Q&A with Daphne about her new novel, Wife of the Day
Q: Did you have any of the hangups in early marriage that Zephyr Zuckerman has with her husband, Gregory, in Wife of the Day?
I actually did not. I knew I wanted to marry my husband six weeks after we began dating. (I allowed a few years for him to arrive at the same conclusion.) But I can easily imagine those newlywed jitters. My husband and I went on a pre-wedding honeymoon to Hawaii (occasioned by a free ticket) and I caught him staring at me in the ocean one day. He confessed that he was a little terrified about the commitment we were about to make. So I took that little bit and blew it up to use for Zephyr.
Q: Did it scare you when he said that?
No. I knew we’d be fine. I like to think that Gregory’s unexcitability on this topic is modeled after my own, even though in real life I’m usually the excitable one while my husband is the steadying force. Except when it comes to kayaks. He keeps buying kayaks. Kayaks excite him.
Q: Kayak-buying wouldn’t have been an issue had you stayed in NYC, right?
You got me. This is the part where I confess that although I was born and raised in Greenwich Village, that even though I take great pride in the fact that my kids are fourth generation on our block, that I’ve come to like living upstate. (Let's wait for the cries of treason to subside.) I doubt I could live one mile further from NYC than we do – MetroNorth is my umbilical cord – but it turns out that quiet and lower expenses and ease of daily life do not instantly transform one into a Stepford wife.
Q: You’ve expressed concern that leaving NYC would make you go soft. Has it?
I’d like to think it hasn’t, but it’s probably not for me to say. I still have a sixth sense about who’s near me and where my purse is at all times. I can tell in a hundredth of a second if the dicey-looking, ranting person approaching me is dangerous or deserving of pity or merely colorful. I’m afraid my children may not be developing those same urban jungle instincts, no matter how much time we spend there.
Q: Would you go so far as to say you’ve adjusted?
Not exactly. The push and pull between New York City and everywhere else will always figure into my writing, just as most New Yorkers ponder, at some point, whether they should move away. And although Wife of the Day is an escape read, an escapade built on hijinks and comic mystery, it is very much an exploration of how place figures into our identity. How much of where we are is a part of who we are? I think about that constantly.
Q: And have you gained any insight?
My gut instinct is to say no, but that’s only because I don’t like to do anything as lofty as gain insight, but in truth, yes. When I write, I’m usually working through some personal issue; in Hotel No Tell, I was trying to understand why so many of us make the insane decision to raise children. In that one, I came to a different conclusion from my main character (which was lucky, because I already had two kids), but in Wife of the Day, Zephyr Zuckerman (though she gets to stay in New York) helped me come to terms with where I now live. I’ll always feel the need to let people know I’m from NYC, so that they understand that part of me, but I’m not as horrified anymore that I’m not there all the time.
Q: Some crazy stuff goes down in Wife; it’s hard to talk about the book without getting into spoiler territory, but can you talk a little bit about what’s true and what isn’t?
Some of the outrageous acts by the heavy lifters are true: the city really did split a school zone down the middle of a block, so that a child living across the street from P.S.41, on West 11th street, will no longer be able to attend that school. And I had to do something with my fury over the fact that Mayor Bloomberg rarely, if ever, met a real estate development plan he didn’t love. For a while, I was a fan of his, but now I believe he’s done as much permanent damage to New York as Robert Moses did in his day. A major developer is in the process of creating hundreds of new homes where St. Vincent’s Hospital used to be, and it was somewhat therapeutic for me to play out a tiny bit of revenge against a fictional version of that developer. I should have dedicated the book to Jane Jacobs.
Q: Instead, you dedicate it to your building.
Q: That’s an unusual choice.
I don’t know that my family will hold onto that brownstone forever. This is a way to immortalize it even if someone else owns it. It’s my permanent claim on its soul.
Q: What prompted you to write this caper?
I am addicted to New York City stories and it’s hard not to keep setting my books there. At first, I tried not to; I decided this time around I’d be all serious and write historical fiction set in the Hudson Valley. That lasted six weeks – I dislike research unless it entails seeing where Spring Street begins and ends or something similarly provincial. Then I spent over a year working on another book but came up against a character I hated so much I couldn’t bear to be with her every day. As I struggled with that one, I realized an idea for Wife of the Day was forming, despite attempts to prove to myself I could write a story set somewhere other than modern day New York. So I gave in and wrote Wife -- and had a great time doing it! And then, while I was writing it, I figured out how to salvage the book I thought I couldn’t stand (not the historical fiction; that’s never gonna happen)!
Q: So is the salvaged book your next book?
It is. The working title is Term and I’m champing at the bit to get back to it. I can’t tell you anything about it, except to say that once I realized it needed to be a comedy and not a serious book, everything became clear. I don’t know what made me think I could write anything in a serious tone.
Q: The Zephyr Zuckerman series has been optioned by the CW network and Silver Lake Entertainment. What’s become of that?
Hollywood is tantalizing and slow. Many delicious and exciting things have come out of my forays to that other coast, but none has yet resulted in anything filmed. I remain hopeful. Perhaps stupidly hopeful.
Q: Wouldn’t it be hard to see your characters transformed by someone else’s handiwork?
Not at all! I think it would be really fun if the TV version came to fruition. My books speak for themselves. No one can change them. It’s like Orange is the New Black, in the sense that Piper Kerman’s book is SO different from the show, but both book and show are highly entertaining in very different ways. How great that so many stories could be born of the original one!
Q: It’s rumored that you sometimes write at a convent…
I do. It’s located in one of the most beautiful spots in the country, beautiful enough that even I could believe in God if I got to live there all the time.
Q: Do the nuns know you’re an atheist?
I don’t know, but I don’t think they would care. I assume they’re nonjudgmental, but I mostly keep to myself while I’m there. It’s been good for me, since I can be a very closed-minded, righteous, supercilious atheist. These nuns do great things in the surrounding community, very Pope Francis-y. Actually, I took some of the characters' names from books I found in the convent’s library.
Q: Probably not LaWheeze Johnson, though.
No, not that one!
Q: Any parting thoughts?
Temulent, the fictional drug company in the book that manufactures morphine, is one of a surprisingly large number of words that mean “tipsy” or “drunk” in Latin.
Q&A with Daphne about Hotel No Tell, sequel to Super in the City
Q: You used to work for a New York City law enforcement agency. How much of Zephyr’s adventures in Hotel No Tell come from your actual experience?
A: I worked for a watchdog group that investigates crime and corruption in the public school system. None of the cases that the fictional SIC handles is identical to any real one I worked on. But, certainly, I drew on the hubris of our perps and the astounding ability of people to deny to themselves that they’re committing a crime. For instance, I make mention of a school principal taking kickbacks, which was the theme of more than a few of our cases. I also borrowed from the enormous and enormously entertaining personalities of my former colleagues. One thing that is completely true: most of the investigators were named Tommy.
Q: Zephyr’s investigative skills could use a little honing. Is this the right career for her?
A: She’s definitely not the smooth, gun-slinging, clear-thinking cop of so much popular fiction. She fails to catch last names, she can’t describe what people look like, she’s a little rash in a lot of her actions. But she’s nosy, genuinely curious, and innately caring. She gets people to talk to her. I wanted to capture the reality of people having unusual talents, not uniform ones, of showing how people can have skills that can’t be described on a resume. She’s learning on the job and I love that about her. She’s who a lot of us would be if we were thrown into her position.
Q: Zephyr is adamant about her decision not to have children, so much so that, at the beginning of the book, she and Gregory have broken up over it. You have two kids; are you worried what they’ll read into this?
A: First of all, I hope they’ll remember that I’m not Zephyr. Fiction is many things for a writer, including an outlet for exploring paths not taken. I felt very strongly that Zephyr not go the mommy route. I’m living it; I don’t want to read about it, let alone write about it. (That said, I shoveled some of my darkest feelings onto Lucy, and doubled it by saddling her with twins.) So I started there – my lack of interest in making her a mother – and then went further. Why not have her struggle to make peace with her child-free status be her personal challenge, as the quest for professional identity was in Super? Let’s examine the societal assumption that we’re all supposed to have kids, when the truth is that parenthood is tough, so tough that at some point, all parents wonder why they took it on. Without children there would be, as Zephyr says, more time, more money, less stress, more sleep, more growth of the mind. But by the end of the book I was more convinced than ever that I had made the right decision for myself and that Zephyr had made the right one for herself.
Q: Which is quite an accomplishment, given that Zephyr is often plagued by a lack of resolution to her problems.
A: One of Zephyr’s stumbling blocks is her belief that you need to tie up loose ends in order to move on to the next stage of life. By the end of Hotel, Zephyr is accepting the discomfiting fact that you can’t wait for certain unknowns to resolve – both in the criminal case she has mostly solved, and in her personal struggle with potential parenthood – in order to move forward. Wait forever and you’ll never grow up.
Q: But wouldn’t you say the book itself has an almost comical number of closures in the final chapter?
A: It’s true – in the plot itself, I love not only to tie up loose ends but to provide delicious and, I hope, funny and satisfying and surprising connections – perhaps as an antidote to those pesky loose ends. E.M. Forster’s directive [“only connect”] can be applied to storytelling as much as to real life.
Q: Right after Super in the City was published, you, like Lucy, were unwillingly transplanted to the suburbs. How has it been living away from the city while writing so intimately about it?
A: When we first moved away, I complained so much that a friend of mine who’s a lit professor rolled her eyes and promised to list me on her syllabus for Writers in Exile, right next to Salman Rushdie. Friends had lofty hopes for my situation, suggesting that it could be some deep new angle from which to view my city. It hasn’t been. What it has been is a great way to keep living there in my head, even as I live somewhere else. In fact, continuing to write about the city may contribute to my current identity problem: I still haven’t managed to say “I live in the Hudson Valley.” I say, “We’re living in the Hudson Valley, but we still own my childhood apartment in the Village.” It’s juvenile, I know.
Q:How did you come up with the idea of an egg donor scam?
A: Close friends were going through the process of selecting a donor and asked my opinion of the three finalists. It’s not like I didn’t know about egg donation, but watching people I loved go through the process -- and getting to have a small voice in selecting the seeds of my future niece or nephew -- really set my mind racing. I remembered seeing ads in my college newspaper recruiting egg donors, and I’ve always wondered why society treats it as a much bigger deal to give eggs than sperm.
Q: Other than the invasive process (and because of that, the money), why is it a bigger deal?
A: I don’t think it is. I think it’s all a huge deal. In fact, I wonder whether the boys I knew when I was nineteen who were donating to get some beer money now have any regrets. It has repercussions: imagine learning that your husband donated when he was younger, that your children have biological half-siblings you don’t know about.
Q: Zephyr’s newest friend, Macy St. John, is a lovable but cursed wedding planner whose company is called No Divas. Fess up: were you a bridal diva?
A: I can safely say I was not. I err in the other direction, which has caused my husband to declare me so low maintenance that I’m high maintenance. I came up with the idea for a business for no-frills clients after our caterer tried to schedule a two-hour meeting about our wedding cake. I declined and told him to make it white and make it taste good. A similarly non-diva friend who was planning her wedding at the same time came up with the name of the imaginary company that, years later, would find its way into this book.
Q: But you didn’t wear $13 sandals from Payless on your wedding day, the way Macy’s client does.
A: Yes, in fact. I did.
Q: Why a sequel?
A: I considered doing an entirely unrelated book, but suspected that any protagonist I created would be Zephyr again, with a different name. I was preoccupied with my recent exodus from the city and new status as mother of two. I inflicted both these states onto Zephyr’s good friend Lucy, which then freed me up to write about Zephyr and the life I was fantasizing about – still in the city and childless. It was clear to me that, if these were my preoccupations, it would be natural to keep writing about Zephyr. That said, it's definitely a stand-alone book, too -- you don't have to have read Super to enjoy Hotel.
Q&A with Daphne about Super in the City, first in the ZZ series
Q: Were you actually the super of a building?
A: For ten long years. In exchange for only paying maintenance (i.e. not market rate) on an apartment in the building my family co-owned, I was the super for the whole place.
Q: Was it worth it?
A: Definitely. I didn’t have to suffer a Mrs. Hannaham living downstairs, the way Zephyr does in my novel. My parents were pretty easy tenant/owners. I’m not saying I jumped for joy every time my mother called to say the heat wouldn’t go on or wouldn’t go off or was rattling the walls like a felon with a tin cup, but I accepted it as part of the job. And I got to live in the greatest apartment a 23-year-old government employee could ever hope to occupy.
Q: Any particularly bad experiences?
A: Once, coming home after doing some errands, I was carrying my college diploma, which I’d just had framed. But I was also carrying one of those industrial broom-and-dustpan jobbies used for sweeping the sidewalk. And I thought, it’s pretty clear which is the more useful item at this moment. That was a little depressing.
Q: Any bad experiences being super?
A: The heat went out one freezing Christmas Eve, while the restaurant downstairs was hosting a private party. That was bad, but not as bad as having to file the taxes for the building every year. I dreaded that. Because I wasn’t just the super, hanging out with the Roto Rooter guy in two inches of poop in the basement after a flood, but I was also the managing agent.
Q: You’re speaking in the past tense, but you still manage the building, right? You and your husband and two kids now live in your parents’ apartment.
A: Please don’t remind me how unfar I’ve come. I mean, I love, absolutely love that my children are fourth generation Greenwich Village. I don’t love that I’m still blindly filing arcane paperwork with the city’s Department of Finance. But in some ways, I’ve been promoted – I’m not technically a super anymore, but rather, the landlord. Funny, though, I’m doing exactly the same things...
Q: So where did you get the ideas for the characters and shady dealings that go on at 287 West 12th?
Like any writer worth her salt, I lied, cheated, and stole. Roxana Boureau was inspired by Daniel Defoe’s final novel, Roxana – subtle, right? – which I’d been rereading around the time I was dreaming up Zephyr’s story. It’s not his greatest work, but I was intrigued by the story of this woman who falls from the grace of marriage to basically being a concubine. It was just so damned juicy. Plus, a friend of mine who lived on the Upper West Side years ago watched the police raid an apartment upstairs from her, and discovered that there was a tiny brothel being run out of it. Honestly, I’ve wanted to write about that incident for so long that I can’t remember if the details I’ve used in this book are invented or based on what my friend told me.
Q: What about Zephyr’s circle of friends, who figure prominently in Super in the City?
A: Like Zephyr, I do have a close group of friends from high school for whom, to an almost gruesome extent, no topic is taboo. Used to be blowjobs, now it’s baby bowel movements. Like Zephyr’s friends, my coterie is down-to-earth. Don’t get me wrong – I was one of Sex and the City’s most avid fans, thought the show was utterly delicious – but I wanted to write about this other part of New York City that few people seem to know about. There’s a group of us natives who can’t afford Prada, don’t slather on a ton of makeup, don’t drink $20 cocktails til 4am, and actually consider ourselves really happy and entertained. Now I sound preachy.
Q: Yeah, a little. What about Mrs. Hannaham and Gregory Samson? Where did they come from?
A: I told you, I’m a thief. Mrs. Hannaham is a totally transparent riff on Dickens’ Mrs. Havisham. She’s a widow who dresses all in white, only in my book she haunts the basement apartment rather than the attic. And Gregory Samson, the exterminator with whom Zephyr has a love-hate-love relationship, is a play on Gregor Samsa, the protagonist who turns into an insect usually interpreted as a roach in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.
Q: Defoe, Kafka, Dickens – are you sure this is a light read?
I promise. I reread those guys (and women too) for inspiration, not imitation. Believe me: I am no Kafka. But I do like to think this falls into the smart light read category.
Q: Why do you think readers connect so easily to Zephyr?
A: Like a lot of women of her age and class, Zephyr suffers from an overabundance of opportunities and expectations – her own and other people’s. Youthful indecision is lingering longer and longer -- in 2007, NY Times columnist David Brooks coined the term "odyssey phase" of life -- and while I would never place it at the top of the world’s woes, it’s not a comfortable state to be in. Women, in particular, are not just expected to balance careers and motherhood and marriage, but they’re supposed to have interesting, meaningful careers, and their marriages are supposed to be deep and thriving, and they’re supposed to get down on the floors of their non-TV homes and do arts and crafts with their kids. Zephyr’s so paralyzed by the whole prospect that she can’t even get out of the starting gate.
Q: Is Zephyr also inspired by someone in literature? Or is she based on you?
A: More than any other character in the novel, Zephyr really is a tribute to a fictional man whom I love and sympathize with: In 1939, James Thurber published his famous short story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," in The New Yorker. In that tale, a hen-pecked husband runs errands while his wife gets her hair done. That’s the whole plot. But in his imagination he is, by turns, the captain of a Navy hydroplane, a brilliant surgeon, a bomber pilot, and the heroic victim of a firing squad. I’ve always felt very sympathetic towards, and inordinately fond of that character. Super in the City is partly a tribute to that seminal story: Zephyr is a 27-year-old, new millennial, female Walter Mitty.
Q: Is that because you, like Mitty, are discontent with your life and looking for escape?
A: Not at all! I have a much better deal than poor Walter Mitty. But I, too, have a runaway imagination, the way he does, and the way Zephyr does. I’ll be on line at the supermarket and start imagining what I’d do if someone held up the store. Or I imagine hustling some worthy celebrity to the ground during an attempted assassination.
Q: That just sounds paranoid.
A: Tomato, tomahto. But actually, I have an overdeveloped flight reflex in the face of life-threatening situations. I’d be the first person hitting the ground in a holdup. That’s probably why I need such a rich fantasy life.
Q: Uh, do you frequently find yourself in life-threatening situations?
My husband and I have found ourselves surrounded by active lava flow in Hawaii, facing down a pre-historic bird intent on disemboweling us in Australia, and we occasionally happen upon black bears while hiking in upstate New York. Every single time, my impulse is to run without considering the consequences.
Q: How about the men in Super in the City? Was there a Hayden Briggs in your life? A guy who repeatedly turned your world upside down?
A: Let’s just say Hayden – and Gregory, too – are amalgams of men I’ve dated plus a healthy dose of fictionalization. I take the physical attributes of one guy I knew, add some personality traits of another guy, and throw in the way I felt about yet another guy and that’s how I assemble a character. But yes, I’ve suffered acute cases of obsession, the way Zephyr does.
Q: How does your husband feel about you mining your past romances?
A: I told him right off the bat: look, I can’t use you in my work. Boy and girl meet, fall in love, their families get along, they get married, and they sail along, still in love, managing everything from a dying parent to a tantrumy toddler with relative equanimity. Totally boring story. He was extremely understanding.
Q: You mentioned you were a government employee after college. What did you do?
A: I worked for a law enforcement agency that investigates crime and corruption in the New York City public school system. It was the most fun job I’ve ever had (with apologies to Time Out New York magazine).
Q: Without giving away the ending of Super in the City too much, will your experiences at the law enforcement agency figure into another novel featuring Zephyr?
A: I’ve grown to love Zephyr and would love to see her foible-ridden search for herself, a career, and love continue, dustpan still in hand.