Introducing 2019 Debutante Erin Somers

On May 16th, at our 10th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating six of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week, we’re talking to Erin Somers, author of One Teen Story #20, “Astronauts in Love” and the novel  Stay Up with Hugo Best (Scribner).

When aspiring comedian June Bloom runs into her idol and former boss, the famous late-night host Hugo Best, she gets the chance to live her fantasy—Hugo invites June to his house for the long Memorial Day weekend. Hugo is an older, powerful man and June is a young, broke woman trying to make it in a tough industry. What do they owe each other? What do they have a right to expect? Stay Up with Hugo Best is a deft exploration of fame, desire, and what we demand from people—those we know, those we’re related to, and those we don’t know but feel like we do.

Hayleigh Santra: Where were you when you found out Stay Up with Hugo Best was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Erin Somers: I was at the gym when my agent called, just like I’d always imagined. I got off the treadmill to take the call and walked out into the hallway outside the racquetball courts. I listened to my agent tell me an editor had made an offer while I watched some guys playing racquetball. I remember thinking, “How can you be playing racquetball at a time like this?”

As for celebration, my husband ran out for champagne. Beyond that I didn’t allow anything. I’m wary of getting what I wish for, but in a monkey’s paw way. Where the wish is technically granted, but the results are mangled and ironic, a punishment for my hubris. So I don’t over-celebrate until I see how it all shakes out. I send someone fleet footed for good booze, I drink it quickly before the gods can notice, and I get back to work.

HS: The novel is a meditation on desire, both realized and unrealized. Hugo Best presumably got everything he ever wanted—a long-running late-night show, celebrity status, money—but his need for others’ approval never subsides. June also gets her fantasy—a weekend with her idol—and yet it doesn’t feel as she thought it would. So often we think we know what we want, only to discover that it doesn’t have the effect on us that we imagined. What interested you about exploring this aspect of desire?

ES: Almost nothing can live up to our hopes for it. What could possibly live up? Not getting what you want feels terrible. But getting what you want also feels terrible. Why? It should feel good! But it doesn’t. But why? Probably because it doesn’t match the elaborate fantasy we create in our heads about how things will go and how they will feel.

I find that disconnect to be really rich. I’m attuned to it’s tragicomic potential, in fiction and in life. If I’m at an elegant occasion, a nice wedding, say, I’m looking around for the detail that’s going to undercut the whole evening, its gravitas, its specialness. The thing that’s going to make the bride sad later. The blue recycling bin fully visible in the corner or whatever. The DJ who drinks too much and says something inappropriate. I feel deflation acutely. I’m highly disappoint-able. I can’t help it—I keep hoping!

HS: There is an obvious power imbalance between the famous, rich Hugo Best and the young, aspiring June Bloom. Yet, they could make a compromise — June could give Hugo sex and uncomplicated adoration, and Hugo could help make June’s career. This is a topic that people are especially attuned to right now, as it’s come to light that many powerful men in the entertainment business have harassed or assaulted younger women and used their money and fame to get away with their behavior. Why did you want to explore this type of relationship?

ES: This type of relationship is everywhere. More than is even acknowledged, especially in creative fields. Older men help young women with their careers in exchange for sexual attention. I wanted to write about it because I saw it happening constantly and we haven’t gotten the young woman’s perspective on it much in literature. What we usually get is an exquisite prose stylist (male) writing about a professor and/or writer (male) having an affair with a young woman. And the young woman is just a device to show what a mess this dude is or set him on the right path or explode his life. Fine. Some of those books are good. But that’s a boring premise in 2019 and I’m sick of reading about it. Much more interesting to hear from the young woman at this point, explore her complicity, let her have flaws, etc.

HS: June and Hugo are constantly cracking jokes, and Stay Up with Hugo Best is rife with insider knowledge about comedy. Why did you decide to use comedy as the backdrop? Can you talk about your research process?

ES: I chose comedy as the backdrop because I thought I could write the jokes. I wanted to try. It seemed fun and like a formal challenge, too—I had never written standup before. Plus the industry is rife with bad behavior and big egos, and full of interesting characters. It’s also a hard industry for women. There has still never been a woman host on a network late night show. That’s wild. What’s going on there? I look at James Corden and I think, no woman on the planet could do better than this? Things have improved a little on cable, but I remember when they were looking for Jon Stewart’s replacement on the Daily Show and they were trying to make the argument that no qualified woman wanted the job. Okay guys, sure.

To research it, I read books about late night and memoirs by comedians. I watched a lot of late night and listened to old standup to get a feel for Hugo’s voice. I talked to a former head writer for a long running late night show who had started as an audience page and worked his way up and he very generously described every job he had in detail. I did tons more, maybe too much, but it never felt like work because it was mostly listening to funny people talk.

HS: The story takes place over the course of one Memorial Day weekend — four days. I love books that have specific, short timeframes, and I’m always fascinated with how the author manages to create and maintain the tension necessary for a novel. Can you talk a bit about this choice? Was that always how the novel was structured? What were the challenges and advantages in writing about one weekend?

ES: Comic novels in particular work well with short timelines, especially the sub-genre I think of as “an idiot flailing around.” The novels I looked to when I was writing it—Lucky Jim, Cassandra at the Wedding, Desperate Characters, Straight Man, Who is Rich, Goodbye Columbus—have short timelines.

As a first time novelist, I tried to make things as easy on myself as possible. That was the logic behind many of my choices: what will make this project less daunting? Why make things harder? Writing a novel is already hard. By setting it over a long weekend, I wouldn’t have to worry about finding an ending—it ended when the weekend ended. Four days meant four sections. Every section began in the morning and ended at night because that’s how time works.

The challenge was how to keep it interesting when the structure precludes anything “big” from happening. It could only ever be a small story. But when I got all the characters talking I found they were all trying to seduce each other and also, on some level, hated each other. That escalating push-pull seemed enough to sustain it.

HS: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the One Story Ball?

ES: I’m hoping to see some grinding.

Hayleigh Santra is an MFA candidate at The New School.