A Writer’s Insight: Danielle Lazarin

Danielle Lazarin’s story, “Floor Plans,” appears in the summer 2017 issue of The Southern Review. Read more about Lazarin’s forthcoming debut collection, Back Talk, and her approach to writing “New York stories,” below.

Kathleen Boland: What was the inspiration for “Floor Plans”?

Danielle Lazarin: A few years ago I noticed that one of my neighbors down the hall was moving boxes out of his apartment, but not, I understood, enough of them to be moving out. I never asked, but I did guess and confirm that it was a couple going through a divorce—the boxes belonged to the wife and daughter. I thought about both of my instincts: sadness at the fact of their marriage ending, and also wondering if they’d sell the apartment (they did, about a year later), what it looked like, how much they’d get for it. I am, after all, a native New Yorker, and shameless real estate curiosity is in my blood.

I began to imagine what it would be like to be on the inside of that story, to see opportunity in loss and also maintain empathy throughout it. At the time, there was a rash of divorces among my peers, and I knew, even under the least dramatic of circumstances, it is a wrenching process, with its own grief and expectations and pain, and I wanted to explore the aftershocks of that experience.

KB: The story opens with the image of a piano delivery via window; a bit later we meet Juliet, who wants to combine neighboring apartments. In my mind, both of these things are particularly New York City experiences. How else is this story a New York story? Or, how does the setting of New York interact this unraveling marriage and burgeoning friendship?

DL: I think New York is particularly suited to the sudden and brief sort of intimacy that Robin and Juliet share during this transitional time in their lives. The ratio of space to population in this city means that other people are inescapable; we share elevators and subway cars and washing machines; we hear each other fighting and vacuuming and crying. There’s a loss of privacy to this, of course, but I also see that New Yorkers are exceptionally respectful of this public/private boundary, sensitive to how difficult it can be to be so exposed. What Robin and Juliet do for each other, as many New Yorkers do, is bear witness to what’s difficult without interfering; I like to think this lessens the loneliness they are both feeling. Of course, they also both take advantage of these changes in each other’s circumstances (divorce, pregnancy) without apology. It’s undoubtedly part of the culture of New York to be curious, to cross boundaries in order to claim what space we can.

KB: I appreciated how much “Floor Plans” discussed the financial lives of its characters, especially the socioeconomics of real estate. Why did you choose to include these details in the story?

DL: Part of it was quite personal—there is nearly no one I know in NYC who has purchased real estate without great privilege, whether that’s a literal down payment from family or a lifetime of safety nets that account for being stable enough to save, yet this myth of luck and hard work over privilege persists, and it makes me crazy.

On a character level, it’s key to what Robin is asking herself as she makes her choices: Is this life of the woman next door built on smarter choices, more stable ground? I think we often look at someone else’s life and think it’s better than ours when we are just looking at their things or trappings without any idea of what they cost on an emotional level. What are the limits you impose on your life when you have kids? Get a mortgage? Be in a marriage? Accept money from family? Choose a certain career? We all want a life that isn’t really tied to things or relationship status, but sometimes we trick ourselves into believing we do. Everything costs. Ultimately, the choice Robin makes comes at a literal cost to her; it changes her future, and she does it for a more-or-less stranger. Robin sees that money won’t fix things she or Juliet want fixed.

KB: At one point, Robin remarks how Juliet has an “in-between of her world face and her home face.” The story revolves around in-betweenness: the divorce, the sale, the pregnancy. How does this theme speak to the tone of the story, as well as the setting of New York?

DL: A wise early reader of mine described this story as existing in “the liminal space” and that was a guiding principle when I revised it, so I’m really pleased that you picked up on that as the space of the story. Both women’s situations and choices couldn’t be farther apart, yet they need a lot of the same things: company, distraction, an illusion that they will be OK on the other side of something quite unpredictable. They need to do this out of the eye of others who know them. They find each other in that space, and once these transactions are over, so is their connection. I think, for better or worse, this is an oddly normal New York relationship: temporary, need-based, and intense, but no less real.

The city, too, leads many people to believe it’s all temporary: that you can start over again and again, that there are so many lives you can live, and that you’re always on your way to the next, better one. This can be great if you are the one who is changing or leaving—as Lev is, on to bigger and better, he believes—but it can be painful if you just want things to stay the way they are. New York will change over and over again without asking you if you want something more permanent. My favorite essay about New York, Colson Whitehead’s “Lost and Found,” speaks to this coexisting sense of loss and renewal that makes New York hum.

KB: “Floor Plans” will be in your forthcoming debut collection, Back Talk, out next year. Can you speak about your experience publishing a debut collection? What was the most surprising aspect of putting Back Talk together? The most satisfying?

DL: The publishing part has been, all things considered, fairly fast: I snagged my amazing agent, Julie Barer, in January 2016, and the book sold later that year (to the equally amazing Sarah Stein at Penguin Books). But it’s been a long road; I wrote about half the stories in the years before and during graduate school, which I finished in 2007. The rest, including “Floor Plans,” were written after moving back to New York in 2009, when I was theoretically working on a novel. So the book itself represents a lot of invested time. I think story collections at their best are representations of the risks writers have taken with their work, in craft and content. So in a really simple way, after all those years of playing around with what my stories can and cannot do, it’s been satisfying to be able to gather them, to see my own themes and limitations and ways I’ve tried to push past those.

It has been surprising to see early readers picking favorites, which are often not my favorites. And that separation of my feelings for certain stories from the readers’ feelings for them is actually delightful. It gives me hope that the stories can live beyond my feelings about them, that they might go out into the world and belong to others.

KB: And finally, what’s the strangest encounter you’ve had with a neighbor? 

DL: I really wish I had a better to answer to this, but most of my neighbor interactions are fairly normal; my NYC neighbors are great—many of them have said they think it’s adorable that the dog howls when the kids cry (which is likely because I’m yelling at my kids). They deserve cookies and booze for living around us.

There was that one time our neighbor in Michigan, who had a great sense of humor, knocked on our door to ask if we had put an opossum in the trash can. That was also the time we learned what it means to “play possum.”

Danielle Lazarin’s debut collection, Back Talk, is forthcoming from Penguin Books in 2018. Her fiction has appeared in Indiana Review, Glimmer Train, and Boston Review. She lives in New York City, where she is at work on a novel.

Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review.

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