“I have a minor phobia about the whole literary scene in New York,” said the first-time novelist Francesca Delbanco the other afternoon. “I love it so much-most of my best friends live there-but it feels so frenetic to me, way overstimulating. I’m not able to get anything done.”
She was sipping Diet Coke through a straw at Le Petit Jardin, a most un- jardin -like restaurant with tan Naugahyde chairs on South Robertson Boulevard, in a shabby Los Angeles neighborhood called Beverlywood that has failed to siphon the slightest bit of hoped-for stardust from nearby Beverly Hills or Brentwood.
Ms. Delbanco, who will turn 30 in May, is the daughter of the well-established if not exactly famous literary eminence Nicholas Delbanco, author of a pile of respected books and director of the writing program at the University of Michigan. Her uncle, Andrew Delbanco, is “a big muckety-muck” at Columbia, a director in the humanities and a literary critic. With the help of-or perhaps in spite of-these “dadvantages,” she has produced a charming debut called Ask Me Anything (Norton, $23.95), about a young theater actress who lives in New York, writes an advice column for a teenage magazine with a bitchy boss, and has an affair with her rich friend’s father. If you were a sharky suit selling the book in a pitch meeting (“It hasn’t gone around yet-I’m dying for it to be,” Ms. Delbanco said of her opus’ movie prospects), you call it ” The Devil Wears Prada meets Blame It on Rio -but smart! ”
Ms. Delbanco, who said she’d be pleased to have the career of Diane Johnson or the late Laurie Colwin, expressed fears that her book’s subject matter was too prosaic to fire the public imagination.
“The material makes me nervous, because I know there are a lot of young writers doing really, really serious, ambitious ‘American-with a capital A’ fiction, and I feel a little bit like my first novel is pretty safe,” she said. “I don’t know. I hope you can be published in prestigious journals and have prestigious places pay attention to you even if you’re writing about mere things like people and their love affairs and their apartments and what they cook for dinner-because I think those are very important things!”
You’re probably not going to find her vamping it up in a camisole in the pages of Vogue .
“I guess I would ,” she said, “but it’s so not the Norton way. And thank God. It’s one of the reasons I like being there. And yet it’s one of the reasons I’m sure I’ll be, like, perishing in anonymity. I kind of went door-to-door with all my friends in magazines and had a really hard time.”
The book, for which she received a “generous advance, but not some huge fat advance,” is apparently picking up steam in England, where it’s being marketed under the title Midnight in Manhattan , with a pink cover.
Asked about her relationship with her formidable Pops, the young authoress said: “I don’t know-this is a tricky thing to talk about. I get notes from him all the time. He’s an amazing editor. And I admire the hell out of my dad’s writing, but I don’t think we would have a huge overlap in terms of readership. He’s an incredible intellectual, and he’s so rigorous-very, very highbrow-and I’m kind of on a different plane.”
What was it like for her to have Mr. Delbanco “limn” the many sex scenes in the book? Dryly rendered lines such as “I had been taken from behind before, and also pressed up against a wall before (though never at the same time, and never with such a God’s-eye view of Central Park, those windows are incredible!)”
“So mortifying,” Ms. Delbanco said. “But I’ve got to say, he’s also kind of socked it to me over the years. All of his novels have sex scenes in them. I remember when I was a senior in college, it used to delight my friends to no end.”
College was her father’s alma mater, Harvard, where she majored in the history and literature of America (thesis topic: Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses and the idea of family honor in the Old South) and acted in lots of plays (she bears a passing resemblance to Mary-Louise Parker-refreshing given how many untalented Claire Danes look-alikes these days mysteriously land lucrative first-fiction contracts). A “ferocious” student, she seriously mulled a career in academia.
“But the idea that I could still be in school somewhere finishing up my pre-dissertation outline makes me shiver with fear,” she said. “And also, you’re paid terribly.”
Early writing efforts were ” mortifying ,” she said, “and I would die if anyone saw them.” She took workshops with Jayne Anne Phillips, Jamaica Kincaid and her father’s friend, Richard Ford, and later applied to a swath of M.F.A. programs with her then boyfriend, a poet. They both got in everywhere-and then he dumped her, announcing that he was planning to attend Iowa, the Harvard of this insular little M.F.A. world.
“I was so laid flat on my back by this breakup that I was like, ‘I don’t think I can go to school in a tiny town with this guy,'” Ms. Delbanco said. “I don’t know if this is going to make me sound really shallow, but it was mostly hard to turn down because I had a feeling that I would spend the rest of my life saying to people, ‘I could’ve gone to Iowa’-just that horrible, brief name-brand consciousness.” She retreated to Michigan and the bosom of her family.
Between college and grad school, Ms. Delbanco spent two and a half years in New York City, a fact which crucially informs her plot but is neatly excised from her flap-jacket biography.
“One day I went to bookstores and looked at the back of everybody’s book and was like, ‘I kind of want to say less rather than more,'” she said.
She lived on the Upper East Side, in her maternal grandparents’ apartment.
“All my friends lived in the East Village and the West Village and crazy little parts of Chinatown,” she said. “I was mortified -hated the Upper East Side-but now, in my old age, I think it’s ‘where it’s at,’ in a way. All the ladies with their little dogs and huge mink coats … it’s a scream.” She worked in publicity for Warner Books, leaving after two months (“I’m mortified when I think about that,” she said); and then for Seventeen as an editorial assistant and then a staff writer.
“It wasn’t like I ever thought I was going to stay there for a long time, but it was neat,” she said.
Ask Me Anything is about the contradiction of a 26-year-old protagonist doling out sex advice to teenagers while her own love life is a tangle of obfuscation and lies. Ms. Delbanco, by contrast, seems to enjoy a placid domestic arrangement down the street from Le Petit Jardin with her boyfriend, Nick Stoller, a tall, handsome screenwriter a couple years her junior (they have monogrammed towels, and she drives a Subaru Outback station wagon in sea-mist green). It was he who was responsible for spiriting her away to L.A. nine months ago.
“At the moment, I’m sort of enjoying L.A. more than I thought I would,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s a behind-the-back compliment or whatever the expression is, but I feel like it’s far away-in a nice way. It’s sort of safely at arm’s length. It’s a good mix. It’s not the crazy frenetic thing, but it’s also not so bucolic that it’s impossible to get a good meal at an ethnic restaurant.”