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Taffy Brodesser-Akner on her new novel, money and life after trauma


Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s new novel, “Long Island Compromise,” begins with this line: “Do you want to hear a story with a terrible ending?”

Who wouldn’t want to keep reading? A terrible ending, it turns out, is not what you think.

The story starts with the kidnapping of Carl Fletcher in his driveway, at his very nice home on Long Island in 1980. Carl is rich — really rich. His father escaped from Poland with an idea that he turned into a fortune: polystyrene, AKA styrofoam.

Back to the kidnappers. They want $250,000, which would be about $4 million today. Fletcher’s wife Ruth pays the ransom and gets her husband back. Two men are charged. Not all the money is found, but we are only on page 22 of a 440-page novel.

From there, the story follows the Fletcher family through the years beyond the torturous kidnapping, plus a lifetime of extreme wealth.

We see it through the adult children: the bacchanalian one, the nervous one, the bright one. It all comes to a point when their grandmother dies and each has to return home, where they learn their family’s money has run out.

How will Beamer pay for his $85,000 rehab stay? Will Nathan pull himself out of a hole after investing with a shady advisor? What about Jenny, who can’t decide whether to be a socialist, a Marxist, a whateverist. This book has BDSM, bar mitzvahs, arson, organ failure, lying and more.

Kirkus Reviews calls it a “triumph,” declaring it a “great American Jewish novel whose brew of hilarity, heartbreak and smarts recalls the best of Philip Roth.”

Brodesser-Akner is also the author of “Fleishman Is in Trouble” and a beloved writer for the New York Times. She spoke to WNYC’s Alison Stewart on a recent episode of “All Of It.” Below is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Alison Stewart: Taffy, welcome.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: It is so great to be here, Alison. Thank you so much. You just reminded me that the elevator pitch for my book requires an elevator that will go up so many stories. It’s one of those buildings whose elevator is always broken. [Laughs.]

You were actually working on this book when you started “Fleishman Is in Trouble.” You put this one aside. What was the original concept for “Long Island Compromise”?

The original concept for “Long Island Compromise” was a question about money. I was in Russia doing a story about the U.S.’s only male synchronized swimmer, and I was there for 12 days. My young children were home, wondering where their mother was. I was trying to make ends meet.

I had this rage at all of the wealthy people I knew growing up. I wanted to pour all that rage into this one question I would answer in this book, which is: Are you better off with money and never having to feel afraid? Or is it better to be able to pick yourself up by your own steam and support yourself and make your own ends meet and survive by yourself?

That’s the question that I thought I was asking when I started writing it: Are your children doomed by your money? But that’s not what I ended up with. What I ended up with was the story that I guess I keep returning to, that I was addressing in “Fleishman,” which was: What happens after trauma? How are we supposed to move on? Can you move on? Is there a way to ever forget the things that happen to you? Do your children survive the things that happened to you?

The kidnapping is based on a 1974 real story of Jack Teich. He was kidnapped from his home near Kings Point and held for what would be $4 million today. He was returned home. You got his OK?

I did. He’s a family friend. When I was writing this book, which I was writing before “Fleishman,” I couldn’t get this kidnapping out of my mind.

A kidnapping asks this great question about money, which is: The very money that saved you also put you in danger in the first place. Is it good or is it bad? It’s as impossible to answer as the other questions that I was asking about money. That’s the spoiler. [Chuckles.]

When did you realize this would be a good catalyst to start your novel?

I didn’t realize it. It just kept finding its way in. It felt like the big event in what could have been a very rudderless novel if I was just talking about money and wealth and Long Island, the suburbs.

I asked Jack for his blessing. He gave it to me, which is very, very nice because it really is terrible to know a writer. It really is terrible that somebody might return you to a horrible period of your time in your 80s. Also, Jack was writing his own memoir at the time, which has since come out. It’s called “Operation Jackknap,” and it is excellent.

There’s no Middle Rock, Long Island.

There is no Middle Rock, Long Island.

I looked at maps. I checked it out.

I have a good lawyer.

It’s going off context clues. It could be Oyster Bay-ish or Sands Point-ish, we’ll say.

You could say. You could wonder if it’s Great Neck, because my father is from Great Neck. He lives there now. Jack Teich was kidnapped out of Great Neck. It does combine all the elements of what is so horrifically called the Gold Coast of Long Island. Cancel yourself.

What’s the unsaid part about the people who live on, let’s say, the Gold Coast who are so very rich? What’s the unsaid part?

You mean unsaid in the book?

Unsaid in your life’s experience that you were able to use for the book.

Let me think about that for a second. What I think about money is that if you always had it, you will never understand the fear for survival that most of us have. If you do understand the fear for survival that most of us have, no amount of money will cure you of it.

That’s what Ruth says to her daughter. ‘You’re a rich girl. I have money, but I’m not a rich girl.’

Exactly.

I’ve heard that writing should be really specific and that’s how you get to be universal. And this is a very New York book.

I’m hoping you’re right about that — for regional, post-regional sales.

What does that mean for someone in Iowa who’s reading this story?

I guess what I always turn to is how much I loved “The Corrections.” I had not yet been to St. Louis, which I think is what the town there is doing business as. I’ve read stories that take place in Poland. I have read stories that take place in space. I guess the question I always have is: Every story has to face the burden of specificity so that the reader could find themselves in it — I guess my question would be for the reader, is there something that stops you from thinking of New York as a valid place?

It’s so interesting to me that New York and wealth are both these elements in a novel or in a TV show that a network, a publisher worry out loud that they will alienate a reader or a viewer. I guess I’m not alienated by it.

When I was making the TV show version of “Fleishman” — I was making it, of course, with a lot of help — it occurred to me that the only time you ever really see the Upper East Side, post-a Woody Allen movie, in TV lately, is when someone has to get murdered.

In order for you to look at that kind of wealth, somebody has to get murdered. Whereas I grew up, my mother, after we went to sleep, or she thought we went to sleep, would watch “Dynasty.” She felt like we had so little money that she just wanted to watch people in fur coats and limousines. Comically rich people being comically rich.

The Fletcher family makes their money through polystyrene. Styrofoam. Why styrofoam?

First of all, I have this affection for the post-war Jewish or Italian or Irish factory inventing from need. The least glamorous job you could have. We are going to put wall-to-wall carpeting in all the schools. We are going to air-condition them all. Styrofoam, which is something people use a lot and is terrible for the environment. The thing I loved about it was that it’s called insulation.

It protects even as it destroys the things it is trying to protect you from, without any editorial commentary on whether or not those things deserve to be destroyed. I liked it too much as a metaphor.

These people who live inside this deadly styrofoam, which is maybe capitalism or late capitalism, that you live inside it and you are protected while the world falls apart around you.

You did a lot of research into styrofoam.

I did. I’m a journalist. The easiest parts of the book for me were the parts where you just have to go to a factory and say, “Can I look around?” People are so nice when you ask those things.

Or you call up a chemist and you say, “What would happen if a factory burned down?” Or you call up someone who went to Yale and you say, “What was the union like there?” People are so generous. I’m writing right now the introduction to a new edition of “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”

Oh my gosh.

I’m really excited about it because it’s the first time I’m reading about Tom Wolfe’s process, and his process was to understand that the old “write what you know” adage only takes you so far. It’s really mostly “write what you think.” Then how do you fill out the rest of the book? With reporting. Of course, I’m also a reporter.

How would you describe Ruth, the wife of Carl? Because moms play an important part of the story.

Ruth Fletcher is the quintessential person in a terrible position. She was poor. She married this guy knowing that it would mean safety for the rest of her life and then he’s kidnapped and traumatized.

She feels that it is her punishment for making such a devil’s bargain that she has to take care of him in his traumatized state for the rest of his life, not be a great mother. Or the version of being a great mother was that she took care of Carl.

Of course, she’s in this impossible position because she thought what she wanted was safety, but then she raises these children, who themselves are the products of never having had the fears she has, and she can’t even relate to them. She looks at these children and does not know who they are because they haven’t struggled the way she has, and she hates them a little for it.

The Fletchers are living this great American story. They make money. They spend it on their family. We learn it’s a lot more complicated than that. Carl’s family tells lies about where they got their money from or how their money was made. Why?

Because the truth is so ugly. What people do when they are trying to survive, they commit acts of desperation. It’s one thing to commit an act of desperation when you’re trying to flee Poland. It’s harder to explain your act of desperation when you are merely trying to get through the day.

I think that dishonesty and the assassins that live in the house with you, that hold a gun over you, that kidnap you and don’t let you actually say what is going on in the room. That is why we lie. Because we know we’ll get shot if we say it. Sorry to extend that metaphor to death.

The book is full of bar mitzvahs and two-day burials. There’s an angle for the nose jobs. Some words I won’t use.

I love that. I love the angle for the nose job. [Laughter.]

As you were writing this, how did you fall into archetypes of Jewish folks versus stereotypes?

I guess I didn’t even think about it. I just thought about, “What generation is it that I’m writing about right now? What did they sound like and what did they do?” I think stereotype comes from laziness and maybe a little bit of contempt. Maybe the answer to your question is, “I don’t have any contempt for these people. I am these people.”

Then I read a review saying that some of them are unlikable. I can’t even understand what they’re talking about. Which I guess means that I’m not likable. I guess I’d be a terrible character.

Or you’ve fallen in love with them. It’s nice to spend time falling in love with the characters.

That’s nice. Thank you for saying that. I feel like it is a strange time to write specifically about anybody. The only thing I can do, the only way I could justify anything I write — because so much of what I read right now is not art. I’m not being derisive about it. I’m saying it’s not art. It’s about the anxiety of making art, which is the story of our time.

The fact that we now know that whatever we write right now, in 10 years, will be abhorrent to a new generation. What are you going to do? You’re either not going to write, or you’re just going to know that I’ll have a good 10 years. That’s all you have as a writer now in this culture. The only thing I can defend is writing about who I am and what I’ve seen.

Beamer — real name Bernard. Beamer is short for BMW?

No, people thought it was short for BMW.

Oh, thank goodness. I thought because BMWs built Nazi German cars…

No. The thousand pages that were left on the cutting room floor have debates about whether or not you should drive a German car or if it’s the ultimate triumph to drive a German car.

Beamer is named Beamer because — some people think it’s because that was his first car and some people think it is because his eyes are like high beams and people are like deer in headlights when they look at him, especially women. Actually, it’s because his beloved younger sister could not pronounce Bernard as a baby and called him Beamer and it took.

Beamer is a cowriter of a film franchise. He did it with his friend, who did all of the work. Beamer was a cheerleader, I guess. Beamer decides he wants to continue the series and the guy’s not having it. Do you think he can actually write a good series?

I think he is trying to write something in the realm of the fourth in a “Die Hard” series, back when there’s no real hope in this current day for anyone greenlighting that project. Can he write a good version of that? Probably not.

The real question is: Can he write a great version of the story that he wants to write? The question that he grapples with, probably without knowing it, the question I grappled with was: It’s a lot of risk to write personally. It is a lot of vulnerability.

The reason I do it is because the thing that hangs over my head is having a different job than the one that I want to do. If you have all the money in the world, why would you take a risk? Why would you be vulnerable? He comes very, very close to understanding that. That’s where I’ll leave it because I don’t want to spoil anything.

When we first meet him, he’s really enjoying a dominatrix.

He is. Two.

He says after one instance in her slow hand, the pain was excruciating. It was unfathomable. It was what he had been looking for his entire time.

Beamer hires dominatrixes, dominatrixi, to — what they think is cause him pain, but actually what he’s doing is reenacting a kidnapping over and over. That’s not a service you can ask for, whereas a dominatrix is a mainstream service that you can ask for.

Then one of his dominatrixes goes into massage training and does this strange massage that pulls you apart. In there, he finds that all he had ever wanted was to sit in his pain for a long enough period of time that he could understand it and hold it in his hands. For 45 minutes while she gives him this terrible massage, he has it.

He has an idea for a film. He gets really carried away with it — is what we’ll say, leave it there. How far did you want to go in his mental decline over the course of this experience?

I wanted him to divorce himself from reality in a major way. But the first time I wrote this novel — when I first wrote it — he was a studio executive. He became a screenwriter when I became a screenwriter. A lot of his anxieties about his success and about screenwriting were my anxieties when I was writing the television show version of “Fleishman.”

What I also noticed is that it’s very easy to lose any sense of reality when you’re talking about these projects, because forget “Fleishman.” You go on to talk about an idea and someone will say, “Oh, you should attach that person to this idea.” He’s trying to package this idea, which is a great way to avoid writing it.

Nathan is a well-meaning soul. He can’t get out of his own way. He’s a lawyer. He looks for loopholes that let big business usurp small ones. There’s this interesting back-and-forth he has with a newly minted partner. It’s Dominic Romano, and they debate who has it harder: a Jewish immigrant family or an Italian immigrant family. What did you want to explore with that exchange?

In that exchange, I was not exploring the differences in ethnicity, especially where I grew up. I was a late teenager when I found out that Italians and Jews are not the same people from just different regions. It did not occur to me. What they’re actually talking about is being without money and being with money. Nathan, the Jewish character, comes from money, and his partner friend does not.

He is bullied by another guy, who says he’s going to make it big by investing his money for him. We can see where this is going…

Only if your eyes are open you can see where it’s going.

Why can’t Nathan see it?

Because the book has the theory of priorities that my therapist has given to me, which is that there are a million different decisions to make in a day and you always make the decision based on your priorities. His priority is safety.

Safety comes in so many different modes and one of them is not being beaten up by your childhood best friend who has just started an investment firm and is clearly doing some weird stuff, but you could just make it go away if you invest and stop having him harangue you.

I think Nathan chooses safety in all of these different ways that are not safety, therefore proving — I don’t know … is there such a thing as safety? Can money buy you safety? I don’t think the book thinks it can, but it does buy you a lot of good stuff. It does buy you a lot of things that add to your safety. I don’t know.

Jenny is the brains in the family, but she lacks, is it emotional intelligence?

She can’t make a decision because she’s born after the kidnapping and she spent her whole childhood determined to define herself outside of the trauma of this family. When she finally finds herself on her own, the decisions become too big for her. My friend taught me this phrase, semantic evacuation.

It’s a linguistic term for when you look at a word for too long and it just falls apart. Sometimes you’re looking at the word boat and you’re like, “Boat. What could this mean? How could this signify a vessel on the sea?”

That’s what she’s done with her life. She’s treated it as so precious in a way that people who have to work for their survival don’t have the luxury to. She’s treated it as so precious that she can’t make any decision because she has the one life, but the decisions feel too big.

I read somewhere you put a “torture them” Post-it on your computer.

Yes.

Who was it hard to torture?

All of them. The reason the Post-it says “torture them,” my kids love it. They make fun of me for it. The reason the Post-it is on the computer is to remind you that it is your obligation as a storyteller to bring everyone to their lowest point, because once you get them there, it is so hard because you love them.

I love every single one of these people. They are comprised of thoughts I’ve had and theories I’ve earned and pieces of me. Then my obligation as a storyteller is to just beat them up so that they can figure out a way to redeem themselves. That is something that I don’t know if it comes naturally to anyone. It certainly doesn’t come naturally to me, so the Post-it endures.

I’m not going to explain what “Long Island Compromise” means.

This is a family show.

Then it turns into something else. It becomes clear that the family money’s gone. Whose world do you think gets rocked the most?

This is a strange answer, but I think the people around them.

Interesting.

The people around them. You mentioned that there are a lot of characters. Listener, please don’t be afraid of that.

No. It’s 440 pages and they’re just coming and they’re going and they’re in and then they’re back and then they come and they go. Anyway, continue.

It is hard. It took a long time to figure out how you can write about wealthy people and explain what your point of view on the wealth is if you are doing a novel that is a close third person on these five characters. The answer is: through the people around them. Meg Wolitzer, who has become a dear friend, explained that to me. Whereas my first novel had an actual journalist narrator speaking directly to the audience, I didn’t want to do that this time.

Her answer, because she has all the answers, was a very simple: Have someone in the corner just say what you want to say. Which seems elementary, but I am here for all elementary lessons.



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