University of Rochester


Mocking the Manhattan Market

The extremes of the New York City housing market inspire a former English major’s latest novel. By Jayne Denker
Seth Margolis ’76

In 1990, when the New York City real-estate market went bust, the Upper West Side co-op that Seth Margolis ’76 had just moved into was featured on the front page of the New York Times under a headline blaring that some homeowners could soon lose 100 percent of their properties’ value.

A few years later the crash reversed, and the value of his place, along with that of many others, took off into the real-estate stratosphere.

Margolis, a novelist whose previous books include Losing Isaiah, which was turned into a 1995 film starring Jessica Lange and Halle Berry, parlayed that real-estate rollercoaster ride into his sixth novel, Closing Costs, a satire of the housing market and, Margolis says, “New York City life in general.”

“House and apartment prices are ridiculous all over the country, but especially in New York,” says Margolis, a 30-year Manhattan resident who still lives in that co-op with his wife, Carole Zelner ’76 (a real-estate agent, but not, Margolis says, the cutthroat agent character in Closing Costs), and their children, Maggie, 16, and Jack, 14. “While I was writing the book, which took a couple of years, I had to keep going back and raising the prices I had put in the story, and I couldn’t keep up. I thought the prices I put in were outrageous, but then reality kept beating them.”

Closing Costs has inspired comparison to Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities because, Margolis says, both novels touch on the question of what defines personal identity. “In the ’80s, when Bonfire was set, and into the ’90s, the ‘chips’ people played for were investments. Then that bubble burst, and the thing people used to identify themselves became real estate,” he says.

“Your house or apartment is a projection of who you are. You can fake everything else—you can rent the car you drive, you can buy designer knockoff clothes—but you can’t fake where you live.”

The timeliness of Closing Costs has attracted interest in making it into a film, which Margolis says he would enjoy. He has seen several of his novels optioned for movie rights, although Losing Isaiah was the only one that got past the development stage.

One of his books that’s still “out there” in Hollywood is his fourth, Perfect Angel. A thriller, it’s based on events that occurred during Margolis’s time at Rochester.

“I lived in Hoeing Hall senior year,” he says, “and one of my friends learned how to hypnotize people. About 10 of us would get together on Saturday nights, and my friend would go through the whole routine. About half the room would go under—but I never was one of them—and then we’d make them do all sorts of stupid things, like be the Supremes.”

The hypnosis parties came to an abrupt end when the group had difficulty snapping one person out of her hypnotic state, but Margolis never forgot those experiences. Perfect Angel revolves around a group of college friends who play around with hypnosis and, when they get back together 15 years after graduation, do it again—and they find out that one of them is a murderer. Margolis is quick to point out, however, that only the situation is derived from a real memory. None of the characters is based on anyone at Rochester.

He enjoyed writing a thriller, he says, along with two murder mysteries and the drama Losing Isaiah, but trying out different genres frustrates his agent.

“I want to try a historical novel next,” he says. “Funny thing is, though, I don’t even read those kinds of books. My first two books, False Faces and Vanishing Acts, were supposed to be the start of a mystery series, but I lost interest.”

Margolis says a tendency to bounce from one thing to another nearly sent him down a completely different professional path. Before he achieved success with his novels, a single short-story rejection by the New Yorker made the former English major decide to get an M.B.A. in marketing from New York University.

“I don’t know what came over me,” he laughs.

Instead of giving up, however, he kept his “day job” as a brand and marketing consultant with clients like JPMorgan Chase, and he writes his novels piecemeal, an hour a day early in the morning, in that highly valued co-op of his.

“I tend to have certain routines when I write,” he says. “I try to write two pages every day. That may not sound like much, but if you keep it up, at the end of a year you have 700 pages.”

His routine also affects where he writes. “I write my first draft in the living room, my second draft in the dining room, my third draft . . .” He pauses for a moment to reflect. “Maybe I’m just place-centric.”