WHEN | WHERE 7 p.m. Tuesday, Theodore's Bookshop, 17 Audrey Ave., Oyster Bay
INFO 516-636-5550, theodoresbook.com
WHEN | WHERE 6:30 p.m. Sept. 22, John Jermain Memorial Library, 201 Main St., Sag Harbor (in conversation with architect Maziar Behrooz)
INFO 631-725-0049, johnjermain.org
Until now, Amy Fusselman has been what you might call a writer's writer, with four nonfiction books that even the author doesn't have an easy time describing, but that have left notables like Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, and Maggie Nelson almost gasping with pleasure: her talent is "unnerving," she is "wholly original," she is "one of best interrogators of how we live now."
And now she's gone and written "The Means" (Mariner, $27.99), a comic novel about money. See how easy it is to describe? More specifically, it is about building a beach house in the Hamptons, so foremost among those soon to be chortling over the schemes of Shelly Means will likely be humor lovers of the Long Island persuasion.
Shelly Means is a stay-at-home mother of two, the wife of a struggling voice-over artist, a resident of a part of Manhattan she calls the "discount caftan and incense district," and she is a woman with a dream. A dream that involves heated floors and a Japanese toilet. Fortunately, the therapist she sees for her anger issues (Shelly threw her water bottle at the school board president, admittedly an incredibly annoying finance bro) is also a real estate broker.
Fusselman recently spoke about the book via Zoom from her home in Springs.
When he learns that his family is struggling financially, Shelly's son, Jack, recommends that if she wants to make money, she should take up writing fiction. Is that why you have finally written a novel?
Well … [laughs] no. If I were writing for money, I would have quit a long time ago. I had wanted to write fiction for quite some time, but it was daunting. When I was working on my previous book, "Idiophone," I put in these little characters, some mice, who drove around the story in a VW Bug and got into mishaps. I moved them around, and had them talk to one another, and then I saw, "Oh! This is how it works."
I had also been wanting to write something humorous — again, daunting. But I took a couple of comedy classes at a place called The Pit, and learned what a joke was, that it was made of a setup and a punch line, and then an editor at The Washington Post who had read "Idiophone" invited me to write something for him, and I started experimenting there in earnest with a comic voice.
I read a column about how you discovered your online Scrabble partner was a robot! And there was one about how getting braces was like drinking from the Fountain of Youth.
I really enjoyed writing those. And at the time, my husband and I were in the process of building a shipping-container beach house in the Hamptons with a wonderful architect named Maziar Behrooz, and honestly the process was pretty unremarkable. But I saw that if you looked at the entire thing through a different lens, and if you peeled back every single action and encounter to find the money involved, it could be something else entirely. Because money is the ocean we're swimming in, it’s hard to see clearly. And yet it motivates everything, it's behind everything, and it qualifies everything.
Tell us about the dog in "The Means."
Do you have a pet? [The writer's dachshund, Wally, appears on the Zoom screen.]
What a beautiful dog! So, you know how it is, I don’t have to explain this. Shelly's dog, Twix, is the moral center of the book, because dogs are just better than we are. They love purely. They see clearly. It just seemed logical to have the dog speak the truth of the situation.
Well, she certainly does. She's not only articulate, she's economically astute, if a bit of a Marxist. What about the dog walker? She's kind of truth teller.
Yes. I think all the characters in the book have integrity in that they are expressing what is true for them. There are so many different views about money and how to live with it. It was fun to explore, like working on a mosaic.
Are you a native Long Islander?
No, like Shelly, I'm from the Midwest. Both my husband’s family and my family are from Youngstown, Ohio. We came here many years ago, after grad school, but I still don't consider myself a New Yorker. My kids — they are New Yorkers.
We started coming to the Hamptons maybe 20 years ago, first staying with a friend, later renting, then looking at property, and eventually the Hamptons just reeled us in. Because it's just glorious. I mean, it's a glorious place.