Literary Brooklyn: Talking with Adelle Waldman 

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Adelle Waldman’s debut novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is a precisely detailed account, from the perspective of a 21st-century man, of being young, literary and living in Brooklyn.

Which neighborhood do you live in?
I live in Fort Greene. I wound up here because when I finally moved to Brooklyn—in 2007, after staying in Manhattan for way too long—I found an amazing apartment on Myrtle Avenue. A sixth floor walk-up. But once you got up there, it was worth it for the roof deck. Eventually, I gave up that apartment to move in with my boyfriend, now my husband, but we both love the neighborhood and live only a few blocks away.

Why don’t you ever mention which neighborhoods the main characters live in? 
I wanted to write a book that is very much grounded in contemporary Brooklyn. I wasn’t interested in writing allegorically or setting my book in some sort of ethereal or fantastical environment. At the same time, though, I didn’t want to write a book full of in-jokes that are only interesting to Nate and Hannah’s real-world equivalents in New York City. For me, one way to do that was to use as few proper nouns as possible. That meant I’d have to describe people and places from scratch rather than simply rely on the reader to know what they are like. My models for this were 19th-century novels, which still work for us even though we don’t have the same set of cultural references.

Nate’s girlfriend Hannah seems to live in Clinton Hill, and Nate... Prospect Heights? Am I right? 
Bingo!

What was the significance of locating them where you did? 
The significance is minimal. It’s mostly just a function of demographics and economics. I wanted to be as sociologically accurate as possible—again, in the way of a 19th-century social novel—and those seemed like probable neighborhoods, demographically, for these two characters. For Nate, Prospect Heights, toward Eastern Parkway, made sense because it was a place where he could have gotten a cheap enough apartment, years earlier, to have lived by himself even as a freelancer. 

The book pretty honestly and accurately captures the male psyche; what kind of research went into that?
Years of dating. Plus, having women friends who also dated men. I’ve had a lot of experience analyzing various bad boyfriends, both mine and my friends’, trying to figure out why men who are smart, and who aren’t evil or unfeeling, did some of the things they did.

Your author bio reads a lot like Nate’s would; how much of you is in that character?
It was so much work for me, as a woman, to conceive all the male stuff that I thought I’d make my life easier by borrowing certain things from my history. I am from Baltimore, as is Nate, which meant I could tap into pre-existing knowledge about what it was like to grow up there. My mother is a Romanian immigrant; so are Nate’s parents. I care about books; so does Nate. On the other hand, I did not go to Harvard, but it was important to me that Nate did. He has a certain something that can be viewed, depending on your perspective, as confidence or entitlement, and I wanted to explore the way Harvard plays into that. Also—and not unrelated—I envisioned Nate as a much more prominent freelancer and book critic than I ever have been.

Are any of the characters based on real Brooklyn-lit people? Is there going to be an Answered Prayers-like scandal when the book comes out?
No. What I wanted was to create a realistic but fully fictional universe that would shed light on some larger truths about gender issues and the Brooklyn literary world without reflecting on individuals. Every once in a while someone asks me if this or that character is based on a real person, and while one part of me is pleased that the character seems realistic enough to have been modeled on an actual person, the answer is no.

What's your favorite Brooklyn novel?
It’s not a novel, but Literary Brooklyn, a history of the writers of Brooklyn, which happens to be written by my husband, Evan Hughes, is absolutely terrific. It offers a sort of panoramic view of Brooklyn over time that I don’t think I’ve gotten from many other books. You watch as the pastoral landscape of Walt Whitman’s youth is supplanted by the rough and crowded (but not unappealing) Williamsburg of Henry Miller’s happy childhood among German immigrants and their children. A generation later, the neighborhood has become Jewish and is the setting for Daniel Fuchs’s Depression-era Williamsburg trilogy, in which the area, poorer now, is permeated with a sense of hopelessness and inescapability. (How shocked Fuchs would be if he saw Williamsburg today.) Throughout Literary Brooklyn, the same neighborhoods, even the same streets, the same parks and the same blocks, appear and then reappear years later, in very different aspects. It reminds you of the importance of place in giving shape to our lives, but also, just as importantly, of its impermanence, given how much places and neighborhoods evolve over time.

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