In Kris D’Agostino’s second novel, The Antiques, he returns to familiar forms: A dysfunctional family whose members are in various stages of arrested development; a generational home in upstate New York; and the absurdity of life in its most darkly comedic moments. Here, the three grown (yet hardly mature) children of the Westfall family reunite in their childhood home in Hudson in the aftermath of a tremendous hurricane, during which their father has passed away. Bringing all their baggage (emotional, physical, and sometimes in the form of other people), they reconvene to determine the fate of their father’s priceless Magritte painting and, perhaps, to repair desperately strained bonds. The characters are loveable exaggerations, the kind one can easily pinpoint but relate to in spite of, and perhaps because of, their recognizable flaws, and the book is primarily delivered in the bracingly funny dialogue D’Agostino assigns them. Sharp as a mean older sister’s comeback and witty as the brother who always gets under your skin, The Antiques is dark humor delivered lightly, and at a quick clip that makes it hard to put down.
Kris and I sat down in a coffee shop in Brooklyn, where he lives, to discuss the book, its characters, and writing fiction from one’s own family experience—though, as he is quick to note, not too much personal experience. At least, not in this novel.
The Rumpus: Living in New York, Hurricane Sandy was such a big deal thing, and I wondered at your choice of that scenario. If you came to it after having decided to have this crazed family situation and just wanted to add more drama.
Kris D’Agostino: It just seemed to fit. A nice backdrop for the chaos. Forget if a family member has passed away. Just coming together with your family can be chaotic, even if it’s just for a minute. The storm I thought nicely suited the situation. It’s a little on the nose, but in some ways it’s not, because the storm is happening, and then quickly it’s not. I could have been super obvious with it, way more of a clichéd player in the book, but I tried to stay away from that.
Rumpus: I think you succeeded in that. It’s an interesting way to start, too, because you think with a storm, afterwards, the action would die down. And really it just picks right up again. How did you pace it that way? Because the story itself is quite fever-pitched throughout.
D’Agostino: I outlined this book a lot. Plot was a problem I ran into with my first book. I would think of the chapter or whatever I wanted to write that would forward the story, and then I would write that thing, and then when I was done [with the book] I hadn’t put any semblance of a plot in it at all. When it was time to sell, both my agent and my editor wanted me to go back and add more of a story to it. So for this book, I wanted to concentrate on plot from the beginning. Plot is a big thing for me, and I’ve gotten a lot better at it, but it’s a very hard thing to do. A lot of people don’t care about it at all and they can just write, and write so interestingly that plot becomes secondary. That’s fine, but it’s a very hard thing to do. And rare.
Rumpus: Hard to do well.
D’Agostino: Very. And I’m always amazed, especially with film—I went to film school—by a movie with one of those plots that feels like it existed already. And whoever wrote the thing just took it and described all this stuff that had already happened; it’s that well put together. I wanted to work towards that. It’s something I didn’t ever think I could do, and I’m not necessarily sure I did it here, but I came a lot closer.
Another thing I wanted to do, consciously was have it be over the top with all the things that were happening. I don’t think it’s that wild and zany, but every time I came to a point about what was going to happen, I just decided to push it a little bit further. So with Abbott, thinking, “What’s this kid’s problem going to be?” He throws his poop around. [Laughs]. So whenever I had a chance to do that, I did it. I was keeping a conscious eye on trying to make it as frantic and kinetic as possible the whole time, while also incorporating the ideas I wanted to throw in there about death and family and grieving. Thinking about keeping the scene going full-tilt. For the most part, though, it just goes.
Rumpus: I think that’s a writing process thing. Once you’re in it you find that it builds on itself.
D’Agostino: Another thing that helped in that regard was that I wrote all of the character’s sections separately, basically up until the point that they all come together up in New York. The book was originally laid out that way. Then I talked to some people and it was suggested that it would be better to mix it up. At first I didn’t really want to, but then I started cutting pieces up and using blocks together, alternating around, and found it was easier to do it that way. So, that might have helped with the pacing, because when you can do one person from A to Z, and then you chop their story up, it has that momentum already built in.
Rumpus: So you started with this situation with Sandy and your father’s death. How much of these characters did you know then? Did you see them all fully formed, or how much came out of writing through?
D’Agostino: A lot came from writing through. It’s hard for me to recall now. But when I started writing, I definitely had the older brother, Josef, more fleshed out than anything else. And one thing I knew was I wanted to set part of it in Los Angeles, because at the time I was, and still kind of am, having a minor love affair with Los Angeles. Writing about a place or thing, at least to me, is a great way to connect to it. I’m not going to move to Los Angeles right now, but it was a great excuse to look at maps of the city. I also wanted to work in my ridiculous ideas about Hollywood and, from talking to people who live there, what I think it is like to deal with Hollywood people. From those two things, Charlie started to come out. Josef, his thing came from a fascination with Craigslist and all this weird stuff that goes on in Casual Encounters.
Rumpus: A rich mine of material there.
D’Agostino: Not to reveal too much about my weird proclivities but… [Laughs] If you actually start looking, there’s a lot of funny stuff happening on Craigslist. Not just spam and fake people. Real people. And I wanted to throw that in, with these weird experiences, because there’s tons of people selling their underwear on Craigslist and it’s interesting and something I’ve never read about before. But again, I didn’t want to dive to fully and write this whole thing where we analyze why this guy’s doing this. He’s just doing it, creating these problems for himself based on these fetishes he has.
Rumpus: But if you look at his character, and the way you’ve set him up, it’s not that hard to tell why he’s doing it.
D’Agostino: Oh sure. One hundred percent. So I started from, what kind of guy would be doing this? Okay, he’s got money, he’s probably a hedge-fund guy…
Rumpus: You seem to have this fascination, between your first book and this one, with characters in various stages of arrested development. Even if they live full lives—Josef has a career, and so does Charlie, and she has a husband and a child—this whole family is really underdeveloped. You especially see it when they’re in the house together. Where does that come from?
D’Agostino: The short answer is probably that I’m like that. [Laughs] I’m thirty-eight, and I feel like I’ve matured and grown up a lot in the past six or seven years. But throughout my twenties and into my early thirties, I really didn’t have a clue as to what was going on. Emotionally, in life, and in the larger world, and in terms of my relationships with other people and with my family. I don’t want to generalize and say that everybody’s like that, because there are definitely people that keep maturing and they become full-on adults with compassionate, full lives that do whatever it is adults have to do. But it’s just something that’s always interested me. I feel like I’ve always felt a little bit behind. So when I was twenty-four, I was having all these revelations I felt I should have had at nineteen, that other people were having at ninteeen. And I tried to figure out if that was a generational thing, if everyone was slowing down, because I did know a lot of people that were my age and going through the same kind of thing. Then, I thought I’d moved on: You turn thirty and everything changes! Then I realized I’d turned thirty, I’d matured, but then I’ve got all these things happening in my thirties that I’m not dealing with. Everyone’s starting to get married, have kids. I’m thinking about is that something I want to be doing, where am I headed in my career, do I want to make money, do I care? And then I guess the question is, does anybody ever get to the point where they feel like they’re completely on top of it, where they’re completely matured to where they want to be? Or do we just continue to grow, or slowly grow, or do we not grow at all? That interests me.
Rumpus: Though these characters tend to lack that ability to question whether they’re going to ever get there. They function in this state of simply not being there yet.
D’Agostino: I think it might be hard to write that. Or, for me it’s hard to write that sort of introspective thing for characters. People do it and do it really well, but I don’t know if that’s where my skills lie, so I’d rather not. Or maybe I’m just not really interested in people pondering those questions.
Author photograph © Shawn Brackbill.