At the age of 39, Jonathan Vatner has just published his first novel, Carnegie Hill, set in the fictional Chelmsford Arms co-op in the titular neighborhood on the Upper East Side. Written in a breezy and engaging style, the novel is built around the awakening of Penelope “Pepper” Bradford, a thirtysomething ingénue who moves into the tony co-op with her fiancé and soon finds herself serving on the co-op board, which is dominated by the tyrannical president Patricia Cooper, also known as the Czarina. Full of intrigue, ambition, romance, gossip, corruption, and humor, the novel, published by St. Martin’s Press, paints a vivid slice of co-op life. Vatner, who studied creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, spoke with Habitat by phone from his home in a Yonkers co-op.
Habitat: What was it about the world of a New York City co-op that inspired you as a fiction writer?
Vatner: Well, a co-op is an inherently dramatic place. It’s a confined space, a community where most everyone knows each other, and I think because of that there were plenty of opportunities for gossip and drama. That’s what got me excited. I live in a co-op now, but when I wrote this novel, I had never lived in a co-op. A very close friend of mine was on the board of his co-op on the Upper East Side, and he would tell me these outrageous stories about what was happening on his co-op board, with some of the staff members and the various people he met, and it just inspired me to start writing fiction about it.
Habitat: The novel contains very accurate inside information about the machinations of a co-op board, the interplay between the board and the staff and the residents. Did you do a lot of research?
Vatner: The co-op in the novel is a fictional place, but I did have a lot of material to make sure that it was accurate. First of all, I had hundreds, maybe thousands, of emails from my friend, minutes of board meetings, interactions between him and other members of the board. And then on top of that, someone in my writing group was an attorney for the union that represents building staff members (Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union). So she helped me in terms of writing from the staff perspective.
Habitat: The warfare between Pepper and Patricia Cooper, the tyrannical board president, is the central drama of the book. Where did Pepper come from?
Vatner: Originally, she was a minor character in the novel, which started as a bunch of short stories with some recurring characters. It was meant to be very wide-ranging. When I was done with the first draft, I realized that, no, it would work better if there were fewer characters with stories that were more interconnected. It turns out there’s a hole inside Pepper’s bookshelf that leads to the neighboring apartment and allows her to spy on her neighbors.
I talked with my agent, and he pointed out that Pepper had a lot of potential, and the book might be stronger if the reader could see the co-op through her eyes, since she was new to the building and kind of an ingénue. I already had the character Patricia, the villainous board president – and she became more villainous as I started writing more from the perspective of Pepper. Like Pepper, I was in my early thirties and still kind of learning how to be an adult. I thought that maybe other people could empathize with that.
Habitat: So there was a little bit of autobiography in Pepper?
Vatner: There’s a little bit of myself in all the characters, actually. That’s how I write. I try not to write about myself, but little things get in pretty constantly. Pepper’s relationship with her parents – they’re this sort of fortress, and they don’t let her in – that mimicked my own feelings about my parents.
Habitat: The co-op board in the novel is pretty dysfunctional. Did Pepper’s battle to usurp the president’s power come from your friend’s experience on his co-op board?
Vatner: My friend had a lot of issues with the president of his co-op board. She had served as president for four decades, and before that her husband had been president. My friend felt she took too many liberties, and he would complain constantly about it. But Pepper’s effort to usurp Patricia’s power just came out of the writing. Sometimes I’m surprised by what the characters do. After I wrote the novel, a friend who’s on a homeowners association board was trying to overthrow the president, and I realized, oh, there’s some truth to what happened in my novel!
Habitat: Life imitating art, sort of.
Habitat: The novel is getting some nice early reviews. Kirkus calls it “absorbing,” and Publishers Weekly says Pepper is “a charming contemporary update of an Edith Wharton character.” You must be pretty excited.
Vatner: I’m beyond excited. I’ve been so busy with trying to get the word out that it’s kind of hard to be nervous. Really, the panic was last year, all the time waiting for it to come out because the publishing process is extremely slow. I’m really confident in the book, and I’m thrilled to see what’s going to happen next.