Andrew Dermont of Big Think interviewed me about my new novel, The Arriviste, in which the narrator's there-goes-the-neighborhood response to the arrival of a new man next door in his exclusive New York suburb in 1970 boomerangs: a bottle and an Alfa Romeo later, they have an offshore business partnership and a woman between them -- to the narrator's dismay and also, possibly, his advantage.
Andrew Dermont: OK, we're on an elevator. I am an agent and you're a writer. How would you describe The Arriviste in one sentence?
James Wallenstein: I'd say it's about the thin line dividing business partnership and friendship between neighbors on Long Island in 1970.
AD: Before reading this book, I had never considered what it must have been like to be an investment banker or venture capitalist in the 70s. Why did you choose to set your novel in 1970?
JW: Two of the main characters in the book -- two brothers named Neil and Mickey Fox -- happen to invest in core industries in the story, but there is a definite venture capital boom going on around them. 1970 was actually right about the time when they started securitizing mortgages and began what eventually became the housing bubble. The whole idea that the venture capitalists of the 1970s thought of themselves as "venturesome" was interesting to me. The characters whom I am trying to evoke are people who think of themselves as being flyers, as being people who have a pioneering sensibility. The idea that they saw their business adventurous struck me as interesting.
AD: There seems to be quite a venture capital boom happening these days. How would you compare today's entrepreneurial climate to that of the 1970s?
JW: Starting businesses may have been less of a science back then. I got a sense from my research and from what I saw as a kid in the 70's that it was done with more abandon. Maybe it doesn't seem so romantic to me anymore.
AD: Do you think this story is in someway particularly appropriate for the times, even though it's set in 1970?
JW: It turns on a loan -- a loan you may or may not see as predatory. So yeah, I'd say so. I hope it's about the moment. That's the idea! But I began writing the book before predatory lending became big news. Another coincidence is that the model for the town in which story's set is where Bernie Madoff lived.
AD: How do things become complicated between Neil Fox, the novel's protagonist, and his ambitious neighbor Bud Younger?
JW: Neil is invited to invest in Bud's start up business by loaning him some money. From the outset Neil senses this is not a good idea, but his brother Mickey sort of forces the subject, and he not only allows it to happen, but is complicit in it. He profits from it. So this is a story about the moral compromises that people make in order to live and thrive.
I'm thinking of compromises that people may not readily express to themselves. They're complicated, and the complications both perplex and suit them. I'm not just talking about how people rationalize immoral or unethical decisions before they make them, but about a less conscious level of behavior. The book is about the way business and social life can coalesce.
AD: Is Bud Younger the "arriviste" in the novel?
JW: In my mind there is a question by the end of the book of whether Bud or Neil is the arriviste. The book is asking you to consider what it means to be arriviste.
AD: What does it mean to be "arriviste," in your opinion?
JW: A newcomer or upstart, someone who arrives late but wants it to look as though he's been there all along. In French it's an adjective, a pejorative one. Something or, more often, I think, someone, a socialite or politician, is arriviste. But this book's in English and so's the title, where "arriviste" is a noun.
AD: Where did Neil Fox come from? Is there someone or something that lead you to want to write about this character?
JW: Neil Fox comes from a less than clear childhood memory. I think we had a neighbor who had more money that we did. I didn't even know what money was at that time, but I could hear the sound of prosperity in his voice. Or so I imagine. It happens that the town on which the model for
AD: The novel leaves Long Island and takes on a tropical element when Neil and Mickey help Bud set up a factory for his business on the island of Aggregente. Why the departure from suburbia?
JW: Off-shoring was a big thing at that time. I also felt the novel needed air and it couldn't stay on Long Island the whole time. My doctoral dissertation was about colonial or postcolonial literature, so I thought I'd give it a shot.
AD: Junot Diaz said at a reading at Wesleyan that he wanted The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to be "a mirror" for young Hispanic men from New Jersey, like himself. Were you writing this book to be a mirror for anyone in particular?
JW: They say that fiction is going away and people say that men don't read fiction. In the back of my mind I may have been trying to write something that a businessman who doesn't have much use for fiction might want to read. In addition to money, it's got drinks, a sports car, tennis, romance, sex . . . . That's not to say that I don't hope women will find it interesting too.
AD: I thought the scene where Neil and his girlfriend Cecilia wind up on the beach together in Aggregente was very sexy.
JW: Thanks. I had fun writing that scene. It's sort of a bedroom farce on a beach blanket.
AD: How would you feel if this book took off with the hipster set?
JW: I would feel honored to have anyone at all read it. Really. Why should anybody spend part of his life reading my book? We have enough books forced down our throats at school and when you grow up you have a lot of choices of what to do with your time.
AD: Bud's house is put up as collateral against the loan he accepts from Neil to get his business going. What's the significance of the house to the novel?
JW: The British novel in particular is about the establishment of estates. That's what happens in Fielding and Austin and Eliot and Trollope. Unions occur and holdings and estates are formed. I thought that if I was going to set a novel in the American suburbs, the other sort of concerns you'd find in 1950s and 1960s realist American fiction -- class, social position, marriage, adultery -- would come into it play as well. So I was attempting to unite those two great themes of American and British national literatures, with Long Island being the easternmost point of the United States.
AD: Is it really? What about Maine?
JW: Oh, yeah. Maine might be the eastern most point. Well strike that... the easternmost point to me.