I began my career as a novelist with a determined sense of mission – sort of like the Donner Party, I guess. I didn’t want to write a “snow on the tennis court” novel. I wanted to write a book that was engaged with the real world, not dewy memories of childhood or an ode to tragically wasted adolescence. But to do that, I needed to get out of my own life and into someone else’s. So I remembered (or misremembered) a quote from the novelist Stanley Elkin, who said he always began by thinking about what a character did for a living. So I began looking for a job that would provide the characters, the language and ultimately the story I was looking for. And I found it one day when I did a story, as a journalist, about a probation officer in New York.
Here was a world I hadn’t seen in a novel before. A dimly-lit 8 by 10 cubicle on the tenth floor of a municipal building, which became a crossroads of urban criminal life and, in some ways, a microcosm for the city. Because it was the 1980s and prisons were overcrowded, a wide-range of people were getting probation – Wall Street brokers, street kids selling crack, middle-class ladies with kleptomaniac issues. And the probation officer himself was the richest character of all – kind of a half-cop, half-social worker, who could either help these people or send them to prison, every appointment a potential existential dilemma. So I decided the only way to do this was full-on. I took a leave of absence from my job at New York magazine and signed for a six months as a volunteer probation officer, going through the training program, sitting in on office visits, and eventually going out into the field with the gun-carrying squad serving warrants. Then I came home and typed as fast as I could, trying to capture not just the scary moments, but the surreal humor and the glimmers of humanity I saw.
Of course, the irony is that now I like some “snow on the tennis court” novels. But you can’t tell young people anything.