Author Q&A: Dana Czapnik
(Faber, £8.99/Audible, £19.99)
(Faber, £8.99/Audible, £19.99)
Seventeen-year-old Lucy Adler holds her own on the basketball courts of New York in 1993 but she’s powerless against her friend and teammate Percy, the rebellious son of a prominent family. As she begins to question her place in the world and battles her own hunger for male approval, she is drawn into the world of a pair of provocative feminist artists living in what remains of New York’s bohemia.
What inspired you to set your book in 1990s New York?
I remember the rhythm and the energy of the early 1990s in New York with deep affection. That was the last moment when the city was still a playground for the young, artistic and scrappy, before the money really took over. There was incredible freedom, even if there were also some dark corners. New York has always been a beautiful, broken place, but in every era, it’s beautiful and broken in its own way. I wanted to write an ode to the beautiful, broken New York of my youth.
In Lucy you’ve created a strong female character but she’s still preoccupied with boys for much of the novel. How did you reconcile modern sensibilities with traditional coming of age themes?
I don’t believe Lucy is preoccupied with boys for most of the novel. She has strong feelings for one boy and she wrestles with her own personal feminist identity in light of that obsession. She’s also equally preoccupied with art, books, basketball, ideas and just generally becoming a person.
In many ways, the women of mine and Lucy’s generation – women born in the mid to late 1970s – are the grand experiment of the feminist movement. We were the first generation to be born having access to birth control, safe abortions, college scholarships, the ability to have our own credit card and buy a house in our own name. The experiment obviously worked, though imperfectly. Women being full participants in the world is really brand new in the long arc of history and there have been some tough growing pains. My novel is concerned with the growing pain part.
Lucy says she is often presumed to be a lesbian by her peers because of her basketball skills and her lack of “une petite fleur” appearance. Does this presumption still surround females passionate about typically male pursuits?
Just to put this in context, she says that because a classmate has called her a “dyke” and so she’s making a self-deprecating joke to help process the insult specifically designed to strip her of her femininity. The sentence that follows Lucy’s musing you’ve cited is: “The funny thing is that if I actually liked girls and owned it, I’d be more accepted at school, because then I’d fit in the box that makes the most sense to people.”
I think the way we look at gender and femininity has really shifted. It was beginning to change when I was young, but nothing like what it is today. Girls and boys are allowed to experiment with their identity without as much judgment or ridicule. I think when I was coming of age, we felt very much like we had to pick a role and stay in it.
A few months ago Saturday Night Live ran a sketch called “The Gold Diggers of the WNBA”, making fun of male jersey chasers hoping to land a pro female baller and they explicitly made a joke about women basketball players’ sexuality. WNBA players were really offended by that sketch. So, clearly some harmful stereotypes persist.
Do wealth and privilege inevitably lead to the fading of radical instincts or can they endure?
I love a softball question! Just kidding. If this were an easy question to answer, my book might be written differently. In the novel, Lucy and her friends are grappling with what happened to their parents’ activism and idealism. They grew up listening to their music and stories about their youth and what they were fighting for. The 1960s were culturally lionised and Lucy’s generation lived in the shadow of that. At the same time, it felt like whatever lingering ideals their parents had when they were young had been compromised for the sake of pragmatism and their own financial gain. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the kind of capitalist system we live in was designed to be amoral and those who benefit from it have little incentive to change it.
In the book Lucy reflects on all the prominent females in her life and feels like a vital part of their character will inevitably be “snuffed out and deadened”. Is that the case and if so why?
Lucy is a teenager and teenagers tend to see the world in extremes. I remember being her age and looking around at the adult women in my life and seeing an impossible choice. It seemed to me that if you had kids and a career, you’d always be at a deficit. Your kids would want more of you and so would your job. I didn’t see that with the dads I knew because, apart from my own dad, they were largely not present. Meanwhile, it seemed like the stay at home moms I observed were bored and restless. I had this feeling that once you became a mother, the life of the mind took a back seat to everything else and that felt incompatible with the life I wanted to lead. This was my perspective as a teen; it may not have resembled reality.
I don’t believe young men go through this. I could be wrong, but I doubt 17-year-old boys sit around and wonder whether they’ll be able to have a fulfilling life if they choose to have kids. They don’t need to think about this because the world was built for them. But girls think about this because they see how tough it is for the women around them, whether they choose to have kids or not. Life is significantly more complicated and unpredictable than anything a teenager can imagine. But asking these questions of oneself is critical, even if they’re ultimately unanswerable.
Lucy considers what aliens might think if they visited earth. What do you think they’d make of it?
Well, if they’re a homogenous species, I think they’d find the stunning variety of faces to be incredible. I’m sure they’d love pizza and would be horrified by factory farming. They’d probably find our genetic programming for violence and self-destruction to be a real shame on account of all the great art and poetry. It’s also possible the aliens would just find us tasty and wouldn’t even bother reading The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock to put us into context.
Is it a challenge to write about sport when it’s such a physical experience?
I find writing physicality and action great fun, so it’s probably the least challenging part for me. The thing, too, about sports and the physicality of athletes is that there’s something basely human about it in a beautiful way. Watching Roger Federer play tennis, for instance, is a primal art. Or, watching a baseball player develop the yips – you see all the complex psychological layers to the human brain. One day a guy wakes up and he can no longer throw a ball and it’s all in his head. That’s amazing and tragic! What a weird organ the brain is. And I think whatever is happening in a society’s culture at large often plays out on the court or the field or the pitch. Plus, to me, sports looks like this bizarre combination of war and sex – the two basest animalistic impulses we have. So, yeah, I find it fun.
But I was also very careful while working on this book to write the basketball scenes in a way that would illuminate Lucy’s character and also would be readable and interesting to someone who comes to the book with no knowledge of basketball or sports. While the novel is about a female basketball player, it’s not really about basketball.
Is youth is wasted on the young?
Ha! No. Of course not. Adulthood is underrated. I prefer it immensely.