he Smoker" was published in the Summer 2000 Debut Fiction issue of the New Yorkersetting off a preemptive bid and a two-book deal with the Dial Press and movie deals with Scott Rudin and Robert Redford. Did you have that much confidence in your story?
Sometimes I know that a story is going to take me a while to write and sometimes I know that it is going to come gushing out. I wrote "The Smoker" almost faster than I've written any other story, it took me about five days last March, and I had the feeling that if ever I had written a story that might be a New Yorker story this might be the one.
Did you know the publishing term "to preempt" [to make an early and high bid to prevent a book from going to auction] when you named the building in your novel the Preemption?
[Laughter] I did not know it. I had always heard the phrase "auction," if so many people want a book it goes up for auction but I had not heard of a preemptive strike. It had a military sort of ring to it so I didn't mind, as long I was the one being peremptorily struck.
It's clear from your description of the city in Kissing in Manhattan that you love New York and now this book has made it possible for you to live here again.
It was really something. When I was in graduate school at Columbia, I was really busy and I didn't have much money. I was tutoring English in the Learning Center there 20 hours a week, I had a really serious girlfriend, and I was taking classes so I didn't get to explore NYC as much as I would have liked to plus I didn't really understand it entirely. When I left graduate school, I wanted to do all those things tha are available in New York but I was stone broke so I had to move away. I knew how I felt about New York when I decided I wanted to write a book set here. I had a slightly romantic, slightly mythical take on it with some dark currents or underpinnings. One of the reasons that there are so many fictional nightclubs, bars, and restaurants is because I didn't know any of the real ones. When I invented my own, I knew New York well enough to know that this place, if it existed in New York, would be in this area of town and would be popular with this kind of crowd.
What inspired the story "Telling It All to Otis"?
The story of James Branch is the reason I wrote Kissing in Manhattan. James's story is the story I really wanted to write. I figured out that to make James's story work, the building already had to be established before I started writing about him at all. I had to write a story that makes a new kind of Manhattan come alive. The center for it all has to be this building. I had to create a Manhattan where a guy talking to an elevator can make some empathetic and absurd sense and to do that I found that I had to write all those other places. In the book, just like in the real Manhattan, there are all sorts of neighborhoods. Everyone has favorite areas, different zones that transport you somewhere other than the normal everyday New York City. There are usually one or two that really stand out. I like to have the mythical places pop up in different corners so in my book Flat Michael's, Minotaur's and Duranigan's have their charm and their powers and the big one on the block is the Preemption.
How did you choose what settings and what neighborhoods you wanted characters to interact in?
I decided I wanted the Preemption apartment building on the Upper West Side because it has a slightly regal charm and I hadn't spent that much time on the Upper West Side. When people talk about the Upper West Side, I think they're referring to the high 60s up to the mid 80s and Columbia is further up. I lived on 121st & Broadway. I went to a couple of parties in people's apartments in the West 70s and 80s and there were wonderful views of the Hudson River and I like to be near water. It's comforting for me to be able to see water. I grew up in the Finger Lakes region, right underneath Rochester, so it's important to me. When I went back and read my own book I noticed how often characters look out the window and check that the Hudson River is still there with some moonlight on it and realize okay, there's some water, there's some magic, there's something I can rely on. It's always going to be there. That was important to me in terms of a place to live.
The Preemption in Kissing in Manhattan is like the Dakota or the Ansonia, a castle-like apartment building on the Upper West Side, and the owner of the Preemption is named Rook. Did the game of chess figure prominently in your mind?
Since you're asking ... absolutely. Do you recognize that he is the same character as John Castle? The castle and the rook thing is a game for hiding the same character. When you're playing checkers you might as well be playing tiddlywinks and when you're playing chess a great deal might be at stake. It seems like it is and people challenge themselves with the intelligence and genius of playing that kind of game so it makes sense to me for the overlord of the book to have that kind of a name. I don't sit around and say I have to name this character this and have it be symbolic of that. I just come up with a name and have it mean something as I start writing it. The name James Branch was just a great name.
What about Father Merchant who's church is in the middle of Wall Street?
Honestly, it wasn't that because at first I didn't have that church on Wall Street. He was just named Thomas Merchant.
The name sounds very old, from an earlier New York and physically, including his brown teeth, he seems like a man from another time.
Anytime someone says that something in my book conjures another time or another place or an older Manhattan, I'm very happy because I want it to be a mix, a cauldron of past and present. I think there are plenty of still pulsing touch stones of old Manhattan that are always there and you just have to come across them.
When James Branch stumbles into the hidden jewel shop, it's as if he stepped through time into a pirate's treasure chest.
I wrote that chapter last. My editor, Carla, and my publisher, Susan, loved the James Branch character and because he seems to be the protagonist of the book or the person who you would like to see win in some way, they wanted one more story of him to place earlier in the book. I had been thinking of a guy discovering this underground, strange lair and I thought I could have it be James who does it so I wrote it, and after going and doing that I figured out that the opals in that story could be something that ran through the whole collection. You could literally see them in the first story; he's already acquired them so they're building some sort of import in his mind and in, hopefully, the readers'.
How did you arrive at the place names in Kissing in Manhattan?
I fall in love with phrases and names of things very easily. For instance, there's a bar in the East Village on East 3rd between Avenues A & B called the No Malice Palace. If I hear a name of a place and it's the No Malice Palace, I have to go. I don't care if it's a shoebox and all they serve is Budweiser. I go. It's so great. I love the idea of the meatpacking district just because of the phrase the meatpacking district. I was there enough times at Hogs & Heifers or whatever. I love the idea that you could walk around places where they actually pack meat and, all of a sudden, stumble across a funky night club so it seemed like the right sort of place to locate Minotaur's in the book. I love warehouses and cavernous space. I like the idea of having something just as cavernous but underground. If there were a Minotaur's, I would be there. If that club was real. I don't generally go to the kind of clubs where you have to pay $20 to get in and proceed to get ignored by all the women there [laughter] but I would go to some of the places that I came up with.
Kissing in Manhattan is a great title. Was that your idea?
Yes, it's not a complex title but I remember Susan telling me something about a couple books that she thought were wonderful, charming books for certain reasons and she mentioned one that I have still not read: Bell, Book & Candle. Those three words by themselves, well candle by itself has some shimmer to it, but bell and book not really much but together it sounds like you've created a witch's coven with three words. I had an English teacher in high school who said to try to pick nickel, dime, and quarter words. Everyone loves to have quarters in their hands and everyone hates pennies, they seem completely meaningless. You don't want pennies and you don't want to have a word that's worth $10,000 because then everyone's running to the dictionary and you sound like an academic but words like bell and book and candle are like dime and quarter words.
One of the stories in my book is called "Serendipity." I would never name a book serendipity. As soon as you use that word you have to have at least an undergraduate degree if not a master degree.
Or a thing for frozen hot chocolates on East 60th Street in Manhattan.
It's not like I'm trying to dumb anything down. Kiss is a great word to me; Manhattan is a wonderful word and why not have both of them together. I'm very happy with the title.
Are considering a continuation of this story?
I think that I will. I did cut out of this a long, 70-page story with Sender, the doorman, and Rook, and a woman named Harmony Button who's the only character I named after someone I met. I said, within five minutes of meeting this person, that I wanted to write a big long story with a main character named Harmony Button because her name is fantastic and it is either straight out of a story and her parents named her after it or it's straight out of a story that I'm going to write. She gave me permission and so I did and I sent it to her and said she really liked it. [Laughter] So, I'd like to have Harmony Button's story two or three books down the line if I can dare be so bold as to hope that I'll be allowed to write my way that far and further. I've got other Preemption apartment stories.
What of James Branch?
I like old James Branch. I like the power he possesses without even necessarily knowing that he does. He's powered by integrity. He's truthful and is not manipulating anyone, not even himself. I hope that people will turn a careful eye on him as readers. He's not just some loon that talks to elevators. I think a lot of people in New York don't literally talk to themselves but they have a lot of ways of talking to themselves by whatever unusual habit they have. His just happens to be literal. And out loud. I'm saying too much because I don't know that it is himself that he's talking to. I think he's talking to a part of himself that he is becoming. All that time that he's talking to himself, I think he's talking to a part of himself that isn't even fully there yet which may sound a little mystical or whatever, but what the heck?
--interview by Catherine McWeeney