For most writers, a productive day wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the coffee shop. For Anna Godbersen, author of young adult sensation “The Luxe,” which debuted at number six on the New York Times Children’s Books Best Seller list, though, a stop by her local java joint is anything but inspirational.
“I really like working at home,” she told GO Brooklyn last week. “I have tried going to the Greenpoint Coffee House to write, but I’m not very good at being around other people. I get uncomfortable and competitive. Everybody has a better laptop than I do, and they all seem to be typing a lot more than I am. It’s a sensitive thing being a writer in this world.”
And while the borough’s coffee shops are often filled with obnoxiously prodigious scribes, it’s hard to imagine any who might actually be able to compete with Godbersen’s instant success.
Not so long ago she was an editorial assistant at Esquire magazine, ghost-writing young adult (YA) books in her free time. But with the release of “The Luxe,” which puts “Gossip Girl”-type teenage antics against a Gilded Age backdrop, the California native is headed into the hallowed halls occupied by giants like Judy Blume, Christopher Pike and J.K. Rowling.
“I ghost wrote a few YA novels and was trying to come up with an idea for my own series that I thought would be exciting — with an element of glamour,” Godbersen, 27, said. “There are all sorts of series that center around very rich young people, and that didn’t interest me. I thought if I had a historical setting, though, it would be more interesting and would add a new element. And since I know New York, I thought the Gilded Age would be a natural fit. I did research, reading histories of the times, and got really excited.”
Burying herself in the archives at the New York Historical Society, where newspapers, fashion magazines, etiquette books and memoirs from the time are all available, Godbersen began working in 2006, developing a story around an old-money family, the Hollands, and the trials they face at the turn of the 20th century. Like any good story — teen or otherwise — there are a slew of villains, rogues, backstabbers and young lovers that, mixed with a breathless pace and a spot of mystery, make for a wicked page-turner.
For a high-minded reader — she mentioned E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime” and “Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer,” the Nobel Prize-winning novel by Steven Millhauser during our chat — Godbersen has taken to YA writing with seemingly little trouble, perhaps thanks to not reading much of the stuff herself.
“I didn’t read a ton of YA books, and going into this, I never imagined myself writing historical fiction,” she said. “I think often when historical fiction fails is when it gets really tied up in lecturing on facts that the author has gotten excited about. Doing my own research, I understand why that happens, but it doesn’t always fit in the book you’re writing. Historical novels also flounder in the dialogue, and I’m not sure I totally succeeded, but I was very worried about not sounding like ‘Masterpiece Theater.’ ”
It surely doesn’t. “The Luxe,” while witty and catty and all of the delicious things that a YA book read by adults should be, is above all smart and interesting. Upon meeting the Hollands, readers learn that their grand digs on Gramercy Park, however nice they are, don’t measure up to the mansions that the nouveau riche are building in the farmland along Fifth Avenue in the 50s. Along the way to each plot turn, a fun fact or two is dispensed, which gives the book an air of authenticity and maturity that sets it apart from others in its genre.
And taking place in 1900 as it does, the author can’t help but mention the most important thing to ever happen to Manhattan — becoming part of the same city as Brooklyn.
“I don’t have a Brooklyn plotline in the works,” admitted Godbersen, “but I should. That time period is so interesting because New York is coming into focus in so many ways … it’s becoming one city. It would be really cool to do something like that.”
In the meantime, if she isn’t writing about the borough she lives in, Godbersen is at least trying to make her mark on it.
“It feels like nobody’s really holding it down in Greenpoint except Kate Christensen [‘The Great Man,’ Doubleday Publishing]. The army of Great Brooklyn Writers is very Park Slope. Maybe I should lead the Greenpoint movement.”
Which just might be the most historic act that she’s taken on yet.
“They stood still with downcast eyes, waiting for Henry Schoonmaker, who emerged last. The refined mourners could not help a little gasp at the sight of him, and not only because he was usually so wickedly bright-eyed and so regularly with a drink in hand. The tragic irony of Henry appearing as a pallbearer on the very day when he was to have wed Elizabeth [Holland] seemed deeply unfair.
“The horses drawing the hearse were shiny black, but the coffin was decorated with an enormous white satin bow, for Elizabeth had died a virgin. What a shame, they all whispered, blowing ghostly gusts of air into one another’s ears, that an early death was visited on such a very good girl.”
— Excerpt from “The Luxe” (Harper Teen) by Anna Godbersen
“The Luxe” (Harper Teen, $14.95) is available at Barnes and Noble (267 Seventh Ave. at Sixth Street in Park Slope). For information, visit www.harperteen-theluxe.com.