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City That Never Sleeps 

Sari Botton's literary juggling act.

click to enlarge ROY GUMPEL
  • Roy Gumpel

I need a chocolate pistachio cookie," Sari Botton says, gazing into the bakery case of Kingston's outdated: an antique cafe. In the acknowledgments of her just-published anthology Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York (Simon & Schuster, 2014), Botton thanks outdated for keeping her "in gluten-free treats and rocket fuel-grade coffee as I hung out and worked for hours on end." (The adoration is mutual: The café displays a poster-size bookjacket and flyer for her October book launch.)

Botton has a jaunty, unmistakable style, her intense gaze brightened by pale cat's-eye glasses and two-tone hair. As she discusses her many careers—award-winning anthology editor, journalist, Rumpus columnist, bestselling ghostwriter, TMI workshop leader, gallery curator, ukulele band singer—the reason for all that caffeine becomes clear: This woman is busy.

"I've always been a juggler," Botton says. But today, she's relaxed and aglow from a five-day retreat at the Omega Institute's Women's Leadership Center, which she calls "restorative and productive in equal measures." She's also thrilled that Never Can Say Goodbye is gaining the same must-read buzz as its predecessor, Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York (Seal Press, 2013). Named after Joan Didion's iconic 1967 essay, the Indiefab and Village Voice award-winning anthology features Ann Hood, Dani Shapiro, Emma Straub, and 25 other women.

Never Can Say Goodbye adds men to the mix and includes such A-list names as Rosanne Cash, Alexander Chee, Whoopi Goldberg, Phillip Lopate, and Susan Orlean. It's been a wild ride for Botton, who conceived of Goodbye to All That eight years ago. "Everyone said, 'It's a great idea, but you shouldn't do it—you're not well-connected enough," she says. But she was convinced her idea would fly. "So I polled writers I knew: 'If I were able to set this up, would you write a piece?'" When Seal Press snapped up a three-page proposal with an informal list of potential contributors, Botton recontacted everyone who'd made a verbal commitment.

Among them was her fellow Rumpus columnist Cheryl Strayed (aka "Dear Sugar"), who'd agreed to participate long before Wild went global. "I said, 'Okay, if I get this deal, would you still do it, even though Oprah just restarted her book club for you?' And Cheryl said yes." Botton's voice fills with emotion. "It was one of the most generous gifts I have ever received in my life."

Goodbye to All That launched in October 2013, in a flurry of glowing reviews and multiauthor events. Within three months, Botton had a contract for a follow-up, ASAP. "In January I have shingles and the flu and I'm in bed, and I get a deal with an April first deadline," she says. "I had to get the writers, negotiate contracts, edit their pieces, write my own piece, write the intro. My to-do list was a spreadsheet."

Still, she was glad to continue the dialogue. Goodbye to All That had ardent fans, but some found the viewpoints too similar. Though Seal Press had wanted an all-female list, Botton ensured that Never Can Say Goodbye included writers of different genders, ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds. "New York is the most diverse city in the world," she says. "I wanted to mix it up with a more diverse chorus of voices."

She also wanted to correct anyone who mistook Goodbye to All That for a parting sneer in the rearview mirror. Let there be no mistake: Sari Botton is "crazy in love" with New York. And the fact that she's lived in the Hudson Valley for nearly a decade does nothing to dim the torch.

Botton grew up in various Long Island suburbs, 45 minutes and a world away from Manhattan. "All the houses in my town looked alike," she recalls. "All the kids had the same sneakers, the same lunchbox."

She remembers her first trip to New York with her grandmother, before she turned six. They visited her "garmento" grandfather's Seventh Avenue office, and went shopping at Gimbels. Right from the outset, the city felt magical. She wanted in.

As a teen, she'd sneak into the city, with friends or alone, trying to pass for a local. "I looked to the East Village as my very own dork rehabilitation program," she writes in her essay "New York Cool."

Botton went to SUNY Albany to study theater, but after she won a competitive internship at Newsday, "suddenly I was a journalist." She also interned at I Love NY, where her mentor nicknamed her "City Mouse" because she was always trying to get to Manhattan.

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  • Nina Shengold interviews Sari Botton on her multiple writing gigs.

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