Jersey City native Helene Stapinski had just released her first book, Five Finger Discount, and was basking in the glow of the mass adulation it received when her agent called her and said, “Start writing another book.”
“She told me that she’d seen a lot of authors get stuck and depressed because after all the hoopla dies down, there’s nothing,” said Stapinski in a telephone interview last week.
Stapinski’s first book, about growing up in Jersey City, became a best seller. Her new book, Baby Plays Around, was released last week, and much like Five Finger Discount, the new book is autobiographical. In a very deep, funny and ultimately painful way, it serves as an allegory of life’s ups and downs.
The book, named after an Elvis Costello song (Stapinski expresses a deep appreciation for the Irish musician and actually gets to interview him in the book), is an exploration of Stapinski’s foray into the chaotic and sometimes seedy world of rock n’ roll, downtown New York City-style.
But at the same time, Stapinski uses her musical adventures to retreat from life’s twists, including finding out that her newspaper-editor husband is having an affair with a co-worker.
Life since Five Finger Discount
Since Five Finger Discount was released two years ago, Stapinski’s life has become a whirlwind. Aside from now having two children, Dean, 4 and Paulina, 6 months, the book, an account of her turbulent and often humorous upbringing in Jersey City, has been optioned for a television movie.
“It looks like it’s moving,” said Stapinski last week. “I just got a call and was told that they will be sending an outline to me. That comes before the script, usually. They’re talking about casting it, so it’s probably going to happen.”
When asked if she thought the book would make a good movie while she was writing it, Stapinski admitted that at the time, she was just glad to get it done. Then she was glad it got released. When it became a national bestseller, Stapinski still counted her lucky stars and rolled with the punches.
“When you’re writing a book, you never know,” said Stapinski. “You get so used to getting kicked in the head.”
After growing up in Jersey City, Stapinski attended New York and Columbia universities and started her journalism career in the 1980s at the Hudson Reporter chain, then became a reporter for the Jersey Journal and finally a freelance writer. She met her husband, currently a New York Times editor, at the Journal.
Life for Stapinski since the success of Five Finger Discount has certainly changed. “I have a bigger apartment,” laughed Stapinski. “When I was a freelancer, I used to run around like a maniac for the work I did. Now I run around like a maniac for different reasons. Back then, I was a real maniac.”
Added Stapinski, “The book kind of saved me. I am very lucky. It has brought my family closer together.”
Though the reception to Five Finger Discount was positive, it did ruffle a few feathers, particularly amongst some of Jersey City’s old timers that remembered the old days and still inhabited the same neighborhoods that are so vividly described by Stapinski in the book. A few of Stapinski’s relatives joined the small chorus of dissenters. Said Stapinski, “I only had a couple of relatives that were pissed off [by the book]. I had a cousin in Connecticut that was mad, which I never understood. The biggest complaints came from people that lived in Jersey City, of course. People wrote letters to The Jersey Journal. But a lot of the people that wrote the hate mail never even read the book.”
Added Stapinski, “It was a loving portrait of my love/hate relationship with Jersey City.”
Baby Plays Around
“After Five Finger Discount came out, I wasn’t sure what to write about,” Stapinski said last week. “My husband told me I should write about my band. I was dubious at first, as it wasn’t that long after my time in the band and I was still stung by the whole experience.” (Stapinski had been unceremoniously ejected from the band, for which she played drums.)
According to Stapinski, she took notes about all of her experiences in the band. As she started looking back over the notes, many of the same emotions that she felt while living the experience came flooding back to her.
“So I started writing the book, and smack in the middle of it, I realized that if I was going to tell the story accurately, I would have to write about what happened in my marriage.”
And it is what happened to Stapinski and her marriage that makes Baby Plays Around such a riveting read. Around the time that Stapinski and her band were starting to really improve (with her husband on bass), her husband “Martin” (not his real name) admitted to an affair with a co-worker at The Daily News. His admission led to record albums being thrown across the room, hysterical phone calls, shouting, crying, fighting, and visits by the police. As her marriage crumbled before her eyes, her band got better and better until it fused with the passions caused by her marriage. It became her refuge from a life that she thought she had figured out. The obvious question is what her husband thought of the inclusion of such deeply personal information in a book. “Well, that’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it?” said Stapinski. “I went to my husband and told him that I was going to do this. He said ‘Whatever you want to do. I don’t want to hear about it – just do it.’ ”
As Stapinski wrote, many of the emotions came rushing back. “It was hell writing it,” said Stapinski. “The emotions I felt at the time, they all came back. I would call him at work and yell at him all over again and he would take it. He wouldn’t talk to me [in person] about it.”
Interestingly, during the writing of Baby Plays Around, Stapinski and her husband did not speak about anything that had happened. They communicated by e-mail when Stapinski needed to clarify an event.
Obviously, even though Stapinski eventually forgave her husband for his indiscretion, the events still stung. And while her husband was supportive of the inclusion of his dalliance in the book, one wonders what his reaction was when he saw it in print.
“Oh, he’s pretty happy with it,” she said. “He thinks it worked out. He’s very supportive.”
Added Stapinski, “I guess he feels like it’s his penance. He’s paying the price.”
Stapinski will be conducting book signings and readings from Baby Plays Around at several locations, including the following: Tuesday, Feb. 17 at the KGB Bar at 85 E. 4th Street, New York City; Thursday, Feb. 19 at Borders Books at 1642 Schlosser St., Fort Lee, N.J., Tuesday, Feb. 24 at the Columbia University Bookstore at 2922 Broadway, New York City; and March 4 at the Barnes and Noble Bookstore, located at 59 Washington St., Hoboken, New Jersey.