Monday, April 30, 2012

Sassy Author Q&A: Rebecca Moore, writer of Lunch in Brooklyn

The Princess recommends that you buy Lunch in Brooklyn here
Rebecca Moore, an old colleague of mine, has self-published Lunch in Brooklyn, the novel she wrote in the 90s about her years in middle school in the New York of the 70s. We excerpted it in Sassy and you can read more about what made the stories so great in this fan's blog post. Also check out some snippets of the book here. Rebecca was nice enough to answer my questions about her decision to publish the book all these years later. She was partially motivated by some Sassy readers who were anxious to know about what happened to these characters. 

Christina: So, we met through Pamela Christman, who I knew from a creative writing class at the 92nd Street Y Poetry Center, and you knew from the Columbia graduate fiction writing program. That was, what, 20 years ago?

Rebecca: Pamela was definitely the link.  This could have been the summer of 1991, when I was working on the books for my thesis, or maybe sometime in the first half of '92.  

And I remember that you sent me Lunch in Brooklyn, and that it was based on your teenage years growing up in NY, and we decided to excerpt it. Or were we in a writer's group together, and did I first read it there? 

 Pamela, being a connector of people, may have told me that I should send you Lunch, but I think I sent you stories first because you published "Fooling Around with Neil" in July 92 and the rest followed.  

I remember some problems with the illustration that the art department commissioned. You were like, "this character would not wear a sweater vest," and I think we changed it. What do you remember about being published in Sassy?

I had forgotten about the sweater vest! Yes, that would have been dead wrong. I remember you were really nice about faxing me proofs to look at. We had a copy place in the bottom of our building and you would fax pages to me there and say we have to lose three lines for space or cut the drug mention. It felt collaborative rather than, here, you need to fix this or we're not gonna run it. I really appreciated that.  

Tell me what happened with Lunch in Brooklyn after that. I remember something about people wanting you to present date it.

I will have to see if I can lay my hands on my collection of rejection letters, which of course I saved along with the nice ones people sent into Sassy that you forwarded to me. I do remember being told to set it in the present, which would have been the 90s. It would have been so wrong! The book's time and place is a huge part of what it's about. You did not have the same kind of culture in the 90s as you did in the late 70s. People's parents and teachers in the late 70s were ex-hippies. I was listening to this radio show last night about Studio 54 and they were saying how it was right at this sweet spot between the pill and AIDS, with the apex of women's rights, gay rights, etc., and that's where the book happens. That suggestion meant that this person was missing the importance of the book's setting and that he or she was also underestimating the ability of readers to be interested in something that wasn't about their culture/setting. The idea of "swapping out" cultural references did not appeal to me. It sounded like a good way to suck the life and authenticity out it.

The other thing about the time in which the book is set is that you have society valuing self-expression and self-discovery, the drugs were an extension of that. Smoking pot was like an intellectual exercise as opposed to being deviant behavior. You also have this tension between the adults being pro-self-expression and the inherent conformity of the middle school mindset. They're saying be yourself and the kids are wanting to be like each other.

Another problem the book had was the age of its potential readership. It was not written as a YA book but because it was narrated by an 8th grader, and narrated in the moment, and focused on middle school issues, it was categorized that way. I think the lack of an overt anti-drugs stance would not make it a great YA book. I think it's more for 16 and up in that sense, though the friendship issues would appeal to younger readers, and the way we edited it for Sassy worked for younger readers.

Also it's episodic, I think of it as prose poem to a bygone era and it's about the state of being a 14-year-old girl. I got the idea for the format from Evan Connell's Bridge novels ("Mr. Bridge" and "Mrs. Bridge.")

Why did you decide to self-publish it? How did you do it? How many copies, and how are you selling it?

After the book made its initial rounds with an agent and we kept getting back the variations on the themes above, I moved on to other work. I wrote a novel, set in the 90s about some girls who play with a Ouija board and one of them gets too involved in it, called The Interior Ghost, and then I started researching a novel set in Coney Island. -- Do you remember going to the Mermaid Parade and riding the Cyclone? -- I had another book in the works, also set in late 70s, in Fire Island, with arson and a boat crash. And then we moved to London and I started working full-time and had kids, which leads nicely into your next question.

Oh, but wait. Why did I decide to self-publish? So we move to London for my husband's job--he's a journalist. Pamela Christman is there and she, being the connector of people that she is, has found a writing group, which I join. My story which had been accepted for Seventeen gets a kill fee. I give a couple of readings with our group, but then I start working and drop out. I can't find my voice, I don't know if it's because I am out of NYC or what but I no longer feel like a writer. At one of the readings, this drag queen is reading poetry and the poetry is pretty awful and it ruins the effect of the drag and it just feels tragic and I feel like I am failing a similar masquerade as a writer. A year later one of my professors from Columbia came to the school where I was working to be a writer-in-residence and it is embarrassing to encounter him in this way. Then we have kids and, you know how it is, shoes and a shower could be an accomplishment.

The years pass. My father died in 2008. He was a photographer for Life magazine in the 60s and I find myself online looking for his work, as a way to grieve. One day I googled myself and came across this blog that had been written in 2006 by a woman now in her 30s who remembered Lunch and the other stories I had written in Sassy and wondered what had happened to me. Someone there posted a comment saying they had tried to get a copy of the manuscript from the Columbia library but no luck. And then Marjorie Ingall pops up and says she has no idea either but people sometimes asked her if she knew anything me. I'm thinking, really?? Me?? It's kind of eerie to find yourself the topic of speculation, but it's so cool to find out that I have readers. I leave a comment and become online friends with Christen, the woman who wrote the blog post. I tell her maybe I'd read through it again and tidy it up and possibly self-publish. And so I am about 2/3 of the way through when we decide to move back to America, which stalls things, but eventually I get back to it. Christen checks in now and then to see how things are going. In the meantime another former reader contacts me via LinkedIn and encourages me to release it and once I set up a blog for the book another reader posts a comment, describing herself as "one of the legion fans who’ve been waiting 15 years to know what happens next in Lunch in Brooklyn.” I reply and she responds, "I’m officially convinced that the Internet is a miracle now. Not that twitter and Amazon and being able to buy Japanese snack food online isn’t all great but being able to find and contact someone who’s work was incredibly meaningful to your adolescence is pretty much the best thing ever." And I have to agree, the Internet is a miracle!

So rather than trying to apply a more commercial format to it or make it into something it's not, I am putting it out there in the hopes that anyone who ever wanted to read more can and those who might appreciate the book's virtues are able to do so. It was like going back to the drag queen reading poetry and thinking, you know, maybe people will think you suck, but so what. It's better than not doing it. That's the kind of thing I would tell my daughter.

Right now the book is in a digital format only but I am intrigued by the idea of uploading it to the Espresso Book Machine, where readers can get on site paper copies of ebooks. They have one in the Brooklyn Public Library. I have to design a two-sided cover and make formatting changes. I think this will be a summer project. Maybe by then, there will be reviews to quote on the back.

To date I have sold 48 copies. My goal is 350. Obviously more would be great but at 350 I would cover expenses. I had to pay for the use of the subway map on the cover and buy ISBN numbers.

The book is available for Kindle on Amazon and in a variety of formats from Smashwords. It's in their premium catalog, which means it should be for sale on Barnes & Noble and from Apple in about a week.
Post a review of Lunch in Brooklyn on Amazon that mentions Fallen Princess and win one of 10 vintage Sassy/Nirvana stickers.Yeah, pretty sweet!  Email me ( the link of your review along with a mailing address.

Have you been able to get much writing done as a mom? I find it really hard, but I am always thinking about how and why I am not writing, and things I should write. It is like a constant tape of self-loathing in my head. Do you have any tips for me?

Stop the tape! Seriously, I have run those tapes in my head and nothing good comes of them. And they sink in. You know this. What would you have told a reader? What would you tell someone who walks around going "I'm ugly" or "I'm bad at sports"?

Your blog is great. You can still write.

When you have time to write, make some of that time for working on fiction or whatever else it is you want to write. I really think the only way to do it is make yourself sit and do it on some kind of schedule. Inspiration is when you're driving and get a great idea and you jot it down at the stoplight but the inspiration doesn't usually strike on schedule. Keep index cards or a notebook or even the notepad on your phone for the floating ideas and then take those to your desk. I'm sure you know all that.

That's the idea behind book groups, I think. It's moms claiming time for themselves in their schedules. You have to make dinner because I am going out to be with women. It's on the calendar.

A friend from my book group in London (where I kept my former writing life a secret) was in antenatal classes with Tracy Chevallier, who had then just published The Girl with the Pearl Earring, and she came to our group and talked about it. I asked how she managed to write this and have a baby at the same time and she said that she kept the scope manageable, the chapters short and the story kind of framed and focused by the picture and she used whatever blocks of childcare or naps she could get. I think that's what I like about writing a blog now. If I could transpose that to writing chapters of a book it would be good.

When I started my blog, What would the Wertis say?, it was actually just an exercise for work, to learn how to use Wordpress so I could help the middle school newspaper advisor set up a blog for her class. Writing a blog had not occurred to me. I had set up a vox account to leave a comment on Christen's blog about my writing but the blank page was daunting. But just to write something I did and then the more I did the more I started to notice things and sentences or phrases began to form and it was like something coming back to life. And it's like running, it's hard to start but at a certain point it feels bad when you don't. I'm going to read one of my posts on our local public radio station in a week and I'm excited about that.

What is your favorite thing about Lunch in Brooklyn? What inspired you to write it? Do you feel differently about it now than you did then?
I think my favorite thing about it is the humor. The best thing about publishing it is that one of my middle school teachers wrote to me to say he had read it "with joy and delight," which was fantastic to hear. He was the inspiration for Mr. Carmen, the teacher who keeps sending Kate and Harry out into the hall on writing assignments.

The novel started as two stories. One was entitled "8th Grade" about girls behaving badly over the course of an unsupervised weekend. This is now the chapter of the book called Fifth Hex. I was trying to capture that weird edge of pushing against the boundaries of what you could do in the absence of parental supervision, the way girls that age want to be noticed and that feeling of immunity to real danger, the way you do things just to have done them. I think I wanted to show the way that girls go underground when they reach adolescence. They want to appear pretty and "normal" and have everything seem to come easily. I work at a school and recently was a chaperone on the 6th grade camping trip. I listened to the girls talk with each other and draw in the boys -- it was an ongoing  monologue of self-definition. So much energy is going towards defining yourself and practicing being yourself,  moving in a hydra of chatter and matching clothes, making themselves visible but in a very particular way, expressing socially acceptable/neutral problems like "my shoe is wet" rather than revealing true personality.

The other story was called "The Bubblegum Chain." It was about a tradition we had in middle school where at the end of the year the 8th graders would write a last will and testament and hand something down to a 7th grader to have in 8th grade. My friend willed me her bubblegum chain, which was 10 feet long and with gum wrappers that dated back to when we were in lower school. There was a poignancy in that that I wanted to express, how we were shedding our childhoods and stepping forward into adolescence.

If I were going to write a novel about middle school now I would be seeing it through the lens of motherhood and all the intervening years of experience. Back when I wrote it I had not really thought that much about middle school, but when you are writing fiction you need to stake out your territory and that was my territory: progressive school, 70s NYC, girls clomping around in clogs and trying to be cool. I was also writing stuff about college, but it was hard to write properly about adults as I had not lived amongst them for very long then.

I wish I had written it with a stronger plot line, like Harry getting kicked out, that could have thrown more things into motion. Maybe I'll try that in the future...


  1. Great interview!

    I bought Rebecca's book and look forward to reading it.

    The Girl with the Pearl Earring author's story -- and the notion of moms carving out snippets of time to write -- reminded me of a story about how Eudora Welty wrote The Robber Bridegroom. She put down bits of story on little scraps of paper and when she had time she pinned them all up and moved them around to create a narrative. Blogging definitely feels like little scraps of paper to me. Unfortunately, I skip right by the MOVE THE SCRAPS AROUND AND CREATE THE BIG PICTURE part.

  2. Thanks, Marjorie. That is funny. I need to move the scraps around too. I have lots and lots of scraps, and they are all over the place.

  3. Yay! I just bought it. I'm so excited to read this!

  4. Bought this and read it in a day... So fricken great! Thanks for the recommendation

  5. I have been looking for this for years! I had Rebecca's last name wrong...for over a decade I've been looking for an author named Rebecca WHITE. I only found this when googling "Fooling around with neil by Rebecca". Sorry to ramble but I am just very excited to find out the right name AND to see that Lunch in Brooklyn is published.