Novelist Steve Toltz gives us a view of New York through Australian eyesNovember 1, 2007
After several years of writing alone in a room, to get away from the ominous silences that are part of being alone, and to get away from the squeaky voices that tend to come in those ominous silences, I journeyed from Australia to spend a few months in New York in advance of the publication of my debut novel, A Fraction of the Whole. The trip had two aims: to meet my publishers, and to revisit the city where I lived for a six-month period ten years ago. Arriving in a smog of nostalgia, I spent the first few weeks wandering the city in frustration at not finding memory lane on the map. No matter how many streets I paced, I couldn’t find the café where I’d worked for two dollars an hour and where I’d once tried to clean a junkie’s blood off the toilet seat with a broom. Nor could I find the place where I lived with a songwriter who charged me extra for using his toaster.
I was, however, thrilled to find that three key things haven’t changed about New York: first, it is still the most obviously democratic city in the world, which means to me that I don’t feel like a slob wearing tracksuit pants out in a café (how can I when the guy next to me is wearing stained tracksuit pants?); second, I’m still constantly amazed at how people of all educational backgrounds instinctively know, without even looking at the sun, where the southwest corner of a street is; and third, it’s still the city where people furiously defend their neighborhoods against any form of attack, verbal or otherwise, including the unforgivable affront of living somewhere else (e.g., I have apparently, repeatedly, on a daily basis, insulted Brooklyn merely by living in Alphabet City). The neighborhoods that New Yorkers defend may have changed over the past decade, but their passion in defending them has not.
However, the one truly glaring difference between New York then and New York now is the me in it. I was twenty-three then. I’m thirty-five now. I smoked then. I only fantasize about rolling in a field of tobacco now. Back then, I thought a goatee had some redeeming aesthetic value. Now, I am increasingly sympathetic to the whole idea of the comb-over. Ten years ago, I was just starting a novel that was destined to go no further than the first two chapters and that now exists solely as a cringe-worthy relic of another era. Ten years and many other first chapters later, I have finished and will publish an actual, tangible object with printed words—which means I’ve gone from being “allegedly” a writer to being a writer beyond a reasonable doubt. It was back in my first New York days I learned a valuable lesson, one which was later re-taught to me in Australia, a lesson that I put into my novel, and that is: “If you dedicate your life to painting or writing poetry you’d better be holding down a job at a hamburger restaurant if you know what’s good for you.” I realized this because, unlike the European cities where I’ve lived in the time between my two New York stints, here you can’t just say you’re a writer without having some pretty solid evidence to back up this wild assertion. At the time, of course, I had no evidence at all. Now, finally, I have it, and I think: If only I could go back in time and tell myself not to be impatient, that I would one day be published in this amazing city! Of course, even if I could, I wouldn’t dare, because if I was told back then it would take me twelve more years to get published, I would have dropped my pen in terror and never picked it up again.
Now, just as the weather here is threatening to turn from brain-meltingly hot to bone-shatteringly cold, I'm heading back to Sydney until February, when I'll make my third trip to New York on publication of A Fraction of the Whole. I can't imagine the city will change in my absence this time, and at the very least I'll know, without searching, that my new, rezoned memory lane will lead into a bookstore.