The Feminist Debut Novel You Just Have To Read This Year

Dana Czapnik’s debut The Falconer is the book you need to know about now. The novel, set in 1990s New York, follows street-smart Lucy who is in love with her best friend Percy – unrequitedly. Percy is the scion of a prominent New York family, who insists he wishes to resist his upper crust fate. Quickly, Lucy begins to question accepted notions of success, bristling against her own hunger for male approval and searching for an authentic way to live and love. We spoke to the author herself to find out more about the inspiration for her debut, how much she has in common with Lucy and which role gender politics play in her life…

How do you feel now that your first novel is about to be published?

Since the novel was published in the US in January, I’ve been through the whirlwind already, so I have a sense of what it’s like. But I’m so incredibly excited that it’s going to be published in the UK and I’m so curious to see what readers’ reactions will be. Also, I’m a bit of a book cover geek and I can say this pretty objectively – I think the UK cover for The Falconer is one of the all-time great covers. It’s amazing on it’s own as a work of art, but once you read the book, you’ll realise how absolutely perfect it is.

How did you get into writing in the first place?

I’ve been writing my entire life… making up stories and keeping journals since I was about nine. Those first started out as diaries, but eventually turned into poetry, prose, random thoughts, drawings, collages. I love those journals from my teen years; they’re really beautiful, colourful zine-like objects. When I was trying to get into the mindset of a 17-year-old girl while working on this novel, I went back and looked at them again and wound up stealing a few sentences and repurposing them as Lucy’s thoughts. It completely blows my mind that something I wrote down in my private journal in my college dorm room will be read by people in England twenty years later.

Professionally, though, I actually came to fiction pretty late. I didn’t take a single writing class in college and I wasn’t an English major. I was a sports writer for many years until I switched over to what I call “the dark side” – PR and Marketing. Throughout that time, I’d come home and write short stories, which I didn’t show to anyone. It was like a dirty secret. It was when I began my MFA that I started treating my secret life as a fiction writer as my real life.

How would you describe The Falconer in three words?

Young woman alive

How did you get inspired to write this story?

I’ve always known I wanted to write a bildungsroman about a young woman like Lucy. I’d never read about a female athlete in literary fiction and I think the experience of being a woman in a space that’s been traditionally occupied by men is a way to open the door to writing about gender and navigating womanhood in a way that is fun and not didactic. I also knew I wanted her to be a young woman who is open to the world, even as she’s often times questioning it. My favourite young male characters are ones who are searching for their own philosophy and grappling with the injustices of the world. I wanted to write a book that creates the space for a young woman to have that same experience.

I also was interested in writing about New York in the early 90’s, just before the money started to take over, and the lives of a group of young people at the time – young people who grew up in the shadow of their parents’ generation and are both envious and skeptical of their contributions.

Can you introduce us to the novel’s protagonist Lucy?

Lucy is two things above all: an incredible athlete and an incredible observer. She has a fine eye for the world around her and has a robust inner life, but isn’t quite as sure of herself socially. The only area where she really shines publicly is on the basketball court. When we meet her, she is under the spell of her best friend – a handsome, privileged, poetic boy who loves playing ball and talking with her about ideas and books but has a tough time seeing her as a romantic choice. Because of this, she wrestles with ideas about the value of beauty. Like many teenagers – and many people – she is frequently at war with the different ideas rumbling inside her. She is both cynical and naïve, a realist and a romantic, and relies equally on the impulses of the heart and the life of the mind.

Is Lucy similar to you in any way?

Lucy and I overlap in some ways. We both grew up in New York in the early ‘90s, though I am a bit younger. And I lived and breathed basketball, but I was never the athlete Lucy is. Our actual home life and backgrounds are different and I wasn’t as precocious or brave as she at seventeen, though I was as dreamy. All that said, I think of all the characters in this book as a strange alternate version of me. Even Percy. I’m working on a project now where a character behaves and thinks in a way that I would never behave or think, and yet I still see a warped mirror image of myself in her. I’m not sure if that means I’m limited in my scope as a writer or if it means that breathing new people into life on the page requires you to inhabit them or for them to inhabit you. I know there are some actors who feel this way when they take on a challenging role. I think writing is a similar experience. You embody a character so wholly they become you, or a shade of you.

Critics have compared your novel to The Catcher in the Rye – why do you think that is?

In some ways, my book is in conversation with Catcher. Anytime you set a coming of age novel in New York, it has to be. Holden was the first friend I met in literature and I’m deeply flattered to be compared to Salinger, who remains one of the American giants. And I thought a lot about Holden while conceiving of this novel – specifically Salinger’s mastery of teenage speech and expression.

But though there are echoes of Holden in Lucy (and Percy), in many ways she is the antithesis of him. They do not share the same worldview. At this point, it has come up so much, I really hope potential readers know that my book isn’t The Catcher in the Rye with a Girl. Catcher has already been written and it’s been written brilliantly and it will always remain a masterpiece of American Literature. I hope readers will find that The Falconer is actually a very different book and that Lucy is a very different character.

What role do gender politics play in your life and work?

Everything in my life and work is affected by gender politics. Partially because I chose a field that was male dominated when I worked in sports, but also because I find the ever-changing relationship between men and women infinitely fascinating. In many ways, the women of my (and Lucy’s) generation are the grand experiment of the feminist movement. We were the first generation to be born having access to birth control, safe abortions, college scholarships, the ability to have our own credit card and buy a house in our own name. The experiment obviously worked, though imperfectly. On an intellectual level, it seems obvious that so much of what we experienced and are continuing to experience as women has to do with the shifting of gender roles and everyone being extraordinarily confused. Even women themselves.

This is a large part of what The Falconer is about. Growing up in the midst of these shifts – hook up culture, sex-positive feminism, anti-pornography feminism, whether to quit your job after you have kids, if you’re more likely to be killed by a terrorist attack than find love after 40, figuring out what kind of a woman you want to be. How these competing messages wage war within us. There have been some painful growing pains. The Falconer is concerned with the growing pain part.

Would you say that our world is (still) a “man’s world”?

Yes.

Is it significant that the story is set in New York?

On the one hand, this story about a social outcast young woman in love with her out of reach best friend could have taken place anywhere. But on the other hand, the unique blend of people Lucy is close with in the novel kind of only exists in the New York ecosystem. (Though, from what I’ve gleaned from Zadie Smith novels, London has a similar kind of diversity.) Because of all the pop culture that surrounds New York City kids, most of what you assume about them is either that they’re drugged out, sexed up, and depraved a la Harmonie Korine’s KIDS or horribly rich mean girls and boys a la “Gossip Girl.” I grew up in the city and had a totally normal childhood. None of my friends looked like any of the people I see in those shows or movies. Particularly in the ‘80s and ‘90s – when the income gap wasn’t so huge and the city wasn’t as segregated – middle class, wealthy and poor kids all mingled and were friends. Also, if you grew up in New York in that era, you were usually one degree of separation away from some kind of a struggling artist or musician. It was still the place where the dreamers went.

The Falconer is both a love letter to the New York I grew up in as well as a critique of it. It’s a beautiful, flawed, angry, unpredictable, alive city and those are all the traits I love to find in actual characters in a novel. New York is seen entirely through Lucy’s eyes, though, so even when you’re seeing New York in the novel, what you’re really seeing is Lucy.

Why did you decide to go back to the 1990s in this story?

In some ways the early ‘90s were an oddly uneventful moment in history. It was the last days of analog life, before 9/11 and the era of mass shootings. But, in hindsight, it now seems to me a very culturally significant moment both in New York City and America at large.

It was when the Baby Boomers were at their peak power (although, I guess every era has found the Boomers at their peak power!) and the Millennials were being born. It was the beginning of the age of gentrification – particularly in New York. The culture war we’re experiencing now was beginning to take root. Instead of “Identity Politics” we had “Political Correctness.” Instead of “Civility” we had “Family Values.” It was the beginning of neoliberalism and extreme right wing religiosity in Washington. In New York, the mayoral election briefly mentioned in the novel between David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani had so many of the same racist undertones of the last presidential election. It was the moment when college graduates realised they were carrying mountains of debt and were underemployed and could be bankrupted in their early 20s if they broke an arm without health insurance. We had a serious environmental crisis in the evaporating ozone layer. And it was also the time when women born into the spoils of the feminist movement were coming of age and dealing with all these mixed messages about how to be.

I set the novel in those few years where young people were hypnotised by the advertisements and media mass-produced by their parents and looking around and wondering if we actually were stuck in a pretty bad situation, even if it seemed okay from the outside.

What do you want people to take away from reading the book?

I hope readers enjoy themselves and are moved.