“What It Turned Into Was Really Specific”: Molly Prentiss on “Tuesday Nights in 1980”


Molly Prentiss just released a book she spent seven years writing, re-writing, and changing completely before the final version became Tuesday Nights in 1980. The novel is about Raul, James, and Lucy’s lives on, you guessed it, Tuesday nights in 1980. While the novel sounds like it would be a very typical plot about a group of friends. However, Prentiss’ prose and thematic prowess helped propel this debut to one of the most talked about books of the year.

The characters in Tuesday Nights navigate the art world in the early ‘80s while numerous outside factors, including a war in South America and a rare sensational defect, help shape their lives. The writing process included learning to find conflict, allowing the plot to create itself, and celebrating with cake.

I talked to the author a week after Tuesday Nights in 1980 on the day she was celebrating her birthday early before heading out on a small book tour.

You wrote about a very specific world: New York City in 1980. What drew you to that specifically?

I’ll tell you the truth: I didn’t really set out to write a book about that. It sort of landed there by way of my characters, really. I was writing about a young boy who actually only shows up for small parts of the final draft. I was at one point writing about him when he came to New York as a teenager. I always do a thing where I veer off of one character and write about someone who is in their proximity. I always love starting new characters, so I started writing about his uncle. That uncle became Raul, which inherently pushed the timeline backward to his period. That’s the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Then as I sort of touched down on that, I was also studying with a woman named Claudia Bernardi who was teaching at my school, California College of the Arts. Her class is about the Dirty War in Argentina and the art that came out of that time period afterwards. I sort of realized when I was landing in the ‘70s and ‘80s in New York, I realized that those things were sort of going on at the same time, but the atmospheres were so different. I thought about juxtaposing those and using the art as a backdrop for the entire book.

Wow, so this really happened organically.

Yeah, definitely. It’s interesting because the book is so specific. In the end, what it turned into was really specific. Especially how people are writing about it and talking about it. It’s this exact time and this exact thing. But it really got there by moving all around and sticking somewhere that felt the most electric and had the most energy. I really think I landed there because as soon as I started writing about that time and those characters [I felt that energy]. A lot of characters got kicked out along the way. I wrote a bunch of stuff and narrowed in on those who really interested me.

So then when did you realize you were writing this book?

I signed on with my agent, Claudia Ballard, about four and a half years ago. We went through a lot of changes with the book together. She helped me narrow its scope. She helped me figure out a lot about where the story was.The most difficult part about writing this book for me was finding the narrative arc; finding the plot…

*An oven timer goes off*

Sorry, I have a cake in the oven and the timer was going off. I just had to press that. So, she really helped me narrow the story down. It was probably three years into the making of the book. In about 2012 we decided it was just going to be centrally located in New York and take place in one year, 1980, almost to give myself constraint with the story.

Before that I was working in broad, ambitious strokes, and it really needed a narrowing. I think we both agreed that where the story was had to be in New York about these three main characters. It took a lot of work to get those characters to interact and bump into each other.

I’m sort of not a very conflict-oriented person. I avoid it. So I had to force myself to get the characters to run into each other and have conflict. That was pretty difficult for me, but I ended up making a lot of stuff happen in the book. It’s a very jam-packed book in terms of things happening by the end.

You mentioned how Raul came into this world. How did the other two main characters get populated into the book?

I really wanted to tell Lucy’s story because in some ways her coming to New York story is a little bit of my own. I came to the city at the same age that she does at 21. My life was so changed and impacted by moving to New York, so I wanted one character who had the same story. This sort of unknown desire to our yourself in this place and get the most out of it. The interest in artists that she has was also a part of me.

James was always a very particularly hard character to write. He started out as going blind in the earlier drafts. Then it ended up feeling a little too close to Raul’s tragedy. I wanted it to feel a little more nuanced. I had met a woman with synesthesia in graduate school and I was always really intrigued by it. I thought it might be fun to write from that perspective. I started dipping my toes in and ended up really having fun with it. It’s so fun to have to write that way because I had to put together dissimilar things and associate them. I felt it was really fun to give James all of those really weird associations in his mind.

I’m really into structure in novels, because every story has already been told, in theory. It’s all about the structure to make a book interesting and different. Yours is broken into parts, plus a prologue and epilogue as well. Within those parts there are these chapters and these portraits, which we can talk about a little later. But how did you develop the structure of the plot?

With the structure, you can’t really tell unless you’re paying a ton of attention. But each of the sections take place on a Tuesday in 1980. In terms of structuring the book it was sort of helpful to have those landmark time moments for each of the sections to land on. They go forward and back in time within the section, but the present tense always takes place on a Tuesday in 1980. That was almost a fun way to give it some bones.

In general, it was always broken up in some way. There’s something about doing these big sections and doing a prologue and epilogue that feels dramatic or melodramatic. I wanted that feeling. There’s part of the book that I always sort of had an interest in was this omniscient narrator that sort of plays god with the characters in a way. Sort of like they they were fated or predestined for what happens to them. You can almost see it from a bigger perspective. I feel the sections and the prologue and everything, having it being a grandiose book, gives it the feeling of a formal book.

In terms of those portraits. They really were there because I wanted to do experimental sections that would really energize the text. I felt strongly that I wanted parts of the text to be experimental with the language and the form. It had been like that from the beginning even though the book had taken a lot of turns throughout the way that really gave it the feeling of a classic novel. In earlier renditions of the whole book was much more experimental. But I wanted to retain some of that feeling of fun with whimsical language. I wanted to infuse the chapters with these portraits that were really just kind of an exciting way for me to energize the text.

Yeah, when I was reading I loved that those were included. It felt so fresh, and, well now that you say it, I guess it felt energizing.

I’m glad you felt that.

What you wanted, I definitely felt. But let’s move away from the book a little and more on to your life. This is your first published novel. Did you publish short stories before?

I’ve never published a real short story. I’ve published a lot of really short almost prose poems and some really short fiction. I’ve published some essays. But you know the short story form is so hard and such a specific [skill]. If you’re a short story writer you can spend years and years honing the craft.

I wrote a lot of short stories in graduate school, but they never felt finished to me. I felt like something was missing. It’s almost like with a short story that you need to know as much about your characters and set up as you do with a novel to get it really right. I ended up feeling like the novel could hold more and therefore stretch further with me. I ended up gravitating toward the novel form. I think that if I do want to write short stories that I would need to put a lot of time and care into developing the craft before I feel comfortable with it.

I talked to Michael Cunningham when he released his short fables last year and he basically said the same thing. The novel just gives so much room to breathe.

It really does. The novel, even though people think it’s the most ambitious thing, sort of gives you more leeway because you have more license to do whatever the hell you want.

How does it feel that your introduction to the world has been so well received? There’s been a lot of early, well-deserved praise.

It’s crazy, dude. It kind of feels surreal. It doesn’t make any sense. I’ve been working on this for seven years and part of me felt like it would never be published. A lot of me actually felt that. Not only am I totally surprised that this is happening, but part of me almost can’t understand it. It’s like I’m watching it happen and can’t even feel it because it’s so strange. It’s so exciting. One of the huge exciting things for me is that I’ve always wanted to teach writing. There’s this weird space where before you have a book you kind of can’t get higher education teaching jobs. But there’s this sort of catch-22 because that’s one of the jobs where you can actually continue your practice as a writer while still having a job. But you need to have a big publication to get those jobs. So one of the things I’m really happy about is to do some teaching work. I’m teaching my first writing workshop this summer. So that’s exciting.

Other than teaching, I’m assuming you’re working on a book. I’m sure it’s in the early process still, but what is the project leaning toward?

I don’t know what it will end up being. Seeing how much my last book changed, this could totally change dramatically. Where I’m starting though: it’s a book that takes place on a commune in Northern California in the late 1970s. It’s sort of ambitious on the perspective side. There are eight members of this commune and I want to have sections from those different perspective. It should be interesting, and we’ll see how it pans out.

I can’t wait to read that. I’m going to let you go, but I’m dying to know what kind of cake were you baking before?

It’s the cake that is baked in the book. It’s a cake that my mom and my grandma and great grandma all make. We call it the Heritage Cake. It’s a poppyseed, brown sugar bundt cake. I’m making it for my own birthday.

Well, happy birthday! Go enjoy your cake.

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