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Flatbush Flashback

The Writer's Dilemma

The main setting of Bobby in Naziland, East 17th Street, in Flatbush, as it looks today.
One of the things I'm going to do at Bloomsday on Beaver Street is read from Bobby in Naziland, the novel I'm in the process of fine-tuning. It's going to be a short reading, about 1600 words that will include the opening pages of the first chapter--just enough to give people a sense of the book's flavor and the voice I've used to portray "an adult consciousness channeling the thoughts and emotions of a seven year old," as I describe it in the prologue.

The book, I'm sure, will be of particular interest to anybody who's familiar with Flatbush, the Brooklyn neighborhood that Bobby in Naziland is set in, especially if they happened to have lived there in the 1950s and '60s, and think they might "know" some of the characters. And I'm sure that readers will derive a great deal of pleasure from my vision of a Brooklyn that no longer exists, a provincial burb filled with goyim and Jews, Auschwitz survivors and army veterans who fought the Nazis, a place where "World War II lingered like a mass hallucination on East 17th Street and large swaths of the surrounding borough."

What I’m not sure of is what I’m going to do with the book when I’m completely finished with it. The publishing industry, which never has functioned in a rational way, has changed so much in the past decade, that I don’t know if it makes sense to go with a traditional publisher (assuming I can find one) or to self-publish. The Internet is full of stories by and about authors, many of whom have successfully published with traditional publishers, who are now struggling with this same question. There are as many self-publishing success stories as there are stories of failure and unmitigated despair. For a writer like me, who’s had some success with traditional publishing but has not produced the blockbuster that publishers demand, there are no easy answers. The more I read, the more confused I get.

I can tell you this much: For the past two years I’ve worked as hard at promoting Beaver Street as I’ve ever worked at anything. I’ve gotten the consistently excellent reviews and the high profile mentions that theoretically sell books. But until I can get those Harry Potter-like sales, it’s unlikely that a traditional publisher will send a bushel (or even a cupful) of cash my way.

So, all I can do for now is spend this Memorial Day weekend putting the finishing touches on Bobby in Naziland, and banish from my mind all that other stuff. The correct answer to my question will present itself when it’s good and ready to do so. As it always does. Read More 
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Reading Out Loud

I began working seriously on the novel I now call Bobby in Naziland in May 2008. I had little idea of what, exactly, I was writing. All I knew was that it was time to begin another book, and there was something about the Brooklyn neighborhood of Flatbush, in the mid-20th century, that was worth exploring.

I'd touched on it in the opening pages of Beaver Street, the book I'd recently finished writing (though had not yet sold), describing the goings-on in my father's candy store, on Church Avenue, in 1961. Also, I'd just finished reading The Fortress of Solitude, by Jonathan Lethem, a novel that takes place in an adjacent Brooklyn neighborhood, about ten years later. It gave me ideas.

So, I began the agonizing process of figuring out what my new book was going to be, and I saw it evolve from hundreds of pages of notes, fragments, anecdotes, and ideas, to a possible memoir, to the novel that it finally became, and that I think I’m now in the process of fine-tuning.

Over the past five years, I’ve shown what I’m working on to nobody, not even to my wife, the Mistress of Syntax, who’s also my editor. Because I read the book out loud as I’m working on it (I need to hear in my ear what it sounds like), and have spoken about it to people who’ve asked, my editor had some idea of the wide-ranging subject matter. But she’d never overheard more than a sentence or two at any one time, because I tend to work only when I’m alone.

With the second annual Bloomsday on Beaver Street looming, on June 16, I knew it was time to pick the selection I’m going to read that night, and to finally read it out loud to my editor. That’s what I did this weekend; I read to her the opening pages of chapter one, “The Goyim and the Jews.” I’m pleased to report that she laughed twice, and said, when I finished reading, “It’s good, but I thought it was going to be more solemn.”

Bobby in Naziland is not a solemn book. And if you think the Mistress of Syntax goes easy on me because I happen to be married to her, you’re sadly mistaken. Quite the opposite, actually. Her editing process is uncompromising, her demands for factual accuracy unrelenting, and the proof is in the quality of my previous two books. The Mistress of Syntax is not a title the wife wears lightly. Her “It’s good” is a five-star rave.

To say that Mary Lyn’s reaction filled me with a sense of profound relief would be a gross understatement. But if the pages passed muster with her, it gives me enough confidence to go forward and read Bobby in Naziland (along with a selction from Beaver Street) to a larger audience on Bloomsday.

I hope you’ll be there to listen. Read More 
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There's Something About Brooklyn


I'm not going to say that New York is the only city on the planet where the following encounter could have taken place. But because it's a city swarming with talent, where the streets are always teeming with people (unlike, say, L.A.), it's a city built for chance meetings.

This is what happened to me about a month ago: I was on Houston Street, waiting for the light to change, when this black dude comes up to me and starts telling me about his CD. Stuff like that happens here all the time. The downtown streets are full of musicians hawking their work, and for the most part, I pay no attention to them. I told the fellow that my wife writes about music and consequently, there are more CDs flooding into our apartment than we can possibly listen to.

But the guy had an intriguing vibe, just the right blend of friendly and aggressive, and I found myself telling him that I was a writer, that I’d written books about John Lennon and pornography, and that I was originally from Brooklyn, Flatbush to be exact.

He was from Brooklyn, too, he said, not far from Flatbush. “That’s where all the best poets are from… Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “there’s something about Brooklyn.”

He gave me a copy of his CD, Sav Killz: Bangers & B-Sides. I told him I’d listen to it. So, I listened to it. And here’s the surprising part: It’s really good. The guy—I think his name is Jamal Rockwell—is a poet.

The above video, Look What I Become, is my favorite cut on the album. If I’m understanding the lyrics correctly, it’s about a crack dealer whose soul is saved by hip-hop. Check it out, brother. Read More 
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