FINEGAN: Unfinished business. My parents were disillusioned former artists – disillusioned because they abandoned years of creative endeavor to raise children and forage for sustenance. For much of my childhood, we lived hand to mouth. Everything was about managing expectations, bracing my brothers and me for the same crushing disappointments they experienced and were convinced we would share. Life vacillated between bitterness, depression and occasional joy, with daily reminders that secondary education was a luxury, that anything beyond trade school or community college was unthinkable. When I secured a full-ride debate scholarship to Northwestern, I fled home and resolved never to return. My flight lasted thirty years. But the ghosts of childhood endure. Had my father lived to retirement, he might have finished the novel he outlined when he was thirty. My mother might have returned to painting. Or music. But they died. Unfulfilled promise was their bequest, stowed among their meager earthly belongings. The rationale was subconscious, of course, but publishing a novel was my way of attending unfinished business.
FQ: What inspired you to write this story?
FINEGAN: The financial crisis. Like so many management-level employees in finance, I found myself unemployed and previously too well-remunerated to persuade recruiters I’d accept an entry-level position in another industry. I had time on my hands. To keep myself sane, I spent hours each day writing. Professional screeds, computer programs, fiction, it didn’t matter, so long as I was busy. Many of the fictional pieces were stories about imagined neighbors. Months passed and I began to concoct connections, eventually constructing a novel. But the root inspiration was the financial crisis. Like 9/11, it was over in a flash, but it etched deep scars in my generation and framed how succeeding ones view nearly everything.
FQ: What would you say was the inspiration for your characters?
FINEGAN: My neighbors. I had so many of them – some famous, some not, each bludgeoned in some way by 9/11, the Madoff scandal and the financial crisis. I knew only a handful socially, those down the hall plus some resident activists, but I secretly observed others as they shuffled through the lobby or stared down in the elevator, and I speculated about their lives.
When Tom Wolfe published The Bonfire of the Vanities in 1987, it was the defining satire of New York’s young professional elite. What happened to those masters of the universe? They aged, bore children and became my neighbors. And when the financial markets crumpled, they were seized by the same fears, insecurities, and feelings of helplessness that gripped working class families for years. But because they were previously cocooned, the fears struck harder – a great basis, I thought, for a story.
FQ: Why did you choose a 2012-2013 setting?
FINEGAN: My goal was to publish something contemporary; the dates weren’t supposed to matter. Alas, I work slowly. Six years elapsed between the first draft (May 2013) and the book’s eventual publication (March 2019). ISIS, Wikileaks, the 2016 US presidential election, Brexit, white supremacy and immigration paranoia weren’t on my radar. Their development made my plot obsolete. To solve this, I backdated the story to the completion date of my first manuscript. It was easier than keeping pace with politics and technology.
FQ: You mention in your preface that the world of 2013 New York no longer exists. How has it changed?
FINEGAN: For a brief interlude, because of 9/11 and the financial crisis, New York’s elite acknowledged the fragility and happenstance of economic privilege. There was a glimmer of humility, upon which I built my novel. But a younger generation of power brokers swept in, many exhibiting the same pre-bubble imperiousness we did. A roaring stock market and raft of upper income tax cuts will do that.
One consequence is Billionaire’s Row, a collection of ultra-luxurious, ultra-tall dwelling complexes casting long shadows across Central Park and the Hi-Line. The residential complex in my novel is probably déclassé by today’s standards. Yet the new high-rises stand half-empty and don’t front the park. Go figure.
Shopping has changed. Retail is dying, even in New York City. So are taxis. Uber and Amazon have carpet bombed Medallion holders and New York’s flagship department stores into insolvency, just as they have everywhere.
New York’s traffic has become more orderly. Dedicated bike lanes, dedicated bus lanes, well-marked crosswalks, the ticketing of cyclists, the push for congestion pricing – the city has prioritized reducing Midtown traffic and eliminating pedestrian deaths. It has more to do, but today’s street chaos is a distant echo of what’s described in my book.
The most visible changes are, of course, political. Eavesdropping has become ubiquitous and unfathomably advanced. Wikileaks spilled the great NSA secret – that it sees and hears anything it wants. Nearly all our movements and conversations are recorded somewhere – by security cameras or our interaction with Internet and phone-connected devices. My book’s federal agents and their adversaries were equipped with eavesdropping and hacking tools that were, in light of Wikileaks’ revelations, too primitive.
The foreign adversary in my novel was Iran. By late 2013, however, President Ahmadinejad was gone, replaced by a reform party cleric who forged a denuclearization pact and de facto peace treaty with the world. For two sweet years, New Yorkers no longer feared Iranian terrorism. And believed Al Qaida was in retreat. But the Arab Spring became winter, ISIS emerged in Iraq and Syria, President Assad waged war against his citizens, Saudi Arabia waged war against starving Yemenis, and a newly elected US president renounced the country’s most sacred oaths and commitments. And befriended tyrants.
This made us more polarized, even New Yorkers. Nuance, so crucial to fair journalism (and plausible character development), no longer seemed viable. New Yorkers, who inclined for decades toward progressivism and consensus-building, became riven by internecine feuds over being liberal purists versus pragmatists in the battle to regain Congress and the presidency. Fairness no longer seems an option – in broadcasting, politics, or judicial reasoning. Were my novel truly contemporary, its characters would be strident in their respective convictions, and quick to attack others ad hominem.
Finally, race and gender issues have risen in importance. Eric Garner’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement changed New York’s conversation about race. I’m not sure my principal characters would have been plausible in a post-MeToo and Black Lives Matter environment. The same goes for the book’s discussion of immigration policy.
FQ: As I mentioned in my review, you’ve captured the feeling of New York, and New Yorkers perfectly. Was it hard to get that perfect setting or did it come naturally as you wrote?
FINEGAN: I concentrated on the world and people I knew. I wanted my first work of fiction to be judged by the merits of its writing, not the quality of its research. I stayed within my comfort zone, employing characters who were montages of people and personalities I knew, describing real places, real art exhibits, and real historical events. I focused on professions and medical procedures I witnessed firsthand. Strip out the plotline, and I could have reformulated much of the manuscript as a memoir. The writing flowed slowly but naturally.
FQ: Having lived in New York for 30 years - how well do you know your neighbors?
FINEGAN: Poorly. Our neighbor across the hall was the lone exception. She was my daughter’s surrogate grandmother, the reason my wife and I never hired a babysitter, not once! She was the retired personal assistant to the chairman of Schubert Theaters, widowed since her thirties, who raised three children on her own, and whose flair for living knew no bounds.
At the end of the hall lived the head of Planned Parenthood and her husband. They renovated their three-bedroom apartment beautifully and used it for soirees and fundraisers. A Who’s Who of showbiz and political figures passed our door, but we only exchanged pleasantries at the elevator or sipped champagne together in the all-doors-open hall parties on New Year’s Eve and Thanksgiving. I inherited a seven-foot saguaro cactus when they moved into a high-rise around the corner and remain in professional contact.
Next door to the Planned Parenthood couple was the pied-à-terre of the president of Reader’s Digest. He was good for a boisterous “How are you, my old friend? How are you doing?” in the hallway before rushing to his next social or work engagement. He served briefly on the co-op’s board, but the tribulations of the publishing industry were great, and Reader’s Digest eventually folded. My “old friend” sold his pied-à-terre.
Our neighbor next-door was an aging pension fund manager who spent six months renovating a studio apartment before moving in. He treated us to a tour when it was completed. He resembled Keith Richards, had two attractive adult children, and played keyboard silently while wearing headphones. For a while, he dated a concert pianist who complained about my comparative awfulness (I played a baby grand), but their relationship soured. My dying neighbor downstairs, by contrast, sent requests via elevator attendant to play more Haydn, which I did. Once yearly, my neighbor, the pension fund manager, would schlep gifts from our closet to our tree when we were out, consume some milk and cookies, and make boot prints on our balcony.
In sum, we relied on our neighbors for all sorts of assistance, but, in truth, we scarcely knew them.
FQ: Since New York is such a strong “character” in your story, and those who know the city will “get” certain things, how do you think people who have never been to the Big Apple will respond?
FINEGAN: The response has been mixed. Some readers are repulsed by my characters or their language and quit by chapter three. Others toil on and are rewarded. The novel’s themes are universal. And most readers find its characters relatable. What separates fans from critics are age and politics. The book is a difficult read for those who became adults after 9/11 and even more difficult for those who consider NYC an irredeemable blight on their MAGA-nation.
FQ: Do you have any new writing projects brewing? Have you thought about trying a different genre, different setting (a place where you haven’t lived, perhaps?)?
FINEGAN: I think Cooperative Lives exhausted most of the genres. It is part mystery, thriller, romance, detective story, historical novel, political satire – you name it. As for science fiction or fantasy, the real world is dystopian enough. There’s no shortage of material. My next project, a contemporary novel, is set in metropolitan New York but will probably become historical because I write so slowly. The characters are younger and more geographically dispersed than those in Cooperative Lives, but the city still draws their lives together. I devote a lot of ink to water.
FQ: Self-publishing is becoming quite popular these days. What advice would you give to first-time authors looking to follow in this same vein?
FINEGAN: I made every mistake imaginable. Most were costly. First, do not rush publication. I was adamant about publishing before my sixtieth birthday. Had I waited six months, I could have circulated advance reader copies (ARCs) to newspapers, libraries and bloggers and built some pre-launch buzz. What I learned is that newspapers and bloggers do not cover “old news.”
Second, apply for a Library of Congress number before publication. You won’t get one afterward...ever.
Third, hire a cover illustrator. Personally, I love my cover, but I lost count of the negative comments received because of it. I capitulated somewhat last month and revised the font. The experience was exasperating. A book isn’t its cover, I fumed. But apparently it is. Save yourself the exasperation. Hire a professional.
Fourth, hire an editor. I have professional editing experience and thought, after seven years of re-reading and rewriting, that the manuscript would be error-free. Close, but those first few copies (the ones I sent to friends and reviewers) were cringeworthy. I was too familiar with the material; I didn’t see all the typos. On a different level, a good editor will make your manuscript tighter.
Last, keep your day job. There’s very little money in publishing. Write because you love to, not because you’ll pay the rent. You probably won’t. At least not after just one novel. It’s a long, uphill climb but personally rewarding.