New Yorker Spotlight: Author Julia Pierpont on Her Debut Novel and Coming of Age in NYC

Posted On Fri, July 31, 2015 By

Posted On Fri, July 31, 2015 By In Book Reviews, Features, Interviews, New Yorker Spotlight, People

Photo of Julia Pierpont via Shiva Rouhani

One of the many books published this summer is Julia Pierpont’s “Among the Ten Thousand Things.” Her debut novel tells the story of an Upper West Side family–parents Jack and Deb and kids Simon and Kay–following the discovery of infidelity. Published earlier this month by Random House, it’s received plenty of praise, including a rave review in the New York Times.

Julia, who is in her late 20s, grew up on the Upper West Side and currently resides in Brooklyn. She went a few blocks north to attend Barnard College and then went downtown to to NYU’s M.F.A. program, where she began writing the book. The story is peppered with lines New Yorkers will relate to, especially anyone who spent their childhood in Manhattan. “There were things you learned early, growing up in the city, and there things you learned late, or not at all,” she writes, exploring the idea of what city kids gain, but also what they lack in comparison to their suburban counterparts. Then there are her descriptions. One line that seems particularly fitting given the temperature reads, “Central air seemed the greatest of suburban luxuries. It was like living inside a Duane Reade.”

Before she did a reading in Oxford, Mississippi, we spoke with Julia to find out about her life in New York and what role it played in “Among the Ten Thousand Things.”

Central Park West, Upper West Side, CityRealty
Central Park West via CityRealty

You grew up in Manhattan, attended college and graduate school here, and even choose the city as the setting for your book. What is it about New York that you can’t get enough of?

In a way, I think there is more pride to be had if you moved here and chose New York for yourself. I never got to do that. I’ve been meaning to leave for a long time and I keep up getting sucked back in. I thought I’d leave for college or graduate school, but there kept being reasons to stay. I guess that’s part of it. New York offers so much that I couldn’t come up with a good reason to leave. The fact that the book is set there just naturally follows. I had so many experiences here. There are so many places I knew I wanted to set a scene, or have a character have an experience I had, or notice something that I’d noticed. The landscape is really rich for me in the same way that it would have been if I had grown up somewhere else.

You had the opportunity to experience New York as a child and now as an adult. What is that like?

I remember that being something that really concerned me when I first started college. I had moved from one area of Manhattan to another. I remember thinking maybe this is a mistake because I would ruin my hometown. I wouldn’t have a hometown to go back to or escape to. I was redefining my compass. All of a sudden, home was not home anymore, but was downtown from where I was living.

New York is still big enough in certain ways to have your own history. Now I feel I have a fondness for a certain period of my life depending on which apartment I lived in at the time. I have all these different places as markers. Each apartment becomes its own little experience.

How did growing up in Manhattan help to shape this work?

A lot of that has a lot to do with the limitations of the daughter, Kay. Biographically, the kids have a lot in common with me in that I also grew up here. I did think about what was different about growing up in the city–things like not learning how to drive or ride a bicycle and the way in which you have your independence earlier and ways that you don’t. You learn the subway earlier, but you can’t go on your own until a certain age like you could if you lived in a small town.

When did you first come up with the idea for the book?

I started working on the book in late 2010, which is the same time I started graduate school. I sort of had ideas for it floating around, but when I entered school I really got serious about it. It definitely is something that developed over time. I didn’t outline it or anything like that. I had certain ideas. I knew I would start with New York. I knew it was a family that lived in a certain area. I fleshed out as I wrote it. I didn’t know the next chapter until I was already writing it.

washington square arch
Washington Square Park with the Bobst Library peeking out behind the Arch

Where did you do most of your writing?

I think some writers prefer to write at home and some prefer to get out. I find I’m more disciplined if I’m not at home. The majority of the book was written at the NYU Bobst Library. Actually, I was living at the time by Columbia University’s library, and I had an alumni card, so it would have been much easier to go there. But I found that if I went there, my commute was almost too easy, and I would end up coming home. So I would take the train down to West 4th and walk over, and that was the best way to get myself started. I would listen to music on the train and walk through Washington Square Park. It would be this whole journey to get there. It was a way of honoring that that was how I was spending my day.

Reflecting back on the writing process, did you ever imagine New Yorkers would be able to walk into a bookstore and buy your novel?

I think there was a stage during writing when it was helpful to imagine it as a book. It’s very strange to go to a bookstore and see it sitting there.

What inspiration did you draw from the city?

I just knew I wanted a character or two characters to be somewhere or to observe a space. If I had the two ingredients of a place that I found interesting in New York and the characters’ current moods, they could just go there and observe and interact with this space and have the environment interact with them. One example is the Museum of Natural History. It was a place where I spent a lot of time as kid. Lincoln Center is a big one because the mother, Deb, is a ballerina. There is also a scene down on St. Mark’s Place.

Upper West Side

Why did you choose the Upper West Side for the family’s home?

Part of it is what I know, and it’s a very family neighborhood. I actually did a podcast a week ago and they were asking me about the family. They said, “Jack must be a pretty successful artist if they live on the Upper West Side.” I said the Upper West Side has changed so much. If Deb and Jack bought that apartment in the ’70s or something, they probably got a great deal on it. It doesn’t necessarily mean they spent a fortune. I was also thinking about my own family and how much the neighborhood has changed around them.

Did you have to do any research?

I actually did some research out of the city because in the last part of the book most of the family goes to Rhode Island. I went to this town in Rhode Island to get a feel for the place. In New York, I went to a few places to jog my memory.

In addition to writing this book, you work in The New Yorker’s copy editing department. What is it like to work at the magazine?

It’s incredibly quiet. I’ve told people that and if they ever come to lunch, they are always startled. Part of it is that I’m in the copy editing department, and we’re all just sitting there reading with pencils. It’s a lot of people reading and writing. Not a lot of phone calls are being made.

Among the Ten Thousand Things, Julia PierpontWhen you’re not writing, where in New York are you?

I spend a lot of time in Brooklyn. I always thought that if I moved to Brooklyn, I would be going to the city all the time. But now it turns out that isn’t necessary. I spend a lot of time in the park with my dog. There is a dog run, which is really great to take him to.

Do you think New York is losing its creative class?

Everyone’s talking about how expensive New York is and how everyone should move to Los Angeles, Detroit or somewhere. The same way that people are saying the book is over and then it’s not, people are saying New York is over and it’s not.

Are you currently working on your next novel?

I finally feel free to do that. I was worried about how it would feel once one book was out, but it’s kind of liberating. I can release the characters and the story and not have to think about how I’m going to edit it next. I think it’s a process. It takes time to rebuild the desire to write something new. At the same time, it also has been a while with editing. It’s exciting to start something new and think about the possibilities of a new project.

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Julia Pierpont 

[This interview has been edited]

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