Shelf Stalker Review and Interview

Check out this review and interview over at Shelf Stalker.

Or read it all here:

I’m excited to announce that this post is part of a blog tour for Daniel’s book! Please see the deets on Daniel’s website (more on that at the end as well). Enjoy!

On a recent visit to NYC, I was able to see some of the Greenpoint and Williamsburg neighborhoods of Brooklyn and the signs of gentrification are everywhere. What was once a park had been bought to be the site of the next skyscraping glass box tower of (un)affordable housing. Weathered signs of protest reading “Give us back our park” were hung all along the chainlink fences, though at this point it seemed to me that people had pretty much given up on preserving the breathtaking views of Manhattan they once got from Bushwick Inlet Park. Now those once-free views will cost you. About 2 million. And everyone else can look at another ugly skyscraper.

This is what Condominium is about, and while it may be easy to get up on your soapbox against gentrification, what about the people who are living inside those glass boxes? Aren’t they people too, much as we want to hate them? How might they be similar to us? How might they be different?

The book spans the first week that Sarah and Charles move in one of those swanky new high rises in NYC. At first, they seem put together and ready for such a commitment: Charles recently got a raise so he’s doing well at work and Sarah is in control when faced with decisions about the condo. But these two are not at all who they appear to be on the surface. And neither is their condo. At its bare bones, this is a story of a girl and a guy who buy a fancy, new place only to find that it can’t solve all their problems and it won’t make them become grown-ups. But underneath, there is a lot to unpack in this book!

Sarah and Charles don’t really fit in with the “gentrified” lot. Though they can’t admit it, they are both still very much stuck in the mindset of their late teens–early 20s and don’t seem to want to move into adulthood. They aren’t ready to take on real responsibility at their jobs or in their personal lives, and are not really aware of how their actions (or lack thereof) might affect the other people around them. They are both just floating through life, and the consequences are about to start piling up on them—it’s not going to be pretty.

I was also really intrigued by the condo itself as a character throughout the book. It couldn’t be less homey. Besides the fact that it is all stainless steel, glass, and architecture—more like a slick office space or fancy hotel room than a house—it seems to haunt Sarah and Charles and they don’t even want to spend any time in this place they are spending exorbitant amounts of money to own. To get a bit theoretical on you, it reminded me of Freud’s concept of ‘unheimlich’—that which is home and familiar, and yet strange and unfamiliar at the same time. The uncanny is something that we are drawn to and repulsed by at the same time. The condo symbolizes everything that Sarah and Charles fear about the world, the people around them, but especially about themselves. But I’ll let you unpack the rest on your own.

Condominium is a satirical look at a real problem that’s facing Brooklyn right now. Through it’s satire, it still manages to create true-to-life characters—this isn’t some American Psycho caricature of life in New York. Falatko manages to invent an interesting world with real depth, and that’s not something that can be said of all books these days.

And now, I’m proud to present an interview with author Daniel Falatko!

Daniel Falatko is a graduate of the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Originally from Pennsylvania, he lives and works in New York City. Condominium, published by CCLaP, is his first novel. His next novel, One Thin Dime, has been signed by the same publisher and is expected to release in early 2017. He holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives and works in New York City.

SHELF STALKER: First, a few easy warm-up questions: What are you currently reading?

DANIEL FALATKO: Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Age of Reason and a huge biography of Aleister Crowley. The thing is so thick I have to read it laid out flat on a table. It hurts my arms to hold it. It isn’t light reading. Literally.

SS: Can you choose three favorite authors? Why those authors?

DF: Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Because he stared into the void and found it amusing.
J.K. Huysmans:  Because he created his own reality and lived in it with dignity.
Marquis de Sade: Because every word he ever composed was delivered with sheer, wayward glee.

SS: If you could pick one book to read again for the first time, what would it be, and why?

DF: The Secret History by Donna Tartt. This bothers me every day, actually. The first time I read it I was thinking I didn’t like it for the first 50 or 60 pages. By the time I realized this was one of the greatest novels ever, I was already halfway through it. It’s like sleeping through the first 30 minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark or something. Wait, why is Harrison Ford in a pit of snakes right now? And why is it awesome? I’ve read it probably 50 times since then, but yes I’d love to go back and read it for the first time without being such a prick about the first half.

SS: And just to round it off: If you had a superpower, what would it be?

DF: I would make it so that James Taylor never went bald. Have you ever seen Two-Lane Blacktop? It’s this experimental hippie film from 1971 where James Taylor and some other guy drive around in a car for hours without talking. His hair is absolutely amazing in that film. His eventual baldness is such a tragedy. I’d fix that if I could.

SS: Now we’ll get down to the book!
The book follows Charles, the financial analyst, and Sarah, the (perpetual) editorial assistant, separately through their own crises, capturing their own very different circumstances and perspectives—I was really impressed by that. How did you go about creating those characters and keeping their voices and stories distinct? And can you tell me more about what sparked the idea for this book?

DF: The whole concept for the novel came to me when standing on the subway one day listening to two kids with fashion-mullets complaining about all the new condo towers being built along the north Brooklyn waterfront. They were jiving about how lame the people moving into these things are. People from the Upper East Side. Finance people. People with children. You know, horrible kinds of people. And it got me thinking. Yes, these individuals moving into these glass boxes on the water may be, on the surface, bastions of basicness, but can you really just write people off because of that? Just because they don’t know who Crystal Castles are? These people might wear cargo shorts or whatever, but I’d be willing to bet they have complex inner dialogues and interesting hidden angles and that they’re haunted by things both tangible and intangible. A lot of them might even be pretty dark of soul. People who have fought their way to the top, or even those who were born there, most likely have a lot of blood on their hands. They have a lot more demons to outrun than a couple of dudes on the subway with custom Chuck Taylors, wondering which loft party to hit that night. You can’t just write these people off in general as bland and uninteresting.

So that’s where the concept came from. Right there on the L Train. That’s why I don’t listen to music on the subway. Inspiration breeds there. And the inspiration was to write a novel from inside the minds of the gentrifying invaders. To not be like those two kids. To accept that all people are interesting. Even the ones not like you.

As for Sarah and Charles, I wanted to portray what I thought would be a typical couple moving into what, at the time, would have been a $900,000 1-bedroom condominium at the Northside Piers condominiums on Kent Avenue. I never understood how anyone can write about a couple from just one perspective. You have to get into both minds. Both viewpoints. Both interior worlds. They both had to tell this story. That’s where the switching viewpoints came in. Doing it all from Sarah’s head or all from Charles’ head would have doomed the book. Although they exist together in one world, the world of Sarah and Charles the couple, they both have to go out into different worlds each day alone, forge their own way, think their own thoughts, skip through their own dimensions. Writing from the Sarah POV was definitely a lot easier. I can identify with her much more than Charles. Writing from Charles’ white baseball capped head was a bit tricky at certain parts, mainly because I don’t know too many individuals like him and had to feel my way in the dark a lot. Dudes are tough. I don’t understand them, for the most part. He’s so insular and guarded. But he had to be, because that’s what those types of dudes are like on the surface. In the end, I think I succeeded with Sarah a lot better than with Charlie. Charlie Boy is still a bit of a mystery to me. Perhaps I’ll bring him back sometime. Try to do him more justice.

A lot of people really hate these characters, which I take as a good thing. They aren’t sugar-coated for mass consumption. These people are the real deal. The invaders. The gentrifying hoards. The death of New York City. They are everything those two kids on the L Train fear and despise. But I wanted to get into their heads and show people that complex inner worlds exist within each of us, that these individuals have devils to fight off just like you do, probably even more than you do, and that their fight is in many ways more fascinating than yours. Some readers have picked up on this. Every now and again I get someone coming at me on Goodreads or somewhere like, “Will Sarah marry me?” I don’t know, man. I’ll pass her your regards.

The end goal for the novel was utopian in a lot of ways. I wanted to promote understanding between the two groups. Harmony. And in a strange way, this harmony has actually happened now. The two worlds have become one, and nobody has died or spontaneously combusted over the new Whole Foods on Bedford Avenue. It’s nothing to do with the book, mind you, but harmony does ring true over the North Brooklyn streets in 2016. And that is because the gentrifiers pushed everyone else out and turned the whole neighborhood into one big overpriced juicery. On with progress!

SS: The condo symbolizes power and is supposed to be home, but throughout the book it becomes more and more alien and foreboding, closing in on them as though they don’t belong really there. Could you talk about what it is that makes an apartment or condo different from a house? Or, I guess, why this book could only be set in a condo?

DF: That’s an interesting question. I would venture to say that this can absolutely happen in a house. Houses can be incredibly alien and foreboding to their owners. The concept that Condo fights against is the concept of ownership. Period. How can any one individual stake a claim on any one space? What makes that space yours other than some thin paperwork and even thinner money? And what happens once it is yours? Do you fill it with nice things and then just wait around to die?

But yes, this particular book just had to be set at Northside Piers. In a 660-square foot condominium. The kind that now go for over a million. Because this takes that whole concept and puts it under a very intense microscope. New York City real estate has long existed on an entirely separate tangent from the rest of the country, a fascinating shadow realm where a single square foot can cost thousands while families in Ohio starve in houses where square-footage means nothing, houses 30-times the size of a million-dollar Brooklyn 1-bedroom with no closet space. This is a realm where the mere presence of a washer/dryer within a unit signifies unfathomable wealth and luxury, where a semi-obstructed view of a jumble of mismatched buildings can turn a tiny space lacking an eat-in kitchen into a pinnacle many thousands strive, fight, and in some cases die, to reach.

So the core concept of Condominium is this: What happens to a person, or in this case a couple, once this pinnacle has been reached? What happens when 660-square-feet of gleaming hardwood and ultra-modern appliances and intricate bathroom tile and a sweeping skyline view suddenly owns you? What happens when the world outside falls away, paling in comparison to the radiance you now wake up in each morning? Can the people walking past you on the street sense the magnificence of your basin-design bathroom sink? And if they can’t, don’t you want to shout it at them? Will the crushing weight of ownership cause you, as it causes our girl Sarah, to fall to your knees on that gleaming hardwood and scream until the non-functional beam starts shaking? Or would you, as happens to Mr. Charles, become so afraid of the coveted balcony that you resort to office flirtations and heroin, anything to avoid the new home you obsessed over for so long? By the end of the first week, would you and your fiancé find yourselves staked out on opposite ends of your trashed new unit, romantically at odds and hiding from your building’s intrusive and potentially evil Community Board?

It’s home ownership, as a whole, that the book questions. The NYC angle just amps it up to 11 because the real estate scene is so insane here. But yea, it can happen in your houses too. We’ll leave that to someone else to write though. I don’t have the chops for suburbia.

SS: I’m potentially revealing my lack of musical knowledge here, but is Skags Kassidy a stand-in for someone in specific?

DF: Skags was originally supposed to be Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon. Because Kurt Cobain would have been way too obvious. But the more I looked into Shannon Hoon, the more I liked him and respected him as an artist. May he rest in peace. Plus, he didn’t die in August, which would have thrown off the whole timeline of the book. So Skags is a stand in for Charles’ teenage self, for that whole horrific grunge movement some of us were unlucky enough to have endured and many have never been able to escape from. But I didn’t want to disrespect any dead grunge musicians by generalizing them and making fun of them. Sorry, Skags.

SS: I saw the balcony as Charles’ white whale, and the condo itself as Sarah’s. Any thoughts on that? Or white whales in general? What does it take to overcome them?

DF: Oh man, those two have SO MANY white whales. Charles is basically afraid of everything. He has so many obstacles to conquer each day he walks this Earth it isn’t even funny. There’s his job, which haunts him because he probably wonders why he makes so much money doing a job that takes so little thought. There’s Abrielle, who he desires and fears with equal intensity. There’s the group of cool temps he’s caught up on. There’s Benji the elevator man, who is a major obstacle in his day-to-day existence for sure. There’s Sarah herself, who really is a mystery to him in a lot of ways. There’s the wooden voodoo head. The Community Board. Ruthie. Andrew. White whales thrashing about everywhere for the poor guy. And he longs to conquer all of them. But he fixates on the balcony, you’re right. Perhaps he sees the balcony as a culmination of all of these things. But this is something that is tangible. This is something he thinks he can beat. And if he beats this one thing, then maybe he can conquer them all.

Sarah is a little more laid back about life. More apathetic. But there are some huge white whales in her sea. Her lack of professional progress is one. Her general apathy. She knows she lacks in substance, but she doesn’t quite know what to do about it. She just smokes more pot and puts on another Stones record. Charles is something she wishes to conquer, but she doesn’t quite know how to go about doing that either. The condo itself is a white whale that really sneaks up on her. She doesn’t expect this one. She’s on calm seas and then suddenly BLAM. Unlike Charles, who is apprehensive about the condo from the very start, Sarah really thinks this is the answer. She really thinks she’s on easy street now. And this is probably why she loses it more than Charles in the end. She wasn’t prepared to feel trapped in this new luxury.

So yes, there are many, many white whales for these two to conquer. In the end, though, they are both white whales. To each other. And they need to conquer each other in order to survive.

SS: Charles and Sarah seem to be stuck in the lackadaisical mindset of their early 20s, while at the same time attempting to move forward, following some sort of prescribed path of upward mobility. Do you think this represents some truth about what is happening to people of their age group right now?

DF: Oh, absolutely. The demands placed on the kids these days are insane. I work with people that are 22 and already worried about 401Ks. 22, man. The only things I was worried about at 22 were where the party was that night and how to scrounge up five bucks to get in. There just isn’t any slack these days. Nobody cuts them a break. It’s a real shame. I think it was Gram Parsons who once said, ‘What the world needs is more love. And more slack.” I’m with you, Gram. I’m with you. Set the children free. Or at least give them a year in Europe or something to take Molly and write a novel.

SS: Were there parts of the manuscript that got cut from the final book? I always wonder about what ends up on the cutting room floor. And maybe you can talk a little about your writing process as well.

DF: There were parts that were cut, sure. And I don’t mourn the loss of any of them. Long conversations between various characters about organic farms in deepest Queens. A strange side plot about the electricity in the condo building (yes, the electrical sockets were whispering strange messages to the residents). All sorts of really terrible things that rightly hit the cutting room floor. But there’s one thing that had to be changed which, in my opinion, really hurt the book. The band we never meet that plays a major role in the plot, Alligator Uprising, was originally The Strokes. And Ruthie’s secret boyfriend in the band was Albert Hammond Jr. of the Strokes. I was immediately informed by anyone in the industry who read the novel that this would have to be changed. “The Strokes have lawyers. They will sue for libel.” Personally, I bet the Strokes are a good bunch of dudes and would a) probably have never found out about the book and b) If they did, they would most likely have a sense of humor about it. And c) Being sued by The Strokes would be great publicity. Anyway, the book was a lot funnier when Alligator Uprising was The Strokes. So that was a tough blow.

My writing process. I’m a working class, blue collar kind of writer. When I’m working on a novel, I look at it as working a job. Each day, I do my shift. Punch in. Punch out. Different writers have different capacities for how much they can compose in one day and still remain coherent. For me, I can do one page. I’m not a spree writer. I don’t write in a fever dream. Just one page. But I really hold myself to that. Every single day. One perfect page. Not just some chicken scratch. No rough ideas. A perfectly executed page that perfectly follows the perfect page I did yesterday. It isn’t always easy, but it must be done. However many pages the original Condominium manuscript was (honestly, I forget how much that was) then that is how many days it took to write it. This method isn’t for everyone, just like working in a factory isn’t for everyone, but it absolutely works for me.

PS: I don’t actually work in a factory. I just treat novels like assembly lines.

SS: I know you are currently working on another novel, One Thin Dime. Anything you can tell us about that?

DF: OTD is a killer. Essentially, anyone who is a fan of Condo will flip over OTD. It has all the elements of the debut (NYC culture satire, cartoonish decadence, razor dialogue, slapstick slacker characters) but is far more ambitions in its scope and execution. As a matter of fact, it is an international crime caper. It’s done. Who knows when it will be published. But the Dime is finished. And this will be the last novel I write that takes place in New York City. Haters rejoice.