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.