If you’re curious about Brooklyn’s rich literary history, there’s no better source to talk to than Fort Greene resident and writer Evan Hughes. Last summer, Hughes published Literary Brooklyn, a full-length book that explores the borough’s development through the eyes of some of its greatest writers. A year after the release of Literary Brooklyn, Hughes reflects on his motivations for uncovering these writers’ Brooklyn connections. He shares with us his thoughts on writing in Brooklyn today and offers a preview of what he’s working on now.
What inspired you to write Literary Brooklyn?
When I was first moved to Brooklyn, in 1998, I knew that it had a literary tradition, but my information was patchy. More pieces emerged as I became more and more curious about the place. So Norman Mailer lives right there. And Hart Crane’s apartment was right over there. Is that where he wrote The Bridge? What did he think of Brooklyn? I wanted a book that would put it all together for me, that would tell me the story of the place through the eyes of its chroniclers. That book did not exist, I was surprised to learn, so I tried my hand at writing it.
Do you think Brooklyn today fosters the same kind of community for writers as it has in the past, and if so, do you envision that it will continue to do so?
I do think so. I think Brooklyn is now a great place for a writer to be, and I think it will continue to foster a sense of community. It’s probably considered unfashionable and passé to say that, but I think it’s true. Just look at the success and growth of the Brooklyn Book Festival, to give one example. Does gentrification pose a threat in the form of higher costs of living? Yes. But unlike Greenwich Village, formerly the literary center of things, Brooklyn is a big place, and there are still a lot of affordable neighborhoods.
You’ve expressed surprise and disappointment at the fact that books by Brooklyn writers are rarely set in Brooklyn. Do you have any theories as to why Brooklyn has historically inspired writers, yet has often been absent from the content of writers’ work?
I actually think that the disconnect has only become notable relatively recently, during the huge influx of writers we’ve seen in the last, say, 15 to 20 years. I would like to see the talented Brooklyn writers of today write about the place they live more often, but maybe that’s just selfishness on my part. Many of them came from elsewhere, and perhaps some of them feel they need to take root more fully. Writers often end up writing, in some form, about their childhoods. It was not until going elsewhere after growing up in Brooklyn that Alfred Kazin and Bernard Malamud wrote their great Brooklyn books.
What is your favorite bookstore in Brooklyn?
Too tough. Greenlight Bookstore is my home base, right in my neighborhood, and they’re terrific. I remember when I thought Fort Greene would never get the great bookstore it deserved. Shout-out to Jessica and Rebecca and company. BookCourt has a lovely space and gives tasty discounts on their best sellers. PowerHouse is super for big book events because of its size. I’m fond of the mad disorder of Community Bookstore on Court Street, which was a nearby favorite in my early Brooklyn days. WORD and the Community Bookstore in Park Slope are a little farther afield for me, but they have their unique charms. Basically I can’t answer your question.
What are you working on now?
I have an essay forthcoming in Tin House about gentrification and Brooklyn, actually. I am also working on a magazine feature about a recent crime and writing a couple of book-related pieces.