Daisy Alpert Florin, MY LAST INNOCENT YEAR

Daisy Alpert Florin, MY LAST INNOCENT YEAR

Zibby speaks to debut author Daisy Alpert Florin about My Last Innocent Year, a propulsive, evocative, and dark coming-of-age story about Isabel Rosen and the sexual assault that throws her final semester at an elite New Hampshire school into controversy, chaos, and an affair with a married professor. Daisy talks about 90s campus culture and her protagonist’s experience with sexual assault and grief (which, Daisy shares, was unexpectedly inspired by her own mother’s premature death). Finally, Daisy shares the books she’s loved recently and describes her career trajectory, from newspaper reporter and preschool teacher to stay-at-home mom and published author.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Daisy. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss My Last Innocent Year: A Novel.

Daisy Alpert Florin: Thank you for having me. Delighted to be here.

Zibby: It’s such a joy. To set the stage for this book, I just wanted to read this quick passage so you could tell us where you weigh in on this. It goes, “‘Did you hear about Jason?’ he asked. ‘Yeah.’ I’d been shocked that Jason, Kelsey’s boyfriend, had been rejected. He was what –” I should preface this more. There is a seminar. There’s an important seminar to which you had to apply to be accepted with this fabulous woman teacher who ends up not being the teacher. She’s chitchatting with the friend who said, “Did you hear about Jason?” She said, “‘Yeah.’ I’d been shocked that Jason, Kelsey’s boyfriend, had been rejected from the seminar. He was what I thought of as a real English major. He memorized poetry, annotated short stories in The New Yorker, and was writing an incomprehensible thesis on James Joyce. All I did was write stories about ‘girls with feelings,’ as Andy put it once in a workshop. According to Kelsey, Jason was devastated.” Is this a book about girls with feelings, or this is a real English major book? How do you feel about both genres? To get us started.

Daisy: I love that you pulled out that quote, actually. I will just say that I wasn’t an English major in college, and perhaps because somewhere I had that sense that what I was interested in reading about or writing about wasn’t valuable or wasn’t of the canon. Looking back, I think I was kind of a lazy reader. I never felt like I was reading the right things, or kind of skim-reading the things I had to read in high school or doing CliffsNotes and all of that. I don’t think I ever really thought of myself as a real serious writer. That just came out. I never was in a seminar like that, but I can imagine feeling that way. I can remember someone telling me at one point when I was writing personal essays, “You need to find a big topic. You really need to write about a big topic.” I don’t know exactly what he meant by that. That “girls with feelings” thing just came to me and then persists as a motif in the book. Women’s fiction is sometimes called exactly that, women’s fiction, or siloed into this domestic stories. Those were the stories I wanted to read, so I think it makes sense that it’s what I ended up writing. Although, I think it is about big topics, not just squishy girls with feelings. Although, what’s wrong with that, right?

Zibby: Nothing’s wrong with that. I like reading about feelings. I feel like to get into the most difficult topics, you have to go really deep into a single person or single experience. That’s much easier, at least for me, to understand big concepts, by a story, by someone telling you their experience with it versus just reading about it analytically. Anyway, I just related to that so much because I often feel like a total sham. I dropped out after one class of my freshman year Chaucer English class. I was like, no thanks. I’m taking prose writing. I’m going to go back to writing personal essays. I want to read contemporary fiction. Everybody would read Chaucer. I would go home and read Bridget Jones’s Diary. I’m like, all right, this is what I like.

Daisy: Yes, I completely relate. Someone said to me once, “I don’t read any contemporary fiction.” I thought, god, I only read contemporary. I love contemporary fiction. I’m like, oh, my gosh, am I okay?

Zibby: I know. It’s so funny. Tell listeners what My Last Innocent Year is really about. How did you come to write this book?

Daisy: My Last Innocent Year tells the story of Isabel Rosen’s final semester at a fictional college in New Hampshire called Wilder College. Isabel is from New York. She’s from the pre-hipster Lower East Side. Her dad owns an appetizing store, which is a Jewish specialty food store where they sell smoked fish and herring and cream cheese. She’s from this unusual background. She’s at this posh college. It’s her final semester. She’s made her way. She’s made it into this advanced writing seminar that she’s really looking forward to. Right as the book opens, she has an unpleasant, nonconsensual sexual encounter with a peer, which rattles her enough that she eventually comes to have an affair with the professor who is teaching that seminar. It’s set in 1998. The loose backdrop is the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

It’s an exploration of campus culture, the nineties. I really just wanted to tell a story. Exactly what you were saying before, I think if I had gone in wanting to tell a story about what it meant to be a woman on the campus in the nineties and consent and all that, then the book might have felt too heavy-handed. I really just wanted to tell this story about what it felt like to come up as a young woman at that time, the late nineties. I love campus fiction. I just love the container of the college campus to tell this story. I started writing it when I was in my early forties. I was thinking about a lot of stuff that felt over. I had been young for so long. Now I wasn’t anymore. How did that happen? The book really started with me almost interrogating my younger self. Who was she then? What did she think about her life? What did she think her life was going to be? Then it just grew out of there.

Zibby: I have to say, I was a senior in 1998, so I felt like this was so perfect. I remember all of these things. I remember Princess Diana. I remember all the stuff that you referenced on campus. It was total flashback moments for me.

Daisy: That’s great.

Zibby: Also, I do remember at that time, rape was being talked about in a new way. Is it rape if you have sex without totally wanting to? How much do you have to tell someone? I remember having girlfriends who might have — they were like, was it? Wasn’t it? That was very much in the conversation back then. I don’t really know exactly where it all netted out specifically other than that that is the beginning of the awareness that led to many more things.

Daisy: I don’t know where it netted out exactly. I feel the same way. I was talking to a friend. I was saying we didn’t really talk about that — I entered college in 1991. I remember when we got to campus, we were talking about all that stuff, no means no, and a Take Back the Night march and all of that. I don’t really remember talking about it before that. It’s kind of like it was dropped onto the campus, getting all this information at the same time that you’re sort of let loose in this new environment where you’re unsupervised really for the first time. It felt really exciting. All of that was happening at the same time. We laid the groundwork earlier. I have teenagers who have had many more conversations than I did, certainly. I wanted to represent this kind of experience that I think a lot of women have. I’m not really interested in, was it rape? Was it not rape? The harm had been done to her. I just wanted to explore that. Sometimes being unable to label something leads to a lot of extra shame because you can’t identify as a victim or whatever. You just turn a lot of the blame onto yourself. I wanted to explore those gray, icky areas, icky feelings. I don’t know why I wanted to do that because it’s kind of unpleasant. A lot of people have responded to that with that same, I know women who have had that, or that’s happened to me. I think that’s important to put on the page.

Zibby: For sure. I was also interested in how you brought in the benign, if you will, stealing that went on and how that became one of her coping mechanisms to get through the loss of her mom and the upheaval in her life. That is something that so many — not so many, but it is a thing among teenagers especially and in college and all of that and yet doesn’t get talked about so much also. How did you decide to make that one of the ways that she coped?

Daisy: Thank you for bringing that up. It’s something that was important to me. Not that many people have even really picked up on that, that she is a thief. She is someone who comes from a background where she just feels lack generally. Materially, she’s not from an affluent family at all. She’s lost her mother before she came to college. Her mother had been ill. Right before she leaves for her freshman year, her mother has died. She feels that she doesn’t have enough, whatever that might mean. She comes from a background where she doesn’t feel that she has enough materially. She’s lost her mother. I thought it would be interesting to have her just take things. She’s really taking things more in high school. She kind of has stopped by the time she gets to college where she says she would’ve had ample opportunity because everyone just leaves all their things around. It’s the carelessness of her more affluent friends. It kind of creeps in a little bit. That temptation creeps in as the novel progresses. Growing up, adolescent, taking something from the convenience store or whatever and what you could get away with, you don’t see it represented that much in literature. There aren’t really consequences for it in the novel. It just runs through as a motif. Then of course, she’s having this love affair with her married professor. It’s still a little bit of that, what can I take that isn’t mine?

Zibby: Totally. Actually, with the whole love affair and everything — not to give things away. It almost becomes, not a thriller, but there’s a mystery to be solved towards the end. She’s very much a central piece of the puzzle. It’s almost as if she’s writing herself into the narrative of the school while she’s being taught. Yet she’s inserting herself into this dramatic plot as it unfolds.

Daisy: I’m glad you think that. It was one of those things that, as I wrote into the book, these plot points came later. For me, I was really trying to capture feelings and vibe and emotions. Then you’re like, I’m writing a novel, so I have to have happen. That got layered in a little bit later. It is essentially a book about a young woman trying to find her voice and trying to learn how to tell the truth. I felt like that was an important part of that journey, was for her to do something that had a consequence for her.

Zibby: The way you wrote about loss was so beautiful too. Have you gone through loss yourself? What did you tap into to write those sections?

Daisy: My mother did die, not at that exact time. Isabel loses her mother earlier than I lost my mother. It wasn’t even a conscious decision on my part. It was just like, oh, she’s going to have lost her mother. It just creeps into the narrative without me really intending to. Then I feel like the mother’s voice comes through at these moments. She imagines things she mother might have said or what she would’ve thought about something. That is how I feel sometimes when I see things. Oh, my mother would’ve loved that. She would’ve thought she was really annoying. She would’ve had a blast doing that. One of the other things I wanted to give Isabel when she came to this college was not just feeling out of place maybe culturally and in terms of her socioeconomic background, but also, she has experienced a loss that most young people when they go to college have not. It’s something else that isolates her. I think I did feel that way. I lost my mom in my late twenties. She wasn’t at my wedding. I think I felt almost a little bit of shame around that. I had suffered this thing that other people hadn’t suffered. It makes you feel on the outside of experiences. I’ve come to feel differently about that now. I remember a friend in college who lost her father while we were in college. I don’t think I ever said the right thing to her. I didn’t really know how to talk to her or help her. When I think back to that, I’m like, oh, my god, I feel like I was just a terrible friend or whatever. It was too much for my brain to process at that time. Again, I didn’t intend to have that. It just was there naturally. As the book progressed, I felt like it was a really important part.

Zibby: I’m really sorry about your mom.

Daisy: Thank you.

Zibby: Was it an illness?

Daisy: Yes. My mom was awesome. She was fifty-six. At the time, everyone’s like, your mom was so young. I was like, fifty-six is not so young. Now of course, and I’m almost fifty, it’s terribly young. She got cancer and died very quickly. She was sick for nine weeks and died. It was very shocking and very sudden. She was really in the middle of her second act in life. We lost her quickly and too soon. It was just a shock to me in my late twenties.

Zibby: I’m so sorry. Tell me about — I know you grew up in New York City. Then you went to Dartmouth where, perhaps, Wilder is based, loosely. We’ll just throw that out there. Then what happened after that? What stage of life were you in in your late twenties? Then how did you come to be writing now at this stage?

Daisy: I left college, and I worked briefly as a newspaper reporter, but then I realized I didn’t really like talking to people or talking to strangers. I was really bad at that, which makes you not a very effective newspaper reporter. Then I worked in book publishing in New York. I taught elementary school. I taught preschool. I went and got a couple of master’s degrees, not in creative writing. I had my son when I turned thirty. I just stayed home with him. I eventually had two more children. I was home with my kids for ten years. I really enjoyed those years. I taught a little bit at that time also. I was teaching preschool. Then in my late thirties, I just started writing. I had a blog because it was 2010. I was writing about my kids. I started writing personal essays. I was taking some workshops locally. I, over time, took my writing more seriously.

Then in 2015, I started to write scenes that would become this novel. Looking back, it was always there, this interest. Everything was sort of circling around words. I come from a family that — my brother’s a newspaper journalist. His wife’s a journalist. My father was in PR in the theater, so all around storytelling. My aunt was an English teacher. That’s kind of our family business, now that I can see that more clearly. At the time, I didn’t see that that was where I was heading. I don’t think I would have ever thought to be a writer when I was younger. I don’t think I had anything that I really wanted to say. Then the book, I wrote mostly through my forties, which just felt like the absolute right time for me. I turn fifty in May. It’s out now. I feel really delighted to have finally figured out what I want to do with the rest of my life. I feel really lucky that I had a chance to do this.

Zibby: That’s amazing. That’s so great. I think the forties are the best time to write. Maybe it’s because I’m in my forties, and so I’m drawn to the topics, perhaps, of a lot of people writing about this time, but I don’t think that’s it. Most of what’s coming out is written by people in their forties, fifties, and up. It’s rare younger. I think you have enough life experience and enough wisdom and enough energy to do it all.

Daisy: Also, just more confidence. When I was growing up, I felt very motivated by external validation and that I had to do things that fit other people’s perceptions of what made sense for a life. Now I can see that you just have to step boldly into your own life and do the thing that you want to do even if it doesn’t really make sense to people on the outside. When you decide in your forties when you’re the stay-at-home parent of three kids, I’m writing a novel, people are like, okay, that sounds good. When I was younger, that would’ve probably derailed me, if someone had asked me, did you go to school for that? Is that something you’ve always wanted to do? The answer to both of those questions would’ve been no. I think when I was younger, I would’ve taken that as a sign that I should just stop. Oh, I have no business doing this. Now I know. The other thing I learned later in life was that — I used to think that if something was hard, that meant you weren’t good at it. Now of course, I know that everything is hard. Basically, every single thing is hard. That has no bearing on whether you’re good at it or not. It’s just whether you stick with it.

Zibby: Everything is hard until you learn it. You can’t just know. If you let that be the gating item, then you wouldn’t try anything. Now I feel like this is what I tell my kids.

Daisy: I know. Then you try to tell your kids. You just have to watch them go through it all themselves.

Zibby: I know. Look at us. We’re just learning this now in our mid to late forties.

Daisy: I tell my kids, if you just did what I told you to, you’d be a lot better off. They cannot do that.

Zibby: No, doesn’t work. We can’t stop trying, though. Can’t stop trying. I was like you, by the way. I stayed home for eleven years, basically. I had four kids. I always loved to write. I would say I was working on something, but then I would feel like such an imposter. At some point, I was like, can I just call myself a nonpracticing writer? All my nonpracticing lawyer friends would say that. That at least gave them legitimacy.

Daisy: That’s right.

Zibby: Now that you’ve gotten the writing, not bug, but the confidence and the book out and all of that, are you gearing up to do another novel? My husband always — I guess it was some singer — I’m going to misquote it — who was like, you have your whole life to produce your first album and then six months to produce your second. He always reminds me of that. I feel like it’s the same thing with so many authors. It’s like, I’ve been kind of working on this for ten years, and now my next book’s due.

Daisy: Exactly. I had a friend who said the same thing. Your first novel is the things you’ve been thinking about for your whole life. Now they’re like, do it again in two years. I would like to write another novel. I do have something I’ve been working on. I haven’t really touched it in a couple of months because I’ve been so hyped up and excited about promoting this book and have been able to talk about it with people. I would like to write another one. I don’t know that it will be easier at all. I think it will be equally difficult, but I do hope I’ve learned something in the process of writing this one so I maybe start out on steadier ground or just don’t make exactly the same mistakes that I made early on, maybe not as many dead ends, but maybe I will. The one thing that I think you learn by writing a book is that the process is the process. The process is messy. I read once, frustration is not an interruption of the process; frustration is the process. Just knowing that for a long time, you feel like you’re not accomplishing anything — you’re writing pages that you don’t end up using. You need to do all of that to get to the finished product. Hopefully, I can hold onto that and do it again. I would like to very much.

Zibby: Amazing. Do you have any books you’ve read lately that you love or something that stuck with you from the last couple years or anything?

Daisy: I loved Catherine Newman’s book, We All Want Impossible Things, and I know your listeners loved too. I’ve been reading her stuff online for years. Her kids are the same age as mine. She really was writing about her kids in a way that made me want to write about my kids in kind of the same way. She was really an inspiration. Then actually, after that, I went back and reread All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, which I had read when it came out. Now I read it again, and I loved it all over again. I can see those two books in conversation with each other. Those are two books I’ve read recently. Looking forward to Rebecca Makkai’s book that just arrived on my doorstep yesterday.

Zibby: I read that. I really loved that book. That was really great. Different, though. It’s very different from yours. Definitely on a campus.

Daisy: The Great Believers, I loved that one very much.

Zibby: You two should do an event or something.

Daisy: That would be fun. I think we’re both in New Hampshire too.

Zibby: Set in New Hampshire? Yeah, but hers was a boarding school. You’ll find out.

Daisy: Honestly, my brain can’t focus on anything right now but an Instagram post.

Zibby: I totally get it. Daisy, I’m so excited for you. So great. I love hearing these stories of persistence and books that are about the feelings, girls’ feelings but with deeper stuff behind it. This is how we connect. I think it’s great. We connect over shared experiences.

Daisy: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure talking to you.

Zibby: You too. Are you based in New York, by the way? Where are you?

Daisy: I live in Connecticut. I live in Greenwich.

Zibby: Perhaps our paths will cross soon.

Daisy: I come to New York a lot. I’m actually going today.

Zibby: Amazing. Come on over. You could’ve done it here.

Daisy: I know. I’ll just have a knock, ring your doorbell.

Zibby: Okay. I’ll talk to you later.

Daisy: Bye, Zibby.

Zibby: Bye.

Daisy Alpert Florin, MY LAST INNOCENT YEAR

MY LAST INNOCENT YEAR by Daisy Alpert Florin

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