Straight Talk

Novelist Holly Peterson Talks About New York, Power Trippers, and Love

Holly Peterson cast a cold eye on the Park Avenue set in her bestselling novel ‘The Manny.’ Now she’s taken on publishing’s meritocratic strivers. And she’s just as frank face to face.

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Holly Peterson’s life is an urban safari—she’s constantly observing (and then writing it all down), whether it’s how the machers of New York operate, something she gets to see firsthand power lunching with her father, Peter Peterson, founder of the Blackstone Group, or the strange behavioral codes of the Park Avenue set, her own environs and a species she detailed in her 2006 bestselling novel, The Manny, inspired by her own male nanny.

In her new novel, The Idea of Him, Peterson has turned her attention to a different tier of New York society: the hardworking publicist and mother of two, Allie Crawford. At 34, Allie faces the harsh reality that much of what she loved about her husband, Wade, a charismatic Manhattan magazine editor, was just an illusion: hence the novel’s title The Idea of Him. Peterson’s tale underscore’s one of Freud’s immortal truisms: “The human mind has an infinite capacity for self-delusion.”

Peterson takes us on a character study of Allie as she tries to make sense of a number of betrayals in her life, all while she navigates the cutthroat milieu of high society New York swarming with those willing to do practically anything to get ahead. Incidentally, the villains in this story are mostly egomaniacal men, while the women come off quite well. A former journalist at ABC and Newsweek, Peterson says she is getting closer to the truth with fiction.

“People mistake my writing for chick lit, but I’m a journalist at heart. I’m writing really realistic scenes about how Manhattan ticks,” she said over breakfast at Casa Lever, the sleek midtown restaurant, which The New York Times said was “built for socialites and those who finance them” (or in Peterson’s case, those who chronicle them). At heart, she is a social satirist—and not a mean one. (Think of a slightly less acerbic, more feminine Tom Wolfe, her literary idol and inspiration.) Peterson likes to write about money, because, well, money is a proxy for everything, she says. Over breakfast we discussed what’s changed about New York society since the Great Recession, the publishing industry’s problems with female heroines who end up alone, and dating after a divorce.

Is The Idea of Him a post-recession book?

Yes, I wanted to write about the post-crash New York and how the recession changed how people behave. I did not want to write, as I had in my last book, about the Park Avenue, NetJets crowd. I wanted to write about a totally different sector of New York, which is far more interesting in my mind: the meritocracy crowd. They are a distinct crowd that made it on their own. You can’t be a true part of the meritocracy crowd in Manhattan if you inherited Daddy’s company and drove it into the ground, even if you own a sports team.

Wade Crawford, a big player in your new book, is the fictional face of the meritocracy crowd because he pulled himself up by his bootstraps. But who is the real-life face of meritocracy crowd in this city?

These are people like Harvey Weinstein, Bruce Wasserstein, Diane von Furstenberg, and Barry Diller. Part of the meritocracy crowd is their inability to stop and never be satisfied with any level of success. It’s also the quest for power. I go to the Grill Room with my dad a lot for lunch and there are men there well into their 80s who are still doing huge deals. That phenomenon of never being satisfied with any level of success or money—it’s an intense, maniacal drive. I think they are fascinating. My father is 87 and he writes speeches in the dentist chair. The dentist can’t get to his teeth.

What did your father, who was secretary of Commerce under Nixon, think of the book?

He laughed. He liked the accurate description of the heavy hitters in Manhattan and their inability to stop.

As a keen observer of the New York social ecosystem, can you say what other social classes have emerged post-recession?

People who make it on their own definitely have stature. I think what author Michael Gross writes about: the people with a psychotic amount of money who don’t care about old-guard, moneyed institutions like the Metropolitan Club or providing income statements for snooty Park Avenue coop boards. That’s why you see all these gleaming new condos going up.

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Since you wrote The Manny, do you think people are being more discreet about their money?

Everyone in 2006 wanted to show off their NetJets account by saying, ‘It’s wheels up at 3 p.m.’ to make sure everyone in the nursery school classroom knew they were spending $80,000 to go to Aspen for the weekend. I don’t think people would talk about their NetJets right now. I think people aren’t shopping as much—fashion isn’t as high-end as it was. Still, though, everyone on Wall Street, since 2008, has made all their money back and then some.

From writing this book, what did you learn about the publishing industry and what it likes to see in female characters?

Let me be clear, they [editors and publishers] didn’t explicitly say this, but I do think when you are writing about marriage, when you are writing about women, when you are writing about wifely roles, society is still very provincial in what they like to see. You tell me the name of a popular movie or a huge piece of literature where a woman is married and has an affair and doesn’t take arsenic and doesn’t jump on the train tracks or her husband doesn’t murder her lover with a vase. There are almost no examples of women having affairs and not being vilified.

Wade Crawford, the self-obsessed editor of the magazine Meter, who is also charismatic, ruthless, handsome, and the husband of your protagonist, is someone who seems very specific to New York. Could someone like Wade only exist in New York?

Wade is so New York. New York cultivates these glamorous, toxic, outsized characters because there are so many industries here that are battling each other. whether it’s fashion or art, or business or law or publishing or journalism. And you have these outsized personalities who are running them, which just confirms their narcissism.

We meet Allie and Wade 10 years into their marriage, when it’s clear to the reader that Wade has not been a standup husband. Was Allie deluding herself, or do you think a marriage just naturally shifts and changes, and not always for the better, after a decade?

No, I think she was deluding herself. I think this a phenomenon that both women and men do: we fall for the idea of someone. We all do it, all the time. The drug dealer in college who got straight A’s because he was cool; the hot French guy in our 20s who dressed really well but was really stupid, the young woman with the huge boobs because it makes an older man feel younger.

That’s kind of narcissistic.

Yes, but it’s a very natural thing to fall in love with the idea of someone when you start a relationship. My book is half about falling in love with the idea of someone and half about what happens when it really hits you and you are are sitting married to someone with kids and the person you are sitting with isn’t the person you thought he was. Then you say, ‘Wow, it’s really scary, maybe I’m not happy, maybe this person bores me to tears and I want to bring out the samurai sword in the middle of this meal.’ What do you do next? That is what my book is about: How do you get the strength to jump off the juggernaut of a relationship?

Did you see a time, around the mid-30s and early 40s—Allie’s and Wade’s ages, respectively— when a lot of your friends started getting divorced?

It was definitely the 40s. I think you are so psychotic as young parents. There are so many diapers and tricycles and video games and bedtime and an extreme level of exhaustion and exuberance that it is very easy to delude yourself during your 30s—you are sleepwalking through that decade. When you turn the 40 corner you start thinking, “Is this what I want? Are we going to stick with this for the long haul?”

There are all these big, important, and political feminist issues like abortion and the wage gap. But there are also psychological and emotional issues that women contend with—such as trying too hard to please people, which Allie does in spades. Are you trying to draw attention to the interior life of women in this book?

Yes. Specifically, do women need a man to be happy? Can women have corn flakes alone on a Saturday night and watch Netflix and still feel complete? I think they can. They don’t need to have an apron or a man by their side. We need more images and scenes of women on their own, who are realistically happy without a guy.

Was that your feminist awakening in your 40s: that you don’t need a guy?

Yes, but I’ve been dating a bit since my divorce. Still, I have moments of creating the image of the perfect man and being on dates with them and thinking, this is what I need: a cop who writes. And I’ve been on dates with men who own planes and think, that looks really cool to be jetted around the world. But the main test is, do you want to Netflix binge with that person? That means you want to share the greatest, most fun nine hours you can these days in our down time with that person. It’s not so much about the sex; it’s about the conversation before and after sex. And do you admit all that fucked up stuff from your childhood that is triggering you to act in certain ways? That’s what it means to connect.

Dating in Manhattan can be brutal. How do you meet someone the second time around?

I think you have to go out a lot and to a lot of events you don’t really want to go to. There are so many divorced people in New York City. I don’t subscribe to this whole idea that there are no men in the city.

In your next book, which is about the Hamptons, are you going to vilify all the 1 percenters?

I mean, I’ll stick it to them.