Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Brooklyn Lit Life: Peter Melman

Brooklyn Lit Life is a series of interviews with authors, publishers, retailers, bloggers, readers, and others involved in the literary life of my favorite borough. Questions are designed to spark conversation from a variety of perspectives on what characterizes Brooklyn and its neighborhoods as a cultural and literary place. If you'd like to take part or you know a great candidate for the series, email me: booknerdnyc at earthlink dot net.

Brooklyn Lit Life #2: Peter Melman
Peter Melman is a long-time Brooklynite and first-time novelist: his story of a Jewish Civil War soldier,
Landsman, was published by Counterpoint in June 2007. I met him at a charming dinner for Counterpoint authors and later hosted his reading at McNally Robinson, and was delighted to learn that he once worked at BookCourt, one of the borough's premier indie bookstores. His cheeky answers to my interview questions reveal a true Brooklyn spirit.

Describe your particular literary project, and your role in it.

Well, I tend to think of Landsman as an epic tale of love, brutality, and one man’s quest for morality in an otherwise indifferent world, framed against the unique backdrop of the Jewish Confederacy and the raunchy underbelly of Civil War-time New Orleans. And as a Jewish kid born in New York but raised in Louisiana, with an undergraduate degree in history and a doctorate in English-Creative Writing, with a bent toward crafting some fairly voluptuous prose, which lends itself well to period pieces, I knew at once I was the writer for this job. And there you have it. Utterly unrehearsed, too.

Why Brooklyn? What made you decide to live/work here, in both practical and emotional terms?

I initially chose Brooklyn because that’s where my wife, then girlfriend, was living at the time we decided to shack up together. My apartment in Manhattan was a rat-trap, literally; hers in Cobble Hill, delightful. It was a no-brainer. That she welcomed me into her life at all is proof-positive of just how fortunate I am.

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?

I think Brooklyn’s so enormous – geographically, demographically, culturally – that any attempt to quantify the borough as a whole is a bit of a fool’s errand. Flatbush differs from Brooklyn Heights, Midwood from Bed-Stuy, and on and on. But what I’ve noticed it does have, collectively, is this: whereas it once possessed an immigrant population’s inferiority complex, an attempt to prove itself worthy of neighboring the more glamorized Manhattan across the river, it now actually seems proud of being the Other, a population distinct from that indigenous to that same glamorized Manhattan.

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.

My neighborhood of Cobble Hill/Carroll Gardens, once predominately immigrant Italian, is being as gentrified as anywhere else in the borough. It’s lovely, to be sure, but you see more folks like me and my wife running around the area these days than those who were actually born here. Now I’d be a hypocrite if I said my presence wasn’t part of the regrettable push toward ethnic sanitization. Today, we’ve got beautiful brownstones, boutique bars, quaint restaurants, and a marginally slower pace than you might find in Manhattan. It’s also become a veritable Romper Room, only the mommies and daddies all seem to have tattoos, angular eyewear, and degrees from any number of small, northeastern, liberal arts colleges. I can be so glib because I’m among them, trust me.

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?

See above. Only, I envision it getting pricier, less ethnically diverse, and even fuller of toddlers in Metallikid t-shirts.

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?

Henry and Arthur Miller wrote in the Heights, as did Thomas Wolfe and Truman Capote. Whitman set the first pages of Leaves of Grass on a borrowed printing press on Cranberry Street. Hubert Selby, Jr. was a Brooklynite. Mailer still is. So there’s certainly been an ethos of the sexualized rebel established out this way. Does it still exist? Not as far I can tell. Today you have an understandably younger feel, something more urban and smart, and yet at the same time it’s a bit more angsty in nature than truly rebellious. Of course, I’m generalizing, I know it. Then again, you asked me to.

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?

Brooklyn gained a literary population in the early to mid 20th century because it was simply cheaper than Manhattan. Capote rented a basement on Willow Street, where he wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, for $90 a month. Today, that same home (not just the basement, to be fair) is renting for $40,000 a month. Times, as they say, have changed. So while there’s a slower pace to Brooklyn, which for me is helpful in getting the work done, I wouldn’t say that modern Brooklyn is particularly helpful for writing. That there are many of us, most who are fairly young, is nice in establishing a sense of community, sure. Then again, most of the writers I’ve met, myself included, aren’t particularly communal when it comes to their work.

What events, series, readings, happenings, places, stores, publications, movements, etc. seem to you currently interesting or important in the Brooklyn literary world?

Housing BEA’s booksellers in the Brooklyn Marriott this year was a terrific idea. I was privileged to lead a group of 25 of them on a walking tour of literary Brooklyn Heights, which, in my research, forced me to be more attuned to the bookish history of the place. Acquiring that knowledge alone made leading the tour worthwhile. Also, founding the Brooklyn Book Fair was a stroke of genius, and BookCourt, an establishment where I once worked but was eventually and deservedly fired, is a fine, fine independent bookstore.

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?

Easy. It’d be precisely like McNally-Robinson in Soho, only it’d be located . . . well, you know where. And above the door would be the first line to Capote’s short story, “A House on the Heights,” which celebrates the beauty of the borough, as well as a kind of pride at being the Other I mentioned earlier: “I live in Brooklyn,” he begins. “By choice.”

3 comments:

promoteyourblogforfree said...

nice blog

Larry Portzline said...

I was privileged to be in Peter's group for the walking tour during BEA. Having never spent any time in Brooklyn, I was fascinated to find so much literary history within blocks of the hotel, including the homes of the authors Peter mentions in this interview.

A highlight of the tour for me personally was when Peter dared a couple of us to ring Mailer's doorbell. (It was tempting, but we didn't.) Another was when we came across another BEA-sponsored walking tour on a street corner and challenged them to a rumble. (It was the wrong borough for selections from "West Side Story," but that didn't stop us from invoking it.)

Plus it was neat to spy into Capote's basement apartment, but sad to see that it's currently being used for storage. And hearing one of our participants read from Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" at the site itself was poignant.

I doubt if any other group had more fun that day, and Peter was a primary reason.

Next time -- as Peter himself later suggested -- Brooklyn's literary watering holes!

MiBlog said...

One of you students, Anya, is visiting my son and me in Chicagoland. The Gail Borden Public Library (where I work) has both your book and CD recording. I put them on reserve--one for me and one for my son. Anya told me you had an "awesome" website, so here I am, though I chuckled when I clicked to it and Anya admitted, "Well, I've never actually seen it."
Best of luck in all your writing and teaching!