With her iconic young adult series Gossip Girl, former Nightingale-Bamford student Cecily von Ziegesar became this century’s foremost chronicler of the Upper East Side. Since then, like everyone else, she’s moved to Brooklyn, where she has written a new book, Cobble Hill, which is as delightful and comforting as a plate of Rufus Humphrey’s waffles. Named for and set in the cozy enclave where von Ziegesar lives, the book fits neatly into the Magical Brooklyn genre, wherein members of the creative class suffer low-level domestic problems over which they eventually, sort of, triumph. We Zoomed to discuss.
Vanity Fair: One of the characters in Cobble Hill, the blocked author Roy Clarke, describes the book he is working on as a “family novel,” which is what Cobble Hill felt like to me.
Cecily von Ziegesar: He’s basically saying not a lot happens. It’s character studies.
It also felt to me like a real Brooklyn novel, like something that belongs on the shelf with Paul Auster and Emma Straub. Which was surprising to me, because I think of you as a Manhattan person.
Well, I never lived as an adult in Manhattan. I grew up on the Upper West Side. I went to college in Maine, and in Arizona. And then I met my husband [Richard Griggs] and went to live with him in London. Then he really wanted to move over here. So in our looking for a place that felt like home and that we could afford, we kept coming back to this neighborhood. There is a sort of intimacy, I guess, about this neighborhood that I think is hard to find anywhere. And it’s also really quiet. I’m a homebody. So it’s relaxing, I guess. We had two little kids, and it just seemed like a nice place to raise a family.
It’s interesting that you say it’s relaxing because—Oh, my God. Is that a bald cat?
This is Woody. He’s a Cornish rex, so he has hair, but—
He looks like a small dinosaur.
He’s a little scraped up. He got in a fight.
The mean streets of Cobble Hill! Anyway, I was saying, since you mentioned Brooklyn was relaxing, I did notice your characters seemed relatively unbusy, for modern New Yorkers. They were all doing a lot of hanging out.
That’s part of my fascination with Cobble Hill. Whenever I walk the dog or get out of the house I do a lot of walking around, and I always see people doing…the same thing I’m doing. And I’m like, what do they do? Do they have jobs? I mean, right now, obviously everyone is at home.
How much of the book is based in reality?
I keep saying, “It’s fiction, it’s fiction.” But there’s so many tiny, little moments. The smell of weed. Right over here, the building behind us, the people that lived there were formerly homeless. It’s a program and they have their windows open all the time, they’re blasting music, and the whole place smells like weed. I kind of like it. The Blue Apron boxes, just seeing all these things accumulating outside and wondering, Are they going to pick that up, or is that all going bad?
Have you stolen your neighbors’ Blue Apron boxes, the way that your character Mandy does? Is this something you want to come clean about here in Vanity Fair?
I never stole anyone’s boxes. But I was tempted to.
What about the characters, are any of them based on actual people? I’m thinking of the conceptual artist Elizabeth, who explodes herself out of a fetus. Please tell me that happened in real life.
She isn’t any one person. My husband works with artists and Elizabeth, I think, is a satirization of some of the artists I’ve met through him. I remember he was asking somebody he used to work with about their old boss, and they were like, “Oh, he’s just waiting to hear from the MacArthur Foundation. He’s sure he’s going to get one this year.” And I was like, “Oh, wow, I’m going to use that for Elizabeth.” You have to have a pretty big ego to be waiting for your MacArthur!
Did he get one?
I don’t think so. You shouldn’t! It should always only be a surprise.
Strong agree. I for one am not expecting to get one at all, so it would very much be a surprise, if anyone is wondering. Speaking of geniuses, Roy, the writer, spends most of the book worrying about what he’s going to write after publishing a very successful series. Which sounds possibly like it could be someone we know?
Yeah. Roy has written these books, the Roy Clarke Rainbow, which he is known for. And he’s having this struggle of, “What do I do next?” I think anybody coming off of something that people recognize, like, Oh, that’s you. You wrote Gossip Girl, it’s really hard to do something different, because it’s not what people expect. Because generally, if people like something that you’ve done, they really want you to just do it again. And Gossip Girl, I’m really proud of it and I loved it and it was fun, but I’m not going to write the same book again.
What was the experience of having Gossip Girl become a cultural phenomenon like for you? Do people still talk to you about Chuck Bass every time you hand over your credit card?