Montclair author Marcy Dermansky’s forthcoming novel, VERY NICE, is described as a “darkly hilarious” satire, and a starred Publishers Weekly review said it “teeters brilliantly on the edge of comedy and tragedy.” The layered tales touch on class, sex, race, and the lure of the perfect backyard pool making the novel perfect as a satisfying poolside (or anywhere) read.
With five intertwining storylines set in an upscale suburb, the novel’s events feel at once familiar and hyper-dramatic. A mother-daughter-professor love triangle, a father trying to reconnect with his family, a recently unemployed Pakistani writer with a beautiful and coveted dog, and a woman making her way in a man’s world while navigating the NYC lesbian scene all come together for a shocking climax. It’s no wonder VERY NICE has been on every “must read” list from Cosmopolitan to Entertainment Weekly.
Congratulations on the publication of your fourth novel! You’ve previously written about women searching and finding a sense of self and sometimes behaving badly to achieve that. How do you see VERY NICE in relation to those themes in your past novels?
Thanks! I made a pile of my books to photograph and until that moment, I did not quite appreciate it. Four books.
I never actually think about themes when I am writing a book. I don’t know what I am thinking about until after I have written the book. I love that. I think if I sat down with a theme I would be paralyzed.
During the Q&A at the book launch for THE RED CAR, the writer Emily St. John Mandel (I love her work it should be noted) pointed out that there didn’t seem to be a male point of view in my fiction. I was completely surprised. But VERY NICE is comprised of five different points of view, and two of them are male. And like the women in the novel, they are behaving badly. That is what my characters do. All of the characters in VERY NICE – men and women both – are finding themselves. Unfortunately, I don’t think that ever stops. Life keeps on changing.
The standard poodle, Princess, plays a larger than expected role in the novel. Do you have a dog, or did you grow up with one?
I love how the character of Princess grew and grew. Turns out she is a catalyst for the entire plot. Revising, I would worry, Did I put the dog in the scene? And then I would make sure that she is there and hopefully doing something. I would cross her paws, make her react to a situation. Her fate is important to the end of the novel. I would also like to assure the reader that no harm comes to her. I already heard from one worried reader.
I don’t have a dog now — I have two cats — but I grew up with standard poodles. First Claude, then Lily, then Bo. I currently have a crush on a black standard poodle that comes to my daughter’s bus stop. I fear it is very one-sided.
Most of the action in the novel occurs in a wealthy Connecticut suburb, and the seemingly easy, free-of-economic concerns lifestyle is very attractive to Zahid, one of the main characters. How did you choose the “home base” for the novel? How did it guide the eventual confluence of events in the novel?
I am not from Connecticut. I hail from Englewood, New Jersey. I learned from Montclair writer Elizabeth Egan that it is okay to take pride in your Jersey roots. My first novel, in fact, was set in New Jersey. But I have a friend from college who is from Connecticut and for the past few summers, I have gone to visit her there. Her parents have this incredible house on the beach. You open the sliding glass door in the living room and there you are, walking down to a rocky beach. My friend’s sister also has a house, a flawlessly decorated Martha Stewart dream house, with a swimming pool very much like the swimming pool in the novel. I don’t get to live there, but my characters do. This is one the fun parts of writing fiction.
Zahid is actually like me, a jealous outsider, who has somehow made it inside even though he doesn’t belong. Deep down, I believe Zahid knows his magical stay in Connecticut can’t last. Which makes him more greedy. For the food, the house, the sex. The expensive wine. Sometimes, I find it a little bit painful to see how other people live.
The character of Khloe often serves as a steady observer, mainly on the fringes, throughout VERY NICE. In addition to her own story, she gives insight to several other major characters – all from a curious observer’s point-of-view. However, her character could be lifted without changing major plot points. Was Khloe a major character from the beginning?
I write without an outline. I had no idea how many POVs this book would have. Honestly, I have never written about this many characters before. I definitely had a moment when I started writing about Khloe, Zahid’s subletter. Why are you writing this character? She has no place in this book. But there she was. I had already written her in and I felt committed to moving forward. I hate deleting pages. I like being able to trust my instincts even though I don’t understand all the moves that I initially make. And so I wove her in. The book is much richer because of her.
It turns out Khloe works for Rachel’s father. Big coincidence, right? And her twin sister is also a writer and a good friend of Zahid’s. Khloe’s girlfriend becomes Zahid’s editor, an even bigger coincidence. I love writing about coincidences. It fills me with so much pleasure. In my second novel, Bad Marie, Marie falls in love with a book she reads when she is in jail. Then, when she gets out of jail, she discovers that the author of this book is married to her best friend. Of course. And because I am the writer, I can do what I want.
The mother/daughter relationship in VERY NICE is fraught with disappointment and envy and resentment, but there is also a deep desire to connect and show affection. Both mother and daughter have non-typical coming-of-age experiences focused on the character of Zahid. Do you see the novel as a coming-of-age story?
Rachel is a college student; she clearly still needs taking care of. She arrives home at the end of the semester with a suitcase presumably filled with dirty laundry and her professor’s standard poodle. She craves her mother’s attention. She wants her mother to read her short story and she wants to eat the groceries magically provided for her. And her mother resents her daughter for requiring all this care — while at the same time, loves to still be the mother, taking care of her daughter.
Having feelings for the same man is definitely not a good thing for their relationship. I did not know that I was going to do this initially, but when I made the realization that Becca had feelings for Zahid, I was thrilled.
And I agree, in this novel, my 19-year-old character is coming of age, but so is her 54-year-old mother. Her husband has just left her and she has to figure out what her life is going to look like. She tells herself, for instance, that she deserves a younger lover and is able to rationalize the decisions she makes.
Princess the Poodle and Zahid are connected in Rachel’s mind. She is concerned her mother will be too attached to Princess, but doesn’t consider or suspect her mother will be attached to Zahid. Do you see Rachel as naïve or self-absorbed, or both? Is that true for most of the characters in the novel?
Rachel is absolutely naïve and self-absorbed. She views her mother as her mother, and therefore invisible, not a person with her life of her own. Rachel’s mother exists to take care of Rachel. Honestly, it makes sense to me that she doesn’t view her mother as competition. That would be an awful thing for a mother to do, wouldn’t it? Make moves on the object of your affection? Of course, that would be unthinkable.
Zahid is definitely self-absorbed and I love him for his cluelessness. Khloe, too. She simply cannot fathom why the woman she loves cannot love her back. I think all of these characters are suffering from a similar problem: big egos and enormous personality.
You wrote many sections of the novel around Montclair, including some of the sex scenes. One sex scene came to life at Java Love on Church Street, and a pivotal argument scene was developed at Local Coffee in Watchung Plaza. Which spots are most conducive to tension-filled writing?
I wrote about eighty percent of this novel in cafes in Montclair. Java Love and Local and also Crazy Mocha, because it’s close the swimming pool at the YMCA where I swim my laps (except for summer). The truth is cafes really aren’t good places for writing. You never know if you are going to get a good table. Or if it is going to be crowded. Or if the people at the table next to you are going to be talking so loudly, even over your noise cancelling headphones, that you won’t be able to concentrate. And yet, I write in cafes. It is incredibly important for me to get outside of my home. I wish I could write at home. I have a nice desk, a good chair. I fear that if I were to rent an actual workspace, it would become a new sort of home, and then I would not be able to work there as well.
It is bizarre to write an intense scene in a public place. I remember writing that sex scene you mentioned. I had NO idea I was going to write it and Java Love was really crowded. I was sitting at a table in the center aisle, not one of the nice ones on the wall, with the pillows and the wooden bench. The sex takes place in a guest bathroom; it is sort of explicit. And while I was writing, I felt my skin going hot. It felt inappropriate, writing what I was writing, aware of everyone else around me, but I finished the scene anyway. I was strict with myself for a while, when I was writing VERY NICE. If I told myself I was going to write two pages that day, I would write two pages.
I also feel like it is important not to be too precious about where you write.
Each main character in VERY NICE reveals a selfishness connected to vulnerability, a need for affirmation. It makes them both difficult to admire and highly relatable. Which characters in the novel do you most enjoy? Are there any you dislike? Why?
It is funny for me to love Zahid as much as I do. He is literary superstar in a way that I am not. He wears much better clothing than I do, walks in the world with a basic belief that it owes him. And that seems to work for him. Opportunities fall into his lap; there is always the next woman to take care of him, the house with the pool magically appears just when he needs it most. He is always a beat away from messing it all up. So, a lot of his internal monologue, that comes straight from me. My neurosis. We both look at our phones, Facebook, etc., when we don’t want to write, waiting for the email that will change everything.
I love all of my characters really. They become real to me. At one point, Rachel pockets some of the cash she gets from her Dad that she doesn’t deserve, but she gives most of it to the GoFundMe campaign of an immigrant family that lost their father to an ICE raid.
Politics and social issues pop into conversations and internal monologues throughout the novel. For example, one of the main characters talked down a student with a gun, and several times the idea that “all was well until the election” turns up, but it doesn’t influence the action to a great extent. How are these references useful to the novel’s commentary, if at all?
So many writers I know had a hard time writing after the election. What could we say that matters given the daily horror in the news every day? My editor at Knopf told me that VERY NICE was the first book she was truly able to enjoy after the election.
I normally don’t consider myself a “political writer” but politics seeped into this novel nonetheless. In my own life, I will have conversations with people while in the midst of a new horror in the world (pick your crisis: a school shooting, the Muslim Ban, the separation of immigrant children from their family, #metoo) and they talk only of their day-to-day life. It can be maddening. Of course, reading the news is also maddening. But not reading the news is even more maddening. It is wrong to live in a bubble. Without my knowing it, VERY NICE became a commentary about living in a Trump America.
One bookseller wrote a blurb about VERY NICE, proclaiming that the book would be considered the next great American novel if it were written by Jonathan Franzen. But because I am a woman writer, instead, I have produced what is called a beach read. I hope people read my book on the beach. Or on a train. Or in the rain. I just want people to read my book.
You are…unkind to writers in VERY NICE. One writer stole her sister’s private life to write the novel that launched her career. Another writes a 600-page novel that is lauded and awarded, but he dismisses it as easy to write and calls “hard work” bullshit. How does your commentary reflect personal experience, writing culture, or is it something else?
Honestly, I love writers. I feel like they are my people. I also think almost all writers are a little bit desperate. It is no small thing to get an idea for a book, one that is good enough to write and publish. And when a writer gets one, that idea, she (or he) will grab it and go, think about the consequences later. One reason I write fiction is because it is fiction. I cannot even imagine writing a memoir, worrying about the people I might hurt.
There is this thing that writing teachers say: they want blood on the page. And I don’t believe that. I mean, yes, for some people. But I truly don’t think you have to suffer to write a book. In my own experience, the harder I work on something, the less happy I am with the final result. It goes contrary to what you would hope for in life: that you will be rewarded for hard work. In fact, I often advise aspiring writers who spend years and years on one manuscript to put that very manuscript in a drawer and start something new. Hard work in writing does not guarantee success.
You juggle five major characters in VERY NICE, and their stories intersect in surprisingly believable ways. How did you keep the plotlines organized? And were any of the characters in danger of being cut? What helped them survive?
I never write straight to the ending of a novel. Basically, every time I open my document, I go back into what I already have and revise before I move forward. I was more than one hundred pages into this novel when I wrote the scene where Becca’s student brings a gun into her classroom. And once I did this, I realized that I had to go back and layer that storyline in.
No one was ever in danger of getting cut, killed off. VERY NICE pretty much came out right. It’s not luck, exactly, but it also does feel like luck. If you do this thing, writing, and do it long enough, I think that luck has become earned. At a certain point, the characters start acting on their own and I work with them.
Much of the humor in the novel is sardonic, but subtle. Do you find that you hold back your commentary on certain topics?
I am told that this book is funny. But the funny thing to me is that I don’t try to be funny. That might be a disaster. I don’t hold back. I often just type what I think.
VERY NICE comes out July 2nd (preorder now!), and Watchung Booksellers will host Marcy Dermansky for a reading on Tuesday, July 9th at 7 p.m. The novel is reviewed here.