Alive and Kicking: Talking with Dana Czapnik
Lucy Adler, protagonist of debut author Dana Czapnik’s The Falconer, released earlier this week from Atria Books, is not dead. Neither is she missing. She doesn’t have an eating disorder, nor does she cut herself, and she has not been raped, abused, bullied, or mistreated in any way. Instead, Lucy Adler is alive and kicking, or more specifically, alive and playing basketball. And she is a thriving young woman coming of age in New York City in the ‘90s—an era of abundance and safety, pre-Columbine and 9/11. Her concerns and preoccupations bring one back to what seems like halcyon days, but while Lucy is in control on the basketball court, whether it’s a game of pickup in a public park or in high school tournaments, off court she is consumed with her desire for her best friend, Percy, and immersed in a city and culture and time where a young woman can make choices for herself and work to shape her future all the while finding her way in a city she loves.
Czapnik has spent most of her career on the editorial side of professional sports including stints at ESPN the Magazine, the United States Tennis Association and the Arena Football League. I spoke with her about The Falconer, basketball, raising boys and the variousness of the New York experience.
The Rumpus: Lucy Adler is such a refreshing character to encounter in a novel about female adolescence. She is so alive on the page with wonderful philosophical musings, palpable desires, athletic ambitions, college hopes and uncertainties about what path toward adulthood and womanhood her life will present to her. In short, she’s not dead or missing and she hasn’t been sexually abused, raped, or made to be the victim of emotional abuse. How did you conceive of her and how did her story develop for you as you brought her into being on the page?
Dana Czapnik: Oh, thank you for saying this! I really wanted to write about a young woman who is not a victim. It sometimes feels like the only stories about women that our culture finds captivating are stories about rape or abuse or even self-abuse. I’m really over reading or watching women suffer. At the same time, I’m not into cheap Rah-Rah, “girl power,” “strong is beautiful” corporate-branded feminism either. I want to stress, too, that I understand that women have been victims throughout all of history and that sexual violence is still a plague. But it infuriates me that that is often the only story about women that is told. I don’t think a woman’s rape or the emotional abuse she’s suffered or the story of her death is the most interesting thing about her. I’m more interested in her mind, her personhood. The male characters in literature that I love are those who are observational and use those observations to discover the world, figure out their own take on ethics, morality, philosophy, god, politics. I wanted to write a nuanced portrait of young woman discovering herself and the world without anything terrible happening to her to shape her worldview.
I also was interested in writing a character who is actually wrestling with feminism and how to be a woman when so much of the world is open to her, and yet so many of the old ideas of gender and what a woman’s life should be persist. There’s the feminist political movement, which has influenced and changed the world on a legislative and societal level. But then there’s the personal, practical application of feminism, and that is a far stickier, confusing, tough thing.
Rumpus: Absolutely! It’s so interesting to watch Lucy discover her take on all this. I especially loved the moment when she contemplates how she can “feel all this….” And yet “still really, really, really like boys.”
Czapnik: Right, that’s when she’s in the art gallery taking in all of Max’s defiant, angry feminist art. And totally relating to it, understanding why that art has been created, but is confused by whether that anger precludes the other feeling she has, which is a longing for a relationship with a man. Or a boy, in her case.
Rumpus: As much as Lucy’s life is filled with basketball and Percy, I was also struck by the panoply of female experience you present in this novel. There is her mother, neighbors she babysits for, friends, an artist cousin and her roommate, teachers, fellow basketball player peers. While one of Lucy’s main preoccupations is her desire for Percy, one of the other main underlying points and concerns throughout seems to be what path Lucy will choose for herself. Will she be a mother, a professional athlete, some kind of artist or creator of something and not just a dreaded “consumer.” She also wonders how she’ll be a mother, wife, and career woman. The choices are overwhelming and a little daunting for her, and I wonder how that might reflect some of your own experience as a teenager growing up in the ‘90s?
Czapnik: When I think of the ‘90s, I think of garage bands, homemade zines, mix tapes, and the idea of selling out being the worst crime you could commit. It was all about personal expression. Everyone wanted to be the most interesting person in the room. Lucy is definitely a product of that time.
In some ways, though, this is the quintessential post-war American question—do I buy into the life the ad execs on Madison are selling me or do I try for something different, more unique, more authentic? I think for our generation—you and I are late Gen Xers, right?—it was hard for us to cast off middle-class dreams and pursue whatever artistic or altruistic life we wanted because we were the first generation where education and housing became unaffordable. I remember a cousin of mine telling me when I was a freshman in college in 1997, “you are going to graduate and all you’ll do is search for a job that can provide you with health insurance.” A variation of that line made it into the book because it stuck with me my whole life. The incredible thing is, everyone I know is still searching for that job! We’re in our thirties and forties and anyone who’s not working at a big corporation thinks non-stop about their health insurance. That’s a major hindrance to creativity, among other things. It seems to me that that all that started in the ‘80s and ‘90s when we were growing up.
But even as the income gap was widening and all these other societal shifts were occurring, the thing I mostly remember about growing up in the ‘90s was the freedom. Especially in New York. I began riding the subway by myself when I was 12. The whole city was open to me. And though bad things happened in New York and in the world and it was the height of the AIDS epidemic, it was also pre-9/11, pre-Columbine. I don’t know if I look back at that time and think of it as more innocent because I was an innocent or because things really feel scarier in our current world. It’s probably a combination of both.
Rumpus: So true and there is one line in this novel that seems to speak directly to that fact. Lucy and Alexis sit under the statue of Prometheus at Rockefeller Center and Lucy thinks “For the moment, we are bulletproof. Bioluminescent. Burning with empire.” Sadly, this is no longer the reality for teenagers today. Mass shootings at schools, movie theaters, concerts, nightclubs—all the venues that serve as a back drop to coming of age—are very real parts of their reality.
Czapnik: That’s interesting. When I wrote that, I wasn’t thinking of it in that way. But yes, of course you’re right.
Rumpus: There are so many evocative, visceral descriptions of what it is to play basketball in this novel. As I read, I felt I was experiencing the joy and pleasure of the game, the sheer physicality of it. I wonder if you can speak a bit about the challenges of writing about playing sports? Did you have some models? What is your personal background with the sport?
Czapnik: As a teenager, I was as obsessed with basketball as Lucy is, but Lucy is an incredible athlete and I was just so-so. That’s the beauty of fiction; you can just make it up! I spent quite a bit of time covering girls and women’s basketball as a freelance sports reporter early in my career. Writing basketball comes easy to me. Though I haven’t really watched or covered the sport for at least a decade, it was my first true love and no one ever forgets their first love.
There are two challenges to writing sports in any other context than the sports section or a for a sports publication—the first is that you want to avoid at all costs hack turns of phrase. This is not easy. There are only so many ways to say “ball” or “shoot.” The other challenge is to make it interesting for people who have no knowledge of that sport or who don’t care at all. The basketball in this book is there to serve the growth of the character and to reflect what’s going on around her. Lucy’s development happens on the court because that’s where she is her most authentic self.
Rumpus: Right, and meanwhile, off the court it’s so much more complicated for her to be that authentic self. As she states: “I have to live in a world where the whole human being that I am will make other people uncomfortable and find a way not be bothered.”
Czapnik: I think this is a universal feeling, but serious female athletes must feel this especially hard. I think of all the pushback the most famous women athletes get from men who refuse to acknowledge their greatness and/or refuse to acknowledge their femininity. Serena Williams is the obvious one, but every woman who plays sports at the elite level has had to shake off negativity. I suppose any woman who deigns to step into a role that’s been traditionally filled by men has to learn to rise above.
Rumpus: Further to the point about writing and basketball, there is a wonderful quote about being inside the game, which felt to me to speak to the sense of flow one can enter when writing a novel, and I wonder if you find parallels between being a writer and an athlete? Both seem to require endurance and mental fortitude and then there is the weightless quality to it, when one is floating and feels close to being “alive,” as Lucy states during a game of pickup.
Czapnik: Yes! I have no idea what it’s like to dominate on the court the way Lucy does, but I played a lot of basketball and enough sports to know what a high feels like when you’re in the midst of a game. There really is no replacement for it. You feel like you’re a superhero. I’ve definitely felt that same adrenaline rush when writing. In my limited experience, it seems to me that half of writing is a slog and the other half is pure high, when you’ve written something you feel is good and you have no idea where it came from and yet there it is on the page. Or maybe it’s seventy-five percent slog and twenty-five percent high. I definitely write for that high. Often times, if I reach a clear stopping point, I’ll take a break to workout and those are usually my best workouts too.
Rumpus: It seems to be the equivalent of a runner’s high—writing. What’s always amazed me about writing, is how physically draining it can be even though you are sitting still the entire time.
Czapnik: I know, I’ve thought that, too. Our mutual teacher Colum McCann, always says, “writing a novel is a marathon.” I think that’s so true.
Rumpus: Right. Stamina, endurance are so important in both writing and running or any physical activity really. Murakami’s memoir What I Talk About When I Talk about Running is the best thing out there on this topic.
Czapnik: Oh, I haven’t read that; I’ll have to pick it up.
Rumpus: For the most part, Lucy is a frank, practical, no-nonsense young woman who, every once in a while, indulges in romantic fantasy, but she faces disappointments on many levels and the novel seems to be speaking to young women and how to manage expectations when Hollywood, music videos, fairy tales, and Barbie present them with false narratives about what it is to love and be loved, emotionally and physically, and especially about first sexual experiences. I don’t want to spoil anything for the reader, but some of the sex scenes in this book are so refreshingly real, humorous and infuriating all at the same time.
Czapnik: I don’t know how you feel about this, but all the information I got growing up about love and sex was from movies. The 70s was all cinéma vérité, but the 80s and 90s were all about happy endings. Every movie I watched was about a guy or a girl pining after someone for an hour and half and then someone, usually the guy, would perform a sweeping romantic gesture and then poof! True Love. Fade to credits. There was no scene that showed them five months later fighting about the fact that one of them keeps spending all their money on antique beers signs. Or, less comically, how easy it is to be hurt by something the other person might find insignificant and how difficult it is to be giving of yourself and vulnerable. Every sex scene, too, was softly lit and romantic, with moody music and perfectly choreographed beautiful actors. How can real love and sex match up to the fantasy we were raised on? Don’t get me wrong, I love those movies. But we were set up to be disappointed by everything.
I took the cinéma vérité approach in this novel. It’s not as romantic, but I think closer to what most young people’s experiences are actually like.
Rumpus: Yes, until they mature, gain experience, and learn what it is to enjoy sex.
Czapnik: Right. Of course.
Rumpus: Percy is the quintessential heartthrob/best friend and always tantalizingly out of reach for Lucy. Of course adolescent desire and curiosity about sex will forever be a part of teenagers’ lives, but I wonder if the kind of behavior Percy exhibits towards young women in this novel may alter in new generations, especially now that we are raising young girls within the #MeToo movement. Basically, I wonder if the sexual license young men of the ‘90s operated with will be a thing of the past as a new generation of parents raise boys who are more mindful of their behavior toward young women?
Czapnik: I don’t know. Women being full participants in the world is really brand-new in the long arc of history. Our generation is the first generation of women to be born with a right to buy a house, have a credit card, or own anything in our own names. And we’re the first generation of women to be born with the right to decide when and whether or not to have children because of Roe v. Wade and the availability of birth control. On an intellectual level, it seems obvious that so much of what we experienced and are continuing to experience as women has to do with the shifting of gender roles and everyone being extraordinarily confused. Even women themselves.
This is a large part of what The Falconer is about. Growing up in the midst of these shifts—hook-up culture, sex-positive feminism, anti-pornography feminism, whether to quit your job after you have kids, if you’re more likely to be killed by a terrorist attack than find love after thirty, figuring out what kind of a woman you want to be. How these competing messages wage war within us. I think men are learning to think twice about their behavior, but what’s at the root of this conversation is empathy. Learning to see women as autonomous, fully realized people, whose bodies and minds are their own. I fear we still have a long way to go on this.
Rumpus: Lucy is steeped within different cultures, socio-economic classes, races and generations. Lucy’s day-to-day interactions with the city, whether it is in school, on the subway, playing basketball, in her apartment building, traveling uptown or downtown, lends her a sophistication and self-awareness she seems to thrive upon and yet in some ways she is also perplexed and confused by that very diversity. It seems to me that she needs to be that much more self-aware in order to navigate the diversity of the city, to have some strong hold on a forming identity against the backdrop of an ever changing city and growing population? The city as both challenge and gift to a developing young mind and identity?
Czapnik: I think you’ve tapped into the paradox that is New York and it’s the thing that every New Yorker is at least partially aware of. New York is the city of art and commerce, diversity and segregation. At the same time, there is no one universal New York experience—there are over eight million people here, and so there are eight million different New Yorks.
My experience of New York is one that is very diverse, both ethnically and economically, but only to a point. You don’t need a PhD in Sociology to notice that this is the most ethnically diverse city in the world and yet most of the people working in the service industry and blue-collar fields are black and brown and most of the patrons and white-collar workers are white. That’s not to say there isn’t an extremely large upper-middle class African American and Latino community here—there is income diversity across all ethnicities—but this is by and large a very segregated place, especially in terms of education. Anyone growing up here during any time period—whether they’re white, black, Asian, or Hispanic—are very aware of the injustices they see around them and where they fit into the equation. It’s impossible to write a book that takes place in New York and about New York without this being a part of the story.