Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Brooklyn Books

Brooklyn's brownstone enclave of Park Slope seems to be particularly favoured by writers. Gourmet bread, design furniture, chai lattes and of course bookstores are staples on the main drag, 7th Avenue. Its London equivalent would be Crouch End, with a hint of Hampstead (Prospect Park!).

So when local author David Grand found out that the city-run school (PS 107) frequented by his sons didn't have sufficient funds for a library, he decided to tap into some of Brooklyn's natural resources. Teaming up with the school and 7th Avenue's Community Bookstore, he organised a sold-out series of four readings by Jonathan Lethem, Colson Whitehead, Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Gary Shteyngart and Darin Strauss.

Less than 100 of NYC's 650 elementary schools have functioning libraries and 60% of New York City's public school students in grades 3 through 8 are reading below grade level. At least PS 107 doesn't have to worry about that anymore. The sold-out series has been enough to fund a $ 35,000 library (including furniture, computers and a librarian).

The May 3rd reading featured Jhumpa Lahiri and Jonathan Safran Foer. The following Q&A was moderated by Vanity Fair editor Elissa Schappell. Since most of the audience seemed to consist of (aspiring) writers, the discussion focussed on craft-related issues.

Q: What is the most important quality a writer should have?
JSF: When I was in college, Joyce Carol Oates told me that a writer should have energy. I've been thinking a lot about Saul Bellow and the energy in each of his sentences, in his books in his whole career. I've only written two books, but it's starting to feel like a Monster Truck Ball; the further you get, the more you have to carry. It's kind of painful. Even keeping parts of your own personality to yourself takes energy.
JL: The one trait I relate to is curiosity. Writing has opened up the world to me. I'm not an immigrant - I came to Boston from London when I was two - but want to know what my parents went through. Most of my protagonists are men because I want to know what it's like to be one. To care about someone enough that you would want to go into their head, that's where the compassion is.

Q: Do you have any special fetish to get you into a writing mode?
JSF: When I was writing my second novel in the New York Public Library, I would listen to Dolly Parton's I Will Always Love You on my iPod. I don't even like that song, but it helped me get my subconscious to a place where I would be more receptive.

Q: What's the editing process like for you?
JL: I'm always editing. I was editing even as I was reading the story to you, because it's unpublished and fairly new and I'm keen to get the best possible version out. Somehow in my head a story gets started. Then I usually clear the mess in my work until I think at least it's readable for a few people. Then when I get their feedback I do a few more drafts. There are days when I scrawl something on a piece of paper, maybe that could be considered the writing part, but I don't really distinguish between writing and editing.

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