Amanda Brainerd, AGE OF CONSENT

Amanda Brainerd, AGE OF CONSENT

Zibby Owens: Hi. Today’s day two of my July Book Blast which I started yesterday with Memoir Monday. Today is Debut Tuesday. I’m going to be featuring a number of incredible debut authors whose books have come out during the quarantine or around this time or are great beach reads and things you should definitely start reading now. I will be doing this for ten days in July with lots and lots of episodes so that you all can enjoy it while it’s still the summer. I hope you enjoy today’s Debut Tuesday. Listen to all of them or some of them. Spread the word.

I loved talking to Amanda Brainerd about her debut novel Age of Consent. Amanda is a New York City real estate broker, wife, and mother of three. She graduated from Harvard College and earned a Master of Architecture from Columbia University after being expelled from Choate Rosemary Hall boarding school in the tenth grade. This is her first novel. Doesn’t that make you want to read her book? Anyway, listen. I had a great conversation with her. I bet you’ll really enjoy it.

Welcome, Amanda. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Amanda Brainerd: I’m thrilled to be here. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: I read that you also grew up on the Upper East Side of New York. I did not know you. Maybe we’re different ages or something.

Amanda: I know. I think you’re a little younger than I am. That’s my suspicion.

Zibby: Maybe. I’m forty-three.

Amanda: Yes. You’re ten years younger than I am.

Zibby: We missed each other a little bit. I loved all the references to everything New York in Age of Consent. It was amazing. I felt, especially in quarantine-ish now, being able to be on the FDR Drive and the clubs, all that stuff, it was just really awesome.

Amanda: What’s really funny, though, is I actually made a few errors about things like the Domino sign and which direction Prince Street goes. Actually, the copy editors at Viking caught that. Thanks goodness because I didn’t want to look like a moron.

Zibby: I would’ve been calling you out on the direction of Prince Street right now had you not fixed it, so good thing.

Amanda: Exactly.

Zibby: For listeners who don’t know what Age of Consent is about, this is your debut novel. Congratulations.

Amanda: Thank you. It’s very exciting. It’s been a very long journey. The story is about three young women, they’re fifteen and sixteen, coming of age trying to become adults in an era where the adult role models are also in deep crisis and trying to navigate being a teenager and relationships with boys, relationships with older men which in some instances seem more appealing than the fumbling boys their age, and parental damage, parents who have their own issues and are grappling with their own problems and so are unable to parent in the way that maybe the girls would like them to. It starts off at boarding school. The second half takes place, as you were mentioning, in New York City. It spans a year from 1983 to 1984. There was a lot of fact-checking. For example, there was this situation where I had, in one of the offices — two of the girls have summer internships. One of them was working in an office with a fax machine. They figured out that, actually, fax machines did not start getting used until the mid-eighties, which just seems amazing to me. There was some historic detail that needed to be made more accurate.

Zibby: I clearly remember when we got a fax machine in my house. It had to have been like ’86, ’87. I’m going to have to look it up. I remember it so well with the shiny paper because my friends and I would start faxing each other handwritten notes at night.

Amanda: It was a very exciting time, the slow onset of technology back then.

Zibby: I’m still amazed by the way kids now, I’m making myself sound old, but can use technology. I was just with my daughter doing an online awards ceremony for her school. In the corner, she was FaceTiming with friends. They were kind of watching together. I was like, this is cool. I wish I had had this.

Amanda: It just makes them so much more connected to one another. That’s another thing that is a big theme in my novel, is the isolation of the teenage years and the way you feel like you’re the only one who’s going through these things. You look at other teenagers and you think, why can’t I be like her? when actually, they’re probably looking at you and saying, why can’t I be like her? A general feeling like, this is only happening to me, I’m the only one suffering, and how you just live in this bubble of your interior life during those years.

Zibby: I remember the advice my mother would give me. Everyone else is so concerned about themselves. They’re not thinking about you. I was like, no, I’m the only one who’s self-conscious.

Amanda: That is such good advice. I wish I’d gotten that.

Zibby: I didn’t believe her. Now that I’m a grown-up, she was right.

Amanda: It’s probably, actually, still the case to a certain degree.

Zibby: It’s probably still the case. You’re a hundred percent right. Tell me the journey of this novel and how it’s coming out now and all the rest.

Amanda: I wish I could tell you the fairytale, that I wrote this novel and I immediately got an agent and I immediately got it published, but it was not like that at all. It started in 2009, believe it or not, the journey began. I had fellow writer Nick Paumgarten, who’s a New Yorker writer who’s a friend and went to St. Bernard’s, over for supper with his wife. Nick and I were just talking about what it was like to be parents now and what parents were like back then. Then we started to discuss the incredible lack of parenting that was happening in the early eighties. For example, there are these famous four brothers who had this duplex on Fifth Avenue. Their father died and their mother went to the South of France for the entire summer and left four teenage boys alone in this gigantic apartment. Nothing good happened. All of a sudden while I was talking to Nick, the lightbulb went off and I thought, I’ve got to write this story. I have to tell this story. I began to interview the people who I thought would have the richest stories and the people that I immediately gravitated to automatically. I had all those interviews transcribed.

I initially thought of this novel not as a novel, but as an oral history sort of in the vein of Jean Stein’s Edie where different people are telling a story that all adds up into one whole. I quickly realized that the truth was very constraining. I wanted to tell the story and the emotion of the things that had actually happened in my own way without having to stick to exactly what did happen, and so I made it into a novel. I sent it around to a bunch of agents. I didn’t know anything about what I was doing. I sent it to a friend of my mother’s or a friend of a colleague. I think I got two rejections. I was so painfully wounded by that that I put the book away. I wrote two other books that I also put away. The third one, actually, I was — Fran Lebowitz the writer and pundit, I would call her, mouthpiece — she’s a hilarious, brilliant person — asked me to read the third novel. It was a young adult novel. She read it. She said, “You’re such a good writer. Why are you writing a book like this?” I tried to explain young adult novels to her. She just didn’t buy the genre of young adult. She was like, “Either they’re books or they’re not books.” She showed it to an editor friend of hers who loved it and convinced me to rewrite it. I did. I got an agent. Here we are. It would never have happened if it weren’t for Fran.

Zibby: Wow. I think I want to write an article and call it “Don’t even try to sell your first two novels.”

Amanda: That’s a really good one.

Zibby: I keep hearing over and over and over again, “I wrote two novels, but my third novel…” So I think maybe you just need to write those two with no expectation of ever selling them even though you think that at the outset that you might. It’s like impossible.

Amanda: I think you’re right. I think the problem is writers aren’t just hatched out of an egg. It took me a long time to actually figure how to write a novel. It’s not just as simple as telling a story. The first draft was almost all dialogue because as an author, I didn’t have a sense of my own authorship. I hid behind dialogue to tell a story when I should’ve actually just been able to take the reins and tell that story in another way. Too much dialogue’s exhausting for the reader. It took me a long time to figure out the right balance and of course the classic show don’t tell and no adverbs, all kinds of things that are rules are a reason. Although, you can always break the rules, but you have to do it right.

Zibby: It’s like if you were an artist and you were trying to learn how to paint, you wouldn’t try to sell, necessarily, your first two or three paintings. You would practice and practice. I feel like because books take so long to write and they’re so labor-intensive and so personal and everything else, people feel — I don’t know. People don’t give themselves enough leeway to know that this is a part of the process. Anyway, I’ll get off this bandwagon here.

Amanda: I think what’s really interesting about writing is everyone experiences it very differently. I constantly am hearing about authors who really struggle, and I think are in pain, while they write. For me, it’s the most fun. The things that get woven in from my real life and the little jokes that I — it’s like knitting a sweater. I can weave in these fun little threads. Then if one of those threads doesn’t work, I can unravel it and thread in something new. I love it. I think it’s incredible. When I first started writing, it was very adrenal. I felt so excited by telling this story.

Zibby: You have three kids, correct?

Amanda: I do. They’re a little older. I only have one left in high school and two in college. They all went to the same thing, the same private school that I went to and all of that.

Zibby: Did you have boarding school in the mix as well like in your book?

Amanda: No. I didn’t allow them because of my own terrible experience of boarding school. Boarding school was not permitted. To be honest, I didn’t have a child who wanted to go to boarding school. I think if I’d had someone who really needed a change or was a great athlete — we’re not a family of athletes. We didn’t really investigate the boarding school thing. My husband also went to boarding school. I really was opposed to it. Also, we have so few years with our children. I wanted them to be with me as much as possible. I miss them terribly. Now they’re all home, of course, because of coronavirus which is in many ways a blessing. I wanted them with me close.

Zibby: I have a son who goes to boarding school. I have four kids. He goes. Well, he’s been home since February. I didn’t want to send my kids to boarding school either, but this was so right for him. I feel like it’s like my sacrifice. It’s good for him. He’s thriving in every way, but it’s nothing I thought I would do. It hurts. It really hurts to have him away.

Amanda: If it’s better for him and he’s having a wonderful time, then it’s easy to justify and make it understandable.

Zibby: It’s true. Your glimpses in the book of boarding school did not exactly make me feel better about my decision with some of the things going on.

Amanda: I think things are very different now. I think there are still teachers that don’t behave properly. Let’s just put it that way. I think that the students are a lot — they’re squarer nowadays. Maybe I’m naïve. Maybe it’s my own children. My kids are pretty square. I think a lot of people’s kids are a lot squarer than we were back in the day. I think to myself, if my daughters did anything close to the things that I did — my mother always thought — the minute I had a daughter, she said, “This is Nana’s revenge.” I was lucky. My girls are so good. I feel like they’re sort of pathologically well-behaved. Maybe I’m naïve. Who knows? They’re definitely not going to Studio 54 at two o’clock in the morning.

Zibby: I know. I couldn’t even believe some of the things in the book like even having a permission slip to be able to smoke at boarding school and all your references to what type of brand cigarettes. You seem like a Lucky girl, but you’re smoking Benson & Hedges. I was like, oh, my gosh.

Amanda: You were dying for a cigarette reading it, right? I’m just kidding. That’s true, you could smoke. First of all, when I went to college you could smoke in the library. They had ashtrays all the way down the big reading table. This is late eighties. It’s so incomprehensible. Yes, as a teenager, you could be fourteen years old and there was a permission slip that was sent home, can your daughter or son smoke? Check here yes or no. They would actually come and bust the kids who were smoking who didn’t have permission.

Zibby: So funny. Oh, my gosh.

Amanda: I know. It’s hard to imagine. I think there are a lot of things in the novel like that, though, Zibby, that I think are shocking to people who didn’t experience them firsthand. I will tell you that I toned down the truth to make it more palatable. I hear a lot of times that authors do that because the truth is not believable sometimes. That’s another reason that I wanted to write it as a novel. I wanted to get to the truth of the actual moment or emotion but not have to actually tell the real story.

Zibby: Very interesting. Your book also had a lot of references to the characters that were Jewish and the characters that were not Jewish and the difference there and feeling almost other than at a very WASP-y enclave. Can you talk a little bit about that decision?

Amanda: It’s funny because I never thought about it because I was in New York City where basically I’ve considered half the population to be Jewish. Probably twenty-five percent, maybe I’m exaggerating, but twenty-five percent of my class at Nightingale was Jewish. Nightingale wasn’t even a particularly Jewish school. It was just normal to be Jewish. I got to boarding school. First of all, I was the only one with dark hair in the whole school. Everyone was blond. I was also very artsy. I had an asymmetrical hairdo. I wore black. I would be considered a goth now. I arrived at this lacrosse-playing, flouncy-skirt environment. I couldn’t believe it. Girls actually had Farrah Fawcett hairdos. I’d never seen that before. I thought it was a joke. They looked at me like I was a specimen in a jar. I was such a fish out of water. I was really unprepared for that. I was really unprepared.

There was a significant amount of anti-Semitism. I think it was really just ignorance. I think they just didn’t know any Jews from where they were from. There weren’t any. It’s interesting because my father went to the same boarding school. I spoke to him in researching and working on this book and thinking about the question of my Jewishness in that environment. I asked him how it was for him. He was there in the fifties. He said, “It was horribly anti-Semitic, but I couldn’t, as a kid, understand that that was what was going on. I hated it there. I didn’t have any friends.” He said, “Maybe I was kind of a jerk also.” You were an other. You were an alien. I’m sure that was also and even more true for students of color in that environment. I really think all of that has changed significantly, I hope.

Zibby: It’s true. I also think some environments and some sports and some little pockets are more ripe for that than others. I remember when I went to Yale. I had played Lacrosse in high school and, like you growing up in New York City, never really thought twice about it. I decided to try to walk onto the lacrosse team at Yale which was the stupidest decision and lasted maybe two weeks. First of all, I’m 5’2″. Everybody on the team was like six feet tall and long blond hair and so athletic and like, oh, I had the most assists in the nation last year. I’m like, I was pretty decent at my terrible school team. I don’t even know what possessed me. Anyway, Yom Kippur was while I was trying to make this team. I was fasting and I didn’t want to tell anybody because nobody even spent a second talking about it or acknowledged that it was a holiday. I didn’t want to not make the team because of it. I went on this four-mile run with no food or water. Halfway through, I collapsed, not collapsed, but had to start walking and finally told the one girl next to me. She was like, “Why didn’t you say anything?” I gave up. It was that and the communal showers also did not sound like a good thing. That was not going to happen for me. That was not going to be for me. Anyway, I relate very much to that feeling. I think anyone who has any sort of feeling of ever being different than the bulk of a group can relate to what happens in this book.

Amanda: It was just a shock for me because in New York I was popular. I was cool. All of a sudden, I was this weirdo. My roommate was from Texas and was very conservative and wore frilly blouses. It was sort of a fashion thing going on then, the prairie look. Every couple weeks a new box would arrive from San Antonio, Texas, with all of these frilly blouses and flouncy skirts and little lace-up boots. She wore petticoats.

Zibby: No! Come on.

Amanda: I swear. She literally thought I was going to infect her with my new wave music and my asymmetrical hairdo and my David Bowie posters. As you noticed in the book, there are a lot of David Bowie references. I had my entire room plastered with David Bowie. She actually did have a poster on her wall of a kitten hanging on a limb of a tree. It said “Hang in there, baby” underneath. That’s in the book. I think I put that in.

Zibby: That is in the book, yes. That’s so funny.

Amanda: She had fuzzy kittens. I had David Bowie. It was a little bit of a contrast.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. At least the character in the book had somebody to bond with over it. You gave her a friend to be like, can you believe we had the sign? She’s like, no way. That was nice.

Amanda: I know. That was true, though.

Zibby: Now that you have a book coming out — you have a whole other career, right? You’re a real estate broker. Is that right?

Amanda: I am. I work very hard as a real estate broker. I have a lot of business. It’s very hectic. I’ve been working crazily since the coronavirus, believe it or not. People say to me, I can’t believe you have three kids and you have this career in real estate and you wrote a novel and you’re getting it published. How do you do it all? I’m sort of like, I don’t know. I just do it. I just don’t think about it. How did you have time to write a novel? is the question I get a lot. You know from your own life, everyone knows from their own life, if they really want to do something, they will find time no matter what. Nothing will stop them. They will get up at four o’clock in the morning. It was really not a choice. It was a compulsion. It was something that I still — I’m working on my next novel now. I’m going to keep doing it. I’m going to make it work.

Zibby: What’s your next novel about?

Amanda: I’ll just give you a little. I don’t want to have any spoilers because it’s a little bit more of a thriller than Age of Consent. It’s about two women who look exactly alike. Years ago when my children were in preschool, the head of the preschool said to me, “I never know, Mrs. Brainerd, if it’s you or Mrs. Reed. You look exactly alike. All of the administrators have this problem. Is it Mrs. Brainerd or Mrs. Reed?” I was like, who’s this Mrs. Reed? You’re always hearing, you look exactly like so-and-so, and it’s never true. I was like, what if this woman actually looks like exactly like me? Then I thought, what if you meet someone who really does look exactly like you? That’s what the book is about.

Zibby: That’s very cool. That’s awesome.

Amanda: We all think in a way that we — I don’t know if you feel this way — that we have some kind of a double somewhere in the world. It’s really about that. It’s an investigation of female identity.

Zibby: I can’t wait for that one. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Amanda: One of my best friends from college is a screenwriter in Los Angeles. When I first started doing this, she gave me some very good advice. She said the formula for writing is ass plus chair. Just do it. Just keep working on it. Revise. Read your work out loud. Don’t get discouraged. Also, have reasonable expectations. Somebody said to me when I first started writing my novel, they’re like, “It’ll probably take about ten years to get this to the point where it’s published.” I said, “I don’t spend ten years doing anything.” Ten years later, I’m getting my novel published. So I think to understand how long this really takes and to be kind to yourself and not set your expectations so high that you’ll always be failing because there’s so much rejection involved in this process. I’m now a hardened, seasoned writer, but in the beginning, the rejection from those two first agents, I felt it physically. It hurt me physically. It’s terribly painful. Writing is so personal. I would just say perseverance and not taking no for an answer. Just keep going. Keep moving forward. Don’t look behind. Keep moving forward. Learn from the negative experiences. Use them to make yourself stronger and better. Just keep going. I was listening to your podcast that you did with Lily King recently. I love her writing. She said exactly the same thing, perseverance.

Zibby: If you and Lily King say it, then that’s what everyone’s got to do.

Amanda: It’s true. And just give yourself a break. Just keep at it.

Zibby: Awesome. I love it. Thanks, Amanda. Thanks for being on the show.

Amanda: Thanks, Zibby.

Zibby: Thanks for a memory lane of New York in another time and all the rest.

Amanda: And those painful teenage years. It was so nice to meet you.

Zibby: You too.

Amanda: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure. I hope to meet in person one of these days.

Amanda: It’ll happen.

Zibby: Okay. Buh-bye.

Amanda: Bye.

Zibby: Thanks for listening to one of my Debut Tuesday episodes in the July Book Blast series. I really hope you enjoyed it. It’s really my pleasure to bring you some debut authors you might not have heard of or have listened to. Enjoy. I hope you really got a lot out of it.

Amanda Brainerd, AGE OF CONSENT