Photo credit: Jena Cumbo Photography
Ada Calhoun will be at Powell's City of Books in conversation with Rene Denfeld on Wednesday, May 24, at 7:30.
Describe your latest book.
My new book is an essay collection called Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give
. In 2015, I wrote a Modern Love essay
about fighting with my husband of 12 years while we were attending a bunch of starry-eyed weddings. I kept sitting there thinking about all the things I wanted to say to the newlyweds about the ways in which marriage was hard, but I felt like I couldn’t say anything like that without it seeming like bad manners, or a downer. The book is more memoir than self-help, but I have one piece of advice: when you fight with your husband, immediately write about it for the New York Times
My 2015 book, St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street
, is a 400-year history of the Manhattan street where I grew up. The book is framed around times over the centuries when people have said the street was dead. People were pretty much wrong all the other times, so I wonder if they’re not wrong when they say it now, too.
I wrote an op-ed
for the New York Times
about what I learned while writing the book:
I think there’s more to these “the city is dead now” complaints than money. People have pronounced St. Marks Place dead many times over the past centuries — when it became poor, and then again when it became rich, and then again when it returned to being poor, and so on. My theory is that the neighborhood hasn’t stopped being cool because it’s too expensive now; it stops being cool for each generation the second we stop feeling cool there. Any claim to objectivity is clouded by one’s former glory.
What does your writing workspace look like?
It looks like a screen, usually with coffee nearby. I have a MacBook that I work at on my couch at home or carry around the city in my purse. I work all over NYC, often at branches of the New York Public Library. (I recently wrote an online story for the New Yorker
about my affection for the somewhat scuzzy Mid-Manhattan Library
.) Sometimes I’ll work at bars that are open during the day, like the South Fourth Bar and Grill in Williamsburg, or, when I’m feeling fancy, the Society Library on the Upper East Side. Or airports. Or train stations. Or some random Midtown Starbucks. Or in bed. Wherever I am, I typically put in headphones and listen to the Replacements and might as well be anywhere. Oh, also I talk in Wedding Toasts
about becoming a homeowner; one of the first things I did was to turn a shed in the backyard into a makeshift office. Here’s a photo of that. I love it, but it still smells a little like a chicken coop.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
I’m always beating the drum for Dawn Powell. I think first I’d recommend Turn, Magic Wheel
or Angels on Toast
or The Locusts Have No King
. Basically any of the Village ones where everyone’s drunk all the time. I’ve also been on a P. G. Wodehouse kick lately. I listened to the Right Ho, Jeeves
audiobook driving around with my son and husband a couple weeks ago and now not a day goes by that I don’t think about inebriated newt-fancier Gussie Fink-Nottle.
What new or recent books are you excited about?
Leah Carroll’s Down City
, Claire Dederer’s Love and Trouble
, Christine Sneed’s The Virginity of Famous Men
, Davy Rothbart’s My Heart Is an Idiot
, Karen Abbott’s Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy
, Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire
, Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up
, Hari Kunzru’s White Tears
, Carolyn Murnick’s The Hot One
… I’ve done or am doing events with many of those authors this year. I’m excited to talk to Rene Denfeld (The Enchanted
) at Powell’s!
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
In my early 20s, I worked as a photo printer at a dating service photo lab. I wrote a story about it for the New York Times
, “Misery Games
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
I’m more pro-good-grammar than anti-bad-grammar. I majored in Sanskrit in college because it had the most intense and intricate grammar. For fun in college I took an Advanced Grammar class and we brought in sentences to diagram on the blackboard. I guess my pet peeve is that there are no letterman jackets for grammar nerds.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
Oh, it’s horrible. And game nights. I feel lucky to be in a regular poker game. And I play Anagrams and Extremely Competitive Scrabble with two Scrabble nemeses, one a visual artist and the other a nurse/former model. I play online sometimes but prefer in person, for the trash-talking. Also, Pokémon Go
with my son. Yes, still.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
“If you’re not getting rejected, you’re not doing your job.” A successful journalist friend told me that about a decade ago, when neither of us was getting published much. I’m doing better now than I was a decade ago, but I still get rejected a lot, just by fancier places.
I’ll also share the worst advice, which I wear around my neck. When I was in the Poconos a few weeks ago to write a story for Elle
, I found this necklace for a few dollars at a hotel gift shop. It’s in two parts: a little book charm that says “MY STORY” and a disc that reads, “The world is waiting to hear your story.” Which is not even remotely true.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
My son and I often quote to each other from our favorite book series, Andy Stanton’s Mr. Gum books
, which are rather like Roald Dahl’s The Twits
, but somehow even funnier. In describing Mr. Gum’s messy house: “Empty milk bottles lay around like wounded soldiers in a war against milk….Insects lived in the kitchen cupboards, not just small insects but great big ones with faces and names and jobs.”
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
In talking about how long marriages involve changing into and being married to a shapeshifter, sure to change size and temperament and everything else if you stick around long enough: “Spread out over the years, I’m a harem.”
Top five books with unusual insight into marriage:
When I’ve suffered I’ve found the usual self-help books remarkably unhelpful. What I want to hear more than advice about communication is reassurance that human beings are flawed and complicated and it’s a miracle any of us find each other and manage to stay together. These five books have scratched various itches along those lines. Some of the religious writing on marriage, like numbers two and five on this list, are surprisingly less judgmental, and sexier, than much secular writing — though you would certainly never know it from book covers like this one (left
1. The Irrational Season
by Madeleine L’Engle (1977)
2. The Happy Family
by John Levy and Ruth Monroe (1945)
3. Redeeming Marriage
by Edward Gleason (1988)
4. Monogamy: A Series of Dramatic Lyrics
by Gerald Gould (1918)
5. The Mystery of Marriage
by Mike Mason (1985)
÷ ÷ ÷
has written for the New York Times
, New York
magazine, and the New York Post
. Her book St. Marks Is Dead
was named a New York Times
Editors’ Choice and a Boston Globe
Best Book of the Year. Wedding Toasts I'll Never Give
is her most recent book.