Far From Here: A Q&A with Mark Chiusano, author of Marine Park

Mark Chiusano. Photo by Charlotte Alter.

The characters in Brooklyn native Mark Chiusano’s debut collection, Marine Park: Stories, are nigh-unrecognizable in contemporary Brooklyn fiction. They are a motley cast of working-class suburbanites, variously positioned on orbits that seem to circle in a faraway place: an ex-high school basketball star turned bike-riding drug dealer, a jock-turned-banker, a retired mafioso. They are parents and children: many of the stories feature the Favero family, specifically two brothers, Lorris and Jamison, whose stories are loosely based on experience Chiusano and his brother had growing up in Marine Park, shoveling sidewalks for cash, falling into and out of love, taking the bus to the train to go to parties elsewhere.

What links them all is place. The majority of the stories take place in and around Marine Park, with occasional flights of fancy that follow characters to places like Jekyll Island, Georgia, and Los Alamos, New Mexico, in the time of the Manhattan Project. In Marine Park, the eponymous neighborhood is the stage for family drama, adolescent longing, adult tragedy.

The collection joins works like Stuart Dybek’s Coast of Chicago and Junot Diaz’s Drown in a rich tradition of short fiction interlinked by and concerned ultimately with place. Chiusano proves himself a gifted storyteller, crafting elliptical and enigmatic stories out of clean, spare prose. Details are employed to great effect—one story, “We Were Supposed,” consists entirely of a two-page run-on sentence, a litany of opportunities that linger just out of reach, but not out of mind, much like the gleaming city Marine Park‘s characters are perched on the edge of.

On September 11th, we met with the 24-year-old Chiusano, recently-returned to Brooklyn after four years at Harvard, to discuss the history of Marine Park, growing up in one of the most isolated neighborhoods in the city, and what it means to be a Brooklyn writer today.

When did you first have a sense that you wanted to write about this place?

It happened pretty organically, honestly. The whole collection did. I wasn’t setting up to write a whole collection of stories—I was just writing stories on their own, but story after story was about Marine Park. I’d started writing about that family [in the book], loosely-based on my own. I had five or six with just them and was then spreading out into the neighborhood at large. When you’re somewhere else, it’s easier to write about a place. I dunno if once I’d moved back here after college that I could’ve written these stories. The ones I wrote once I was back were pretty different in tone—less elegiac, more frustrated. Which is good—I think the collection needed that.

Why were you drawn to the short story form over the novel?

I think it was because of what I was reading at the time. My book owes a lot to Drown, by Junot Diaz, and also Russell Banks’s Trailerpark. And those books owe a lot to Dubliners and Winesburg, Ohio. Those were the books I was reading—these short story collections that are so rooted in place, which is a good way to teach yourself how to write, too. I was doing my best to work in that tradition. There were moments where I though about trying to turn the stories into a novel, but it seemed false to push it that way. The stories are separate enough. And it’s not novelistic in scope—it’s kind of quieter.

Did you go into the project that became the book with the idea that you wanted to make place the linking device, a character of sorts?

It sorta just developed. When I was going story to story, the organizing principle was place. When I was trying to figure out how to keep a story going, how to maintain momentum, I would look at different places in the neighborhood for inspiration. There are lots of poles in the neighborhood: the park itself, the nature center, Avenue R, the Kings Hwy train station…place is its own vehicle for the stories.

9780143124603_large_Marine_Park

You said the family in the book is loosely based on your own. What is your family like?

Some people that know my family and have read the collection say it’s obviously my family, but it never quite felt that way to me. The professions are wrong, for one; my parents are both teachers. And that was kind of important, to take things I knew but switch them in key ways. It freed me up to write. There are a lot of general activities that my brother and I did, like shoveling snow, but very few actual events.

I want to talk more about what it’s like to grow up here. Alfred Kazin wrote of his childhood in Brownsville that “we were of the city, but somehow not in it.” Reading your stories, it felt like the inverse could be true of Marine Park. I didn’t get the sense that it wasn’t “of” New York City. Geographically it’s part of it, but the culture, the mindset, seem much more suburban.

It’s true. I think, first, there are lots of neighborhoods like Marine Park; the city’s sort of made up of neighborhoods that are not of the city. But the cultural vision of the city is very specific, and centered on places very far from here. But what’s kind of interesting—and it’s an appropriate day to talk about it—I always felt that the “city” became more important to Marine Park after September 11, because it’s such a fireman-and-police-officer neighborhood. Lots of people were affected by September 11 here. If you walk around you can see the memorials on the corners. That’s an even further irony—many of the fireman who died on 9/11 were from places like Marine Park; they weren’t “city” people.

But in general there has been a whole history of distance from the city. Even in the way the park developed, and how the neighborhood itself was peopled—it was people staying away from the city, and the city never really came to Marine Park. You can see that in the subway lines: there was supposed to be a line coming right over here, and they never built it, obviously.

How was the neighborhood settled?

When the city was trying to build the park, it was being pushed by real estate interests, supposedly. That’s one of the reasons it never got built—government officials realized it was a bit of a scam. Then in the 50s and 60s, after the GI Bill, people moved here to attain a kind of middle-class life. I learned a lot while researching for the book, but not nearly all there is to learn.

Is there one historical fact that sticks out to you?

The park itself is the most interesting aspect of the neighborhood, probably. This totally-forgotten designer, Charles Downing Lay, won a gold medal for his proposed design of Marine Park. Of course, it never got built to his specifications, which I think is a good metaphor for the neighborhood itself. [As Chiusano wrote recently, for the Paris Review, Lay’s plans called for a 125,000-seat football stadium, a zoo, a casino, a music grove, an amphitheater, bathing pools, hundreds of tennis courts, and baseball diamonds.]

The real irony is that Robert Moses is the one responsible for keeping Marine Park the way it is. Over at the salt marsh nature preserve, the area looks the way it did hundreds of years ago. It’s all natural. Moses decided not to build on it, which is hilarious.

The Marine Park Nature Center

A lot has been written about this idea that there are “two Brooklyns”: a hip Brooklyn, and a working-class Brooklyn. But I feel that dichotomy overlooks the forces of change—most of Brooklyn used to be what people call “regular” Brooklyn now. I wanted to ask: you grew up in this part of the borough, left for a while, then came back, and now you live in Cobble Hill. Has your sense of what it means to be from here changed at all? Or do you think of yourself as being from Marine Park more than Brooklyn?

I think it’s more from Brooklyn generally, although being from Brooklyn, what that implies has changed a lot, even in my lifetime. When I was growing up was probably when Brooklyn was actually hip, and now it’s sort of commodified. That conversation totally overlooks places like Brownsville, Canarsie, East New York—there are other parts of the borough that just no one notices.

I always felt like a bit of an outsider in Marine Park itself, because my parents were teachers, while most people’s parents here work in civil service jobs. My brother and I never played football, which also put us on the outside here. I tried to use that perspective to guide the collection: Marine Park being an outsider perspective on Brooklyn, and then Brooklyn an outsider perspective on Manhattan.

Are your parents from here?

From Brooklyn, but not from Marine Park itself. My mom grew up in Carroll Gardens, my dad in Bensonhurst, back when they were very Italian communities.

How’d they end up here?

They were part of the postwar wave that made Marine Park what it is now: two of thousands of people growing up in other parts of Brooklyn, whose parents or grandparents had emigrated from other countries. Then my parents’ generation would get a middle class job, and look to buy a house, and you couldn’t really buy a house in Carroll Gardens, although that would’ve been fantastic. So they moved here because it had a reputation for having pretty good schools, and it’s a really safe community, which is something they had to think about, because when my parents were trying to find out where to live there were tons of communities in Brooklyn that were not safe.

Do you think the reception of your book has benefitted at all from being about Brooklyn but not about “Brooklyn”?

Yeah, I hope it’s kind of the right time for a book like this. I think there have been like three waves of Brooklyn fiction over the last 50 years. You start with Hubert Selby, Jr and Gilbert Sorrentino, real hardcore Brooklynites, writing in the 50s and 60s, showing this Brooklyn that no one had heard of at all, and didn’t really care about. Then you have Paul Auster and Jonathan Lethem, who are writing about parts of Brooklyn that are slowly getting more artistic and more broadly accepted. And now the generation of Brooklyn books is people that are moving into Brooklyn themselves and writing about that experience, like Adelle Waldman. All great books. I hope my book fits nicely into that conversation as a counterbalance, a take on a different Brooklyn from someone who grew up here.

I have this sense that the book itself is almost a perfect symbol for the neighborhood, because it’s part of this cultural conversation about Brooklyn but not exactly of it.

Yeah, it’s not a recognizable Brooklyn. It’s also a collection that has, for better or worse, a lot of stasis in it. That is kind of true of the neighborhood, too: it really hasn’t changed much, which is just the opposite of a lot of the rest of Brooklyn.

Did a lot of the people who grew up here in your generation leave?

That remains to be seen. Most of them stay, but there’s a subset that moves to Long Island, like one more step farther away from the city, to buy a house. What I wonder is, what will happen in the next 15-20 years when people who are living now in Williamsburg, Crown Heights, Bushwick, decided to leave. Will they go to the suburbs?

Beacon.

Yeah. It’ll be interesting. I don’t think Marine Park will ever get hipper just because it’s too far from the subway lines, but it could be like Park Slope or Windsor Terrace.

Last question: what are you reading?

The Bill McKibben book, The End of Nature. It’s pretty incredible. The scariest part is that he wrote it in 1989 and it feels like he wrote it last year. All the facts are either still true or more true now. I read a lot of nonfiction, partly for work [Chiusano is an assistant editor at Vintage Books] but also because it’s a nice help in writing fiction. I want to find stories from elsewhere, not just my own life. By the end of writing this collection, I couldn’t just stay with the family’s experiences, which were in many ways similar to my experiences. But that’s the point of writing: you might as well go further afield.

Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.

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