When you think of Sleepy Hollow, you think of Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow, right? Writer and Pelham native Kris D’Agostino sets out to change all that with a new tale — one that doesn’t involve any headless horsemen. In The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac, grad-school dropout Calvin Moretti moves back home and tries to find his life’s purpose amidst his own debt, his family’s tenuous grasp on their house, his father’s illness, and other family dramas. We caught up with D’Agostino, who now lives in Brooklyn.
Why Sleepy Hollow?
I was born in New Rochelle and grew up in Pelham [on the Long Island Sound]. Most of my family still lives there, or in neighboring towns. At the same time, though — and this may be a conflict in terms — I was not that interested in describing the setting. I didn’t set out to really talk about or comment on Westchester County. I just wanted to ground it somewhere familiar, somewhere I knew.
I’ve always been fascinated with [Sleepy Hollow and the Hudson River Valley]. The whole waterfront has such amazing architecture and a unique feel and history. It’s such a — for lack of a better word — quaint place. I think I was trying to make up for the fact that I hadn’t grown up in one of those towns. Setting the novel there seemed to be a nice excuse to do some vicarious living.
So many new writers live in Brooklyn and set their novels in New York City. Why do you think there aren’t more about the Hudson Valley?
As soon as I see that a writer has set their book in Brooklyn it makes me want to die. I am so uninterested in people trying to capture the young New York scene or anything remotely connected with it. It (usually) ends up being way too on the nose, or arch, or cloying, or just pointless. Life here in Brooklyn is certainly interesting and there are countless scenes here to be part of, but I’m not sure that any of them transcend the scope of bad romantic comedies or worse. For dramatic purposes, life outside this place feels much more grounded in what is real. Of course I’m being intentionally hyperbolic and you can most certainly set a novel in Brooklyn and do it well. You just have to be really careful about what you are trying to say and what elements you are going to incorporate. For example, I don’t think Woody Allen can be accused of using New York City in a phony way.
And as far as the Westchester/Hudson River Valley setting, I’m not sure why more people haven’t tapped into the area. For me it’s one of the most versatile palates for setting I’ve ever come across. You can pretty much write any genre or style you want and place it in the context of the Hudson River Valley and it would make sense. Horror goes really well with the whole aesthetic history of the region, for example.
The book is about a family whose members all wind up living together as adults or near-adults. Do you think that’s a situation that’s endemic in this area, or do you think young people everywhere are going through the same thing?
It seems to me like a lot of young people, post-college, certainly in the United States, are going through this. I know a lot of people from my college class who wound up in the same situation. And I’ve heard from people younger than me that it is getting even more popular. I did a reading last week at PowerHouse Arena in DUMBO [Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass neighborhood in Brooklyn] with another author, Leigh Stein. She has written a similarly themed book called The Fallback Plan, about a young girl who moves back home post-college. At the reading, Japanese television was filming her because they were doing a special about how young Japanese kids were moving back home with their parents in droves. So it definitely seems to be a rising trend.
The characters in your book are clearly based on your family. Did you have any reservations about letting them read it? How did they react?
I didn’t really take that into consideration. My intention was not to vilify anyone or settle any grudges. I knew that I would end up making myself look the worst. If anything I wanted to paint my family in a realistic light and show them as they are, like all of us, human.
I think there is also a secret egomaniac side to the D’Agostinos, and people like being put into a book. They can go around and brag or fake-complain about it. I know my mother does. She tells all her friends the “real” stories behind what’s in the book.
You touch upon a lot of things that seem to be hot-button issues now: a family in danger of losing their house, young people hampered by student debt, etc. Did you mean for this to be political at all?
A really good friend of mine argues that all writing is political by nature, no matter what you are writing about. That said, I didn’t mean to make any political statements. I wrote about those things not just because they were/are topical, but because they were happening to my family, or to me, or to people I cared about, at the time.
When people hear “Sleepy Hollow,” they think of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Was that in your mind at all when you wrote the novel?
Not consciously and it really doesn’t surface at all in the book. I think there is a way to tie that whole history into a novel, and actually now that I’m thinking about it, it could be done really well. You could have a character living in Sleepy Hollow and draw analogies to their current life or plight in relation to the history of Washington Irving and the headless horseman and the mythology that his stories set up.
What’s the biggest difference between living in Westchester versus Brooklyn?
The biggest difference for me is access to culture. Restaurants, movies, theater, the music scene. That stuff exists in Westchester but not like it does in New York City. Literally every day I hear about some new restaurant I want to go to. My dream is to have infinite funds so that I can eat out every single night. It’s my main focus in life right now. Food.
Are there any surprising similarities?
Finally: Any advice for the adrift young people out there who are about to graduate college?
My advice is simple: Don’t worry too much. It won’t last. Nothing does. If you find yourself adrift and floundering, try to enjoy the good stuff that comes with that period of your life. I don’t wish I was 24 again, I’m quite happy where I am now, but I did have some good times back then. They were all good times, even when they weren’t.