Book Nerd Interview
Nora Zelevansky is a novelist, freelance journalist, essayist and editor, whose writing has appeared in publications including ELLE, Vanity Fair online, Salon.com, Cosmopolitan, Travel + Leisure, the Los Angeles Times, Martha Stewart Weddings, Town & Country, Style.com, SELF, The Daily Beast, The Washington Post and Daily Candy to name a few. She is a contributing writer for C Magazine.
Her debut novel SEMI-CHARMED LIFE hits shelves on July 3rd, 2012. This first in a two-book deal with St. Martin's Press draws heavily on her childhood on Manhattan's Upper West side with art world parents, as well as her years as a lifestyle journalist, chronicling (with humor) the latest, sometimes wonky, trends in fashion, beauty, design, food, travel, politics and pop culture.
Zelevansky attended Scripps College of The Claremont Colleges. After graduation, she moved to LA to work first in film development & acquisitions and then in politics, before transitioning into freelance writing. Now, she lives in Brooklyn, NYC with her husband amidst more artisanal farm-to-table spots than one city should ever claim. She is fortunate enough to travel the globe on all manner of quests, researching stories and uncovering lesser known enclaves (you know, the areas where artists and designers nest first), seeking out strange and lovely discoveries from Austin’s best sesame sorbet to Thailand's most gifted new bag designer.
Her blog, THE POCKET LINT, has become a repository for her unexpected discoveries found while adventuring and wandering, as well as an outlet for her shameless TV habit.
Was there a defining moment during your youth when you realized you wanted to be a writer?
My mother actually tells a story about when I was about fifteen years old. Apparently, she suggested that maybe I would be a writer when I grew up. She claims that I responded, "No. That's too hard." Funny! That said, I also have a little book called "Radar Girl" that I made when I was about six years old. In it, the "About The Author" section (because there was one!) said, "Nora Zelevansky is a ritter and artist." My bad spelling notwithstanding, I guess I wanted to be a writer back then.
Either way, I was always writing. I was co-editor of my high school literary magazine, a writing tutor in college and, when I went out in into the world after graduation, I kept saying that I wanted a job during which I could work with writers. It never occurred to me just to become one at that point for some strange reason! When I finally realized, it was one of those things that seemed as if it should have been obvious from the get-go.
Why is storytelling so important for all of us?
Oh, gosh. Well, I guess storytelling is important because it preserves our history, provides commentary on our present and also offers an escape when we desperately need one. It allows us to put ourselves in other peoples' shoes and teaches us empathy and humor; stories take us out of our own heads and widen the scope of our respective worlds. I am a huge reader, so I feel like storytelling is breathing.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another author?
Though I have yet to truly take this advice, a few other more experienced authors have told me to stop obsessing about the response to this first book and start thinking about book two. It's so hard though! They've also told me to appreciate every minute and that I am really working to do.
In your new book; Semi-Charmed Life, can you tell my Book Nerd community a little about it and why they should read your novel?
Because it will make my day! No, there are better reasons -- I promise.
Whatever Semi-Charmed Life may appear to be at first glance, it's actually really a melding of several genres: the novel combines satire, humor, coming of age, literary fiction, mystery and, yes, a first love story too. It's the story of Beatrice Bernstein, a college senior who hails from NYC's Upper West Side art world. (Just to explain for non-New Yorkers, the Upper West Side is very different from the Upper East. At least when I was growing up, the West Side had less money and more soul. It was historically home to a lot of intellectuals and artists -- very JD Salinger's Franny & Zooey -- and that's the universe in which Beatrice has grown up.)
She arrives at college and through a series of mishaps becomes a "ghost blogger" for a mysterious famous-for-nothing fellow senior named Veruca Pfeffernoose. As she takes on Veruca's identity, her own sense of self gets confused and her trajectory is changed for good. The book really celebrates and pokes fun at the worlds I have lived and later worked in as a lifestyle writer: fashion, beauty, art and more. It's a lot about the cult of celebrity and the value of fame.
Anyway, there should be something for everyone in it because it's (hopefully) a funny and quick light read, but it also has a lot going on under the surface. Ideally, it's smart as well as entertaining.
For those who are unfamiliar with Beatrice, how would you introduce her?
I'm a fan of the flawed heroine, who often feels out of place and clumsy as she moves around the world, but is also kind of beautiful and unwittingly graceful in her way. I often site characters like Bridget Jones and Tina Fey's Liz Lemon on 30 Rock. Those women are funny and smart. They feel like they're messes, but the rest of us love them for their imperfections and for their unconscious charm. Beatrice is ideally one of those types or at least she evolves into that. She is smart and hopeful, but also frustrated by her family's very narrow view. She is looking for her place in the world, which is something to which we can all relate.
If you could introduce Beatrice to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
Ooh. Good question. I haven't gotten this yet. I wonder if maybe Elizabeth Bennet from Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice would be helpful to Beatrice? She is also a bit of a misfit within her family, though not a clutz, but also she is stubborn in her judgements and has great dry wit. Beatrice is hopeful but also cynical. Her best friend Dolly is an optimistic foil like Elizabeth's sister Jane. I think they would have a lot to laugh about.
What are some of your current and future projects that you can share with us?
The deal I signed with St. Martin's Press is a two book deal, so I'm just starting to work on my second novel. I can't tell you too much about it yet because it's still evolving. We have definitely toyed with making Semi-Charmed Life a series, but it's looking less likely for this time around.
When asked, what’s the one question you always answer with a lie?
If I'm window shopping with someone and they pick up something I don't like, I rarely have the heart to tell them. What's the point? I mean, unless they're going to buy it.
As much as I tote my love of The Bachelor, I don't always advertise the rest of my DVR queue. There are some good shows like GIRLS and The Good Wife, but there are some doozies too (though not as much reality stuff).
What’s the best advice you can give writers to help them develop their own unique voice and style?
I think just to keep writing regularly. A few years ago, I started a blog called The Pocket Lint, which I kept up daily for about a year. It still exists, but I'm less consistent about posting now. But while I was writing that, and that meant writing every day, I was so conscious of how fluid my writing became. I was less precious about every word and it just all flowed more easily. When you're stuck, write more -- maybe something else, but just keep writing.
Who is the first person you call when you have a bad day?
It depends on what kind of bad day. If I'm about to lose it and start crying, especially about work, I call my husband because he's often just able to defuse a situation and make me laugh. If something happened that I need to talk through and analyze in my personal life, I often call my older sister.
What's the worst summer job you've ever had?
That's easy. I was a waitress at this "upscale diner" one summer on the Upper West Side. It was never great: They even had me act as a waitress before I was fully trained as one because some important male investors came in and I was a young girl. Basically, they pimped me out.
Anyway, apparently the general manager was not my fan and one day -- the week of his wedding, I might add -- he had me come in for my 6am shift. When the shift was over, the other waiters said particularly pointed goodbyes, which I thought seemed a little weird. The GM waited until I got home and then, like a total wimp who couldn't do it to my face, he called me and fired me. He said, "You're not our caliber." I was like, "I saw cockroaches in the rice pudding!"
I had fantasies about telling him off for a long time. I planned to go in to pick up my last check and say, "My condolences to your wife," since he had just gotten married. But he wasn't there when I went! No closure!
When was the last time you cried?
Well, I cry really easily at movies and TV shows. Just the sound of a roaring crowd at a sporting event makes me weepy for some reason, so I have cried like three times today watching the Olympics. (What else can you do when they replay that Keri Strug vault from 1996?)
But the last time I cried because I was moved in a REAL way in my actual life, it was at my book party in NYC. I stood up to just deliver a quick thank you speech and almost lost it completely!
As a journalist, who is constantly pitching and hearing yes and no, I am used to rejection, but occasionally that can get me too.
What is the one, single food that you would never give up?
SALT! Is that a food? I'll give you a real food: California Rolls. I live on them. It's a little weird.
Where can readers stalk you?
Well, I have an author page on FB of course and I'm on Pinterest and Twitter, but -- in real life -- The Met in NYC, Prospect Park, Barneys in LA or at my in-law's house on the Chesapeake Bay (but that would be trespassing, I think).