Though she doesn’t live in Cambridge anymore – she decided she was priced out in 2004 while looking at an East Cambridge condo – Louie Cronin has written perhaps the best breakup note ever in “Everyone Loves You Back,” a novel that publishes Friday, the day she’s scheduled to give a 7 p.m. reading at Porter Square Books.
Though “Everyone Loves You Back” is set in 1997 and its references and names are politely disguised, there’s no missing the authenticity born of long years in the city (she produced “Car Talk” for National Public Radio for a decade; grandad and then dad ran the Harvard Square restaurant Cronin’s until 1978) and the relevance of the tale. Though up front there’s a love story, turmoil on the job at a radio station and a seriocomic take on home maintenance, what permeates every page is a wearying sense of change wrought by gentrification. And while we’re now more likely to bash invaders as hipsters than as yuppies, like hangdog hero Bob Boland does in the rant that begins the book, the pressure of feeling increasingly alien in your own neighborhood will be familiar to anyone paying Cambridge rent in 2016.
Cronin, who spent five years writing “Everyone Loves You Back” and five years getting it published, has worked in San Francisco, New York and Boston doing commercial and public radio. She’s now at WGBH in Allston, behind the scenes at “The World,” living in Jamaica Plain and working on a second novel, but she sat down this week for a conversation about the underpinnings of her first and what it feels like to become an outsider in your hometown. The conversation was edited and condensed for publication.
Where did this book come from?
The germ of it was the rant that starts the book off – the rant of a guy who couldn’t sleep and who’s being surrounded by renovation and earth movers and all these yuppies redoing their houses. That’s what came to me, that voice, and that’s all I had for several years. Then I was at a writer’s colony for a month and was thinking, “What am I going to do for a whole month?” And a friend of mine had said, “Why don’t you take one of your beginnings that has just stuck with you and you can’t get rid of?” It was always one of my favorite things that I’d written, and I remember being so excited when it started coming together.
How true to your life are the details and plot of “Everyone Loves You Back”?
I’ve definitely been there watching Cambridge change all around me and interacting with neighbors who were getting richer and richer and more out of my league. That came from real experience. But as I wrote I borrowed and stole, and it really is a mashup of stuff in my life and that friends told me and that I’ve heard and read in the paper.
But it’s written from the perspective of a man.
That male voice had parts of my brothers in it. They also grew up in Cambridge. And it had parts of all the male radio engineers I’ve worked with. Why it came as a man I’m not quite sure, but once it came and was a man’s voice, it was ‘What have I done? Oh my god, this is my first novel and I’m writing it as a man.’ But it’s like they say – having the constraints maybe helped me focus a little bit.
The book is so relevant to Cambridge right now. Why is it set in 1997?
It was one of those questions I didn’t ask when I was writing, but my writers group did. They kept me on track. They asked me, “Exactly what year is this? You have to figure out when this is happening.” When they finally nailed me down, I realized I’d finally written so much that didn’t have this technology in it. It didn’t have all the cellphones and it barely had computers. I went back and chose 1997 kind of randomly as a time when things were happening already – the whole gentrification thing was definitely happening in Cambridge but changes in technology weren’t quite so advanced.
Your hero has a losing battle against gentrification and technology. What has the technology done to radio?
Everybody’s kind of scrambling to figure out how you stay relevant and what’s your role and how do you balance audio and video and online posts. Even in the time I’ve been working at WGBH it’s totally changed. All the producers now have to be able to edit video. They have to be able to write for the Web, and these are radio producers. But having to have to learn a new piece of equipment was always a constant for engineers. In my very first job – at ’GBH, actually – they had just gotten new tape decks with these knobs you could use to speed up the tape and scroll through, and they were the dawning of the new age, but they were really simple. I was brand new and saying “Oh, thank god, this is so much easier,” but all the old engineers hated them and resented them and complained about them. And now I’m the old person who has to look at stuff and say, “Oh god, now I have to learn something else.”
Radio and radio formats change all the time. It happens to Bob Boland in the novel. How does that feel from the inside?
It can be agony. I was so happy at a station doing progressive, alternative rock, and when it was disco too, because it was incredibly fun. But the other formats were awful. Not only did it go to talk radio, but automated talk radio – the hosts weren’t even there. It was surreal. I remember sitting in this room with all these computers and pictures of the hosts, who were in L.A., and programming the computers and babysitting this system, because the system was really doing the job. Not what I signed on for.
The union was trying to get rid of its contract with engineers, and they offered any engineer in the country who wanted to retire a year’s salary to go away. I was the first to take the offer, nationally.
But radio also has its fun parts?
Even as the lowliest person at the radio station, you get to meet these amazing people. When I was going to Boston University for my master’s in creative writing, I got a job at WBUR for like $10 an hour engineering, right down at the bottom. One day they sent me out with a tape deck to Julia Child’s house, and my job was just to hold a microphone in front of her face and get good sound quality while somebody else was interviewing her over the phone.
I got to sit in Julia Child’s kitchen, and Julia Child made me a cup of coffee – which I thought was really bad. It was Folgers! Like a teabag that she put in the microwave. I was a total nobody, sitting in Julia Child’s kitchen, judging her coffee.
A changing city
You left Cambridge.
When I was working at “Car Talk” I finally had a really stable job and decided I was going to buy a condo. I looked for years in Cambridge. I remember the day I finally decided I was priced out, in 2004: I looked at this condo in East Cambridge – my brother, a cab driver, took me, and we get to the address in that cute East Cambridge part, and there’s this crowd of people out in the street dying to get in and see this open house. When I used to see those crowds, my heart would sink, and I’d get nervous thinking I can’t compete. But I went to look at the place, and it was on the top floor, and the stairs were crooked, and by the time I got to the top floor, my knee hurt. And I thought, “I’m too old to walk up five flights of stairs and live in an attic.”
I had friends who lived in Jamaica Plain, and they were saying, “Come on over, it’s much cheaper than Cambridge,” and it was true. I worked here, so I was still coming back to Cambridge every day until 2010, and after that because I had friends here. I’m not back as much as I used to be, which just happened in the past two or three years.
Are you ever surprised at what Cambridge has become?
Oh my god, yes. Now that I’m in J.P., I come back to Cambridge and realize how wealthy and how perfect the neighborhoods look. How manicured all the houses are, and the gardens. It’s not just houses and gardens; it’s sidewalks, driveways, curbs. Its all perfect. J.P.’s not perfect. It’s headed in the same direction, but there are still a lot of chain-link fences. I realized that when I was trying to keep up with the neighbors and have our garden look as good as the neighbors’ next door who have landscapers who came in with 10 trees on the back of a truck.
And now the “Car Talk” offices, with their iconic “Dewey, Cheetham & Howe” sign, are probably going to be displaced by a giant redevelopment, along with a lot of other small tenants.
When I started working for “Car Talk” and went to Dewey, Cheetham & Howe, I remember thinking, “This actually still feels like Harvard Square.” The building was filled with eccentrics. It was a funky building, full of boxes and junk and dogs and old leather couches – not leather, but, like, pleather. It was a holdout. So to me that the idea that it’s going too …
And what I notice about Harvard Square is that it’s so much like a mall – when I first came back to Boston I used to think it was a mall of its former self. Now I don’t even think it’s a mall of its former self; I think it’s just a mall.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing a second novel. I’ve been working on it for several years, so I’m pretty far into it.
Where’s it set?
That’s so funny. I haven’t worked out the setting. My writers group keeps saying, “It’s Cambridge, right?” And I’m like, “It’s not.” It’s happening in a college town. It could be Cambridge.
Louie Cronin’s tour of Cambridge
Having lived for decades in Cambridge, including as a child, author Louie Cronin knows lots about it. We asked her to identify five key locations that captured the city’s essence for her, even if – as in her novel “Everyone Loves You Back,” they’re going or gone. The list did turn out to be a bit of a ghost tour: Two of the five locations exist only as history in a city with lots of it.
Cronin’s. My dad owned a restaurant in Harvard Square, Cronin’s. (It’s motto: “At Harvard It’s Cronin’s.”) It disappeared in 1978, but the building disappeared just a couple of years ago at the corner of Mount Auburn and Bennett Alley – where the Swiss Alps and Chili’s was for years and years. My grandfather started it in the 1910s, and it was a really funky, eccentric place. Harvard bought it and knocked it down and now it’s just another faceless building.
Longfellow Park. Across the street from Longfellow’s house on Brattle Street is this nice walk, through the park and down the stairs and you end up by the river. It’s kind of a magical place I remember from when I was a little kid growing up about a mile away on Fayerweather Street. That’s still there, and I don’t even think it’s different than it was.
Pooh’s House. Near where I lived for 19 years there’s a house where the tree died but they left the stump – carved into Winnie the Pooh’s house, with a little door and signs and little rooms inside. Some of the neighbors got into it too, so as you’d walk down Hurlbut Street there’d be other little scenes from “Winnie the Pooh” in the tree roots, and you could kneel down and look inside. I used to take my niece there all the time.
Fort Washington. My dad was a total character. He would close the restaurant at midnight or 2 in the morning and he’d be wired and he’d just be driving around. One of these crazy sight-seeing trips was that he’d take me to see Fort Washington – it’s like nothing, like a parking lot in an industrial area, and it might have a cannon or something. A plaque and a cannon. But it was my dad’s idea of total absurdity – he’d get all us kids excited to see a live fort and we’d wind up somewhere between Central Square and MIT in like a back lot. [It’s improved since the 1970s, when the earthworks were amid trucking property.]
Chez Henri. It was my favorite. I loved its bar. I’m heartbroken that it’s gone. [Now Shepard is at 1 Shepard St.]