ABOVE: AMY SOHN. IMAGE COURTESY OF DAVID SHANKBONE
If you have three nannies, a seven-figure income, and a boat, it's your duty to be interesting to the middle class. In Amy Sohn's latest novel, Motherland (Simon & Schuster), the author dives into the lascivious secret lives of affluent, exclusive "brownstoners." Sohn doesn't hold back in her narrative, and reading Motherland is an exercise in adrenaline management.
We chatted with Sohn about how Park Slope parents should kick off their boat shoes, loosen their Hermès scarves, start talking sex and secrets, and admit that being damaged is just part of the human experience.
LIANNE STOKES: Why are people so fucked up?
AMY SOHN: You mean in my novel or in general?
STOKES: Both. I feel like I know your characters in real life.
SOHN: Yes, these characters are messed up, but they are so much more interesting, conflicted, human, and real than the people I actually meet. I don't say that to shit all over my neighbors, because I think that they are real and they are struggling, but what I'm getting at is there's a scene in my book where a mother and a gay father are at the park with their kids and he's showing her how Grindr works. These are the interactions that I crave. That would be a really awesome playground day for me. [laughs] I wrote about a version of Park Slope that I would prefer to live in. Where my characters are engaging in extreme behavior and sharing it with their friends. My book is a response to the fact that people are so coy with their personal problems, and I think that it's a shame.
STOKES: No one has ever opened up to you about something scandalous?
SOHN: I do have some female friends who have confessed to infidelity, but to use an example from the book, not a single one has opened up to me about her husband leaving her for a transsexual prostitute, but I'm sure they're out there.
STOKES: What you're craving are interactions that are real. People today are cardboard cutouts.
SOHN: I want badass friends. And when I say "badass," I don't mean dysfunctional, drug-addicted people who neglect their children. I just mean that you're at a school function and someone makes a little bit of a joke that maybe has a twist or edge to it. You meet a guy and he flirts with you, but that doesn't mean he's looking to cheat on his wife. He's just having fun, and you're having fun too.
STOKES: There's such edge to our popular culture. Why do you think it hasn't translated to our daily interactions in New York City, of all places?
SOHN: The difference [in] parenting now is that people are staying in the city to raise children. When my parents raised me in Brooklyn Heights in the '70s they were rebels. It was such an unpleasant place to live; it was like living in a warzone. Now the suburbs have come to New York City, and they have brought with them a certain kind of small-mindedness. Through my fiction, I'm trying to open people's minds with characters that aren't the functional, having-sex-2.2-times-a-week types, because I wouldn't want to read about them. You can't write a book about happy people.
STOKES: You wrote about infidelity from a straight man's perspective, a gay man's perspective, and woman's perspective. Do you think men and women cheat for different reasons?
SOHN: It sounds like a horrible stereotype, but I feel men cheat more for sex and women cheat for neglect that includes sex but can also include emotional neglect.
STOKES: Some women feel they are not respected by their mates. They feel invalidated and invisible.
SOHN: That's why I think it's important that women work. You have an alternative version of interaction that enriches you. It gives you other experiences to talk about with your husband and your friends that go beyond the world of family.
STOKES: Do you see a lot of this in your community?
SOHN: Park Slope is becoming so affluent that there isn't even talk about these women going back to work; that's how much their husbands are making. The good thing about it is I'm seeing a lot more volunteerism, but it's volunteerism in our community. We have too many parents helping out in the cafeteria. There has to be a school 20 blocks away where they would kill for this kind of involvement. What would happen if you weren't allowed to help at your own school, but at a disadvantaged school? Would we see the same numbers? I don't know.
STOKES: One of my favorite characters in Motherland was the stroller-stealing, middle-aged mom, who, sick of the disrespect of these new mothers, swept up their Bugaboos and stored them in her basement. As creepy as that was, I loved her. What was your inspiration for the character?
SOHN: There's this whole sect of 30-something moms who take up the city sidewalk with their strollers, cell phone in one hand, latte in the other. Then there's the kid who is not even in the stroller....
STOKES: [laughs] That's the best, when they're like six and strolling alongside the empty stroller.
SOHN: I know. I wondered what these women in their mid-60s, who have lived there for 30 years and were responsible for the gentrification of the area, think of that disrespect. What's it like to live in a neighborhood you can no longer afford and to be invisible to your new, affluent neighbors? You're now an outsider when you were an insider. My husband and I were at a very small café in Park Slope. A mother came in with two small children and her older child, about three or four, just stood by the door and people could not get in the café because they didn't want to crush this toddler. Eventually when we were about to leave, I just lifted the child up so we could leave. There's a blind selfishness there. The mother was preventing a business from doing business because she couldn't go over and scoop up her kid.
STOKES: I love that. Most people wouldn't have the balls to do that.
SOHN: At least the mother didn't freak out and say, "Why are you touching my child?" But it finally made her pay attention.
STOKES: One of your characters, Marco, is a gay man uses Grindr to get laid on the fly. Do you think straight people will ever create their own Grindr?
SOHN: A straight Grindr... I don't think so. But if you think about it, Craigslist's "casual encounters" has been used for random sex, but unlike Grindr, it doesn't have the GPS function. As a woman, I'd feel very unsafe about someone knowing where I live. You have to think about what your end game is. If your end game is to get married and have kids, do you want to do that from 500 feet away and give oral sex?
SOHN: That could be the story of how Mommy and Daddy met.
MOTHERLAND IS OUT TODAY.