Monday, May 12, 2008

Brooklyn Lit Life: Garth Risk Hallberg

I'm sick again today, and unable to formulate coherent thoughts on the book industry, my bookstore plans, the stimulus package, or books I'm reading (though all of those things are spinning around in my fevered dreams whenever I nap, which is often). Luckily, I've got someone more eloquent writing today. The inimitable Garth Risk Hallberg (dude, risk is his middle name!) is involved in all kinds of things literarily Brooklyn, and I'm honored to have him kick off the re-emergence of the Brooklyn Lit Life series. Please note that one of these projects, the Pacific Standard Reading Series, hosts an end-of-season reading with Brooklynites Arthur Phillips (ANGELICA) and Douglas A. Martin (BRANWELL) tomorrow night (Tuesday) at 7 PM. If you're not there, you're sicker than I am.

Brooklyn Lit Life Interview
Garth Risk Hallberg

Describe your particular literary project, and your role in it.
I've actually got three projects. The first is that I get up and write fiction every day. (You can find some stories floating around here and there, as well as a kind of offbeat novella that was published this winter). This alone can be all consuming. Should be. I want it to be. But often, possibly as an excuse to procrastinate, I fall into my second project: writing little literary pieces for my friend Max's blog, The Millions, and other places. Finally, I just started this reading series, The Pacific Standard Fiction Series, partly as a way of convening writers and readers here in Brooklyn. My ideal day would involve writing all morning, lunch, writing until about four, riding my bike to get coffee and sit outside and read, writing a little reaction to what I've read, and then, right at the edge of mental exhaustion, going to a bar with some friends. And dinner should be in there somewhere. Amazingly, I get to have my ideal day with some regularity, especially in the summer. That might be possible anywhere, but I still feel a debt of gratitude to Brooklyn for making it possible.

Why Brooklyn? What made you decide to live/work here, in both practical and emotional terms?
When I was in graduate school, I settled on Brooklyn because the rent is cheap and my friends are here. I also like trees, dogs, and bicycles, which we have in abundance. I like having space for my books. I like being reminded, whenever I cross the bridge, that Manhattan is surrounded by water.

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'm of two minds about the possibility of a "Brooklyn sensibility." I would describe Brooklyn as a place where you don't feel pressure to dress up before going out to drink. (Which doesn't mean the conversation is any less intense.) Or as a really comfortable seat at a great drama, the drama being Manhattan. You can be really involved in that drama, but with a certain perspective. When the curtain goes down, you get up and go on with your interesting life.

On the other hand, I think Brooklyn probably has many of the same vices (and virtues) as Manhattan. You just have to look a little harder to find them. I want to say Brooklyn can be just as thrilling, and just as full of itself, but what do I know? Perhaps the essential character of Brooklyn is that people like me, who didn't grow up here, tend to sound kind of silly making pronouncements about its essential character.

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 is functionally nameless. Some people call it Columbia Street and other people call it Red Hook. I'm lobbying, semi-facetiously, for WayBeQa (West of the BQE.) It's really a one-by-six-block extension of Cobble Hill, but once you cross the expressway, things change. We have a lot of Spanish-speaking residents, a lot of Southerners, a lot of characters. Great bars and bakeries. It's kind of like an industrial seafaring town.

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?
My little spot has remained pretty stable for the four years I've occupied it, as far as demography goes; as soon as it gentrifies further, we'll be unable to afford it. But it's a hike from the subway, which helps, and most residents seem very attached to the ratio of bistro-to-bodega. Then again, the forces of Ikea and Brooklyn Bridge Park seem to be conspiring to jack up property values and trigger speculation. I wish my neighbors and I could all just lock in our rents and stay. But then it wouldn't be New York.

There's something funny about the relationship of artists to real-estate speculation in this city. Artists are both anti-speculators and, in a way, the ultimate speculators. I'm thinking of a scene from the Simpsons where Fat Tony has been selling rat milk to the schools. The rat dairy gets raided, the milk spills all over the street, cats come to lap it up, and reporter Kent Brockman says something like, "And so, the circle of life is complete."

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?
A "Brooklyn literary sensibility?" Hmmm... I want to argue that there really isn't one, except that living in brownstone Brooklyn, Williamsburg, or Greenpoint will enforce a certain consistency of relationship between writers and their means of production (by which I mean time and space, which require more money here than in smaller towns (and less money than in Manhattan). And maybe proximity to the publishing world makes you have to fight a little harder for your intellectual freedom than you might if you lived in, say, D.C. Then again, people don't look at you funny for trying to be a writer in Brooklyn, which is nice. It's like saying you're a lawyer in D.C. It's de rigeur. Or possibly comme il faut.

Brooklyn residents whose writing I admire include Anya Ulinich, Emily Barton, Amitav Ghosh, Benjamin Kunkel (does he still live here?), Rick Moody, Jonathan Letham, my friends Porochista Khakpour, Yasmine Alwan, Jason Leahey, and Janice Clark (late of Fort Greene). Plus a lot of people who have read at Pacific Standard: Christopher Sorrentino, Francisco Goldman, and the sneakily brilliant Joshua Ferris. I admire Colson Whitehead's "sit down and do the damn work" principles. Also: we have great literary magazines and small presses here. If this adds up to a Brooklyn literary sensibility, it seems like a pretty heterodox one to me.

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 can only speak personally and say that I feel safer knowing there are many other writers nearby. I guess I'm not strong enough to maintain a completely oppositional stance to the culture I live in; I find it comforting to know I'm not alone. Brooklyn also makes it easy to live like a flaneur without flying through money, which is helpful for my writing. I mean there are relatively uncrowded parks, cheap bars, and streets of perfect density. But really, I'm still guessing it's mostly the rents.

What events, series, readings, happenings, places, stores, publications, movements, etc. seem to you currently interesting or important in the Brooklyn literary world?
This list of the magazines and presses I like is probably pretty familiar: One-Story, A Public Space, N+1, Canteen, Hotel St. George Press, Akashic Books, Archipelago Books, Soft Skull Press, Melville House, Ugly Duckling Presse. Other literary things I like include the Brooklyn Book Festival, the Ring Shout, Freebird, Pacific Standard, 826NYC, Triple Canopy, Spoonbill & Sugartown, BookCourt. I think, though, that there's a danger in defining "literary" too narrowly. DeLillo talks in his Paris Review interview about how important exposure to music and film and painting were to his discovery of his own voice. And I think bars and cafes matter, too. So I'd say some of the hidden institutions that facilitate my writing are: Issue Project Room, Sunny's, Lucali's, Frankie's, Moe's, the Victory, Hope & Anchor karaoke, BAM Cinematek, free movies and music outdoors in the summer.

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?
This list of things I think would make Brooklyn better as a literary place will contain a lot of familiar items. Rent controlling my apartment. More sensibly planned development. A tunnel between Jay St.-Borough Hall and Borough Hall. More frequent B71 bus service. Victory for the forces of democratic socialism. Not necessarily in that order.

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?
My ideal place to read would be a packed church basement, like the kind Dischord bands used to play in in D.C. Packed, sweaty, teeny, revolutionary but wholesome and devoid of unearned 'tude. Failing that, it would be a bar serving cold beer at a reasonable price.