Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

Life in the Time of Corona: Notes from New York City

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Photo by Lisa Gornick

Author Lisa Gornick had planned to visit Nashville bookstore Parnassus on March 19th, and I was excited to interview her there. Her new novel The Peacock Feast – sumptuous historical fiction set in early 20th-century New York  – had recently been released in paperback, and she was on tour.

Honestly, I feared there might be a thin or nonexistent crowd at Parnassus since much of Nashville would be on Spring Break. I told Lisa I’d bring a bottle of wine in case it was just the two of us talking to each other in front of empty chairs. She and I laughed over email. Both of us decided we’d enjoy the conversation no matter what.

I regret that we didn’t have the chance to enjoy a bottle of wine and an in-person interview.

Instead, we’ve enjoyed a friendly email correspondence. She kindly agreed to answer a few Bacon interview questions about Life in the Time of Corona in New York City.

First, a little background:

Lisa Gornick earned a doctorate in clinical psychology at Yale and is a graduate of the writing program at NYU and the psychoanalytic training program at Columbia, where she is on the faculty. For many years, she worked in clinics, hospitals, and private practice as a psychotherapist, a profession she has depicted in various essays as based on “sacred trust.” She lives in New York City with her husband and two sons. She is the author of the novels The Peacock Feast, Louisa Meets Bear, Tinderbox, and A Private Sorcery. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, The Wall Street Journal, and Real Simple, and have received many honors, including Distinguished Story by the Best American Short Stories.

She also seems really nice.

Thank you so much for spending some time at Bacon today, Lisa!

What’s the mood in New York City? Or – should I ask instead – what’s the mood among your neighbors and friends?

It’s astounding how quickly people have adjusted to this strange new reality of a busman’s holiday, with everyone working from home and kids in remote learning, and the terror of our city’s hospitals unable to treat all in need. People have different coping mechanisms – some of us feel less anxious if we try to prepare for the worst; others need to push frightening thoughts out of mind – but I think we’re all oscillating between doing our best to be flexible & cheerful & helpful to others and a crushing panic. Based in New York, but really extending throughout the country, there’s a robust community of women writers, who for years now have been supporting one another’s work and have now, in the face of the Coronavirus, leapt in with remarkable creativity and generosity to help promote the work of writers whose book tours have been cancelled. With lightning speed, Caroline Leavitt and Jenna Blum created A Mighty Blaze, while longtime book maven Robin Kall Komonoff is now devoting her facebook page for Reading With Robin to interviews with writers with newly published books (including – thank you, Robin! – my novel, The Peacock Feast, just out in paperback).

What’s your best coping strategy for Life in the Time of Corona so far?

Jennifer, you’re the one we’ll all be turning to for advice: You’ve already nursed a husband and helped a daughter through the Coronavirus!

Like so many others, long walks have been my salvation. People who live outside New York City often don’t realize how much access to nature we have through our magnificent parks. I’m very lucky to live adjacent to Riverside Park, with its ancient trees, where an occasional bald eagle will perch, and its views of the majestic mile-wide Hudson River, where last summer you could see people paddle boarding and lore has it a whale ventured.

While I walk, I’ve been listening to the fantastic Fiction podcast from The New Yorker, where a renowned author picks a favorite story from the archives and then discusses it with fiction editor, Deborah Treisman. If any of your readers are curious, I posted on my author Facebook page some of my favorite episodes.

What is your source for the news? How often do you check the CDC website?

The news is so quickly changing: I could spend all day checking numbers of confirmed cases and ventilators and deaths, but that would make it impossible for me to maintain any kind of regular schedule, which is so helpful. My strategy changes day by day, but right now, I’m trying to stick to a few minutes of NPR in the morning, occasional checks of my New York Times and Apple newsfeeds, listening at the dinner hour to The Daily podcast (I’m a Michael Barbaro fan girl), and finally The Rachel Maddow Show, which a friend tipped me off we could record and then begin fifteen minutes into the broadcast so we can fast-forward through the hideous commercials.

Favorite comfort food/beverage?

I gave up Diet Coke at the beginning of the year – though I still miss it! Since then, coffee until two, green tea matcha with frothed unsweetened vanilla almond milk until five, and Tangerine LaCroix!

Do you like to cook? Do you hate to cook? How are you feeding yourself and your family?

Back in the days when Martha Stewart Living was still a phenomenon, some clever cultural commentator (or maybe it was a skit on SNL) snappily observed that for the working women who liked to curl up in bed at the end of the day to read about stenciling your driveway or weaving your own bread baskets, the magazine was domestic porn. Similarly, I’m guilty of spending more time reading recipes than actually making them. Mostly, when I cook I use some basic techniques I’ve learned from the NYT cooking columns and then improvise. ‘Interesting’ from my family in response to one of these improvs is not a compliment. This week, though, with everyone home, I did call a family meeting to pick three main course recipes for us to try making together for the coming week’s dinner. First roadblock was discovering that the next date for online food deliveries was six days out. Second will be seeing if anyone other than me shows up to do the cooking!

What essential supply are you stocked up on?

For better or worse, novelists have vivid imaginations. A month before the paper product and cleaning supply shelves in stores completely emptied out and most online sites were plastered with “out of stock” banners under anything you’d want to buy, I started stocking up. I do feel guilty about having been part of the wave of panic buying. But now that you can’t get food deliveries in my neighborhood for six days and there are no more digital thermometers in any pharmacies, I’m glad to have basic medical supplies in the bathroom cabinet and some milk boxes and canned pineapple in the pantry.

What is your state of mind?

I am mostly trying to be cheerful and persevere and find silver linings (like having my techy teen around all the time to help with my techy problems and finally having time for Scrabble games with the just ordered Scrabble Dictionary), but there are moments of deep anxiety about what will happen if my mother or aunt, both well into the highest risk age-groups, get ill or the dire predictions by the NYT reporter, Donald McNeil, who has covered epidemics for two decades, come to pass. I am heartbroken that our heroic health professionals in the richest nation in the world don’t have anything approaching adequate protective gear, horrified at our president’s glib and irresponsible actions, and deeply grateful to Governors Cuomo and Newsom for leading the stay at home wave.

Are you rationing anything in your house? What’s the TP situation?

I plead The Fifth on the toilet paper questions: Enough, Jennifer, that if you run out, I can mail some rolls to you in Nashville! I am rationing Lysol wipes and hand sanitizer.

Nashville is under a “Safer at Home” order. I think you’ve got the same thing going on in New York City (different words but the same idea). How do you think you’ll use the extra time at home?

Because I’m a writer, I’ve long spent most of the day at home. Paradoxically, with my husband and techy teen now home full-time, I have less solitude than ever. But I am enjoying the extra family time: cooking, playing Scrabble and Quiddler (highly recommend!), listening to podcasts together, and the occasional dance party with techy teen.

If you watch more TV, which shows will you watch? What shows have you watched in the last year or so that you would highly recommend?

I’ve never been much of a TV watcher, limiting myself, for the most part, (a great motivator!) to watching while on the treadmill: the series are just too damned absorbing, and the characters linger too long in my mind, interfering with both my own writing and reading. But I love the HBO series based on Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet (Season 2 is now streaming), The Crown, and Succession.

Image from “My Brilliant Friend”

What are you reading right now? What have you read in the last year or so that you would highly recommend?

I’m reading Natalia Ginzburg’s short novel Happiness as Such, translated by Minna Zallman Proctor: the writing is clean and gorgeous and it feels utterly contemporary.

I’m an Alice Munro devotee, but had somehow missed her collection of linked stories, The Beggar Maid, which I highly recommend.

For more recent books, I love Joan Silber’s Improvement and Elisabeth Strout’s Olive, Again, where we meet up with Olive Kitteridge again. If you haven’t read Strout’s duology – the novel My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible, the story collection about the peripheral characters in the novel – do!

I know, Jennifer, that you and many of your readers are dog lovers – and you might like Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, which is about a Great Dane and a great deal more. Anna Burns’s Milkman is brilliant but dense: I’d highly recommend listening to the amazing narration by Northern Irish actress Brid Brennan and reading along.

I’m crazy about the Elizabeth Strout novels and also The Friend! I’ve been scared to pick up Milkman for the very reason you mentioned. I did give a copy to my friend Caroline Trost as a gift; last I heard, she had started but not finished it. 

I want to talk with you about your novel The Peacock Feast when we’re in a different place. Could you give Bacon readers just a little intro for now? More to come, for sure.

The novel began with a question: What the heck is going on in this photograph, taken in 1914 at an event thrown by Louis C. Tiffany at his phantasmagorical Oyster Bay estate?

I was so looking forward to visiting Nashville – for the first time – and Ann Patchett’s famed Parnassus Books, and talking with you, Jennifer, about my novel. I’m going to send your readers to my author website to learn about the book, just out in paperback, and ask that if they’d like to purchase a copy, they do so through Parnassus Books: here.

I’d be delighted to meet remotely with any book groups. Readers can easily reach me through my author website or Facebook page.

Thank you, Jennifer – and take good care!

You take good care as well, Lisa! I look forward to seeing you when book tour is rescheduled. xoxo

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