Zibby speaks to Slate editor Dan Kois about Vintage Contemporaries, a warm, big-hearted, and funny New York City coming-of-age novel about a literary agent assistant and the two friendships that change her life. Dan describes his protagonist Em, touching on her big-city aspirations and publishing job disillusionments (which, he reveals, were inspired by his own experiences in the industry). He also explains how this book came to be (it involves bits and pieces being written since the 90s and a more recent midlife crisis) and chats about his experiences in journalism, podcasting, and parenting.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Dan. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Vintage Contemporaries.

Dan Kois: Thanks for having me, Zibby.

Zibby: It’s a pleasure. Please tell listeners what your book is about.

Dan: I like to call it a comedy about broken friendships. In 1990s New York City, a young book publishing assistant makes two incredibly important friends to her, friends of her heart, the kind of friends you make in your twenties where you sort of eat each other up. Then she loses them both. Then later in the 2000s in New York City, she’s a book editor. She’s a new mom. These two friends come back into her life in different ways. She has to decide, do I want these friendships back even if they can’t really be what they once were?

Zibby: Wow, that’s a great pitch. I love hearing great pitches.

Dan: I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

Zibby: It shows. A lot of people think about it a lot, but it doesn’t make it great. There is a passage I have to read to you right away because I’m taking issue with it in terms of what makes good readers special. Hold on, I have to find this passage.

Dan: Let me roll up my sleeves and get ready to fight.

Zibby: Yes. This undermines my entire life here. Hold on, let me get my glasses. This is about the power of reading and all of that. You said, “Even as her belief in her own specialness had bled away, she’d managed an English degree and even some modest undergraduate renown as a writer. It helped that she simply read more than everyone else, and so while she knew her short stories were as derivative as those of her classmates, they were often derivative of writers her classmates had not yet read. All thanks to a skill that Emily knew was a fluke, an accident of eye-brain coordination, no different from if she could roll her tongue.” I don’t know. I don’t know how the readers feel about that. She could read really quickly and all of that. Tell me about that.

Dan: Part of the argument of the book is about figuring out what role art plays in our lives. I think a lot of people who grow up as readers, who grew up loving books end up with an image of themselves as, the person I am revolves around reading and writing. I’m going to be a writer. I’m going to be a novelist. I’m going to make art. Part of Emily’s journey in this book is figuring out that she can love books and reading and, in fact, be committed to making art, but that doesn’t mean she has to be an artist. That doesn’t mean she has to put that kind of ownness on herself. There are other ways she can facilitate the making of beautiful things. She ends up being an editor, a totally different job, but one that, as you know, is crucially important but one that doesn’t get the glory of the novelist up in her garret making the next beautiful thing.

Zibby: Interesting. Tell me about coming up with your characters. You play with everything. You have such a great sense of humor. It’s a very subtle undercurrent of funny. I love it. Emily and then Em, they both have the same names. They have to be like, okay, which one are we? Talk about those two characters and about their friendship. Were we talking about the Limelight here when you reference this club from the nineties?

Dan: I’ll leave it to readers to figure out which club that Madonna once danced in.

Zibby: I’ll have to google it.

Dan: Our main character finds herself in at the beginning of the book feeling distinctly uncomfortable like it’s not her space. She’s a young woman named Emily who has just landed in New York after college. She grew up in Wisconsin and went to school in Connecticut. This is sort of her first big city experience. It’s 1991. She meets another Emily, a much tougher, more loud, more agro, more in-your-face Emily, one who seems to her like the city version of her country mouse, the person she could be if maybe she just really got it together. They become instant friends, but as you say, they have to figure out who’s going to be who. It would be too confusing, as they say, to the reader if they were both called Emily. The stronger, more agro Emily immediately declares our main character Em. “You’re Em,” she says. “I’m not Em. I could only ever be Emily, but you can change your name.” She does. I think a lot of people have friendships like this in their twenties where you already feel like the same person. I thought it would be fun in this book to play with that really literally and give them the same name, make them grapple with the ways that they can’t tell each other apart, even from one another. Of course, the counsel I’d give to every writer is that if you make a decision like that, be prepared for four years of intense, terrible copyediting discovering that you constantly have made mistakes and confused your own characters, Em and Emily, over and over again.

Zibby: There’s no find and replace and search and all of those things.

Dan: No, it’s a totally disaster.

Zibby: That’s so funny. I didn’t realize with the title, you were really referring to Vintage, the publisher, and vintage contemporaries are the type of the book that would come out, a whole brand of book as if I said Penguin Random House contemporaries. That was also an insider publishing reference. Tell me about that.

Dan: Vintage Contemporaries was a beloved imprint, a paperback imprint, in the late eighties and early nineties that was published by, then, just Random House. The first book ever published in that was Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, a huge best-seller, a zeitgeist-defining book about being young in New York and the book, I think it’s very clear from this novel, that Em, our Em, the Em of this novel, read before she went to New York and thought, oh, geez, is my life going to be like that? Do I have to do that much coke? Is that the way it works? Those represent to her, a kind of publishing she aspires to. She aspires to publish hip, new fiction, edgy New York stories. Over the course of the novel, she discovers that that’s not actually the kind of book she loves the most. It’s the not the kind of book that this Vintage Contemporaries is. I like to think I was once hip, but I’m certainly not hip anymore. This book is not particularly edgy. It is sweet and a little bit soft and very gentle, but it’s still about living in New York and about navigating those problems. Part of the argument of the book is, you can have a big-city life, you can have a life in the arts that doesn’t require you going to clubs, snorting cocaine, and being mean to people.

Zibby: Yes. I survived the nineties in New York City. I did not have to do cocaine to get through it. I survived. It’s fine.

Dan: I survived being a young person in New York City. I had a bunch of low-level traumas and things that went wrong. In the end, I was okay.

Zibby: Wait, I want to hear about the low-level traumas, or even the bigger-level traumas. Let’s just go right into it.

Dan: Like Em, I also worked in book publishing as a young person. I also really fucked it up. Am I allowed to swear on your podcast?

Zibby: Sure.

Dan: I just really screwed it up. I found out I wasn’t attuned to the job I had in very difficult and painful ways by messing up with the careers of authors I cared about. That super sucked. It also was a thing that I found my way through and that did not then define the rest of my life. I worked for lousy bosses, historically lousy, like, “you’ve read about them being canceled” lousy bosses. I got through it. I have gotten on with my life and become a person who I’m happy to be. That was the journey I wanted Em to be on. If bad things happen to her, I wanted her to be okay. That was the kind of book I needed to write in my mid-forties.

Zibby: There really isn’t enough about recovering — maybe there is, and I haven’t searched for it — recovering from abusive bosses. There’s so much about recovering from abusive relationships. There’s this whole undercurrent. Who has not had a boss make her cry? I’ve cried in the bathroom at so many jobs when I was younger. That’s just what happened. Yet what do we do with all that? Nobody really takes that forward and analyzes that later. It’s just shoved away, aside from Me Too. I don’t mean Me Too. I just mean a not-so-nice boss.

Dan: What do we do with that in an era now in which that kind of boss hasn’t disappeared? I think young employees, especially in creative industries, are way less likely to encounter those kinds of bosses now, in part because of the changes that that generation, the younger generation of twenty to thirty-five-year-olds, have created in the workplace, which in general, has been great for working environments, even if old people like me struggle to understand it sometimes. What do you do with the experiences that you think of as formative? My bad bosses were terrible, but they also created me in a lot of ways. They showed me how not to work, how not to behave. They also probably made me better at what I did, even though it sucked while I was doing it. Then how do I process and think about that kind of experience in an era when that kind of experience is seen instantly and universally as a trauma from which you might never recover?

Zibby: Interesting. When you set out to write the book, which pieces of it, as you went through it, were like, “I have to include this piece. This is a scene I must include because this is so funny”? Did you have a list of scenes before you started and said, “This one has to go in”?

Dan: Absolutely not. This book was written in a comically haphazard manner. It was written because I turned forty and I had a mini midlife crisis about how I had not written a novel even though I ostensibly had a master’s degree in novel writing. I’m a journalist. I write tons of nonfiction. I’ve written several nonfiction books, but I’d always thought of myself the way that Em thinks of herself, as a storyteller, but I wasn’t telling any stories. I was telling stories to my kids at night. That was very nice, but I was not inventing things. That drove me a little bit crazy. For about three or four years, whenever I had the energy at 10:45 at night after my kids went to bed, I would sit out on the porch for half an hour and just write a scene, any scene. I had no dream of them cohering into anything. I had no idea where they were coming from or what they would be. I was just writing scenes. I chose a woman at the center of it simply as a practical kludge so that I would remember to just not write about myself. Every time I went into a new scene, I could be like, oh, right, Dan, this isn’t you. This is this totally different character you’re inventing. I did that for three or four years. Then I had a hundred and fifty pages. Then I looked at all of it and put my editor hat on and said, okay, if this was a novel, how would it work? How would you put it together? How would it fit together? From that, that is where Vintage Contemporaries came from. It came from a bunch of scenes I wrote in the nineties in New York and the two-thousands in New York. I didn’t know how they went together. Finally, I decided, you know what, I’m just going to say they’re all the same character and go for it.

Zibby: Wow, that’s so cool.

Dan: It’s cool, but I would also not recommend it as technique because it means that it ends up taking you six or seven years to write a book. At my age, who has that kind of time?

Zibby: It’s cool that it worked out. Let me say that.

Dan: It’s great. I’m going to try to, maybe, write the next one faster.

Zibby: I feel like people, when they’re writing and they have all these moments where they’re like, I’m just going to do this, they put themselves under so much pressure. I don’t know what this is going to be, so it’s nothing. It turns out it’s not nothing.

Dan: It can be something. Part of the point is that you can just decide that it’s something. You can decide that the thing that you’re working on is a book, whether it really is or not. Then that is the future that you are making for yourself. You just need to do a shitload of work to make it happen.

Zibby: Take me back. How did you get into this industry to begin with? Where are you from? Were you a big reader? What were you like in high school? Just give me more of a background here.

Dan: I, like Em, grew up in Wisconsin. I, like Em, am a very fast reader. That did define my childhood. We diverged then later because I didn’t end up in New York until much later in my life. While I was doing an MFA in fiction, I worked for a literary agency in Washington, DC, and really flopped at both of those things. I flopped at my MFA. I flopped at that literary agency. Then I went out in the world and just tried to write. I wanted to be writing arts criticism. I wanted to be reporting. I wanted to be doing journalism of some kind. I eventually found my way to Slate magazine, where I’ve been working for eleven years now as an editor and a writer. I’ve carved out a niche for myself at that magazine writing about culture and parenting and stuff that I’m interested in. I definitely remember those days in my twenties when I was flailing and trying to figure out what it is I could possibly be good at after a whole teenagehood spent being really, really good at reading fast and not understanding that only in some fields is that a marketable skill.

Zibby: How fast are we talking here? Do you have any metrics associated with this?

Dan: I’ve never done a page-per-minute deal. I definitely can knock off a solid-length novel in a couple of hours. Amazingly, my daughter, who’s now seventeen, reads so much faster than me that I now ask her the same thing my parents asked me when I would be like, okay, I’m done with this book. I grill her. Oh, yeah? What happens in that book? What happens in the middle? What happens to this character? She always knows. She just reads really freaking fast. It is evident to me that though I haven’t necessarily seen it, my brain is clearly deteriorating, being subsumed into hers. She has stolen all my power.

Zibby: I’ve actually found that the speed of reading is not fixed. It’s a variable skill. I have sped up the more I’ve read the last few years. I’ve always read quickly myself, but the more and more I read and the more I work at it, the faster I get, like running. Not that I’m getting any faster at running.

Dan: Yes, you’re training, in a way. It also varies, of course, according to what you’re reading and your engagement with the material. Certain kinds of books fly. Certain kinds of books are work. That work isn’t always bad. Sometimes it can be really rewarding, but it’s a totally different experience. For those of us who have always thought of ourselves as reading people, often, we share that weird skill of just being able to process stuff fast. That meant that from an early age, that was the thing we were good at. I think of the friends I had in high school who were just natural athletes. They were always rewarded for that instantly. From a very young age, people said, you’re so great at baseball. You have such a great arm. You’re so fast. I was fast, but only with a book in front of me. I was very slow in every other capacity.

Zibby: Most of those people have slowed down anyway.

Dan: As have I. All our bodies become decrepit in different ways. That’s just the way it goes.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that’s really funny. You also podcast, as I do, obviously, because here we are. Tell me about getting into podcasting and also podcasting with your daughter. Tell me about that.

Dan: The magazine I work at, Slate, was a real forerunner in the podcasting revolution. We had one of the first commercial podcasts ever released. When parenting young children had completely taken over my life, as it does for basically anyone who has any kid between zero and twelve, I thought, this is the thing I’m thinking about the most. This is all I want to talk about. Slate needs a parenting podcast. I pitched one at Slate. They said, “Sure.” I launched it with Allison Benedikt, who was then at Slate. She’s now at the Opinion section of The New York Times. For many years, we, every week, would get together and talk about our triumphs and fails as parents, talk about what was in the news, answer questions from listeners. It really connected us to this amazing community, an amazing, supportive, and sometimes critical community, of other parents out there who were having the same struggles as us and who were all struggling, most of all, not to judge each other too harshly. That is the thing that every parent wants to do but that we were really trying to steer clear from.

Then a couple years ago in the middle of the pandemic, my daughter and I — I have two daughters. We were all going completely insane stuck inside the house. I suggested to my older daughter, “Let’s launch a podcast. I’ve got this microphone. I’ve got this stuff. We like watching movies. We like talking about movies. Let’s just launch a podcast.” We did. It’s called “You Pick Tonight.” In each show, she picks a movie for us to watch. I pick a movie for us to watch. Then we argue about them, which is how we end up, for example, having a whole show where I have to come to grips with the fact that she doesn’t think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a particularly good movie, and I need her to explain Akira to me.

Zibby: I feel like I have to do that with my kids in TV shows. We have to balance the — what is the one we’re watching? LEGO Masters. I have younger kids and older kids. We have the older kids face off against the younger kids for which shows we’re watching all the time. Maybe I should have the two groups of them do a podcast.

Dan: The older kids explain things to the younger kids. Then the older kids are shocked to discover that, in fact, the younger kids could explain things to them as well.

Zibby: Very true.

Dan: They do not actually know everything, as I have, unfortunately, learned recently.

Zibby: When you were editing and writing and all of that, was this novel — I know you referenced this earlier. Was it in the background? How big a dream was this, are we talking, to write a novel?

Dan: It was a huge dream, but it was one that I did absolutely zilch about between the ages of twenty-three and forty. I finished my MFA. I abandoned a novel halfway through that process and in the end was like, I’m just going to take a bunch of the stories I wrote for workshops and say they’re a collection, and that’s my thesis. Then I didn’t write a single word of fiction or really think about writing fiction other than, in my head, saying, god, I can’t believe I’m not writing any fiction, until I turned forty. I had too much going on. I was too invested in this idea of myself as a guy who had really blown it at his one chance to write fiction full time. I had done an MFA. I’d taken on all these fucking loans. Then all I learned at the end of it was that I couldn’t write a hip, edgy, intense novel with characters having weird sex and being mean to each other, the thing that I thought was a literary novel at that point. One of the reasons that I finally was able to write something was abandoning that idea of the novel I’m supposed to write or realizing that there are things I like to write better and that I’m better at writing. I’m better at being funny and writing nice characters and putting them in funny situations and writing books in which friendships matter and all the sex is somewhat wholesome.

Zibby: There’s always your next book. You can try again.

Dan: I don’t know that every book is going to be like that. Realizing that a book could be like that and that didn’t mean that it wasn’t literary and it didn’t mean it was a lesser book, it was dumb that it took me so long to realize that about my own writing. I had been reading Laurie Colwin and Elinor Lipman and novelists who do this. I’ve been reading them for years and loving them, loving what those books did to my brain and my emotions. Yet I had this vision of myself as, I would never write something like that. Getting over myself and my idea of what a novel should be if I write it was basically what I had to do.

Zibby: I do feel there’s this, maybe not so unspoken, but pressure when you’re dealing with the literary world at all that it has to be more literary. I just wrote a novel in my own voice, finally. That was so much easier. I even wrote an entire prose poem for a novel. What was I doing?

Dan: Oh, my.

Zibby: I know. It was not good. We all have to try. I’m like, I can write a literary sentence. This must be what I’m supposed to do, but no. It takes a while to learn.

Dan: It takes a while to learn that literary does not necessarily mean the same thing as groundbreaking or difficult. There are groundbreaking, difficult books that I love. There are also books that feel like warm baths that are still literary, that still explore characters’ emotions and politics in new and surprising ways. Part of their goal is not to make you feel bad. That is a totally legitimate structure for a literary novel. It just took me a while to get over myself and realize that.

Zibby: Are you working on a new novel? What is that about?

Dan: Feel free to give my editor a call and let her know that you’re on board. My editor is looking at a second novel from me right now and trying to decide whether to buy it or not.

Zibby: Seriously? Come on.

Dan: We’re right in the thick of it. It was my optioned book. Your listeners may or may not know that when you sign a book contract, usually, it involves the same publisher getting the first look at the next thing you write. I wrote a second novel much quicker, I’m happy to say, in the run-up to this one being published because I so desperately wanted to think of or do anything else other than stress out about this novel. That was what gave me the impetus to actually write something this time. She has it. It is indeed totally different. I would not say it’s intense and gritty, but it does have monsters in it. It’s set among a bunch of twelve-year-old boys, so that’s an extremely different vibe. I had to tap into a very different sense of character than I did with these young and middle-aged, very intelligent women who hardly ever make fart jokes.

Zibby: Good luck with the editor. Feel free to send it over to me.

Dan: I’ll let her know. Sarah, I’ll say, the entire audience of this podcast is begging for this novel.

Zibby: A hundred percent. Built-in audience. You’re good. You’re good for life. What are you reading right now? What’s on your bedside table?

Dan: I just finished Eleanor Catton’s new book, Birnam Wood. She wrote The Luminaries about ten years ago. She became the youngest person to the win the Booker Prize. She’s a New Zealander. I lived in New Zealand for a while with my family and wrote a book about the trip that included that stay. I really love New Zealand. I love New Zealand literature. I totally loved Birnam Wood, Eleanor Catton’s new book, which, unlike The Luminaries, is set in the present in this instant. It is a technothriller, an ecothriller about a guerrilla gardening group who get mixed up with an Elon Musk-esque American billionaire who’s making a panic room bolt-hole for himself in the wilds of the South Island of New Zealand. It’s got guns. It’s got murders. It’s got drones. It’s got great character work. It’s a totally great ride. I love this book. I had a great time reading it. Have you read it?

Zibby: I have not, but I have it.

Dan: It is super fun, super fun.

Zibby: I know. Everybody’s recommending it. I have to get to it. I know. I feel terrible about it.

Dan: She’s great. She has now written three books, each of them insanely different from the last one. What they all share, which is a thing that I don’t have at all but maybe I could learn from, they share a really amazing sense of structure. She is a writer who goes into books knowing the structure. The Luminaries was literally built around the zodiac. That was the structure she gave herself. Birnam Wood is, in ways that I won’t spoil, built around Macbeth. That is the structure she gave herself. She has said in interviews it’s so useful and freeing to give yourself that structure because when you’re stuck, you can also go back to the source and say, all right, what does this give me? You are obviously still making things up. You’re still inventing, but you have this backstop behind you. Maybe the right metaphor is map. When you’re a little bit lost, you have a map that helps suggest the next place to go.

Zibby: Interesting. Cool. What are you most excited about that you’re working on now at Slate? Is there a piece coming out? What are you excited about?

Dan: My editors and bosses are so delighted that you asked me. I am writing a piece right now about the second-most popular play performed in American high schools. It is insanely popular. It’s been produced hundreds of times around the country in the last couple of years. Unless your child is a high school student, you almost certainly have never heard of this play. It is an unauthorized Harry Potter parody called Puffs, which is about the seven years of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts experience as seen through the eyes of the Hufflepuffs. It is extremely funny, totally delightful, enjoyable, and a legitimate theatrical hit, a show that any theater kid growing up in America today probably knows and loves. The entire generation above them basically has no idea that this play even exists. I’m writing about high school theater and how that ecosystem works and how it is that a show can be a monster hit in that universe and be essentially totally unknown in a different universe.

Zibby: Was this inside intel from your daughters?

Dan: My daughter was in a production of Puffs this fall, yes. I was like, what the hell is this play? I write about theater. I was a theater critic in New York City. I’d never heard of it. It was so funny and charming. I was like, surely, we must be the first school that’s ever done this. Then I looked it up. Clue is number one. Puffs is number two among American high schools. It’s done everywhere.

Zibby: That’s so funny. Last question, what do people get wrong about you? What’s a misperception? What do people think about you that actually is not true?

Dan: They think I’m cool, but I’m not at all. No, no one thinks I’m cool. That’s not actually a misperception anyone has. I don’t know. I think that I put, what seems me at least, to be a fairly open and correct version of myself out into the world. Social media, I think, accurately reflects both my best and worst qualities. I don’t think anyone is fooled into thinking I’m actually nice all the time or not super judgy or mean sometimes. I would say if I had to say one thing, I think people usually assume that I’m 5’3″, but actually, I’m just regular height. I’m 5’9″. I have short-guy energy.

Zibby: Did you see the thing — there was a thing in the New York Post today about all these parents giving their kids growth hormones and how that’s all the rage.

Dan: We are definitely two years away from parents sending their kids in for that leg-breaking, leg-extension surgery that costs $40,000 and only occasionally works. The parenting universe is completely bananas right now, as you know.

Zibby: As I know. I know. My son’s like, “Hey, can I get this? I’m 5’7″.” I’m like, “You’re amazing. What are you talking about? I’m 5’2″. How tall do you think you’re going to be?” Oh, well. We get what we get, and we don’t get upset.

Dan: That’s the great lesson of parenting.

Zibby: Thanks for coming on the podcast, Dan. Thanks for Vintage Contemporaries. So great. Hope to stay in touch.

Dan: Thanks so much, Zibby. I had a great time.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.



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