Adam Langer | Interview
Adam Langer's new novel looks at the perils of apartment living.
Critics have always said that novelist Adam Langer (Crossing California, The Washington Story) is “interested” in neighborhoods. With his new novel it’s become clear: He’s not just interested, he’s obsessed.
In Ellington Boulevard (Spiegel & Grau, $24.95), Langer turns his gaze from his native Chicago to his new hometown of New York. In Manhattan Valley (or, in brokerspeak, “The Upper Upper West Side”), he lines up a cast of characters involved in a heated apartment dispute, including the tenant who’s been a mainstay in the building and the broker selling it out from under him.
Langer talked with us from his own cushy Manhattan Valley digs about apartment battles, gentrification and being his own worst critic.
Time Out Chicago: You went to real-estate school for research. Was that hell?
Adam Langer: It was kind of fun, actually, a little boring, but fun. What was interesting to me was that you couldn’t find a seat, and people were way more studious than they were in college or grad school. I was hoping to find real sleaze, but there wasn’t much of that. There were guys there who quoted Glengarry Glen Ross and Wall Street as if they weren’t satire.
Time Out Chicago: Crossing California was such a Chicago story, but Ellington Boulevard’s fight over an apartment seems like such a New York story.
Adam Langer: I never planned on writing about this until I learned that my apartment was being sold and I had to move. When you have to find a new place to live really, really quickly, you’re immersed into this crazy world of New York real estate where everyone’s going into bidding wars for everything and open houses are packed to the walls.
Time Out Chicago: So your apartment was sold out from under you?
Adam Langer: It’s not quite as sinister as all that. My landlord and I were on a month-to-month with a handshake agreement. Where I lived was not a nice place to live when he bought it, and then it was worth literally ten times as much. So people who lived here for years and years were being forced out.
Time Out Chicago: Gentrification is tricky to take on.
Adam Langer: Well, where do you live in Chicago?
Time Out Chicago: Logan Square.
Adam Langer: There you go. Fifteen years ago that was probably like where I live in New York now. I’m just always fascinated by neighborhoods, what’s here and what comes next. In New York, I was actually watching gentrification happen as I was writing the book.
Time Out Chicago: Things were changing that quickly in your ’hood?
Adam Langer: It was hard to keep up. I wanted [the novel] to be geographically accurate. But then, this low-income building became condos and that grocery store was vacated because of high rents and that pizzeria was torn down. To keep it present day, I had to write quickly.
Time Out Chicago: The way gentrification is talked about, there’s good guys and bad guys, and the good guys are the ones who were there first.
Adam Langer: Yeah, to be honest, when I started writing this I was in a pissed-off mood. It was just before Christmas vacation and I walked into our apartment and the sellers were there when they shouldn’t be, showing it to a young couple whose parents were buying an apartment for them. So I started off fairly aggressive.
Time Out Chicago: But in the book you don’t really have a villain.
Adam Langer: Well, when I was in Chicago, I directed a show I’d written for Shattered Globe Theatre, and it had a band with a bass player that was this solemn, ill-tempered guy. So I told the actor, “Okay, you’re the asshole.” And he said, “You don’t know that. Not if I don’t choose to play him that way.” And that sort of stuck with me, so now I try to be as nonjudgmental as possible of my characters.
Time Out Chicago: What are you working on now?
Adam Langer: I’m working on a nonfiction book—and my daughter is two now, so I’m also working on low-attention-span projects between her naps, kids’ books that I may never take out of the drawer.
Time Out Chicago: What’s the nonfiction work about?
Adam Langer: It’s about my dad, who passed away a couple years ago. There was a book he always talked about writing—a history of the Bonus March of 1932, when 20,000 veterans marched on Washington. So my book is about trying to trace that history and the history of his life, and trying to figure out why he wanted to write the book and why he didn’t.
Time Out Chicago: You used to be a theater critic for The Reader. Does that affect how you view criticism of your own work?
Adam Langer: I find that I agree with all of the good ones and all of the bad ones. I could write glowing and horrific reviews of my novels very easily.
Langer reads from Ellington Boulevard Wednesday 23.