It’s hard to know what’s happening behind New York’s closed doors. Unless, that is, you’re the one with the keys. Such is the case for Celia Cassill, a recently widowed Brooklyn landlord who’s exceedingly picky about the tenants in her building.
In Amy Grace Loyd’s debut novel, The Affairs of Others, Celia might seek out those who can respect privacy and keep to themselves, but that’s not exactly what she gets. Indeed, when a tenant decides to sublet, Celia’s already fragile life is thrown into chaos (albeit a bourgeois Brooklyn version of chaos) that results in unexpected twists and surprising discoveries.
Loyd, a former fiction editor at Playboy, has crafted a gripping story about life, loss and the secrets we keep—especially from ourselves. DuJour spoke to Lloyd about writing a debut novel and her own experiences with quirky apartment living.
On some level Celia is a nightmare landlord; she lets herself into people’s apartments and is way too involved. And then there are the tenants. Do any of the landlord antics in the book stem from your own experiences?
I’ve had a lot of crazy experiences—and wonderful experiences. I was in an apartment on Montague Street [in Brooklyn Heights] over what was a Greek restaurant for many years. That building had so many stories coming through it. The man next to me was married to woman who had a nervous breakdown and realized that she had very serious psychological issues. She’d become vey paranoid, she was sure somebody was on the roof, so I climbed these little stairs and went up on that roof and there was nobody there. There also was a man in the building for a time who was very interested in young boys. And also Harry, the Greek landlord, who treated me very well. He had quite a temper. He was an older, macho guy and if people didn’t show he the respect he wanted, he could be very short with them. Sometimes people would come and appeal to me because I think I always handled Harry well.
Sounds like quite a mix of characters!
There were a lot of rent-controlled or rent-stabilized people in the building, so Harry wasn’t that keen on making repairs when they were paying four or five hundred dollars a month. So I think [the tenants] became bizarrely close in that way because of ‘well, how do you handle Harry?’ We knew more about each other and the particulars of one another’s apartments than we might in a nicer building. Not that it wasn’t nice, it was just idiosyncratic. And because the rent for some was expensive and for others very cheap, it was a real mix of sleek types who wanted to be close to Manhattan and to get into Wall Street and these really not-so-sleek characters who, you know, you’re probably going to have to take them outside of there in a box.
Then I moved around the corner to a nice, big apartment when I moved in with my fiancé. I look back on that time both with a fondness and a real relief that I’m not there anymore.
Despite your experience with Harry, how did Celia come about?
Well, I wanted to write a first-person account and I’d been ruminating about a voice I could live with. I was at Playboy at the time—I was the fiction and literary editor, and I wanted a voice that was very different from what I was experiencing in my day-to-day. One of the things I liked about Celia is she didn’t really have to be in the world which I did, and I think I longed for that sort of privacy. Even though her privacy is complicated and, maybe some people would think, not so healthy. I think it’s a fascinating place to be.
That need for privacy is her undoing. It’s impossible to keep.
What’s so striking to me about her is that she’s constantly trying to control situations, and she’s also very engaged in an act of self-containment. When she has these disruptions, even small ones outside the building, they really floor her. She’s so engaged in a heroic bid to construct a world of her own, and she fails. With Celia, I wanted to explode that space between privacy and the inability for us to have privacy. Especially, I think, in an urban environment. The other day I just wanted to take a shower, and my neighbor turned on her shower and I thought, Oh I don’t want to shower with her. I want to wait a minute.
All of the people in Celia’s building serve specific purposes for the story. What went into developing this cast of characters?
I don’t think Celia would want kids in this building because I think it would set off her envy of what she thought she was going to have. I thought, whom would she allow in? What was reasonable to her? That’s why they all came in the way that they came. I could make them interesting enough but not so raucous that it might take away from the book feeling streamlined.
How did being a fiction editor play into your work as a writer?
First of all, I didn’t tell most of my writers that I was writing this; I don’t talk about it with the people whose work I’m really digging into. I feel like they don’t need to hear about it. I absolutely think I’m a slower writer, because when I’m having that wonderful, alchemical moment where stuff is just coming, invariably my editor self comes in. I edit everything, and I have all these discussions with myself and it’s kind of irritating, but I don’t know any way around it. It wouldn’t be easy to edit me; I find it difficult to edit me, and I feel pretty sorry for anyone else for having to do it.
Amy Grace Loyd’s The Affairs of Others (Picador) releases on August 27, 2013.