I miss the old WSJ Greater NY section.
Parties to launch first novels are often hard-scrabble affairs in spartan settings serving inexpensive wine. But the party last week for Tuesday’s release of “One Flight Up” (Atria), by Susan Fales-Hill, filled the Club Room of swanky 15 Central Park West with elegantly dressed guests snacking on canapés and choosing from a well-stocked bar of top-shelf offerings.
The setting underscored the fact that Ms. Fales-Hill is not your usual debut novelist. The 48-year-old spent nearly 15 years as a writer and producer of television shows, including “The Cosby Show,” “A Different World,” “Suddenly Susan” and “Linc’s.” She resettled in New York in the late 1990s and wrote her first book, “Always Wear Joy: My Mother Bold and Beautiful” (Harper Collins, 2003), a memoir about her and her mother, the actress and singer Josephine Premice.
And while the four successful, urbane women chronicled in “One Flight Up” will certainly bring to mind the characters in Candace Bushnell’s “Sex and the City” and Terry McMillan’s “Waiting to Exhale,” there is one important difference: Three of the four are married.
“I was so frustrated with literature and movies where getting to the altar is the whole story,” Ms. Fales-Hill said the day before her launch party over lunch at Sardi’s, where she sat near a caricature of her mother. “To me, the whole story really begins after you say ‘I do.'”
Another priority was to illustrate contemporary diversity. She complained that too many books reflect “Mad Men”-era segregation rather than the world she knows. Her characters include Esme Sarmiento-Talbot, a Colombian heiress; Abby Rosenfeld Adams, a Jewish art gallery owner; Monique Dawkins-Dubois, an African-American doctor; and India Chumley, the lone bachelorette of the crowd, a lawyer of mixed racial heritage.
India Chumley and Ms. Fales-Hill share Harvard educations and racial backgrounds. The author’s father, Timothy Fales, was the white son of a shipping magnate; her mother was the black, Brooklyn-born daughter of members of the Haitian elite.
But Ms. Fales-Hill said that the lawyer was the hardest character to write. “She’s a commitment-phobe, which many women are,” she said. “They have a different way of showing it; they keep picking unsuitable men.”
She said she found her way into the character by trying to reveal the cracks in India’s facade. She compares the problem to performing onstage, and quotes singer and actress Barbara Cook, who once said that “the challenge of performing was to show what life has done to you.”
“Susan is the only writer today who can glide so fluidly and elegantly between uptown and downtown, highbrow and lowbrow, raunchy and refined—all with great humor,” said Amy Fine Collins, special correspondent for Vanity Fair and a friend of Ms. Fales-Hill, who read every draft of the novel. “She has a performer’s sense of timing and comedy.”
Ms. Fales-Hill grew up on the Upper West Side during the ’60s and ’70s. Her parents, who found few landlords willing to rent to mixed-race couples in the early ’60s, settled on West End Avenue, where their living room became a place for many leading actors, actresses and singers to hang out. The Faleses often played host to Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, Eartha Kitt, Harry Belafonte, Roscoe Lee Browne and others. But Ms. Fales-Hill was also aware that her home wasn’t in the most upscale neighborhood.
“The Upper West Side wasn’t fashionable then the way it is now,” the author recalled. “There were secondhand shops with all kinds of treasures, and the streets were like a wonderful carnival.” On the other hand, she enjoyed the pristine elegance of the Upper East Side, which she saw on visits to her paternal grandmother. Since both her parents were multilingual and believed in a classical education, she was sent to Lycée Français on East 75th Street. Amid her affluent classmates, she learned to assert that “you are more than an address.”
Ms. Fales-Hill now lives on the Upper East Side. She might have preferred her old neighborhood, but when she returned to New York from Los Angeles in the late ’90s and married Aaron Hill, a banker, the couple found that the Upper West Side was now out of their price range.
Back in Los Angeles, Ms. Fales-Hill had collected evening gowns even though she was spending most of her time holed up in writers’ conferences. She finally put those gowns to work in the early years of the 21st century, becoming one of New York’s few African-American socialites.
Ms. Fales-Hill has now pared back that part of her life, but not her willingness to break the mold. In her closing remarks at her book party on Tuesday, she quoted Harvard Prof. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: “Well-behaved women don’t make history.”
—Mr. Johnson writes about the arts for the Journal.