Eliot Schrefer: The “Roman Grotto” Years
Eliot Schrefer is the author of a whole bunch of awesome books, including Glamorous Disasters, The Deadly Sister, and coming this November, Endangered (I can’t wait to read it. A girl in the Congo, hiding from violent revolutionaries with a group of bonobo apes in the jungle… Yes!)
Before he was the author of a whole bunch of awesome books, though, he was a sad guy who kept getting rejected from grad school. Phew! The narrator of my novel and I weren’t the only ones who found being 23 agonizing! Thankfully, Eliot was willing to revisit his early 20s with me, at least for a few minutes.
Tell me about your first couple of years out of school.
Well, the backdrop to everything was that I was applying for grad school PhD programs. The first year, I only applied to my top schools. I picked three, and they all rejected me. The second year I cast a much wider net, and still didn’t get in anywhere. You get your letters back at the darkest time of the year, in February. I’d go to the mailbox and get a new rejection every day. Finally when even my safety schools said no… It was the pure darkness of rejection.
I thought I’d wanted to write, but it always seemed like a dream that didn’t happen for actual people. When my pragmatic dream didn’t happen I had to turn to the more fanciful one.
What were you doing for work?
The first part of my time, I was temping. I was working at Morgan Stanley, and I was the only male assistant on the entire floor. The guys would come in to work and say, “Normally I give Darlene receipts, but I won’t bother you…” I really milked the sexist system to my benefit. I started writing a novel, and I’d sit there typing at my desk all day.
What was your apartment like?
I moved every year for my first few years in New York. With one of my roommates, we just called phone numbers in windows in Chinatown, and we ended up moving into this building that was all Chinese families and then us. My room was 6 feet wide but 15 feet long. It was like you were living in a really long hunting lodge. Below us there was this deli that became an illegal disco at night. It was a race to fall asleep before the Latin music started at 1 a.m., otherwise you’d never fall asleep.
Would you say there was a moment or experience when things changed for you?
I took a writing class the year before I started the book. I wrote short stories that I was proud enough of that I saw this could become an identity. It was at that moment that I saw where to put my thoughts or ambitions. College, the one thing it provides so strongly is feedback, constant feedback. You lose that totally when you leave. After college, I found myself playing a lot of video games. Looking back, I realize that I was so into them because exactly what they provide is feedback: your strength, your power… You’re on level 3.2. I really needed that feedback. That course was the first time I had that again.
Did you have any mentors who were important to you in those years?
This is really sad, but I was kind of desperate for a mentor in a way that made me unappleaing as a mentoree. I would write to writers I really liked, and say I really liked your book and could I buy you coffee. None of them ever wrote back. So I guess my first mentors were books about writing. It was a one-way conversation, but it was still really helpful.
Is there an experience that sort of sums up your early 20s?
The standards of care that we’ve come to expect in housing, they really weren’t the same in the Chinese culture in Chinatown. A lot of things in our apartment didn’t work. We’d get these nipples on the ceiling from leaks in the building, and we’d call, and the landlord would tell us just to pierce them and put a pot under the leak. The paint on our ceiling looked like a Roman grotto.
And then there was that really bad snowstorm in 2003. We could just barely get out to get some food and come back. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I ate a tuna sub in Times Square. It was food poisoning in a tidy little package. Back at our apartment, the pipes froze, the heating wasn’t working, and the toilet froze. I would have to puke and I would run in there, and the puke would just sit there on the ice.
Oh man, Eliot, I’m very sorry I made you return to the snow storm of 2003, but I’m very glad things have improved considerably for you since then!