Nicolaia Rips (Photo: Ursula Bowling)
by Andrew DeCanniere
Earlier this year, while browsing through a local bookstore, I stumbled upon what has to be one of the most interesting, relatable and well-written reads of the summer, Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel (Scribner, 2016), by Nicolaia Rips. Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with Nicolaia about her inspiration for the book, the writing process, the influence of growing up in the Chelsea Hotel and more.
UR Chicago Magazine: I have to say that I thought your memoir was a really interesting read. What was the inspiration behind the book?
Nicolaia Rips: I really had a lot of time on my hands during middle school and elementary school, because I didn’t have a lot of friends. So, I found writing my experiences down a really good way to communicate what I was feeling.
UR: What was the whole process like? When did you know that these stories you were just sort of writing down would become this published memoir?
NR: I never thought it was going to get published. I had this sort of compilation of these vignettes about my life and I had a cumulative project in eighth grade. In the end, my English teacher liked it a lot and she had me read a story in front of some parents and teachers. My parents were in the audience, and this is the first time they understood the extent of what I had been working on. My dad really liked it and we sat down at a café every weekend for about a year. We’d talk over the stories. He really taught me so much about writing. It was such a learning experience. I think this was a natural way for me to express myself. As you know from the book, my father taught me how to understand a story before I even learned how to read. He read me all of this great literature.
UR: When I was in school, I think there was far less of a focus on bullying than there is now. I mean, I think that people were aware of it, but I don’t think it was anything that was discussed much. I certainly can’t remember the issue taking any sort of priority. So, I thought that with more of an awareness and more discussion of bullying, it was kind of timely or topical, too. Particularly in that you write from this perspective of someone trying to find their place in school. I think that’s something so many students go through at one time or another — this experience of feeling like the outsider or of being bullied — whether it’s because you’re new in school or whatever else it may be.
NR: I hope so. I think it’s incredibly interesting when people tell me it’s relatable or that they have had similar experiences, because I feel that, if anything, I’ve had such a unique growing up experience — but those feelings of isolation or being outside of the social norm are something that many people experience. It doesn’t really matter what your particular story is, it’s the feelings that are the same, and that’s interesting to me.
UR: And with social media, I would think that kids have it even harder nowadays. I was already in college when Facebook began to go more mainstream. I can’t imagine what it must be like for someone who is in grade school or high school. It used to be that even if you were bullied, once you were at home, you were able to get away from it. Now, there’s this ability for the bullies to sort of torment their fellow classmates pretty much around-the-clock.
NR: Social media has really been a vehicle for increased bullying and ostracization. I was sort of sheltered from that, because my parents were anti-technology. That sounds sort of funny to say, but they were, I guess. They didn’t think that it was the best thing for me to be constantly watching television. We didn’t get a computer until I graduated from elementary school. I think I was protected from a lot of that.
UR: That’s probably a good thing. TV has its place. Social media has its place. That said, you definitely have to limit that and balance it with other activities.
NR: Right. I mean, I do think it’s amazing how it has become a platform for social change, and definitely for giving voices to issues that perhaps would not be covered in mainstream media.
UR: Right. As I think we all know, just like any tool there’s the good and then there’s the bad. It’s how you use it that makes it a positive or negative. Switching gears a bit, it also seems like the hotel and its residents were influential in your life.
NR: Absolutely. I was very fortunate to grow up around people who had no problem expressing themselves. I was allowed to see there was more than one way to live. You could really choose a medium and not have to conform to societal pressure.
UR: Definitely. I’d think that growing up, where there can often be a lot of pressure to conform that would be a great thing. Another thing that you touch on is this sort of hyper-competitive nature of the schools, which is something that I found to be of interest and again, pretty timely or topical, as that only seems to be more and more the case.
NR: The New York City school system is incredibly competitive. When I had trouble reading, I was put into this program called the ‘GO Project,’ which is for kids who were struggling in elementary and middle school. I started volunteering there a couple of years ago and worked there over the summer — both last year and this year — and the competitiveness of the school system in New York puts some kids at such a disadvantage, because they can’t afford to have these kinds of tutors or go to private schools.
UR: And you sort of allude to this common — if not predominant — view that the right preschool gets you into the right kindergarten, which gets you into the right elementary school. The right elementary school gets you into the right middle school. The right middle school gets you into the right high school. The right high school gets you into the right college, which can end up determining your life. In your book, you also talk about how you got into your school and what that whole process was like. I guess that, in and of itself, is a good example.
NR: It’s also an example of how, because my parents were always so optimistic, I was allowed to audition for these places and think ‘Well, maybe I could get in,’ but I think this positive reinforcement is something a lot of kids don’t get.
UR: And I think you talk about that a bit — this discrepancy where opportunity is concerned.
NR: There is absolutely an opportunity discrepancy. There’s something that I was asked in an interview a while ago. They’d asked whether anyone could do this. Can anybody write a book when they’re 15, 16, 17, 18 years old? Theoretically, I do think anybody can sit down and write, but I am so lucky. I do not feel that it is an opportunity given to many people.
UR: What do you hope the takeaway from the book ultimately is?
NR: I hope that people take away that there isn’t one path in life. If you find a way to express yourself, it’ll turn out alright.
UR: And last, but not least, who would you consider to be your influences? Who are some of your favorite authors?
NR: Definitely P.G. Wodehouse. I love him. I actually wrote my Common App essay on how much I love P.G. Wodehouse. I think that the plight of the humorist is to write about your subject in a way that’s funny but not mean. If you’re too mean to your characters, it becomes negative. Your audience doesn’t trust you. I think that Wodehouse handles it so beautifully and is able to mock his characters and be deprecating without being overly negative. I think he really does that through self-deprecation. If you are as hard on yourself as you are on your other characters, I think that is what makes a good humorist. I also really love Oscar Wilde. I think he’s incredible.
Groucho Marx is definitely my idol above everything else. I’ve recently been reading Lectures on Don Quixote by Nabokov, and it’s been fascinating. I really appreciate murder mysteries. I find them oddly comforting, because they have such a definitive end. You know, everything is resolved and that’s very soothing. My favorite author would be Christopher Fowler. He’s a British author. Very funny.
Nicolaia Rips attends LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts in New York City (class of 2016), where she is co-editor-in-chief of LaGuardia’s literary magazine, LaGuardia Magazine. She has lived at the Chelsea Hotel for her entire life. In her spare time, she studies vocal music, reads avidly, and tolerates her parents. Trying to Float is her first book. She will be attending Brown University in the fall of 2016. You can follow her on Instagram.
This interview originally appeared in Chicago Splash Magazine.