Author Q&A: Anna Pitoniak

The Futures made all of the lists last year. Readers (including myself) were falling for the story of Evan and Julia, who move to New York City at 22 only to find they don’t have the answers to being adults amidst the Financial Crisis and that they don’t know how to make it work together.

The author of The Futures, Anna Pitoniak, is an editor at Random House where she has worked since graduating from Yale with an English degree in 2008. She began writing her debut novel a few years after graduation, and it was released in January 2017. Although it’s still a challenge to balance being an editor and writer, Pitoniak uses this to her advantage. “[Writing and editing] feed into each other,” she said. “Being an editor has definitely made me a better writer. And I think having written my own book and having it published probably makes me a more empathetic editor in certain ways because I can relate to a lot of things my writers are going through.”

After soaring into the lit scene in 2017, Pitoniak was kind enough to chat with me about the challenges of writing her first novel, one of my favorite TV shows, and about this beautiful yet stressful place we both love: New York City.

Anna Pitoniak author photo

Big Little Literature: Let’s just start with some rapid fire questions so my readers can get a sense of who are. Who is your favorite author?

Anna Pitoniak: Oh my gosh that is very very hard to answer, but I might say Donna Tartt. I love her novels.

BLL: What is your favorite book? Probably just as hard to answer.

AP: That is a really hard question to answer, so I’ll tell you what my favorite book is that I’ve read in the past year, and that is the Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck because I actually never read it in high school or college. It absolutely blew me away. That book is kind of on its own level in terms of how powerful and moving it is.

BLL: Is there one book you’ve read several times and always come back to me? For me, it’s Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin.

AP: One book that I have read several times is called Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov. I studied Nabokov in college. I wrote my thesis on him, and this was his memoir. It’s about his life, but it’s also about his own artistic and creative process. I think it’s one of the most fascinating glimpses into the mind of a writer. I read it a few times in college, and I’ve read it a few times in the years sense; it’s just amazingly rich, wise, and beautiful. That’s a touchstone book for me.

BLL: You live in New York. What’s your favorite thing to do here?

AP: My favorite thing to do in New York is probably walk through Central Park. I’m very lucky, and I live on the Upper East Side, which is not that far from my office here in Midtown. So I walk to and from work almost every day, and it’s such a treat to be able to walk through the park.

BLL: Let’s get into The Futures. You said you worked on the book for a couple of years. Was the idea for the book an “Aha!” moment, or had you been gradually thinking of this idea for awhile?

AP: There was an initial idea that came at the beginning, and then it definitely evolved over time. I always knew I wanted the novel to be about a couple and what it would be like for the two of them to weather this period of transition that was happening in their own lives and also what was happening in the economy. And I wanted to explore what it would be like for the two of them, who had previously been really close and happy together, to wind up on opposite sides of the shore during this market crash. They suddenly found there was a great fissure opening up between them. I knew that I wanted there to be some sort of betrayal at the core of it that would drive the dramatic tension in the book.

But a lot of the book took shape as I was writing it. So I wrote a first draft that was just unbelievably awful. It was basically incoherent and didn’t make much sense. But in the process of writing that draft, I figured out who these two characters were and what I wanted the basic arc to be. When I finished that first draft, I set it aside and started a completely blank document, and that’s when I really started writing the book that more resembles the one that was published. I wasn’t clever enough to come up with an outline or a road map for myself.

BLL: How overwhelming was it for you when you just started over on a blank draft? That gives me anxiety.

AP: It was a huge relief. It didn’t feel overwhelming because I knew when I was writing the first draft, it was really really flawed and slow and didn’t make a lot of sense. Nothing was really happening, so when I reached a certain point in that first draft, I realized OK, I finally know what this book is about and now I can set aside these messy several hundred pages, and I can actually start writing this thing. It felt more like a relief to start that revision on the book with that clearer vision of the novel in my head.

BLL: What do you think was the hardest part about writing your first novel?

AP: I think it was probably plotting and pacing. It did take time to figure out the characters and convey them on the page, but in writing this book, I almost had to write my way through a lot of material that wasn’t particularly compelling or interesting or fun to read in order to get these characters across the chess board. So when it came to revising the novel, a lot of the work was figuring out what were the dramatic moments and developments in the book that were actually important to stay.

Shaping the raw material into more of a story, that was definitely a hard task. Part of it is you get very deep into the world and get to know these characters. You might be writing a scene with them, and you think it’s important or interesting, but you have to be able to take a step back from the manuscript and see it as a whole and realize that that particular scene maybe isn’t advancing the story or isn’t communicating anything that reader doesn’t already know.

BLL: On the flip side of that, what came the easiest for you?

AP: None of it was particularly easy, but one thing that I enjoyed doing that was a little more fluid was the setting. The point at which I was writing the book, I’d been living in New York for several years. What’s really fun about working on a novel is you start to really pay attention to little details as you’re walking around during the day, as you’re in your neighborhood, when you’re in a restaurant, or you’re at a bar. You become very attuned to the way people talk or the way strangers pass each other on the sidewalk or any kind of detail of life in the city. Writing those details, weaving those into the narrative, was really fun, and it’s kind of fun to write about a city that you’ve grown to know fairly well.

BLL: I’ve lived in New York for almost four years now, and I still get this overwhelming feeling of “What’s next?” I felt that a lot in the book as well. Did you feel that when you first moved to New York?

AP: Yeah, a lot of that is what gave rise to me writing the novel. When I moved to New York, I was surprised at what a jarring transition it was to go from college to the real world. It was almost like no one had given me a heads up that this was actually a big life change. Now, looking back, it was quite naïve to not anticipate how big of a change it was going to be. But many of my friends from college moved to New York, and I think that made me believe there would be a sense of continuity like “Oh! It’ll be just like college. All of my friends will be there. We’ll just be working instead of going to school.”

Of course it’s not like that at all. All of a sudden you’re coming face to face with these big questions about yourself. And in that first year after college, I definitely felt a sense of what do I want to do? How am I going to figure these [questions] out? Grappling with those questions definitely informed my writing of this book. Part of the way it came to be was when I first moved to New York after college, my mom, who had done the same thing [move to the city after college] many years prior, told me “Anna, you might want to try keeping a journal or a diary of some kind. This is a big period of transition in your life. You might want to have a record of it later on.” I thought this was a good idea, but I’d never been a diary or a journal keeper. I sat down one day that summer after graduating and tried to write a diary entry, saying this is what happened to me today, and I feel confused about this and that.

I found that writing it in the journal didn’t really work for me. I almost felt too self-conscious, writing about my own life or own day. But those observations did continue to add up in my mind, and I thought, I do want to write about this. It wound up being much more engaging and, in a funny way, more true to write about it in a fictional story because then I could really dig into these questions I was trying to figure out.

The Futures

BLL: I don’t want to give anything away to my readers, but do you see the main characters, Evan and Julia, ending up together?

AP: I purposely left it open-ended because I’m actually not entirely sure. I think in my imagination, they have to really talk to each other and have an honest conversation and really take stock of what happened with them. And maybe that leads to a reconciliation, and it leads to them being very happy together again, or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it leads them to peacefully saying goodbye to that chapter in their lives. I knew that I wanted them to come face to face again and have the chance to be honest with each other, which they hadn’t really had in the prior events of the story.

BLL: Could this lead to a sequel?

AP: I never thought about a sequel when I was writing the book, but since it’s been a published, a number of people have asked about that. I have no plans at the current moment, but who knows? Maybe some day I’ll want to figure out what Evan and Julia are up to.

BLL: Well, I would be very interested to see what happens just so you know.

AP: Well that’s good to know!

BLL: The book deals a lot with finance, which I think is one reason why I was so interested; I work in finance. What’s your background in that field, and what did you research? The finance stuff is really accurate.

AP: I’m glad to hear that. I never worked in finance myself, but a lot of my friends from college did. I wanted Evan to work in finance so he could have a front row seat to the crisis and also because I found it interesting that so many of my friends were going into this field where you’re dealing with a lot of money, a lot of power concentrated in the hands of people. I thought it was an interesting setting.

I did a fair amount of reading. I read books like Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin, More Money Than God, which is a good history of hedge funds, and a number of other books about either the contemporary Financial Crisis or the recent history of finance. I tried to immerse myself in that so I could get the texture of the world right. Then, after the book was finished, I shared the manuscript with two of my friends, who both worked at hedge funds at the time. I had them read it for accuracy. They definitely caught things that I had gotten wrong, like terminology that I was misusing or the way that a deal might be structured. They definitely saved me from myself.

BLL: Were you always planning to have the book take place around the Financial Crisis?

AP: That was always in my mind from the beginning partially because, moving to New York when I did in 2010, the Financial Crisis still felt very immediate and present. Even when I was still in college and interning in the city during summer of 2009, it was like this palpable thing in the air. I think that time in your life is already quite unsettling. It’s a very tense sort of transition, but when you pair that with the backdrop of the economy going into upheaval and it being really difficult to find a job, it just intensifies the things that are already there.

BLL: Just to switch gears, you went to Yale, and I read that you were an editor at the Yale Daily News. I’m wondering if you ever watch Gilmore Girls.

AP: I just started watching Gilmore Girls last year. I’m so sadly behind on it. I’ve only watched season one. But I love it. It’s one of those great shows to watch when you need something on in the background at the end of a long day.

BLL: Well, I will tell you all seven seasons are amazing, so you should definitely finish it.

AP: Good, I have a lot to look forward to.

BLL: What are you working on now? Have you started a new book?

AP: I have! I’m plugging in on a draft of a second book, which is different from The Futures, but I would say it’s probably for a similar reader. It’s about a pair of friends, two young women, in New York. Their friendship kind of turns into a rivalry over time.

BLL: Oh great! When can we expect that?

AP: Probably not until some point in 2019.

BLL: Are there any books coming out in 2018 that you’re really excited for?

AP: Yes, I’ll actually tell you about one of the books I worked on here at Random House, so I’m a little biased. But I really do think it’s terrific. It’s called A Lady’s Guide to Selling Out. It’s by a writer named Sally Franson. It’s so much fun. The book is kind of like The Devil Wears Prada meets Mad Men in the age of Instagram. It’s about a young woman, a former English major and book lover, who has sold her soul to go work in advertising. She’s done very well for herself, but she’s kind of lost track of her moral compass and needs to figure out how to get it back. It’s very fun. If you love Emily Giffin, you’re going to love this too. It’s really really sharp, funny, sweet, and heartfelt. That is coming out in April, and I’m really excited for it.

BLL: Awesome, I’m also going to add that to my list. One final question: You’re writing all the time. You’re editing all the time. If you have downtime to read, what are you currently reading?

AP: I don’t have as much time to read as I would like, but I do make time for myself to read because it’s so important. Right now I’m actually reading a book from a long time ago: The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. It’s a classic book about the space age and the astronauts who first went into space for America. It’s so good. I saw the movie, which is also an old classic, several months ago, and that made me want to read the book. This was really big back in the ’70s, but it holds up, and it stands the test of time. It’s a little bit of a throwback.

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