Today marks the first installment in an ongoing series I'm calling Brooklyn Lit Life: 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 Life Life #1: Johnny Temple
Johnny Temple is in some ways the face of Brooklyn literary life. He is the co-founder and publisher of independent press Akashic Books, and the chair of the Brooklyn Literary Council, which organizes the Brooklyn Book Festival. He is also the organizer for the Fort Greene Park Summer Literary Festival, and I've seen him selling books from a booth at the Atlantic Antic. And that's all when he's not touring with his band, Girls Against Boys. The following is an edited transcript of a phone interview with Johnny on July 27.
Why Brooklyn? What made you decide to live/work here, in both practical and emotional terms?
When I move to New York in 1990 from Washington D.C. where I was born and raised, I had a friend who lived in Fort Greene and had room open. I moved in with him and immediately took to the neighborhood. It was almost a bizarre coincidence, because the cultural life of Fort Greene syncs up so perfectly with my own interests -- literary, musical, cultural, everything. One of my favorite writers is Richard Wright – he was the first African American author to have a bestseller. That book [Native Son] had a major impact on me when I first read it in college, and got me into African American and literature and literature of the African Diaspora. Then I moved to Fort Greene and found out Wright had written parts of Native Son while sitting on benches in Fort Greene Park. I subsequently found out that Whitman and Steinbeck had also lived in the neighborhood. That opened the door to understanding and researching the literary history of Fort Greene and the borough in general. And I still live on the same street, though not in the same building.
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?
Brooklyn is such an incredibly diverse place – as are Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx – though Brooklyn and Queens are probably the most racially, religiously, economically diverse boroughs. So as a result it's a little bit hard to generalize about a Brooklyn spirit or character. Though diversity is part of that character – perhaps its defining characteristic.
One of the things about literature coming out of Brooklyn – for example, in Brooklyn Noir [published by Akashic Books], which is the best anthology of Brooklyn literature out there – I say that as the publisher, but no one has ever disagreed with it… one of the things that characterizes it is a sort of rugged, working class aesthetic. That's not to imply that everyone in Brooklyn is working class – in fact it's rapidly gentrifying. But one of the things that draws people to the place is its everyman spirit, that working class aesthetic. Not that Jonathan Safran Foer is a working class hero (and I don't know Jonathan Safran Foer), but I bet that the rough edges of the borough is what attracted him and writers like him to the borough.
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.
Fort Greene is a wellspring of African American and Caribbean culture. The face of the neighborhood is certainly changing as gentrification happens. However, Fort Greene is the place where people like Spike Lee emerged from. In the neighborhood the streets are alive with sense that this is a culturally cutting edge location, partly with regards to black culture. It's no coincidence that you hear Fort Greene name checked in hip hop songs, that it shows up in Spike Lee movies… There's a well established history and legacy of African American culture here, and great writers like Nelson George, Colson Whitehead, Toure live in the neighborhood; these are some of our best black writers, or I should say some of our best writers, period. And there are also newer immigrants like Jhumpa Lahiri and Jennifer Egan who live here now.
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?
I'm not an expert on urban development, so can't really predict where it's headed. When I moved into Fort Greene in 1990 there were crack dealers on the corner, but there was the sense that the neighborhood was on cusp of change. And when I spoke to folks who had lived here since the 70s, they said it had felt like it was on the cusp since the 1980s, though it didn't really start to happen until the mid-90s. The neighborhood has changed; you see more young white hipsters and there are lot more white homeowners. At the same time, it is still a majority black neighborhood, and in addition to white people moving in there are also new black homeowners. The gentrification process is happening, demographics are changing, but I wouldn't make the leap to say the cultural essence is being destroyed. There are still a lot of extremely creative people firmly rooted in the place, as well as families of all races and ethnicities.
The one real gentrification curveball is the Atlantic Yards project. If that arena goes up, along with the 15 skyscrapers or whatever that accompany it, that will certainly affect the neighborhood. But I can't say how. Some people say it will destroy the neighborhood, but I don't think so. It will change it, but who knows for better or worse. Urban development needs to be monitored, and citizens' groups need to have their voices heard. But at the same time I think that change is not inherently bad. Cities do evolve. I have mixed feelings about the changes underway, and I'm not as anti-Atlantic Yards as some of my close friends.
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?
One writer that I feel I have to mention is Jonathan Lethem. Fortress of Solitude is the best novel addressing urban gentrification that I've ever read. Like I was saying, it's that rugged aesthetic – the book is very rugged and raw, and it's also a masterpiece. There's Walt Whitman in the mid 19th century, who was also crucial to the founding of Fort Greene Park – he argued in the Brooklyn Eagle for more public community space, which led directly to the development of the park. You can look at the path from his work, to Richard Wright writing here in the 1930s, and fast forward to Colson Whitehead in the present.
Why do you think Brooklyn has such a dense population of writers? Is there something particularly literary about Brooklyn?
For one thing, many writers can't afford to live in Manhattan. Most writers can't earn a living being writers, so they have to have day jobs. And if you're working a day job and trying to find time to write around it, you're probably not pulling in enough to live in Manhattan. But then why not Queens or Staten island? I think the answer is that New York is one of the cultural capitals of the world, and Brooklyn is as close as you can get to the center of that while still being somewhat affordable.
What events, series, readings, happenings, places, stores, publications, movements, etc. seem to you currently interesting or important in the Brooklyn literary world?
There's so much exciting stuff going on. One exciting new literary journal is A Public Space. In June, Book Expo America, the biggest annual book trade conference, was held in New York [and partly in Brooklyn]. A Public Space created a great Brooklyn-centric fanzine with groundbreaking Brooklyn authors. The challenge of any literary endeavor is to create something that didn't exist before. [Editor] Brigid [Hughes] was previously with the Paris Review, and while I haven't talked to her about this extensively, it seems that her goal was not replicating Paris Review, but creating a whole new entity.
There are other great publications like Tin House, and Harp and Altar, an online poetry magazine based in Brooklyn. There's so much bubbling up. And so many young Brooklyn publishing companies like Ig, along with Soft Skull and Akashic. It's exciting for me and [publisher] Richard Nash at Soft Skull, because seven or eight years ago we were the young upstarts. I think we still have a fresh creative energy, but there are also a lot of new literary entities in Brooklyn now.
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?
I think the main challenge – and this cuts to one of main goals of the Brooklyn Book Festival – is for people to recognize and embrace Brooklyn as the literary capital of New York City. Though so many people in the literary world live in Brooklyn, the big public literary events are so often still in Manhattan. I have no problem with Manhattan, but you'll go to a literary event in Manhattan with 50 people, and 40 of them are from Brooklyn. Why not save the subway fare and the time, and promote public events in Brooklyn? Certainly there are some, and it's changed from 2 or 3 years ago. The goal of the Brooklyn Book Festival is to connect the dots so everyone can see each other. Borough Hall hosts Literary Mingles, which I believe you've been to, so that people can see each other in public and realize they all live within three miles of each other.
What's lacking in Brooklyn is a thriving network of public events. I feel strongly that public events are crucial to the survival of literature. In the publishing industry you hear people talking about literature being on the decline, and how people don't read any more. To sit and complain – that energy would be better spent on trying to harvest new audiences for literature. And what better place than Brooklyn, with all these different and diverse groups? The publishing industry should be working to cultivate those readers.
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?
Are you familiar with a restaurant in Fort Greene called Habana Outpost? It's a Cuban restaurant with large patio. On weekends they have vendors, who make clothes or books or whatever, and these artisans show up and sell their goods in the patio where delicious food is being served. To me, if there was a bookstore/café entity somewhere centrally located, like Fort Greene, that was very public spirited, that invited people not only to attend and host events, but to set up their own corner to interact directly with public in a comfortable, creatively stimulating environment – that would be ideal.
Brooklyn could use a few more really great bookstores. There are some great ones, but we could use a few more. I have seen some open and close in Fort Greene, but the neighborhood needs something to water the literary garden that is here.
I think the thing to avoid is a literary snobbishness that you sometimes see in the New York publishing world – again, tying back to this issue of making literature more accessible. A great, public-spirited Brooklyn bookstore would steer clear of anything smacking of snooty New York snobbishness. Literature needs to be yanked down from the ivory tower. I don't think people need to be super well educated to appreciate a good book, a good novel. Obviously they need to be able to read and think critically, but I think a lot more people do that than the publishing industry recognizes. Multiculturalism is important to the future of publishing, not just for spirit of equality it embodies, but because publishing needs the energy, a new spirit, new approaches.