People in Your Neighborhood: Isaac Fitzgerald

photo by Jane Bruce

Interviewing Isaac Fitzgerald, editor of BuzzFeed Books and coauthor of Pen & Ink, is a little like trying to pry a host away from a bustling party. You also have to submit to his interview questions.

Isaac, like any good editor, wants to know everything. Just shy of two years into his tenure at BuzzFeed, Isaac came to Brooklyn from San Francisco (a city he wrote about beautifully for lit mag Berfrois), following stints at McSweeney’s and, before that, The Rumpus, where he was managing editor. Isaac oversaw Cheryl Strayed’s enormously popular “Dear Sugar” column, which has spawned a book, Tiny Beautiful Things, as well as a podcast.

“Without Isaac,” New York Times-bestselling author Roxane Gay wrote on her Tumblr, “I would have never had the courage to publish ‘What We Hunger For,’” one of her most moving essays. Isaac also edited “How Men Fight for Their Lives,” an essay by poet and BuzzFeed Culture Editor Saeed Jones, which has become the title of Jones’s forthcoming memoir.

At BuzzFeed, Isaac’s platform has only gotten bigger. He’s published Alexander Chee on MFA programs, Daniel José Older on H.P. Lovecraft, Jenny Zhang on literary yellowface—smart, moving essays that are read by hundreds of thousands of people. At the High Dive in Park Slope, we talked about living with writers, scary teens, and the importance of telling stories.

Is this your local?
Oh yeah. I like to throw a thing at this bar once every few months—a drink up—and get as many people from as many walks of life here as possible. A lot of folks from the publishing world come, but the idea isn’t to talk shop. I just want folks to hang out, have a good time, and meet people they like. And if any of them end up making out, that’s cool too.

I used to work at a bar, so on one of these nights I had been running glassware, since a lot more people showed up than I expected. Towards the end of the night, as I’m settling up, the bartender slides a napkin over to me. It has her number on it, so I’m like, I still got it. But then she says to me, “You need to text me next time before you bring this many people here so I can make sure I have a bar back.”

What was it like moving here?
When I got the job at BuzzFeed, I posted on Facebook about leads on a place to live, because New York is so famous for how easy it is to get an apartment. My friend, the writer Kathleen Alcott, got in touch. I had actually been staying in her guest bedroom when I interviewed for the BuzzFeed job. She said, “My boyfriend [the author John Wray] and I have this empty apartment, you need a place to live, and we want to help keep Park Slope weird.” So now I rent out the garden apartment of their brownstone.

Kathleen is a novelist whose second book Infinite Home came out recently, but years back I had published several early pieces of hers at The Rumpus. She wrote the most powerful essay about losing her father and even though I was already a hardened essays editor, it made me cry. She’s such a talent.

Everyone who lives in the house is a writer, including my girlfriend Alice Sola Kim, and other writers are always coming and going—it really is a literary house. And while that might sound like someone’s (maybe anyone’s) absolute worst nightmare, it’s actually incredible. Any artist helping other artists deserves respect. It’s really lovely to live in a world with support like that. That’s really what it’s about—support. 

This is the first time I’ve lived in such a gentrified place. And the thing is, in Park Slope, it’s not just baby strollers anymore. All those babies grew up and they’re teens now. The thing that really scares me about this neighborhood is teens. They are really fucking cool and they intimidate me.

I’m an East Coast city kid. I grew up in Boston, went to college in DC, lived in Philadelphia for a bit. But then after spending eight years in San Francisco, I got cocky. I forgot winter existed. I moved back to the East Coast in late 2013, just in time for the worst winter in years. It took a month for my stuff to arrive. I was sleeping on a chair bed—two chairs arranged face to face. The Szechuan restaurant Tofu on Seventh, which is now Tofu on Fifth, is solely responsible for keeping me alive that winter.

How do you like Brooklyn?
Cities are living and breathing things. Brooklyn is such a wonderfully diverse place, and I love the size of it. There is something special about that. I love Prospect Park—it’s this giant democratic space. San Francisco has Mission Dolores Park, but they’re having huge problems with the tech kids cleaning up after themselves. In Prospect Park, everyone respects the space.

I love running in the park. All of Grand Army Plaza is gorgeous. I love the Brooklyn Public Library, which is this grand church of education and literature. In New York—the East Coast—we really build things. The Statue of Liberty? France wants to give us this huge lady? Fuck yeah. The Brooklyn Museum, too. I went to see the Basquiat and Kehinde Wiley shows there and it was packed. That’s what I love about Brooklyn.

But San Francisco is a beautiful city too. I love them both. The places that have been important to me—Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Boston; San Francisco; New York—are all port towns. I love a city where you can dock a goddamn boat. But the city of New York has existed for longer than San Francisco. You can feel it, the ghosts in the sidewalks.

What is important to you about your work?
I grew up in a super poor neighborhood. My parents worked for the Catholic Worker and we lived in the John Leary House in Boston. I was lucky enough to have parents who cared about culture. I mean, I love trucks, I love guns, I love drinking beers around campfires. And yeah, I love books, too. I was lucky because I got to grow up with people who loved books.

We moved from Boston to North Central Massachusetts. My grandparents were out there. And this is the Pennsyltucky of Massachusetts, Massatucky. I was twelve hanging out with 18-year-olds. I was dealing and doing drugs, going on joy rides. I wasn’t a criminal mastermind, but shit was rough. Cushing Academy, a private school, took a giant gamble on me and gave me a full scholarship. I didn’t get on an airplane until I was 17, but I met people from around the world, people who traveled everywhere. This is the life I got to lead because I gave a shit about books.

I want to promote people’s stories. I’ve been so lucky to work with Roxane Gay and Cheryl Strayed and Saeed Jones. The people I’m surrounded with at BuzzFeed are smart as shit. I got to work with Hilton Als during my time at McSweeney’s. I got invited to a party at David Remnick’s apartment. We never had a lot of money, but my parents always had a subscription to The New Yorker. That was such a big deal for me.

The Internet—I really believe in it. Some of the smartest people I knew in the world were drinking in the woods outside Athol, Massachusetts. These kids used to never have a shot. But now all over the world people who never would have had a platform to tell their stories do. I got a shot at a better life, at telling my story, because of books, because of the Internet. So that’s what I want to do. I want to give people that same kind of opportunity.



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