When describing her writing process, local author Yona McDonough likens herself to a bluejay, collecting observations and details from her daily life– “little scraps,” she calls them– and reworking them in her fictional worlds.
In A Wedding in Great Neck, her latest novel, she tells the story of an affluent family as they gather in Great Neck for the youngest daughter’s wedding. The action takes place in the course of a single day, which Yona illustrates by deftly weaving from one perspective to the next. Each character– from the perfect bride, to the jealous sister, to the recovering alcoholic father, to the take-charge grandmother– brings his or her own baggage which leads to rising tensions and plenty of drama.
But these complicated dynamics are what draws Yona to stories of family, which she refers to as the “primal narrative.” Working the story within the constraints of a single day was a challenge she was excited to explore, citing Ian McEwan’s Saturday and Helen Schulman’s A Day at the Beach as sources of inspiration.
“As a formal problem, I thought it was so interesting,” she says. “How do you do that in a day? It was so intriguing to me and I wanted to try it. And I thought a wedding would be good because a wedding brings together this cast of characters, a family, and feelings tend to run high. Weddings realign families. Suddenly you enter a different relationship with everyone, and I like that. It’s a good, fertile territory, to see characters and people figuring out how their families will reconstruct.”
Though the action takes place on Long Island, at least one of the family members is from Brooklyn. It’s a theme that continues throughout her work, with Park Slope specifically having a definite presence in her novels.
In Breaking the Bank, published in 2009, Yona brings a bit of surrealism to the neighborhood. A down-on-her-luck protagonist moves into a Fourth Avenue apartment and encounters a mysterious ATM that starts to hand her, without record, thousands of dollars. Yona’s upcoming novel brings another main character back into her hometown.
Yona knows Park Slope very well. Having grown up on Ocean Parkway, she attended what used to be the Berkeley Institute (now the Berkeley Carroll School). She eventually left for Manhattan, but when her family started to grow she returned, albeit “with some reluctance.” It’s a decision she is now grateful to have made.
“There’s something that seems almost un-American about going back to where you’re from. You’re supposed to go somewhere else, right? But I remembered Park Slope from my youth and I knew it was a nice neighborhood. Once I came here I just loved it, and now, after twenty years, I wouldn’t go back to Manhattan if I could.”
It’s the strong sense of familiarity and community that won her over.
“It’s ideal. You have all the good things about the city, but at a gentler pace than Manhattan, and with the real sense of a neighborhood. You can take an hour going five blocks because you run into so many people. And the longer you live here the more that happens.
“I have stoop sale friends!” she continues. “People I only see at stoop sales. We greet each other very fondly: ‘Oh have you been to any good ones? Anything good?’ And I love our little stores. I’m big on shopping local. I really try to patronize them because I don’t want them to go away.”
“It’s a good community to be living in, and if it’s good to live in, then it’s good to write in.”
She does that writing from her home near 5th Avenue, in a little room overlooking her yard.
“I love it,” she says. “I painted the room a pale blue and so I get to feel like the outside is inside, like I’m outside all day.”
Yona tells me a bit about her next book, which is slated for a Fall 2013 release. It follows the relationship of a widow and widower after a chance meeting at where else but that same Great Neck wedding.
“It’s a second-chance-at-love kind of story,” she says. “They’re very different at meeting, and he doesn’t like her and she doesn’t like him. She thinks he’s arrogant; his phone goes off in the middle of the ceremony and she thinks he’s mannerless. They each have kids. She’s in Park Slope and he’s on the Upper East Side. He has a fancy Park Avenue OB-GYN practice and she’s an interior designer who runs her business out of her house. They have all these things that they have to negotiate, but they find their way to each other.”
I can’t wait to find out how the story unfolds.