Nov 12, 2015
Brooklyn Fictions: An Almost-Imaginary Conversation Between Five Brooklyn Writers
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a writer in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a house in Brooklyn. You can’t move for writers in Brooklyn these days; in fact, there are so many of them that we have long since passed the point of excitement and fascination and entered a period of amusement, frustration and parody. The last thing you want to read is another article about Brooklyn writers, especially one that starts with approximately the 270,000th reworking of Jane Austen’s most famous line. Right?
Stay with me, though: this is an article with a difference. Imagine assembling five very different Brooklyn writers (or at least writers strongly associated with Brooklyn) in a room and asking them to reflect on the myths and misconceptions of the borough and how they have been revealed in these writers’ fictions and in the stories of others. Wouldn’t that be something? Well, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do that. I did interview five writers, and they were all associated, for various reasons, with Brooklyn, but the interviews happened at different times and in different rooms, one of which wasn’t even in the States. And yet the imaginative possibilities of such a scenario remain exciting to me, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let temporal and geographical distance deter me.
So here is “Brooklyn Fictions: an Almost-Imaginary Conversation”: the wit and wisdom of five Brooklyn fiction-makers cunningly brought together: Lynne Sharon Schwartz, author of Leaving Brooklyn (1989); Amy Sohn, author of the scurrilous comedies of ill-manners My Old Man (2005), Prospect Park West (2009) and Motherland (2012); Reggie Nadelson, creator of the Brooklyn detective Artie Cohen; Kitty Burns Florey, author of the Williamsburg gentrification comedy Solos (2004); and Michael Gregory Stephens, author of Season at Coole (1972), The Brooklyn Book of the Dead (1994) and the essay collection Green Dreams: Essays Under the Influence of the Irish (1994). My questions are ones I actually asked, and all of the answers are the authentic answers of the authors. All I have done is stitch together these questions and answers to create a patchwork, a pleasing picture of unity-in-diversity appropriate to its subject matter–New York’s most populous and diverse borough. Let us proceed to the imagined space where this almost-imaginary conversation takes place: it could be in London, Manhattan, New Haven or Park Slope, but it is most definitely in “Brooklyn.”
Peacock: I’m coming at this from an outsider perspective. I’ll give you the outsider stereotype of Brooklyn, see if you recognize the picture. So if you read enough books, like I have, about Brooklyn you get a picture of somewhere huge, diverse but also sort of down-home and communal, cool and cutting edge but also in touch with its history, full of celebrities and creative types, living in harmony with old Brooklynites. So the question is: Is that a picture you recognize?
Schwartz: Now? Well it’s very changed. What you just described, that’s what you mean it was 50 years ago? Or now?
Sohn: No, not at all! I mean, the last part of it is probably what I would take issue with. There’s not a lot of harmony, it’s become very… I mean, first of all, the celebrities: That’s a very recent phenomenon, within the last five or seven years. That people for whom money was not an issue could choose to live here is a really radical idea for people like my parents who moved here in 1973. In terms of living in harmony with old Brooklynites, then the question is “what’s an old Brooklynite?” There’s so many Brooklyns. You’re really talking about Brownstone Brooklyn, which is Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, Fort Greene. And what I see more is old Brooklynites getting forced out either because they realized they can sell their buildings for, you know, a couple of million dollars or affordable housing has been under attack… and so what’s actually happening is there’s less and less of old Brooklyn and there’s more and more of new Brooklyn.
Stephens: Part of the problem of the question is I haven’t lived in America for a very long time because even before I lived here I was traveling around. So I’m a true expat and what I know about the place, my information, is very outmoded. This is one of the disadvantages of being an expat, but I think that the rewards are greater than the disadvantages so I don’t walk around feeling bad. But, you know, this happened to James Baldwin, living for years in Paris–it’s a thing that happens. So, the Brooklyn I know does not exist…
Peacock: That’s interesting…
Stephens: It exists in my mind but doesn’t exist anywhere else. Even that neighborhood where The Brooklyn Book of the Dead is set is a totally transformed neighborhood. It’s filled with young people, the coffee houses on Bushwick Avenue…
Schwartz: My recollection of the place, or feeling about it even while I’m there is always conditioned by what I’m feeling inside–you know, if I’m in a happy mood. There are certain places–beaches, oceans–those I’m aware of and I like. So when I’m near water, I like the place better. Things go very deep.
Peacock: That’s one of the things I’m particularly interested in. Even those writers writing about Brooklyn now who happen to be living there, there’s always this tension between the Brooklyn that’s imagined–particularly nostalgically imagined–and the real Brooklyn. Is this the way places function? Imagined space and real space?
Schwartz: Well for me, yes, I agree totally: Place is a state of mind. But that is very subjective. I’m not a very visual person. I mean, I walk down the street, I don’t really see what’s around me. I see people, but you know the stores that have been closing all around here, I look at a space that’s all boarded up and think, “Well I can’t remember what was here, I can’t see through the years.” So, I’m not that aware, really, of the physical space around me, whereas some people, my husband for example, can lead you to a restaurant we went to in Madrid ten years ago and just find it. So I would definitely say for me, for certain kinds of people, place is a state of mind, but that would not hold true for everyone.
I wrote this [Leaving Brooklyn] in the 80s and I grew up in Brooklyn in the 40s and 50s. It’s completely changed; then Brooklyn was truly boring and Manhattan was romantic and now it’s almost reversed but that’s another matter. You know this was the post-war era. It was a certain time in New York, and maybe in the country, when this country was feeling very pleased with itself and very smug, which is not true anymore and hasn’t been for a while. There was not a great deal of questioning. So it was kept flat by the collective will. And family, locality–you know, the same shops every day, the same storekeepers–it was very soothing. It was supportive, it had good aspects to it and yet it was just intensely provincial.
Nadelson: For me and I’m sure for loads of people from immigrant families–could be Italian, could be Irish, could be Jewish, could be black–Brooklyn was the great immigrant hotbed. My father was one of six. Three came from Russia with the parents and three were born here. Now, my father had me when he was very old so he was really like a grandfather. He grew up in the classic Lower East Side way and then all the other boys basically married up; the girls were schoolteachers or they came from the same milieu and they all ended up in Brooklyn.
Stephens: I remember when my mother was still alive: she’s really much more Brooklyn than my father, and her family is one of the oldest families in Brooklyn. Literally from the beginnings of Brooklyn she had family there. So you can go back to the earliest time and her family is actually ethnically made up of everybody from Brooklyn. Irish, French, Dutch…
Peacock: So, do they go back to Schermerhorn, that kind of era?
Stephens: The original—1640s or something.
Stephens: Yeah, it’s like really old. When I told her that this writer friend [Philip Lopate] says I’m not from Brooklyn, she had a good laugh and said, “Well, if you’re not from Brooklyn where the hell are you from?” And it probably also explains why I wrote about it, to a degree. Because my own identity is not as easily defined as probably I would like it to be. I mean, invariably I’m characterized as an Irish-American writer, but again if I go back to my mother, she’s going to say, “Well, you’re a lot of things besides Irish.”
Peacock: It’s one of the things I like about The Brooklyn Book of the Dead–and you do the same in one of the essays in Green Dreams–the fact that some of the things perceived as being “pure Irish” turn out to be Yiddish. That I really liked about it–a nice joke on the idea of pure origins.
Stephens: Yeah, you know like in Brooklyn if you ask Jewish people, they say one of their foods is corn beef and cabbage. If you ask the Irish people, they will say one of their foods is corn beef and cabbage. Where is the origin of it? I don’t actually know. I’m trying to find out lately some proof of its origin. Trying to get to the bottom of that one!
Nadelson: Queens now in a sense has replaced Brooklyn as the great immigrant hotbed: I mean, you go to Queens to eat because it’s the best food in New York.
Schwartz: Brooklyn is now divided into many neighborhoods, and there are neighborhoods where people all know each other in very much the same way that, when I was a kid in my neighborhood, except the people there are more interesting or they do more interesting things. All these names, for example. Well, Brooklyn Heights was always the name, but Park Slope, Cobble Hill, Sunset Park: These names didn’t exist.
Peacock: Carroll Gardens–that was just “South Brooklyn,” wasn’t it?
Stephens: Yeah. But these neighborhoods don’t have any borders. I mean, we called it East New York–it’s not called that today, that particular neighborhood. It’s called “Ocean Hill Brownsville.” I had some arguments with editors of the Brooklyn Rail magazine because they insisted that it was Ocean Hill, which is what it’s now called. But no one ever called it Ocean Hill in my growing up; I’ve never heard the term. It came out in the seventies.
Burns Florey: Williamsburg–have you been there?
Peacock: Yes, a couple of times.
Burns Florey: Well, it was nothing like that then. It was frightening in a way. There was almost nothing there. Between the subway, if you got off at North 7th and Bedford, down to North 3rd Street where we lived, it was a four-block walk. So when I got home after work every day, sometimes it would be dark because it would be winter and it was terrifying. And a bunch of people would get off the subway and they would gradually fall away and by the time you got to North 3rd Street it was often only me. And I’d take a right on North 3rd Street and there were crack dealers and there was a big prostitution scene there and drug dealers. It was terrifying. But whatever. It was fine because it was real life!
Peacock: So what were the attractions of living there?
Burns Florey: It was like no place that I had ever lived. It’s like no place that anybody had ever lived, I guess. It was just an unusual, very lovable community. And because my friend Judith, that we moved into next door, had lived there for so long she knew quite a few people–I didn’t know anybody–and these were all early squatters, the pioneers.
Peacock: The word “pioneers” is very interesting. Did these people refer to themselves as “gentrifiers?” In some literature that’s a dirty word.
Burns Florey: I don’t think they ever thought of it as gentrifying. They never thought it would turn into anything. It was a cheap place to live. It was great for artists, because they could have these big lofts and the rents were unbelievably cheap.
Peacock: It’s a word that seems to get applied to it retrospectively. So your friend would become part of this long-sighted movement.
Burns Florey: Probably no pioneer ever thought “I’m gonna be a pioneer!” That was what I tried to put into Solos. A feeling of a bunch of people doing interesting things and living in this very out-of-the-way, nothing kind of… and I guess by the time Emily [Lime, protagonist of Solos] is there it wasn’t quite as primitive as when I lived there. She’s a few years later. She’s in 2002; she was post-9/11. So it had advanced a little bit by the time Solos takes place.
Peacock: What does that advancement involve? So many Brooklyn novels either directly or indirectly are about that process of gentrification. It seems to be a very important part of the history, and there’s always underlying it a question of authenticity: What’s the “real” Brooklyn? Where’s Williamsburg now in your experience or to your knowledge?
Burns Florey: It’s a completely different place. I think Williamsburg is almost unbearable and I’m not alone… It is a mystique, it is a whole self-aggrandising way of looking at yourself as a cool dude and I think that manifested itself in Brooklyn for a long time–and I guess maybe still a little bit. People who had a lot of piercings and a lot of tattoos earlier than most people had a lot of piercings and a lot of tattoos. So now if you wait for the L-train in the morning to go to work, it’s jammed, it’s absolutely jammed. And by the time I left there you could hardly get on the subway in the morning to go to work–it was horrible. You sometimes had to wait for the next train to come. But you’re standing there and everyone’s still looking really cool. Women have an off-the-shoulder thing with the raggedy thing, eyebrow piercings, but they’re lawyers or something. But the Brooklyn mystique is still there. This is the way you look, this is how you act. I mean, they’re not all lawyers, but you know what I mean. To afford the rents, a lot of them are and a lot of them just have really good jobs, really high-paying jobs.
Peacock: But the aesthetic is still…
Florey: … the aesthetic is still “Brooklyn,” whatever that means!
Peacock: What is it that happens? One of the stories I always read about is a move from a creative community–and this is a terrible caricature but the term is often used–to a yuppie community and then by the end of it you’ve got the global corporations in the area. You get Starbucks, you get the big businesses. Is that what’s happening?
Burns Florey: Yes, it is. It took a long time for anything corporate to open in Williamsburg. There’s a Duane Reade drugs store that opened maybe just a couple of years ago. Is there a Starbucks on Bedford Avenue? I’m not even sure that there is. There’s a lot of coffee shops. It still isn’t that corporate in terms of what has opened there. Mostly, the worst thing that has happened is our view of the Manhattan skyline has completely gone. The apartment that we lived in sold for $1.5 million, which isn’t that much. It isn’t that big. It might actually be more than that. Soon after the turn of the century. But whoever bought it did not get a good deal because very soon the view was completely gone and there are all these high rises now, condos on the river.
Sohn: It’s really becoming much more like Manhattan, like certain neighborhoods in Manhattan, like the West Village or the Upper East Side or the Upper West Side. I personally feel that the distinctions are narrowing and that’s very sad to me as a lifelong Brooklynite.
Peacock: It’s a good example of an opposition that seems to be very common in some contemporary novels, between Brooklyn as actually now being virtuous for having down- home communal values, being more in touch with its history, being diverse in a way that’s very positive; the local guy in the bakers knows how many sugars you have in your coffee. As opposed to Manhattan, which is often characterized as future driven, globalized, always changing, not in touch with its history in the same way. These are the kind of caricatures that are often set up in these novels. Now, this is probably a lame question in some ways but do any of those oppositions hold? Is there a significant difference in character between Manhattan and Brooklyn nowadays? You can only talk in generalizations but is there a difference in spirit between Manhattan and Brooklyn?
Burns Florey: I think that that sense of the past is not nearly as important in Brooklyn now as it used to be. I think there are people who live there because it’s a cool place to live and they have a really nice apartment–nothing to do with history. And I know when I walk along North 3rd Street where I used to live, that block between Berry and Wythe, which is the second block off of Bedford Avenue, now we just can’t get over… because it’s all about restaurants and bars, it’s very 21st century. They’re in old buildings and some of them hark back in a fun, trendy, cool way to the past by their name or some of the architecture or little bits of things, but I don’t think that there’s any real interest in or appreciation–I mean, this is a horrible generalisation and of course it’s not true for everybody–but the impression that you get is this is all about 21st century coolness. It’s about locavore food and organic this… It’s all fine but I just don’t see that there’s much of a sense of history in the average Brooklynite at this point.
Peacock: It’s partly a question of nostalgia.
Florey: I’m not even seeing nostalgia!
Peacock: At the end of Solos you’ve got Emily’s friend saying to her “Things change, Em, and sometimes it’s okay.” I suppose the point is–when does it stop being okay? Because isn’t New York famously characterized by change? That’s the point–it changes all the time.
Burns Florey: Yes it is, it’s true and that’s a very good point that Emily’s friends are making to her, although I think now they might not be saying that. New York is about change but it’s also about tradition and continuity and it’s about neighborhoods and no matter how big the city is, you live in your neighborhood.
Peacock: That’s the word that comes up again and again. It’s such an important word.
Burns Florey: Each neighborhood has its own bodega where you can go buy a quart of milk and cat food and it has its own drug store and its own fruit shop and its own flower stand and you don’t have to go outside your own neighborhood.
Sohn: There’s this weird fetishization of the local here.
Peacock: It seems that–this is a generalization but let’s use it anyway–the more the money flows in and neighborhoods change, gentrification takes over, things become more expensive, the more important it is that that notion of the cozy down-home, regional place is emphasized, I think. The two things are always in a tense relationship with each other. If I said the word “community” which, as you know, is a complex, contested, pluralistic kind of word: for you does it exist in those face-to-face relations? Is that where community happens, as it were?
Sohn: One of the things I actually like about Brooklyn is stoop life. You know, how people hang out on their stoops, on the street even, kids play on the sidewalk. Now, if you look closely you’ll see that there’s three parents leaning against a car supervising, but the fact that they’re even outside of the house at all at five o’clock: that’s just not something seen with their generation of parents.
Peacock: So it’s probably an impossible-to-answer question but, because I’m interested in community and differing definitions of community and the clues we get from our surroundings to what constitutes community–what do you think a novelist is able to do to capture something of community feeling? And is it something that the novelist is able to do better than other creative artists?
Florey: Well, since the novelist makes everything up and can do whatever she wants, which is to me the great thrill of writing novels, you can write anything! And I did create a community in Solos that is a much more cohesive community than any community I knew there or really almost anywhere. These people were really tight and they had their Trollope club and that was probably very unusual and probably very divorced from reality. Although I had a Proust reading group in Williamsburg. But we started out with 6 and we ended up with just 3, which is not surprising!
Peacock: Somewhere like Park Slope, where the community of writers is, in some cases, a community of millionaire writers. It’s quite a different thing. With the brownstone fetish and all the…
Stephens: That became gentrified…
Peacock: …earlier on…
Stephens: A very long time ago and those writers, like Paul [Auster] or does Don DeLillo live there? I mean, there’s an awful lot. Even Bill Corbett, who’s associated as a Boston poet, now lives in Brooklyn. And it is that brownstone Brooklyn. It’s very beautiful. Park Slope’s very beautiful. I would have loved to have lived there. But it didn’t happen. There was a time when my father wanted to try to move us there but my mother wasn’t interested. She wanted to move to the suburbs so we left that East New York neighborhood.
Peacock: How important is that? Because obviously Season at Coole is very much concerned with that. How important is that in terms of identity – migration to the suburbs?
Stephens: Well I guess if you do it and it works out, it’s terrific. It’s just that we were so Brooklyn in our attitudes primarily that we certainly did not fit in.
Peacock: And what is that? What is the “Brooklyn attitude” you’re talking about?Stephens: It’s just a street attitude. It’s like a kind of chip on your shoulder and, you know, you don’t back down from fights and a whole series of ghetto culture. And it doesn’t work in the suburbs. So, we did not fit in. Maybe some of my younger siblings are much more suburban in their upbringing. Whereas myself and my elder brothers, we felt our identity was in Brooklyn. When you grow up in such a big family, you’re often farmed out because your parents have these crises–whatever they may be, sometimes they’re medical. And so even when we left Brooklyn, I spent a good part of every year living there.
Schwartz: Even now twenty years after I wrote the book, I still find that when confronted with something, my first reaction will be a kind of reflexive thing that they would have said in Brooklyn and I have to remind myself I don’t think that way anymore, I don’t feel that way anymore. I’ve spent my whole life–me, not the character–trying to get away from that.
Nadelson: My ancestors made it out of Brooklyn: Why would I go back?
The interview with Lynne Sharon Schwartz took place at her apartment in Manhattan on 27 April 2012.
The interview with Amy Sohn took place a little later in the day on 27 April 2012 at ‘Snice in Park Slope (sadly no longer in existence – the restaurant, not the neighborhood).
The interview with Reggie Nadelson took place at Le Pain Quotidien, 100 Grand Street, Manhattan on 3 June 2013.
The interview with Kitty Burns Florey took place at Blue State Coffee, Wall Street, New Haven on 5 June 2013.
The interview with Michael Gregory Stephens took place at a branch of Café Nero not far from Euston Station in London on 30 November 2013.
I’d like to thank all the authors for their time, their patience, their insights, and for allowing me to perform this mash-up with their words.
James Peacock is Senior Lecturer in English and American Literatures at Keele University, UK. He is the author of Understanding Paul Auster (University of South Carolina Press, 2010), Jonathan Lethem (Manchester University Press, 2012) and Brooklyn Fictions: the Contemporary Urban Community in a Global Age (Bloomsbury, 2015).
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