Bright Lights, Broke City

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Cristina Alger took the "Write what you know" dictum to heart. Her book The Darlings (which has evoked comparisons to Dominick Dunne and Tom Wolfe-no shabby company for a debut novel) is set amid the world of the titular Upper East Side hedge fund family, just as the market crashes and reveals some questionable corporate decisions. We caught up with the born-and-raised Upper East Sider and former Wall Street analyst and corporate lawyer over coffee at The Regency, just one of the many UES establishments Alger name-checks in her compulsively readable page turner.

Our Town: When did you realize you had a book?

Cristina Alger: I went to a law firm in the city as a corporate attorney. I started writing it right around the time the book takes place, which is fall 2008. And I went in the morning of September 18, which is the morning that Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, and it was a really, really surreal day. By 9 a.m., all of us were in the conference room and they told us about the Lehman file and said, "We don't know if our firm is going to be here next week." And I was thinking, "This is a really monumental moment in U.S. history. What an interesting time, for better or worse, especially to be on Wall Street."

I thought, why not try to create a family that's a window into that time in New York? Once I had a family I liked, I started crafting the plot. But I worked for about a year. And eventually, when I sold it, I totally rewrote it! [Laughs]

Was it always in the back of your mind that you'd write a book?

I was an English major in college and I always wanted to write but I guess just for practical reasons, I didn't think of it as a real job and I didn't dare do it. I was pretty entrenched in my law firm and I think I needed a creative release and it was just the kind of book I thought would be fun to read and I didn't see anything like it on the shelf.

I'm assuming there are some lightly fictionalized portraits of real people here?

A lot of people ask me that. You start drawing from so many sources and they kind of become people in their own right. I think one of the fun parts of Dominick Dunne's books is that some of them are so thinly disguised, you wonder how anyone invited him to a dinner party again! But I wanted my characters to feel real, so I kind of took a panopoly of real people and out them in a blender. And everything that happened on Wall Street at the time was so heavily watched; if you just regurgitated the news, there'd be nothing there.

Well, according to the blurbs and reviews, you're the new Dominick Dunne!

I think the funniest blurb to me is "The book is equal shades Bernie Madoff and Jay McInerney," which we got before Jay McInerney blurbed it. But I was like, "Oh God, I hope Jay McInerney doesn't read that blurb and go, 'She's not nearly as good as me, I'm retracting my blurb immediately!'"

Was it always a given that the book would be set on the Upper East Side?

I have no imagination, so I'm good at writing what I know. I think the family in the book would probably be best suited for the Upper East Side, so it's a natural fit. And it's fun for me. When I started this, it was just for my own entertainment, so writing about where I grew up and where I live now was fun, I got to look at things with fresh eyes. It was just kind of a natural thing.

So is there really an absurd doorknob, like the one the Darlings mock in the book?

Oh! I was just walking down memory lane, and I saw this townhouse with poodle topiaries and this really enormous doorknob. And everything was so picture perfect it almost looked like no one could possibly live there. There are always little details that you have some story behind, and you realize no one else will pick up on. But every now and then someone does and it makes you happy!

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