Thursday, August 16, 2012

Talking to Novelist Andrew Cotto About His Brooklyn Gentrification Noir

Posted By on Thu, Aug 16, 2012 at 9:00 AM

Andrew Cotto is the author of the fast-paced noir novel Outerborough Blues. In it, he tells the story of the drifter Caesar Stiles, who makes his way through the seedier side of Brooklyn in the 90s, searching for a beautiful stranger’s brother while getting himself mixed up with dangerous players with high stakes in the rapidly changing borough. He sat down with us to talk about the book and about Brooklyn.

You’ve been living in Brooklyn for a while now: about 15 years, right?
Yeah, I moved here in 1997.

How does Brooklyn inspire or affect your writing?
I think any city is inspirational because I’ll be immersed every day in different neighborhoods and different people just by being out and being active. But Brooklyn in particular is inspiring because it just has so much going on. From various perspectives of race and class on human levels, but also in architecture and different topographies—from the lushness of the park to the grit at the boat yard, there’s just so much going on here that, as a writer, inspires me in finding subjects and ideas. I’m a huge believer that a writer should incorporate enough sensory images to coax the reader into the feel of the story. And Brooklyn provides a plethora of that.

Your last novel was set in Queens. Why choose Brooklyn for this book?
It came about for this story because I was living here for quite some time. Much of the general narrative came to me while living in Clinton Hill. I never mention the name Clinton Hill in the novel, but it’s pretty implicit that’s where it takes place. I was leery about that, to be honest. I didn’t want to give the name of a specific neighborhood. I was afraid that all the people who were privy to the neighborhood would question it, saying "this is not right, that’s not right." I didn’t want to have to deal with the crap.

I was really inspired by the way Dennis Lehane handled Mystic River. He created a neighborhood, gave it its own name, and didn’t have to adhere to the actual specifics. I was thinking along that line and then the publisher really didn’t want me to be that vague, so we pushed the specifics into the edits that really did give it away, like Myrtle Ave. and Clinton Ave. Regardless, I was living there at the time and was fascinated by the way gentrification was creating a level of tension in the neighborhood. I understood, as the minority in that neighborhood, the perception that our presence created... I thought it made a great setting for a story. It’s such a deeply rooted neighborhood, too. Clinton Hill-Fort Greene had been a predominantly African-American neighborhood for a long time. As a result, there were so many different layers. There was an upper-class element and a solid middle-class, and also some really lower class elements. It really ran the gamut of class. That lent itself to some great storytelling. And finally, the architecture was a great backdrop. It’s a really beautiful neighborhood, historic in its buildings and its streets. A beautiful place to set a story.

An interesting, beautiful backdrop for a decidedly unbeautiful, or gritty and bloody story.
I thought that was a nice juxtaposition. Some of the seedier things happening in the city are not going to be stopped by gorgeous buildings and bucolic blocks.

I like that the book takes a nuanced attitude towards gentrification. Would you say that was the biggest issue you struggled with while writing?
I think it’s definitely the dominant theme in the story. I wrote something for the New York Times recently about gentrification in the book and how it informs all the other key themes. Everything seems to branch out from it: the issues of race, class, and home and identity for Caesar. I didn’t feel conflicted at all writing about it. I was trying more to be true to what I’m observing in my scenarios and the environment I’m being inspired by. I thought the idea of gentrification lent itself to a very compelling narrative.

It’s so much a part of life in Brooklyn, especially now.
And people have varied feelings about it. There are those who resent it and those who feel guilty about it, and there are those who see it as an opportunity. I was trying to reflect that dichotomy.

In the book, much of the gentrification is caused as much by insiders as by outsiders, which is not the usual perspective.
Neighborhoods change, and change is unbiased. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. Depends on who you ask. Regardless, it creates a whole variety of reactions from those on the inside, which is something really interesting.

The book takes no strict moral stand on the issue, but the character I think of as the wrong side of gentrification was the artist Jean-Baptiste Rennet, who comes to Brooklyn to suffer intentionally. Would you say there is at least a good kind of gentrifier as opposed to this archetypically bad gentrifier?
I’m not sure. I know they each have different motivations. Jean-Baptiste is there looking to forge his own image as an artist. I think of him as one of the more foolish, careless characters of the story, one of the least redeemable. But there is a quality to his art that justifies his belief in himself as an artist; he’s just misguided about what an artist has to endure. His “evil” girl friend describes it best: he’s trying to suffer like the American artists he admires, like Basquiat.

That idea of wanting to come to America and live in the city and suffer for the sake of suffering is horseshit, especially when the suffering involves addiction. Anyone who romanticizes or covets addiction has fucking rocks in their head. I just read Patti Smith’s book about being an artist in the 70s. That made sense. She came here to live, immersed herself in the pursuit of art and the city, and lived that life, all of its hard earned ups and downs. It was a process. Jean-Baptiste is trying to hijack that process and expedite it. He’s trying to forge his own image, which you just can’t do.

You tell a story about the history of Brooklyn’s development, and so many of the important characters are recent arrivals in Brooklyn. Would you say the novel’s trying to point out the types, and history, of gentrification that’s been going on?
Urban areas are frequently in flux. I live in Carroll Gardens now, which was and is still somewhat Italian, but has now been gentrified by yuppies like me. But before the Italians were here, it was Irish, and before the Irish, someone else. If you stay in the city long enough, you’ll witness it constantly in motion, which is one of the things people like about cities. They’re constantly reinventing themselves. A big part of Brooklyn is the new blood that comes here all the time. A lot of the primary characters are newbies to Brooklyn. Don is from Trinidad, Angel is from DC, Caesar is from all over the place, but if they live here, they live here. It’s appropriate to assume they want to have some impact on their environment, that’s their right.

I wrote an article about Brooklyn changing, about the way the borough was developing commercially, going from a very low borough with a big sky overhead to one that was populated by taller buildings, and I got so much crap about that story from people who had lived here for many, many years. Their comments—and there were tons of them—essentially refuted my right to commentary, even in the form of observation as opposed to criticism, simply because I wasn’t born and raised here. I would say if you’ve lived here for a week, you’re worthy of having an opinion. You live here, you matter. I don’t like any of that qualifying of who’s got a right to speak and who doesn’t. Everyone’s got a voice. And in Brooklyn, particularly—especially right now with so many people coming over—it’s become such a destination for people to live and work, it’s an exciting place to be. And those new arrivals matter, too. A big part of this novel is the people that are not born and raised in Brooklyn, but are here and have an impact.

Let’s talk about the characters. I especially want to know about Caesar. How did you come up with him, particularly his backstory?
It’s hard for me to go back and think about where characters come from. I’m not sure who I had in mind when conjuring Caesar, though I do remember I wanted to make him an amalgam of different identities and backgrounds—the Irish father, the Sicilian mother.

I grew up in a town just over the George Washington Bridge that was full of families from the Bronx and upper Manhattan that were white-flighting in the 70s. Children of immigrants trying to get out of the Bronx and Inwood, and this town was entirely full of Irish and Italian kids. So I began there, with this kid who is the product of city people from the Bronx. I liked his identity being complicated, and the line about him wanting to be an Indian was a big part of that complication since it spoke of a desire to be different. That came from my childhood. That line in the story about the father telling the kids they were “Goomba Indians from the Woppy tribe” is actually something my father told my brother as a joke. My brother believed it and thought he was an Indian for a while, wearing a bandana on his head, he grew his hair long. So, part of that character is coming from my older brother, who is a pretty tough guy and a complicated individual. But then Caesar took on a life of his own. At that point, he’s flying as a complete entity of my imagination. I’m just trying to make him as conflicted and complicated as possible. Throw the whole family curse thing in, and it gives him some drive and ambition, which helps define his behavior.

I like the family curse; it's not something you usually see in noirs, which tend to be very logical.
Me too. It was a little fantastic and fun. I didn’t want Caesar to take it too seriously, but I also wanted him to be obligated to his mother’s wishes. So the promise he makes to her about trying to do something about the curse actually made it function in the story in a believable way that was practical for the narrative.

Speaking of the curse, I loved the opening line about the grandmother. Where other books about America might have immigrants coming over for noble reasons and upward mobility, you’ve got a grandmother coming to murder someone, which is a great opener for a noir.
Thank you. That line was really inspired by—and maybe it’s folklore among my family, but we always tell it this way, so it’s true to me—how my mother’s grandmother came from Sicily. She was a tough woman. She lived a long time, so I knew her as a kid. She used to sit in the corner of my grandmother’s kitchen, just eating raw garlic, slivering it with an old stiletto. Eating it and looking at us kids. My mother and her sisters called her Gus, like she was a Gestapo agent. That knife she used to eat the garlic was the knife she came here with. It had a worn walnut handle and was a long stiletto knife, and the story in my family was that she came here with that knife and some money to kill the guy who left her sister at the altar in Sicily. Then she got here and fell in love and started a family. I don’t think she ever killed that guy. I’d known that story my whole life, and when I started writing this narrative, it just came to me. The line pretty much wrote itself; I didn’t have to sweat over how to make that line lyrical and impactive, though it was a bit tougher to make it work in the story overall.

Getting back to Caesar, one of the interesting things about him, parallel to his drifter life, was that he is—maybe the word is "player.” He’s a pretty sexual guy. Would you characterize this book or your writing as sexy?
Definitely not! I have a hard time going there. I remember when I was workshopping that scene when he seduces Colette in his kitchen with the wine, cheese, bread and honey, I was just blushing. I remember giving it to the class, and I had a line in there that was so unbelievably stupid. I ended the scene in the novel, thankfully, with him just peeling off her panties and leaving them on the counter with the crumbs. But I tried to get deeper into it the first time I wrote it, and it was so stupid I couldn’t believe it. Women in the workshop kept making faces, asking “what are you talking about?” or “what does that mean?” I didn’t even know. I had a close friend at the New School, where I was doing my MFA, in my class who was really good at writing sex scenes. He was just ashamed for me.

That said, I did want to make Caesar’s sexuality part of his character. It’s sort of innate for him in some ways, but it also correlates with someone who is a drifter. Someone going around, who tries to find connections more of a sexual nature, often does so as recourse to loneliness. He attaches himself to women just to attach himself to people. And that solitary figure is someone many women find attractive, too, so those properties sort of lend themselves to each other. I wanted Caesar to have sexuality as part of his identity, but also to be tender. Even with the prostitute that he frequented, there was a tenderness to that. And certainly with Colette it was quite romantic. He’s not a guy out there trying to “bang chicks” for sport or conquest or anything stupid like that. He was just a sexual person, it was at the forefront of his identity. It was tough to strike that balance without having to put myself in places where as a writer I’m just not comfortable going. So erotica is not in my future.

That’s where the money is!
Hey, I would write a page-turning erotic thriller in a second if I could get away with it, but 50 Shades of Caesar Stiles is not happening.

Food is such a huge part of Caesar’s character, which for me rings bells of gentrification, but with Caesar it doesn’t work that way. But it’s a central part of him.
Yeah, it’s a big part of who he is, and something that was challenging while working on the story. Caesar is not an emotive type of character. Even though you have the gift in writing prose, to go inside characters and express their emotions, writing that way would not have been true to Caesar’s character. But there was depth to him, and I wanted to find ways to communicate that without exposition.

I did it two ways: one was his eye for imagery—the descriptions of buildings, trees, people. His descriptive skill was that of someone who pays attention to their surroundings. He’s aware of how the pigeons flip in the sky and their colors change, how much he enjoys music and those things were important to communicate a humanity in him that wouldn’t come from him saying "I’m so lonely and I wish someone would help me with this pain.” Food was the other part of that. It’s the one-two punch I was going for. Food is communication. I think Caesar was trying to reach out to his community through his cooking. It’s not an accident that when he started working at The Notch, he catered the menu in a way that acknowledged the neighborhood and his background. He really was communicating with the community.

Food is something that can foster a deeper level of understanding and appreciation. Caesar was trying to do that to the best of his ability. Some of those food scenes were the ones I enjoyed writing the most. He blends creole cooking in, as he used to live in Lafayette. He’s adopting the cuisine of the places he’s been as a way of learning from other people and their culture. Lots of people who are really great cooks only cook the food they know. Sicilians are a good example. They won’t eat anything but Sicilian food. They’ll make Sicilian food, eat Sicilian food, drink Sicilian wine—they’re very provincial in that way. It’s not unique to Sicilians, but that’s what people do. Caesar’s adaptability with cuisine is reflective of his personal adaptability.

Do you have a favorite noir and a favorite book about Brooklyn?
My favorite Brooklyn book is definitely Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. He did an incredible job with the imagery, of putting you on Court Street in the 80s. And noir in general, I think Mystic River or The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley.

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