Monday, September 24, 2007

Brooklyn Lit Life: Nicole Steinberg

I have to admit I've never met BOMB editor Nicole Steinberg in person -- our connection was forged via an email chain, friend to associate to colleague etc. And I'm thrilled to admit I've never been to half of the Brooklyn literary venues she describes -- because that means there's so much more still to discover! Her responses to the Brooklyn Lit Life questions renew my optimism for the borough all over again (I love her thoughts on neighbors and neighborhoods), and inspire me to widen my own circle of literary experiences here (if only in hopes of running into her). Read on, and get out there!

Brooklyn Lit Life Interview:
Nicole Steinberg

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

I’m the Associate Editor at BOMB magazine, a not-for-profit arts and culture magazine in its 26th year of publication. BOMB used to be located in Soho, but moved to Fort Greene in 2004 and is now a very visible publication in the Brooklyn literary scene. My position bridges both the editorial and marketing departments, so I get to contribute to the magazine’s content while taking part in events and public programming, much of which occurs in Brooklyn.

I also host and curate a reading series called Earshot, which takes place twice a month at The Lucky Cat in Williamsburg. The series is dedicated to the presence of emerging writers in the New York City area, and each event features three local MFA students as well as two featured writers, from all genres.

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

Earshot used to take place on the Lower East Side, but I really like hosting it in Brooklyn now. A lot of literary-minded people are here, and the series attracts a wonderful audience that didn’t necessarily attend before. The neighborhood has an extremely hospitable atmosphere that, I feel, encourages literary growth.

Oh, and I actually live in Queens! How subversive is that?!

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?

It’s a really welcoming borough. The residents seem a bit more…worldly, in a more practical way than typical Manhattanites. And there’s something about Brooklyn that inspires literary folks. Maybe it’s the brownstones or the parks, or the way many of its neighborhoods feel wholesome yet rough-edged at the same time. Even the less popular and/or ritzy areas evoke a sense of nostalgia. I’d say the Brooklyn sensibility is a lot more laidback than Manhattan, and a lot less severe. There’s less of a black and white aura there, and more places for a person to fit in.

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.

I hold the Earshot readings in Williamsburg, which is pretty much full of hipsters, all of them really young.. I remember the first time I had an event there, it was an evening in January and the sky was dark by 6 PM, and I thought I was going to get killed walking beneath the BQE. Now I’m really accustomed to the neighborhood and marvel at how trendy it is. On my walk from the subway to the bar, I pass gourmet groceries, galleries, vintage boutiques, etc. Oh, and Luna Lounge, of course. I just hosted the first event of the 2007/08 season last week, after a two month summer hiatus, and couldn’t believe how many places had closed during the interim, and how many places were open. I saw a restaurant that had closed, and on the same block, an apartment building that was finally done with construction. It’s amazing how fast things can change there, how rapidly the neighborhood is growing, even after the initial boom. And unlike other parts of Brooklyn, I can almost always get a cab there.

As for Fort Greene, it’s also become really trendy in the past few years. It’s really neighborhoody, which is nice in terms of morale; there’s something great to be said for going to work in an area where you can actually enjoy taking a stroll during an afternoon break, or have a leisurely outdoor lunch, as opposed to bumping into a thousand people while walking down just one city block. There are quite a few gorgeous tree-lined blocks with wall-to-wall brownstones. Most of my colleagues walk to work from home and I’m always ever so jealous.

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 babies. Lots and lots of babies. And restaurants that only open for business four months out of the year.

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?

Didn’t most of the National Book Award winners last year come from Brooklyn? I might be wrong about that, but gosh, there are a lot of amazing contemporary writers there: Matthea Harvey, John Haskell, Mónica de la Torre…. Not to mention all of my writerly friends who can’t afford Manhattan (and don’t want to live there, even they did). A lot of Earshot readers live in Brooklyn, too. Like I said, it’s an inspiring environment. And it hasn’t yet gotten completely saturated in terms of real estate, so writers can still (sometimes) afford to live there. And since it’s more conducive to neighborhoods, it’s also conducive to neighbors, and writers/readers will find each other and start joint projects, reading groups, etc. Everyone is genuinely interested in what everyone else is doing. And there are more opportunities for people to build small bookstores, cafes, bars and venues that actually flourish, thanks to the word-of-mouth that keeps them going. As someone who once feared for her life walking down Metropolitan Avenue, I can definitely attest to the fact that the dearth of awesome, talented people located in Brooklyn makes the trek out there a lot more appealing than it used to be.

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

Earshot! And, let’s see… an excellent reading series venue is Williamsburg’s Stain Bar, as well as 440 Gallery and the Perch Café in Park Slope. Lots of small presses live in Brooklyn as well, including Akashic Books, Archipelago Books, and, once upon a time, Soft Skull. BookCourt is probably my favorite Brooklyn bookstore. Hmm. Thinking about it makes me realize that a lot of the Brooklyn literary scene is centered on Park Slope. I’d love to see an awesome reading series in, say, Bensonhurst. But then it might be tough to get people out there—almost as tough as it is getting people out to Queens.

Also, one of my favorite annual events is the Brooklyn Book Festival. I missed it this year, sadly, as I was out of town. But I just love seeing all those literary geeks in one place, selling their wares and ideas. They’re truly my people.

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?

I think one of the reasons Earshot does so well is because it’s held at an amazing venue: The Lucky Cat, on Grand Street between Roebling and Driggs. It’s a bar/restaurant that’s very atmospheric but also cozy and comforting. People feel really at home when they enter, and that’s an invaluable aspect to any literary venue, since it puts the readers and audience at ease. Also, they give the reading series curator free beer, and that ain’t nothing to sneeze at.

My ideal Brooklyn bookstore would have lots and lots of literary magazines and journals, a huge poetry section, a huge graphic novels section, and would reach out to the community by hosting lots of events, workshops and excellent readings, not just by Brooklyn writers (although that would be wonderful), but also writers from other boroughs. As much as I applaud the Brooklyn lit scene’s tendency to cheer itself on (“We love Brooklyn! Yay, Brooklyn!”), I feel it’s important not to be too exclusive. Or maybe that’s just the Queens Girl in me, demanding satisfaction.