to when people ask. Those are things that were very real to me. Also, it’s really hard to know yourself but the ways in which she is at once naive and hopelessly makes bad choices on her own behalf but also has some insight into those things, is a way that I often have felt in my own life.

RB: She’s smart and funny and somewhat prickly. Would you accept that this being your first novel, it is your characterologically autobiographical novel and now you move on?

I started writing seriously, quote-unquote, as a grown up when I lived in New York and worked full time. Who can write a novel under those circumstances? I would try to wake up at five in the morning and think and have my brain be racing but it just was not happening.

FD: It’s hard to say. I have just started working on my second novel and I shouldn’t make too much of the work I have done but I find that I have another female heroine and this time she is a little bit older. It’s hard for me to imagine sitting down and writing a historical novel of life on the high seas in the 18th century. I am and probably will be for the foreseeable future preoccupied with the life circumstances that resemble mine in some way. Of course, there are things that I have stolen from everyone I know, circumstances I have stolen, but there is something about whatever it is that I am puzzling over or fixate doing in my own life that seems to be what actually gets me out of bed to my computer. More than the act of poring over archives or interviewing people. I suppose that is the ultimate kind of egomania, in some ways. It’s such a long haul. It takes so many years to write a book that I find that the way I can do it—the way I did it last time and probably am doing it this time is to really choose the things that keep me up at night, wondering.

RB: You grew up in—

FD: In Bennington, Vermont, which is where my parents were teaching. I went to high school in Ann Arbor when my parents moved to the University of Michigan.

RB: Did I read that your father just retired?

FD: He just stopped being the director of the writing program. I went to Harvard and graduated and lived in NYC and worked at Seventeen (magazine) and I went back to graduate school at the University of Michigan. Then I stayed and taught in Ann Arbor for a while and—

RB: Charles Baxter was at Michigan.

FD: Yes, he was. He was my great mentor.

RB: He’s moved back to Minnesota.

FD: I guess Ann Arbor wasn’t cold enough for him. He has been huge—his workshop was where I brought in the first chapter of my novel. He said ‘Careful, you are doing everything wrong.’ He was that involved and that helpful to me all the way through.

RB: You haven’t gone the route of writing short stories and trying to get them placed in the usual places [other than this recent tag-team fiction piece].

FD: No, I haven’t. I have been monomaniacally fixated on starting and finishing this novel. Actually I am intimidated by the short-story form. I think this is a problem that I need to kind of dive in and do something about.

RB: Why?

FD: It seems like—it nags at me that I am scared of it, the thing that most writers start with and get good at before they try anything else.

RB: I talked to Tibor Fischer recently and he had done one collection and he said he made the mistake of thinking that short meant easy. He found that they weren’t easy.

FD: There is something about sitting through a couple years of graduate school listening to people talk about the craft of the short story—for years and years. It makes you think it’s like rocket science. Whereas no one ever talks about the craft of the novel because it is too big and unwieldy. There is nothing operating, you are just going by blind faith.

RB: And people and the form are more forgiving.

FD: Exactly. That messy form and forgiveness appeals to me. And the idea of that tight, super-rigorous craft and structure is rather paralyzing. I feel like I need to do it because one hates to be paralyzed and second of all, I’d like to be out in the world in more places.

RB: Meaning that you spend however long writing, then publish, and then disappear again between novels. You could write movie scripts.

FD: It’s exciting when I open anything and I see my peers and contemporaries and I think I should be trying, shouldn’t I?’

RB: Every once in a while there are flare-ups of contempt and hostility for writing programs. What do you think?

FD: Not to sound like a Pollyanna but I had a really good time at my writing program. I made a lot of friends who I think will be my colleagues as writers forever and I think it’s great that we met when I was 24 and I had relationships with teachers—I am not sure that I wouldn’t have created some sort of disaster, if I had sat down and tried to write a novel without anybody’s help. I started writing seriously, quote-unquote, as a grown up when I lived in New York and worked full time. Who can write a novel under those circumstances? I would try to wake up at five in the morning and think and have my brain be racing but it just was not happening.

RB: Maybe there is a kind of ‘who the hell are you people?’ (meaning writing program participants), thinking that a two-year vacation will make you a writer?

FD: There must be some of that. I got two years where I didn’t have to go to work every morning and where the main thing I got to do was read and write and meet other writers and go to readings and I can’t see what’s so bad about that. I don’t think my material changed or my writing voice changed.

RB: Well, maybe. It is an ambient feature. You can’t really claim that the attention to grammar and criticism, the milieu and the people didn’t affect your writing.

FD: That’s certainly true

RB: I remember talking with someone and they had just read a New Yorker profile on Harold Bloom and he exclaimed in astonishment or something like it, ‘He gets to sit around and reads all day. That’s his work.’

FD: [laughs] Right, exactly. There is a myth going on there about—yes, sure, the grammar, vocabulary of criticism, writers have always shown their work to other people. Writers have always gotten feedback. Part of graduate school is this winnowing thing. I am in the room with 12 people and three of them can be of use to me. And those are the three I’ll listen to and who I will exchange stuff with.

RB: There is also the ‘there is so much crap that gets published.’ And the proliferation of writing programs is seen as adding to that heap. That still doesn’t clarify which is the crap. So the gap between there being lots of bad writing and lots of writing programs is closed.

FD: I don’t have a grand theory about it. It is true that there are many people who are in writing schools who will never go on to be writers. What’s the harm in that?

RB: Some people say that will lead to more good readers.

FD: Which the world needs more of. What’s wrong with a couple of years of trying something and—

RB: Unless there is a psychic break or defeat—Ethan Canin tried medicine and decided he wanted to be a writer. Do you have any non-writing friends? Is there a real world that penetrates the possibly hermetic life of being a writer of fiction?

FD: I don’t even know how to answer that without sounding very backhanded. In Los Angeles, all of my friends are writers of one kind or another but being a television writer or a screenwriter is a very different thing.

RB: It’s almost not like being a writer.

FD: It’s a whole different set of demands. I earn my bread and butter, such as it is, by being a magazine writer. So it’s not a question of hierarchies. When I write for a magazine there are deadlines and demands other than—that’s true of TV and screen—

RB: You are writing for a more commercial enterprise—

FD: That is what people said in graduate school

RB: I’m talking about magazine writing. I don’t think there are many magazines that say, ‘Write whatever you want.’

FD: I haven’t found them.

RB: When someone asks you to write something for a magazine, how much of the assignment is dictated to you and how much is you left up to you?

FD: Very little. We’ll see what happens now that I have a book out and maybe I will be thought of as a writer, not just a magazine writer. You do see pieces all the time in woman’s magazines written by writers, not just freelancers, and they probably get more latitude—’Oh, this thought interested me and I’d like to wax [lyrical]—’

RB: Oprah wouldn’t ask you to write a piece on transgendered people but they would ask (and did) Amy Bloom to write such a piece.

FD: Exactly. Maybe my day will come.

RB: What is it that you are aspiring to?

FD: I’d like to keep writing books and I’d like to—talk about a pipe dream—I’d like to have that be what I do. I taught full time for the past three years at the University of Michigan. I have 10 million columns slash stories for freelance work that I am juggling all the time. I spend as much of my day researching sexually transmitted disease testing for a column in Glamour as I do writing fiction. I’d love someday to have the leisure to spend my time actually writing fiction. Not because I won the lottery but because my books did well and people read them and I was paid for them.

RB: Is there journalism that you’d want to do? Stories that you want to tell?

FD: I have been so busy with teaching and writing my novel and getting freelance work that pays the bills that there wasn’t a lot of time where I was thinking, ‘It would nice to write this and that for Harper’s.’ Now that I have dropped the teaching and I am just doing freelance there is more time for me to do that and I mean to. But it’s been a question of getting my bookshelves assembled. I would like to next year. I love non-fiction. I did some in graduate school and I have written essays that I think are reflective of my interests more than the demands of word counts etc. It’s not something that you can just wake up one morning and say you want to do. But I’ll find my way.

Francesca Delbanco, photograph by Robert Birnbaum

RB: Isn’t writing just writing? What’s the difference between a fictional narrative and non-fiction?

FD: I think that’s true but certain kinds of writing demand skills—when I am writing a magazine article for, that’s not just me sitting down at my computer thinking, ‘What do I really have to say about this?’ That’s me thinking, ‘What do they want me to say about this?’ [both laugh] ‘What does the research say? How many words do I have, etc., etc.’ I really think those demands inform what you come up with. So if I were writing a book of essays it feels quite like writing fiction.

RB: To borrow from Truman Capote, maybe that magazine stuff is type writing.

FD: Fulfilling an assignment is what it feels like. Whereas a book of essays is writing.

RB: I’m reading The Midnight Disease by Alice Flaherty. She’s a neurologist who has been fascinated with hypergraphia and writer’s block and allied neurological issues. At the heart of it, despite her being rooted in science, she is a writer. So reading her book made more sensitive to or interested in—tell me what the feeling is when you write?

FD: Yeah. Um, to make myself sound like a true flake, I am a Gemini—and there is a way in which I have always—the first thing I can remember is being pulled in 10 million directions in terms of what I am interested in, in terms of what I am thinking about. Nine days out of 10 my experience sitting at my computer is thinking about what I am writing, thinking what am I going to cook for dinner that night. Thinking whether I remembered to mail invitations to this or that, thinking about my deadlines. And when I am really writing, I am just thinking about what is at my computer. And for me that is completely—that is an experience I have rarely.

It is true that I have—I don’t know how to really say it—my friends are really, really important to me—they are kind of far and wide. I keep them around and they keep me around and that is an inordinate number of hours a day that could be spent writing a novel.

RB: Sounds like the title to Baba Ram Dass’s book Be Here Now. It sounds so simple like, ‘Do the right thing!’

FD: It’s not something you can invoke. Of course, if I could I would every morning. I spent a summer living in Montana, just writing and there was nothing to do. And it was a tiny town—

RB: Where in Montana?

FD: Chinook. Richard Ford owns a house there and very kindly let me flop there for a summer and work. By day four—day one, two, and three I was frantic, throwing myself against the windows—

RB: [laughs]

FD: It was not a pretty sight but by day four I was just in what I was working on in a way that is so difficult for me to achieve on my regular life. I think of that as the best summer I ever had in some ways. Because I was just totally engrossed. I was going to bed at 10 every night. I was not doing anything except that. I remember that in the mornings when I am anywhere but there.

RB: Like trying to recapture the feeling, not the memory of being in love with someone.

FD: But even just knowing it gives me courage—that may be too melodramatic but it makes me feel like that is lurking somewhere in me. It may not be here today but—

RB: Alice Flaherty describes some of the lengths people go to, to write. I don’t know how well known Franzen’s ritual of blindfolding himself and blacking out the windows—

FD: I certainly read about it.

RB: Given that, couldn’t we define some writing as symptomatic of psychosis?

FD: It seems like that, right? Because why, if you are so ungiven to doing something naturally that you have to paint your windows black or—not to cast any aspersions on Jonathan Franzen—or what ever it is, handcuffing yourself to a chair, why force yourself to do it? That gets us back to your first question, which was, could you have done anything other than be a writer? Of course, I could have. Every day I sit at the computer thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be more fun if I worked in a mall?’ Any thing seems like an escape and yet, it must be true that every writer knows what it feels like to be really writing well—

RB: Maybe it’s like a narcotic? You never seem to recapture the first great high and you forever are trying to get back to that very first great feeling?

FD: Oh, God, say it isn’t so; I’ll be in law school next year. [laughs]

RB: Is living in L.A. temporary? It sounds like an experiment or a stopover.

FD: Yeah. I am always more comfortable with the future when it isn’t completely mapped out. I wouldn’t be surprised if I were there in five years. And not be surprised if I were elsewhere.

RB: No big plans other than writing? Given the adjacency of the movie business where you live, has there been any interest in Ask Me Anything?

FD: Let’s keep our fingers crossed. My agent feels it would be best to go out with this book once it has a substantial number of reviews behind [it] and things that have been written about it so it doesn’t seem to belong in some huge heap of books with girls on the cover. So we are waiting. I am currently in a holding pen waiting for those reviews. They are coming but it is anxiety-provoking because many people go out for their movie deals a lot sooner than I have. There are a lot of books that kind of look like this. Ideally, there is some file of clips that is saying that this is not the same as every other one.

RB: The bare outline of the story is not unusual and to be quite honest, this not really my kind of book, in terms of the subject matter. But I thought you wrote it well and that drew me into reading it. The novel wasn’t predictable and it was smart. And, sorry to say, I don’t know if that is what is going to be appealing to a movie producer.

FD: With any kind of luck my great fantasy is that I would get to be the person who wrote it [the screenplay]. Just because I would love to have a crack at it and because I feel, as you do, that it could be boiled down into something not very interesting. And I would be sad to see that happen.

RB: Or you could find some Johnny Depp or Ethan Hawke type to be interested. I thought that was what was so promising for a period in independent film—that young and talented actors were reading literary fiction and wanting to adapt those stories for film. You seem to have a somewhat laissez-faire attitude about the future.

FD: It doesn’t do to over inflate that. I could sit around and get really nervous about all the things that other people my age get really nervous about.

RB: Which are?

FD: Should I own a home? Should I be married? Should I be having children before it’s too late? Etc., etc. I don’t want to portray myself as someone who isn’t plagued by those same neuroses. But they also seem to be working themselves out.

RB: What is the mix of information that you deal with? TV, newspapers, magazine, talking with people? Hanging out in bars and bistros?

FD: I am totally addicted to NPR. There is almost never a moment when I am not listening to it—unless I am writing. So that is how a lot of information comes in to my life, which means that I am that person who at every dinner party is saying, ‘Did you guys hear such and such today?’ And everybody says, ‘Yeah, tell us something we don’t already know.’ I read the New York Times and I read all sorts of magazines.

RB: You read the New York Times in L.A.?

FD: What can you do? You can take the girl out of New York. I am obsessively social, and I talk, talk, talk, with my friends. I do watch more TV now that I live there but that’s probably from one hour a week to three hours. I am not a TV person or a big movie person, which I think of as a failing. My movie history education and vocabulary is pretty sad. Between listening to NPR and reading the paper and keeping in touch with the people I keep in touch with and of course reading, that seems to take up the day. It is true that I have—I don’t know how to really say it—my friends are really, really important to me—they are kind of far and wide. I keep them around and they keep me around and that is an inordinate number of hours a day that could be spent writing a novel.

RB: Well, you have to live. Besides Patrick O’Keefe, tell me something you have read lately that excites you?

FD: That knocks my socks off?

RB: Something along those lines.

FD: Now there will be a long, telling silence.

RB: You have many writer friends—maybe a song? [both laugh]

FD: A friend of mine gave me a book by a writer named Antonia White, who is a forgotten contemporary of Elizabeth Bowen. I am mad for Elizabeth Bowen. I took the epigraph for my novel from her. And I love her and I love that time and that style. And Bowen wrote the introduction to [Frost in May]. And just on the train coming to see you I opened the first few pages. I feel like I could be on the brink of discovering someone and that feels really exciting.

RB: I really like Jonathan Yardley’s occasional series in the Washington Post where he resurrects authors like James Baldwin and John D. MacDonald and Dwight McDonald.

FD: Yeah.

RB: It reminds you that it is not all the last six weeks of new releases (there is a Gore Vidal quote banging around in my head that is apropos here but I can’t pull it up) and the literary moment is quite expanded.

FD: Especially when you are coming out with a book, everything contemporary is all around you and can’t help but be conscious of it, but I am a nerd at heart, a schoolbook worm. I get really excited and whipped up about having an old book that people haven’t read that might have something interesting.

RB: Well, good. Thanks.

FD: Thank you. This is so fun.

RB: Good.