Walking the Writing Road

Tim McLoughlin
Editor of Brooklyn Noir (Volume 1, Akashic Books, 2004)
Author of Heart of the Old Country, made into the film “The Narrows.”

Everyone take note: There are TWO Tazza locations in Brooklyn. Tim McLoughlin was kind enough to walk over to the one on Henry street where we mangled some meat sandwiches and talked about dialogue, narrators and what it’s like to be driven to write.

On living in Brooklyn and writing with a pen.
My father would teach me drive down in DUMBO because that neighborhood looked like a post apocalyptic movie set in the late 1970’s.  I was just sort of ambling around down there recently and checking out what new stores open every week and I had an idea that I wanted to jot down but I didn’t have a pen or paper on me. So I went to a little general store and bought a notebook and I bought a pen.

I went across the street and I started writing, and I only very gradually realized that I was the only person in the place with a pen and paper but that everyone was writing and everybody else had a keyboard and I said: I’ve got a 25 year old narrator in a novel and it would never in my wildest dreams occur to me to take a laptop to a public space and sit down and begin typing there.

The overwhelming majority of the time I need longhand as a jump-start.  I’ll write in a notebook for three or four pages, and then when I get to type those three or four pages into the computer, I’ll keep writing.  That’s enough to keep the wheels turning.

On Writing Novels and Short Stories
The most important difference is that you can hold a whole short story in your head.  The short story ideas come to you all at once.  The novels, you have to live with them.  And they change organically over time as you write them.

I can write a short story, go back and read it, fine tune it, tweak it and I’m done.  But with a novel, there’s such a space there, that by the time you’re finished, you’re always playing catch up to make it the same voice.  By the end of that novel, I’m not the guy that started it.

I thought I’d be perfectly happy if I could just craft a few good short stories. I so clearly remember when I got my first short story published saying, all right I have to write a novel.  It was instant.

On working in the Criminal Justice System:
You discover pretty quickly how many people are in the criminal justice system who are just very unlucky and really lost souls. People who take a bad decision one evening and it’s doomed them.  Everything i choose to write about is informed in one way or the other by the work that I’ve been doing for a lot of years now.

One keeping a notebook:
It was the late 1970s, early 1980s, it was Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, it was the heart of Saturday night fever. I was driving a car service with all these characters and going to the track with them and the clubs and the bars.

These were guys that would show up with their own 15 year old car and say that’s my car outside, do you have any business and they would say, yeah go pick up this old lady at 1072 73rd street and take her over to Bingo.  And in 15 minutes the guy was working and at the end of the shift he had $65 – $70 in his pocket in cash.

I just so loved that world. I wanted to record everything about it.  I used to keep a spiral notebook under the seat of the car.  And I would jot down conversations and observations not having any idea, certainly not thinking that I was going to write a novel, but knowing that I wanted to record it.

On Editing / Self Editing
Being an editor for a really big group of writers is a little bit like being in a really solid writing group. You start to hear people’s critiques in their head before you show them your work.  You know what they would say about what you did.

I have an old friend who passed away, maybe six or seven years ago, Henry Flesh, who was a great editor who was one of the best people at critiquing my work.  And when I reread what I’ve written I hear him saying, “don’t over explain.”

On Location Scouting:
I actually went to New Orleans and scouted some locations. Most of what I needed I got from talking to a retired cop, who i was put in touch with by the police union.  And then I managed to reach out to an old timer.  And I got him to just give me enough insight into the way the cops would be behaving after a shooting.  The way they would close ranks and the specific way they would do it down there.  And that was what I wanted because I didn’t want it to be a New York story, I wanted it to be authentic to New Orleans.  And then after that you just inject the fear that anybody has.

On Advice to writers:
Don’t intentionally have your reader work very hard but don’t be afraid to let the reader work a little bit to access the worlds that you are writing about, whether it’s a neighborhood, social club, or a Wall Street inside trader.  And in terms of dialogue, a little bit goes a long way.  The reader fills in the blanks.  The reader will always emphasize the jargon.

On taking a class with Kalie Jones:
Everything good that ever happened to me happened because of Kalie Jones. She was a drill sergeant of a teacher but she taught me how to write and she made me write a novel.  In her class I met the student Henry Flesh who brought my manuscript to Johnny Temple at Akashic books. And I met Tatiana Blackington who then moved out to California and became a screenwriter and contacted me years later and optioned the book and wrote the screenplay and produced the film. And, in her class, I met Renette Zimmerly who was foolish enough to marry me.


How to Write Brooklyn

Brooklyn Noir (Volume 1, Akashic Books, 2004)
Edited by Tim McLoughlin’s
As read By Katy T.

In the opening paragraph to ‘When All This Was Bay Ridge,” Tim McLoughlin weaves an anecdote in which the narrator and Pancho and a kid named Freddy are “working a three-car piece” (I’m not even sure what this means but it involves aerosol cans). When the cops arrive, the kids take off running. But the narrator, in flight, comes upon a severed hand lying on the pavement. He turns and runs back to the cops.

What’s even more ingenious than this gripping opener is that the severed hand is treated like part of the setting. The story is actually about the narrator’s relationship to his father, who, upon bailing the kid out of jail tells him not to worry about it. “There’s body parts all over this town.” In a story about what’s not spoken, and the damage we do to one another that is never revealed, the hand serves as a concrete, grounding image.

Details like this: specific, bizarre (gingerbread mobster cookies in Thomas Morrissey’s “Can’t Catch Me,” for example; or which restaurant the narrator gets his corned-beef-lean from in “No Time for Senior’s”) set each story beautifully, irreversibly in Brooklyn. And, more specifically, in the neighborhood, and among the people, in which each story could only occur.

Language too anchors the reader to place, and opens doors to Brookyn’s subcultures. Where else would a police officer be greeted with “Sally! Little Sally Epolito! Not so little anymore, eh.” And take this gem from a guy who got robbed: “Ran me for all my herb […] Even the secret shit.”

There are stories about old Brooklyn: Pearl Abraham’s Hasidic Noir smartly equates excommunication with death. There are stories about New Brooklyn, “New Lots Avenue” by Nelson George, about the chasm between a privileged cousin who ended up on the right side of the law, and the rest of a community who didn’t. Arthur Nersesian’s predatory protagonist in “Hunter/Trapper” will make you look askance at men on subway platforms. You never know what people are into.

The lesson of this book is that place is paramount. And when setting is tactile, when it is all encompassing, stories can jiggle with a new kind of energy. They can put the reader’s feet on the ground.

Brooklyn Noir, published by Akashic Books, is on its third volume, and Akashic has just recently published Staten Island Noir, completing its Five Borough Noir series. Akashic has also published Noir books about other cities: Baltimore, Boston, D.C., San Francisco, London, and many more. Manila Noir is coming out in 2013.

Like settings that suckerpunch you with authenticity? We’re giving away a copy of Brooklyn Noir, Volume 1 to a commenter. Lucky duck! It’s signed by editor Tim McLoughlin.

Don’t be perfect, write.

Beth Bosworth
The Source of Life and Other Stories (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012)

Cafe Madeline in Ditmas Park is one of Beth Bosworth’s writing sanctuaries. Recently, we met her there to talk about her about her inspirations, challenges, advice she took along the way, and advice she didn’t.

On learning from Allan Gurganus:  He was a Stegner fellow at Stanford. This was a long time ago now, but I remember the day he invited Grace Paley to read, I think he was a student of hers, and I remember he kissed her on the cheek and I just thought that was amazingly glamorous and I wanted to be those people. I don’t know if that’s learning. Oh, verbs. That’s right. He was, thankfully, relentless about our using active verbs.

On publishing her first short story collection: I went to the Graduate Fiction program at NYU and wrote a story in a workshop that the professor critiqued pretty harshly. And I had to really sit down and decide whether or not I was going to incorporate that critique into the story, or not. I remember very clearly that the story had been written the way I wanted it to be written, and in a certain sense, as  only I could have written it. I read the story at a reading and someone said to a friend of the publisher of Hanging Loose, you should read this story, and so they published that and the publisher called me up and asked, do you have enough stories for a collection, and I lied and said yes. And got to work.

On early challenges: I think learning something about plot. Voice and character are easier to come upon than knowing what happens in a story. That can take me a long time to tease out. Knowing how big the plot is and how much space it needs to complete itself. I think the rise of the very short story was helpful to me, because, you know – sometimes something isn’t much more than an anecdote.

On the best advice not followed: Try as many different jobs as you possibly can. Because how many times do you want to be writing about someone in this profession or that profession and you’re missing the day to day reality of the work.

On advice followed: You know Herman Melville’s, Bartleby, the Scrivener? It’s about this scribe in an office in downtown Manhattan, and he doesn’t hold up the office ethics of working hard. Whenever someone asks him to do something he responds, “I would prefer not to.” And finally he loses his job and – I won’t ruin it – but I’ve always thought that he was Melville’s writing side, that writers have to find some way to make time. Sometimes you have to content yourself with not being perfect at whatever else you do.

On the best season for writing: Spring is the best writing time. The return of light. And juices flowing all over. Trees.

On retreat: Writing colonies are a great boon — to remove yourself from the world for a month and have somebody fill your lunchbox and insist on quiet hours until 4pm every day. You find a place that you can then take with you. And sometimes when you come back from a colony, you can have this revolutionary feeling like, well of course every human being should have quiet hours until 4pm, what’s going on here!

On revision and editing: I tend to revise a lot. And one of the things that I learned, by the time I got to the proofs of this book, was not to over edit or over revise out of anxiety because publication was near, and to back off creativity and to trust the story. It is possible that editing the St. Ann’s Review, editing other people’s work, may have helped. As for the magazine, thanks to Saint Ann’s School we’ve been around for ten years now, publishing twice each year. The next issue comes out in January.

On asking the BIG QUESTIONS: A first person narrative, even more than a third person narrative, has to have a justification, if you’re going to take up the readers’ time, that narrator has to have some motive for speaking. It’s possible that some of the female characters in here [The Source of Life] are somewhat divided in their loyalties, or drawn in different directions, or thinking about the other, and finding themselves through some extent through the telling.

On beginnings: I keep a file in my computer and it’s called ideas. And I might just get the idea for something and I’ve learned to write the idea down right away, because otherwise you’ll forget it. After that, once I sit down, it’s often the first sentence that will engender the conditions and what follows, to some extent. And you use the tension from that particular sentence. There are some really great first sentences in short stories. Heinrich von Kleist has some really great sentences. The Earthquake in Chile is an endless first sentence that’s just amazing.

On endings: When the main action is over, get out of there fast. If it doesn’t feel over, then there’s something that ought to have preceded it, that might still be missing.

On current challenges: When I’m writing a longer piece, not to get stuck in the first chapter. I was speaking to a novelist yesterday about this problem, he just does not go back. Sometimes after 50, 60 pages, he might look them over. But he talked about the courage to just keep going.

Love, Loss and Endurance

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures (Riverhead Books, 2012)
Emma Straub
as read by Katy T 

Straub excels at the character-driven in this novel. She sows the seeds for Laura’s internal landscape by introducing us to her as the child named Elsa Emerson, helping out in her dad’s Cherry Hill Playhouse in, Door County Wisconsin. Young Elsa’s world comes crashing down when her talented older sister, Hildy, gets mixed up with wrong kind of actor – the wrong kind of man – and dies suddenly.

By 1938, young Elsa is starring in her father’s productions, and decides to hitch her wagon to the star of one Gordon Pitts, who has plans to make it in Hollywood. Gordon has mild success, and Elsa has two babies. When she meets the studio head Irving Green at a party, he suggest a new name, Laura Lamont, and tells her to whip herself into shape and come see him once she has.

It’s all seems so easy for Laura. The divorce is handled by the studios lawyers. Within pages, she’s married and moved in with Irving Green. Gordon Pitts is exiled from Hollywood to insulate Laura from any repercussions of her decision.

Of course, it doesn’t stay easy. Laura’s life moves through ups and downs. The most touching of these life events is Irving’s death. Straub strikes a chord at her portrayal of Laura’s grief, the empty feeling of her life without Irving. And things get worse for Laura from there: She ages. Offers stop coming. She makes bad choice or two. Gordon Pitts resurfaces. Money dries up. Her youngest son attempts to go the way of Hildy.

Laura, though serious, is a breezy person. I envy her that she is not given to intense self-scrutiny. (“It wasn’t healthy to think too much about the past. All the good days Laura had ever had were gone. As were the bad ones. She could only think about the future.”)

But this creates a space for me to scrutinize her.  She married a man to make her fortune, twice. After Irving’s death, she loses herself in a haze of blue pills. Her relationships with others feel as though they are viewed through a soft-focus lens. Her children, her best friend, her sister, her mother, father. Irving. All are bit players in the story of Laura’s life.

Did Straub choose this soft focus because this is the reality of the psyche of a movie star? Even worse, could this be the reality of our own psyches? (Here is where I have a minor existential crisis).

The reader is so deeply in Laura’s head the whole time. It’s wonderfully intimate. But it raises so many questions. Is Laura telling the truth? Are the things she dismisses the things she should dismiss? Could Laura be the cause of her own misfortunes? Would I have done things differently?

In the finale, Laura has the chance to act on Broadway, reviving memories of Door County, her father, Hildy. The past and present meld as she imagines her loved ones, now gone, in the balcony watching her.

She gives an interview to a reporter in which she says that what she’s learned over the course of her life is that “[i]t’s better to work than not to work. But it’s even better to know why you’re working. When I was young, I made movies because people told me to. And hit my marks. And spoke my lines. I made Farewell, My Sister without knowing what was going on most of the time. I did what I was told. I chose this. But I chose everything else too.”

Then she calls her daughter for some insight into what she meant.

But I don’t fault her, at the end, for her opacity. It’s almost endearing. Because she’s lived so long. Because she’s loved and lost. Because she’s endured. Because she’s always been that way.

And yet, I have to ask the same question about the book that the book forces me to ask about life: What does it add up to?

Or is that the point? To feel tenderly toward one life lived? To realize that life doesn’t come with a moral? To realize that people don’t really change?

If Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures has been on your “to read” list, tell us why below. We’ll send you our review copy.

Launch Us on December 11th @ 61Local

Litwrap Winter Words and Drinks
@ 61Local
Tuesday, December 11th, 2012 @ 7pm
For Storytellers and Story lovers

We like our words like we like our drinks: effervescent, full-bodied, or straight up.
RSVP with your name and email to attend,
and submit your passage if you’d like to read.

*Featuring Matt Dojny, Brooklynite and debut author of The Festival of Earthly Delights (Dzanc Books, 2012).

Fiction, Not Far From the Truth

Leonard S. Marcus
Listening for Madeleine
 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)
As read by Emily K.

Can we ever really know a person, through and through?  And for public figures, especially writers, is their persona not just another one of their fictions, or fantasies? In Leonard S Marcus’ Listening for Madeleine, we learn, through the words of her friends, family, colleagues and fans, what made Madeleine L’Engle so easy to get to know and yet so difficult to know well.

This book of in depth interviews reveals that she was spiritual but did not appreciate labels, that she cared about pleasing others and at the same time was difficult to please herself, and while she was a writer by trade, she was a true actress by nature.

While many editors and writers share their stories and memories, the closest character read comes from Alan Jones, now a dean emeritus of Grace Cathedral, in San Francisco and a close friend of Madeleine’s for many years. “What I think is wonderful about good writing is that is shows you there is another world out there besides the little world of your own psyche, and she would insist that what was going on inside her was not the only reality.  She would do it through music, through writing, through argument.  At her best, she was trying to enlarge people’s worlds – including her own.  She could be painful, narcissistic, difficult as well.  But the overwhelming thing was that she was an artist.” That’s as close to acceptance as we get, from a person who knew and acknowledged that one woman could not a mother, wife, daughter, writer, performer, speaker, spiritual guide, mentor and perfect, be.

The final interview is with Cynthia Zarin. the author of a New Yorker profile that exposed the personal life Madeleine had fought so hard to keep private in all her years of living, in all her years of writing.  The piece told the story of a woman who’s father had died of alcoholism, and not cancer, as had Madeleine had claimed in her own autobiographical works.  The secret of her son’s death by the same means was already out.  But the final one, that Madeleine’s husband had became a heavy drinker in his later years and that the end of their marriage saw indiscretions on his part, was the big blow. “I think that Madeline was extremely conscious of what I was doing – that the jig was up – and that she had decided to participate in,” said Zarin.  And isn’t that what we need journalists for anyway? To sort out truth from the stories we tell ourselves?

Still my favorite moment in the book was a quiet account from a young copy editor who came to Madeleine’s apartment to work over a manuscript.  “Madeleine had cats that would roam over the table.  One time I brought her cookies.  She set them out on a lovely plate, and while we were working, I could see the cats licking all the cookies!  I sat there thinking, Suppose she offers me a cookie?  What do I do?”  Here’s a woman who flew first class to every speaking engagement she was hired for, and there were many, for which she was paid well, and yet – her own cat would be likely to get to her cookies first.

Is it important that we expose public people for the lives they live behind doors? Can anyone ever really live up to our ideas of the people we want to be?  Write us back and we’ll send you a copy of Listening to Madeleine for your own review.  


Making Books Like Magic

Mark Z. Danielewski
The Fifty Year Sword (Pantheon Books, 2012)
As read by Katy T. 

What could your novel be if you defied all convention? What would your novel look like, illustrated in cross stitching? How does one make a book into magic?

Broken hearted Chintana, a Thai seamstress in Southern Texas, seeks a weapon. She cuts herself accidentally with her own scissors, a warning of the destructive power of hate.  Why is she so angry? Her husband left her, repatriated, his heart broken by the town floozie Belinda Kite. Despite her rage, she forces herself to accept an invitation to a neighbor’s party.

“Fact is, what Chintana had discovered since the divorce was that most everything required
“Opening her eyes, her hands, even opening her medicine cabinet.

The book’s language is campfire Texan of no particular time, words misspelled and misconstrued to make even more meaningful meanings. For example, Danielewski gives us another woman’s take on Belinda Kite,“‘Such a hateful whore,’ the woman sputstuttersobbed to Chintana” who just discovered that the party will toast Belinda’s 50th birthday at midnight. She’s about to turn around and go home, but five orphans capture Chintana’s attention. Danielewski describes them playing: “the coop de grass of feral play.”

When an ominous storyteller comes to entertain the orphans, Chintana becomes enraptured by his tale of vengeance. Like Chintana, he too sought a weapon. He walked through the Valley of Salt, through the Forest of Falling Notes, up The Mountain of Manyone Paths to a sword maker, a very strange swordmaker whose swords kill seasons, countries, even ideas. The storyteller has the children open the long black box, reveals to them the 50 Year Sword he purchased, which will kill its victim when that person turns 50.

[Ominous music!]

Danielewski holds nothing back. The climax looks like this:

blood on the snow. In stitching…

But it’s not all violence. Chintana is a seamstress, remember. We’re reminded, at the end, that a stitch could save. A beautiful story, beautifully told, and beautifully packaged, on vengeance and forgiveness.

We’re giving away the review copy, so leave a comment below on how you might push the boundaries of beauty in your own work.