I reviewed Kate Christensen's most recent novel The Great Man very briefly back in June, though not nearly enough to get across my enthusiasm for her witty, compassionate, sly, suspenseful story, with some jabs at the art world and the patriarchy to boot. I've also loved all her previous novels -- In the Drink, Jeremy Thrane, and The Epicure's Lament -- and I was thrilled to host her at a book party at McNally Robinson in mid-August. She graciously agreed to be a part of the Brooklyn Lit Life series, and her answers seem much like one of The Great Man's heroines, Teddy St. Cloud: basking in the uniquely vibrant isolation that's on offer in the borough of Brooklyn.
Brooklyn Lit Life
Why Brooklyn? What made you decide to live/work here, in both practical and emotional terms?
Brooklyn is the best place to live in the world, at least in terms of the places I’ve seen and visited and lived. I’ve lived in Greenpoint for almost 5 years, and before that I lived in Williamsburg – I moved to North Brooklyn in 1990 and except for a 3-year stint in the East Village, I have lived here ever since. North Brooklyn has low rooftops and big skies, cozy public hangouts, an undeveloped (until recently) waterfront, and a sense of scruffy, do-it-yourself, gritty, boho glamour. Of course that’s changing now, commercializing and verticalizing, but maybe, I hope, not as drastically as it appears on the surface. There’s plenty of neighborhood left here.
Is there a Brooklyn sensibility or character? How would you describe it? How does it differ from the character of New York City as a whole?
A Brooklyn sensibility… I don’t know – there are so many different neighborhoods here, so many different kinds of people – Brooklyn has a sense of community I didn’t find in Manhattan. Greenpoint is neighborhoody – but not in a small-town way, in a big-city, multicultural, mind-your-own-business way. Manhattan feels crowded and claustrophobic and touristy by comparison. I haven’t lived in any of the other boroughs, so I couldn’t compare it to Queens or the Bronx. There’s also an expectation that of course we’re all different races, religions, and ethnicities – a profound sense of tolerance for our own. Bu tin terms of the changes being wrought right now, there is also fierce, emotional, loud, organized resistance to incursions from corporate takeover of small businesses – opposition to the high-rises going up everywhere – but we can’t stop it.
What about your particular neighborhood? Does it have its own unique character? This can include the kinds of people you tend to find there, particular characters or places that epitomize the neighborhood, etc.
Greenpoint used to be a rough and tumble place, an immigrant waterfront community. Now it’s gentrifying, of course, because what isn’t, but it’s still got grit and edge – it used to be predominantly Irish and Italian, but now it’s become a Polish enclave. Many of the shop signs up on Manhattan Avenue are in Polish, a lot of the store clerks speak Polish. Polish food abounds up at the Associated, my local grocery store. But they also stock Matzoh and refrito. Over towards the Newtown Creek, it’s still very old-school, very rough. But the closer you get to McCarren Park, the more hipsters driving Priuses you see.
What do you think of the direction Brooklyn, or at least your neighborhood, is going? What does the future look like in terms of economics, demographics, culture, and other changes?
More corporate high-rise condos, less affordable housing, and everything that implies. It sucks. People in the neighborhood have fought hard and long and vocally against it, but it’s unstoppable, or so it seems.
Is there a Brooklyn literary sensibility? Which writers or works most emblematize Brooklyn for you? Which older writers set the tone? Which contemporary writers are you reading with interest?
I always think of Henry Miller as the quintessential Brooklyn writer -- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as the quintessential Brooklyn novel. I read everything Jonathan Lethem writes. I loved Jami Attenberg’s forthcoming The Kept Man, which captures something essential about Williamsburg. I don’t think there’s a literary “sensibility” here per se at all –every Brooklyn writer I have read is a singular bird. I would say there’s an enormous concentration of talent and even brilliance here, though.
Why do you think Brooklyn has such a dense population of writers? Is there something particularly literary about Brooklyn? Where and how do people read here?
I don’t go to readings in Brooklyn. I once read at Millie’s in Ft Greene – years and years ago – it was my first public reading. But I haven’t read here since. I think writers love to live here because it’s New York City, but you can hear yourself think; you can walk the streets anonymously, lost in your thoughts, but you can also see the sky and have a sense of being enclosed in a neighborhood. It’s the best place in the world to live if you’re a writer, I think.
What events, series, readings, happenings, places, stores, publications, movements, etc. seem to you currently interesting or important in the Brooklyn literary world?
None – I am totally disconnected from whatever literary scene there may be here.
What do you think would make Brooklyn better as a literary place? What does the borough still need? What are the opportunities and challenges it faces?
We need a great bookstore right here in Greenpoint with a café, a bookstore with a neighborhoody feel where people can hang out and sit in armchairs, drink a cup of tea, attend low-key readings.
Imagine the ideal Brooklyn bookstore or literary venue, a place you'd like to read on your own or participate in literary community. What would it be like? What would it avoid?
It would have an inviting atmosphere – good music – tea and coffee – dog-friendly. Great books, old and new, major publishers and small presses – but chosen with a sense of real quality, a knowledge of what’s worthwhile, what’s important, and what’s just plain entertaining page-turning fun.
Note: After she submitted her interview, we had a great email exchange about Word Books, a six-months-old bookstore on Franklin Avenue in Greenpoint, which Kate promises to visit.