In Judy Chicurel’s debut story collection, If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go, New York City is in the deep doldrums of the 1970s. Families flee the city to a quaint Long Island town of Elephant Beach, loosely modeled on Chicurel’s own native Long Beach, only to find formerly elegant hotels in the throws of rot and decay. The kids find drugs and politics and sex anyway. The connected stories focus on a group of just-graduated high school girls trying to navigate the future in their working class town. Katie, the central character, watches as her friends’ dreams end in unexpected places: elopement, a clandestine abortion clinic, or a funeral home. Chicurel, a former journalist, has a knack for dialogue that’s evocative and funny, exchanges that will bring you back to your own heady teenage days. She spoke with Brooklyn Magazine about her new collection, her writing habits, and the looming specter of gentrification.
This is your first fiction collection, but you’ve written several plays before. What’s the difference in your process?
I was always writing fiction stuff but I was never pursuing it. It was all kind of going on at once. When I was a journalist, I would always get assignments that required you to capture dialogue. So the plays were a natural evolution for me.
A lot of this, I mean, it’s written during the period I grew up. It’s based on conversations I heard. Some of it is things that I did hear, a lot of it is fabricated. But some of the speech patterns, those are based in that timeframe.
One of the looming things over the collection is the specter of gentrification. Everyone assumes that the Beach is going to be on this downward trajectory forever, but from our standpoint, 30 plus years later, we know that’s not the case.
Nobody saw this coming. I grew up in Long Beach, but I also lived in other East Coast beach towns. You really saw these old wharves and buildings. No one foresaw the kind of gentrification. When we were growing up, waterfront property was cheap. And then there was this sudden influx of money into the place, and it changed the whole scene. I mean, you know about it, you live in Brooklyn. There are pros and cons, they say, but there seem to be a lot of cons.
Do you have any writing rituals?
I like working on two books at the same time. I do that because when you get some place stuck you can work on the other thing. Like right now, I’m working on two things at once. One is a book about a bar in the East Village in the 1980s, and the other is a book about a group of women living in a small town upstate, by the river.
I do my editing on computer, but I write longhand first. I better at the actual writing out of the house. I do a lot of writing on the subway. I used to take the Q/B line from my house in Manhattan Beach in to work every morning and write on the train. It just came from years of having to do it that way. I just left my day job in July to finish this two-book deal with Penguin, and that time is such a luxury. Now I try to find a quiet place out of my house. I love hanging out on some of the local beaches, Plum Beach and Coney Island Creek are my two favorites. But I’m not a Starbucks person; I don’t sit in Starbucks all day.
Judy Chicurel and John Freeman are in conversation at BookCourt on October 30 at 7 p.m.