In the critically acclaimed new novel, "The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac," grad school dropout Calvin Moretti feels trapped after he moves back into his family's Sleepy Hollow home and finds work as a preschool teacher. For author Kris D'Agostino, who grew up in Pelham, art imitated life, inspiring a novel that the Kirkus Review says "winningly describes the millennial generation exploring the borders of love and responsibility."
In this edited Q&A, conducted by email, D'Agostino discusses growing up in Westchester, the parallels between his novel and his life, and what he hopes to see if "Sleepy Hollow" is adapted into a film.
Even though you grew up in Pelham, why did you choose to set your novel in Sleepy Hollow?
When I was growing up in Pelham, the Hudson River Valley and all the towns there along the water seemed so picturesque and quaint. I always felt Pelham was the boring part of Westchester. There's something about the history and the uniqueness of those river towns that appeals to me. It may have something to do with my "the grass is always greener" attitude to pretty much everything in life, but I always wanted to live on that side of the county.
All the old houses, the Victorians, the river itself -- it's a unique, very amazing place. I always lamented the fact that my parents hadn't chosen to settle down there. The next best thing seemed to be setting my novel there. It gave me a chance to write about the area and look at lots of maps and have excuses to take drives up Route 9.
The novel closely parallels your background in a lot of ways. Why did you choose to incorporate these biographical elements in your novel?
That came from the simple fact that in 2006, when I started writing the book, I couldn't seem to write about anything else. I knew I wanted to write about a 24-year-old who was living back in his childhood home and dealing with his family and feeling "stuck." And every time I started writing, this stuff about my dad and my family's financial situation would just flow naturally into the prose. Obviously it was because this stuff was happening to me in real life and I couldn't get away from it.
My dad was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2005. My parents lost their house in 2009. I wasn't living at home at that time, but I was close enough that these things were right in front of me and putting them down on paper helped me get perspective on it. There has to be some kind of cathartic therapy aspect to that.
What did you think of Westchester when you were growing up in the area?
In high school I thought Pelham, and by extension, Westchester, was the absolute most boring suburban landscape ever. I just wanted to live in the city. That was all I thought about.
The area didn't really reveal its richness to me until much later in life. The Hudson River towns, I loved their aesthetic, and I joked about moving to one when I "grew up," but I didn't want to be there as a teenager.
Did any of your childhood memories from growing up there find their way into the novel?
Calvin's family life -- the way his grandmother and mother spend their days gossiping in the kitchen and cooking big meals. That's straight out of my life. I think it's a northeast Italian-American thing, and definitely part of the lower Westchester lifestyle.
My mother is from New Rochelle, my father from Mount Vernon, and my relatives, especially on my father's side, this was how they lived. They cooked and they talked and they screamed at each other and then hugged each other and the family was big and loud and stayed together forever. I remember that ... that closeness. We're still that close.
A lot of well-known and popular fiction has come out of the region. What do you think it is about Westchester County that makes it a great setting for fiction?
I think the actual history of the place is part of it. Washington Irving and Sleepy Hollow and the oldness of the county. There's a history that informs places like that and gives them presence and gives them character. Plus, as far as settings for fiction, there is a wealth of beauty and landscape to write about. The Hudson River Valley itself is beautiful. And the towns really lend themselves to whatever you want to write about.
Horror, for example, makes perfect sense if you think about setting it in Dobbs Ferry or Sleepy Hollow. Even the names themselves can be taken in a spooky context. Or, those same towns can be the models for picturesque semirural quaintness. The whole can be shaped however you want, while still holding on to the innate qualities the area already has to offer.
Now that you live in Brooklyn, is there anything you miss about the Westchester area?
I miss driving in my car and listening to music. I used to just drive. I would turn the stereo up so loud and just go. Drive over to the water or just cruise around the streets of Pelham and listen to records.
It's funny, I did that in high school and then I did it again right after college when I lived back home for a brief period, and Calvin and his friends do it in the novel. There's something about driving and music and the idea of just "going," even if you're going nowhere, that has always been appealing to me.
Since you're a self-described "film nerd," have you thought about what a film adaptation of "The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac" would look like? Have you already started casting the characters in your head?
My dad certainly has! He wants Ed Harris to play him. He told me "Kris, I was thinking about it, and I think Ed Harris could play me really well." So, Ed Harris if you're reading this (and I know you are) I guarantee you win an Oscar if you take the part. My big joke is that I'll play myself. But I'm not sure I can pass for 24 anymore.