I went to college in Massachusetts and have lived here since 1995, but I grew up in New Jersey, and my home state is the place where much of my imagination resides. While my first novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, spanned a wide swath of the country as my rootless main character roamed from place to place, my second novel, The Fifty-First State, focused on South Jersey, a region that has more in common with the Deep South than it does with New York or North Jersey. I lived in South Jersey for my teenage years, and it felt important to me to write about a place that has often been neglected in literature.
But my personality and temperament – fast-talking, wildly gesturing, an openness to belief shot through with a vein of skepticism – were forged in the Central Jersey Shore area, with the New York City of my childhood just across the Raritan Bay, not so much glittering as peeking through the smog. I’ve always known I wanted to write about this region, but it took some time to find my way in.
I’ve always known I could tell a funny story; I have a repertoire of anecdotes at the ready, and my earliest short stories are infused with humor. But after getting my M.A. in Creative Writing from Temple University in 1990, I believed that I had to write “serious” fiction if I wanted to be respected as a writer, and so I gravitated to a more realistic tone. I published short stories and essays in The Rumpus, Post Road, Washington Square, Black Warrior Review and other journals. Even then, I always tackled the most serious of subjects with humor; that’s how I’ve always gotten through darker times, and it’s the only way I know to get my characters through.
In 2016 I came up with an idea to write a novel set in a New Jersey middle school in the late 1970s, much like the one I attended. Because music is a big part of my life, there would be a rock star (in fact, each of my three novels has a rock musician as a character), and there would be a young teenager who doesn’t quite fit in, and there would be a teacher who – acts as a mentor? A rival? I wasn’t initially certain what kind of person my teacher character would be, but I knew that she would cross some sort of line, and that she’d end up bitter when she was much older. I had a title – 20th Century Girl – but little else beyond setting.
While I was trying to develop a voice for my new novel, I began to branch out with my writing in terms of genre. A longtime fan of satirical publications like McSweeney’s and The Onion, I decided to try my hand at a short humor piece. Because I’m used to marinating my fiction, I worked on this piece for over a year. I had no idea if McSweeney’s would find it funny. But it was something I wanted to talk about that I’d been unable to tackle in fiction.
“Signs That You Are a Gen Xer Going Through Menopause” was published by McSweeney’s in 2017. It went viral and was shared more than 150,000 times. I’ve since published ten more pieces on McSweeney’s and on other web-based humor sites, including Points in Case, The Belladonna and Greener Pastures. And in branching out into short humor, I found a new voice for my fiction – a humorous one, a discovery that made writing 20th Century Girl an absolute joy.
I realized that my main character, Lynda, is a narcissist, a superficially charming, funny one. I’m a huge fan of Vladimir Nabokov, both in terms of structural inventiveness and sense of humor, as well as contemporary writers like Ottessa Moshfegh whose unreliable narrators helped inspire me in crafting Lynda’s voice. Having Lynda tell her own story allowed me the challenge of creating two realities in the novel: the story Lynda tells, and the story the reader can see beyond that. 20th Century Girl was inspired by some of my favorite musical genres: dance music, punk rock, post-punk and riot grrrl. But it’s Lynda, difficult, misunderstood, a legend in her own mind, who takes center stage.