The Little City Five: Elif Batuman

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Questions for Elif Batuman, in which she describes her image of Hoboken in her youth as "a glamorous but dangerous, somehow hollow, hubcap-like entity."

1. It feels like you must have kept a journal in college. Did you? Do you keep one now?

Oh indeed I did. I stopped keeping a journal at some point in my twenties, but sort of started again last year—I have a Muji daily planner and try to write something every day, so I know where the days went. It’s really different, though, from my journal in college, where it just felt like so many unbelievable things were happening that I had to write them all down in real time.

2. That humid day when everyone's hair was crazy made me laugh so hard. Is the line about the hair looking like a loaf of bread stuck to her head taken from your first draft, written soon after college?

Yes, I wrote the humid hair day scene in my early twenties. Rereading it in my late thirties, I remembered for the first time in many years the mystifying, almost diabolical property that hair used to hold for me in my youth. It (hair) was like some emanation of the person that he or she had no control over, different every day. And a lot of people I knew I think had no control over their hair. Today, I am older, and my friends are older, and I think hair products have both improved in quality and become more commonly used, so, for a combination of reasons, I have a different relationship to hair.

3. Please name three favorite books from:

a. Childhood: Huckleberry Finn, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, everything by Edith Nesbit
b. Teenage Years:  My favorite books from age 12 to 15 were the Jeeves books by P.G. Wodehouse, which I read until they fell apart. I remember particularly liking the episode where his Marxist replacement butler burns down his cottage. I also loved A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag, by Gordon Korman. In high school, I read Anna Karenina and that became my favorite book for many years.

4.  What are you reading now?

I’m working on a story about Japan so I’ve been reading Japan-related books for the past two months. Two nonfiction favorites were Staged Seduction: Selling Dreams in a Tokyo Host Club, by Akiko Takeyama, and People Who Eat Darkness, by Richard Lloyd Parry. I also loved a new novel by Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman, which I think has sold over 600,000 copies in Japan and is coming out in English soon from Granta. 

5. What comes to mind when you hear the word Hoboken?

Well, I grew up in north Jersey, and when I was little the Morris and Essex lines on NJ Transit didn’t go to Penn Station yet, as they did by the time I was in high school; so, to get to Manhattan, you had to transfer at Hoboken and take the PATH. I remember in those days that my cool younger aunt would talk about going to New York through Hoboken. I didn’t know who or what Hoboken was, but had an image of a glamorous but dangerous, somehow hollow, hubcap-like entity.