New York City skyline at night

Interview

 

 


Notes of a New York Son: Eric Darton Interview
by Susan Tepper

Eric Darton

Eric Darton
Photo: Katie Kehrig

Eric Darton is the author of Divided We Stand: A Biography of New York City's World Trade Center (Basic Books, 1999), a New York Times bestseller, and the novel Free City (WW Norton, 1996). He has released a timely and provocative new book titled Things Fall Together. It is Volume One of a 5 part series: Notes of a New York Son, 1995 — 2007.

He has graciously made himself available to answer some questions about his new book and its four subsequent volumes. Volume II: The Man at Table 4 will be released around Thanksgiving of this year. To learn more about Eric Darton, visit http://ericdarton.net.

Tepper: Please tell us some of the things that inspired the writing of this book, as well as your forthcoming editions. In other words, what got you going?

Darton: With my longer pieces — novels and nonfiction alike — the annunciatory angel usually takes the form of an image. And what distinguishes this image from the countless others that fly through my head is that this one sticks and roots, seedlike. In my personal narrative about these things, the whole organism of the book is contained in that image seed. And the book is the seed image's transmutation into a fully operational form.

The initial, initiating image doesn't necessarily end up at the beginning of the book. And it may take quite a bit of time before the image begins to grow and manifest other images. For example, once an image of a woman near death in childbed came to me out of "nowhere." Her image would come to mind occasionally, but nothing organized itself around it. Several years later, this woman turned out to be the main female character in my first novel, Free City. The image now resides toward the end of the book, in a scene where the woman's lover gives her a draught of truth serum. The character's "actual" experience will be narrated in a prequel told in her voice — which I'll finish writing should I live so long.

As for Notes of a New York Son, the image that sparked the process didn't visit me from some unknown quarter, but came in realtime and realspace. It was a slushy winter's afternoon and I was walking down 12th Street, looking at the townhouse windows across the street, soft-focus like. And I see this movement which is a tiny pink hand moving behind a parlor floor window. Now because of the atmospherics and other conditions, it took me several steps and beats to reckon — because I couldn't really see her — that a dark-skinned woman, probably the baby's nanny, was holding the child and waving its hand. I waved back, but at whom? Eventually my eyes adjusted and I made out the woman's dress and got some sense of her physicality.

That moment turned into the journal's first entry, though it had to be set up by a couple of introductory paragraphs, but here's how it reads in the book, minus the preamble:

To your right across the street, the facades of townhouses cast deep in shadow. Behind a parlor window, a flash of movement catches your eye — a tiny pink and open hand floats, detached. You peer deeper, try to penetrate the darkened room beyond the frame. Make out the shape of an infant, held on hip. Then the hip of the holder, the pattern of the nanny's dress, and a vague outline of her form, nothing more. You wave back The tiny palm moves in response, its gesture animated by a steady unseen hand.

The two tellings are quite different. But for me this was an entry point into the journal, in part because it told a moment politically. The other thing that got me started was figuring that if I didn't start writing my way through my struggles with the city, I'd go nuts.

Once the momentum was going, though, the thing wouldn't quit. So there's more than a decade narrated and an appalling number of pages — over fourteen hundred in manuscript. Hence the five volumes, one to be published every six months, if things go according to plan. The last will come out in 2012, just in time for the world not to end.

Tepper: In terms of this project, would you call yourself a social diarist, say, in the way of a Mark Twain; a diarist for our times?

Darton: It's a lovely question and one which arose fairly early in the process, before I recognized it as a process. Diary or a journal, what was I working at? The distinction between these forms was clarified for me by Frank Jennings, one of New York's last great literary Jewish Irishmen, and the closest thing I've had to a mentor. He died at ninety-five a couple of years back having witnessed over the course of his lifetime amazing change and transformation in the city. I'll refer briefly to the book again.

May 9, 2000 — Horatio Street — Midmorning

Frank's currant scones improve with every batch you taste, and they were good to begin with. He asks what you're working on now, and you tell it as best you can.

From the cathedra of his rocking chair he looks at you askance, not quite Dirty Harry incredulity, but close. "A diary," he says, "is a form of primitive self-analysis — a wailing wall. A journal is a point of observation."

I've always been a rebellious student, but the dime Frank dropped on me very much alerted me as to what was at stake and got me to start feeling through my intentions.

In my mind Notes is a cultural journal. I don't think I've written many words, even as a young'un that weren't socially engaged. Like Madge said in the old Palmolive Liquid ad: "You're soaking in it."

There's a feminist credo dating from the '60s: "the personal is political." I took that to heart at the time and also its obverse.

One of the great privileges of being a writer is the luxury of picking your lineage. This book's direct ancestors include Samuel Pepys, Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin — these are the ones that spring to mind — but in reality it's a channeling of all the writers I've read who gave weight to the meaning of the urban moments they lived through concretely and/or imagined. The way Edith Wharton populated her New York influenced me in another way and Mary McCarthy's Venice Observed, which I hadn't read at the time, resonates bigtime, albeit in retrospect. We may finish writing a book, but its overtones remain audible as long as we live.

Tepper: Part One which you've called "City in Amber," begins in 1995 during the winter solstice, West 12th Street in NYC, late afternoon, and continues through October 20, 1999 — leading us back to the solstice. Poetic, indeed! Is "City in Amber" meant to imply a deeper metaphor, perhaps inertia, like bugs trapped in amber?

Darton: A very smart French fella, the late Jean Baudrillard observed that during the '90s "events were on strike." And he described the attacks of 9/11 as the "mother" of events — the pure event that was the essence of all the events that had not happened in the previous decade.

Clearly I didn't know that the event strike would end in the manner it did. Still, sensing the mood of the City during those years, one knew in one's bones that something had to give. This isn't 20/20 hindsight — it's in the quotidian weave of the text itself. And that section of the book received its title "before," based on precisely the image you suggested.

One morning two weeks before 9/11, I was sitting in my customary café and noted the following:

A young woman sits on the banquette side of Table 10. She wears a black tee shirt with a glittery red white and silver American flag bonded across the chest. Superimposed upon the stars and stripes, in pink Olde English lettering, the word JUICY.

Everything is stretched too tight. Must soon snap back.

Tepper: You lead us through this city and its daily doings, its people and topography. It seems all knitted together tightly. Do you believe people can function as if outside, or beyond, their chosen neighborhood? Or does the person transition and become the neighborhood?

Darton: Well, I hope I haven't made the gauge too tight and kitted a sweater that only fits Baby Bear.

But truly, the question you raise is one I keep bumping up against, not just as a writer but as a, hopefully evolving, organism. The best way I can distill it is: what's internal vs. what's external. And how do we know where the borders are? What makes I and Thou distinct?

As writers, it seems to me that much of what we do is cross back and forth over those borders. A fashionable term in academia was "transgression." But transgression is just one of nature's strategies for evolution. And it's inherent in writers to position themselves alternately inside and outside of our characters, inside their circumstances and outside them. They are all drawn from our experience of self or others as filtered through our awareness and language. What you raise is the whole dynamic of why it's worth reading and writing. These practices don't just shift our POV, they alter our hormones. And then, the idea is to take that new material, insights, emotions, whatever, metabolize them and bring oneself back to a, hopefully augmented, homeostasis. Then on to the next adventure.

Another way of describing this is that the writer makes the journey to an astral dimension and then returns to the material world. Along the way all sorts of things can happen, including the writer getting trapped outside their body. This is a high risk game and artists need to be tethered to a strong reality principle somewhere on the ground.

One way we know we're living now and not even a few years ago is that basic day-to-day living is so aspatialized. All somewheres are rapidly feeling like nowheres. And, quite literally, there goes the neighborhood. The neighborhood within the city comes as close as urban life can come to a coherent economic unit, equivalent to the much nostalgized "village." Every day these days, at least two hundred thousand people leave the countryside to live in urban agglomerations — one can't really call them cities.

To bring it down to cases, my reaction to being aspatialized by the culture is to dig my way down further, burrow my roots deeper into the evermore depleted soil of my hometown, and if I hit bedrock, spread them out and entangle them with others. In search of sustenance and hopefully so the next gust of wind wouldn't blow me, or us, away. To me, life in the city is layered like an onion, or a set of Russian dolls nested inside one another. From personal living space to neighborhood to borough right on out. Everyone, artists included, negotiates that terrain differently. If as you ask, "can people function as if outside or beyond," my response is: yes, "as if" — that's the gig. Wave your branches and touch leaves with your neighboring trees. But keep your roots. Or imagine you do.

In some important ways one can, as you suggest, come to embody one's neighborhood. And by distilling its particulars and qualities down within the individual, give it a historically grounded voice and presence. Which is a long way round to saying we are our places and they 'r' us. Assuming, like Mr. Phelps, we choose to take on that impossible mission.

Tepper: Part Three [of the first volume,] which you've called Á nous la liberté takes us to Paris and other places in France — new and different neighborhoods for exploration. What is the connective point for the New York son?

Darton: My mother was born just outside Paris in Argenteuil, a suburb the Impressionists loved to paint. Family legend has it that the family was happy and prosperous there, more so than after they emigrated here. I have a picture of my beloved grandfather Meyer standing outside his workshop, sleeves rolled up — he must have been in his late twenties — looking the picture of virility and spiritual health. So from early on Paris held out its aura to me.

When I first visited there in 1965, as a lad of 15, I was allowed to explore the city by myself and in a matter of days the seduction was complete. You'd be lying in the sun, on the deck of a piscine built out onto the Seine, the girl on the towel next to you would turn in your direction and say "J'aime beaucoup Bob Dylan," and you'd say "Moi aussi," and the sound system would kick on with "I Can't Get No Satisfaction."

On another level, Parisian spatiality and architecture is expressed through highly-estheticized order with a strain of anarchy underneath. So it's like a cousin to New York, except its qualities are reversed. What's on the surface there is sublimated here and vice versa. Another aspect of New York is that even though the city is Mezoamericanizing fast, bone deep this is a Protestant town — Dutch then English. Not so Paree. In Paris, I learned to breathe.

Conversely, la Grosse Pomme is where Parisians come to feel free.

Tepper: Even when you write of the dark times faced by the city during and after the attacks on The World Trade Center, I sense pragmatism in the writing, a kind of lurking optimism. Is that what Things Fall Together, your title for this volume, is conveying to the reader?

Darton: The title is as much a play on ideas as it is on words. In the entry for my birthday, on May 30, 2000, I noted:

Fanfare-less, the big five-O sneaks up, pounces, and pads away silently on little cat feet. What feels worth celebrating is less your cumulative decades on planet Earth than an incremental tendency toward some species of happiness. Little by little, things fall together for you. As if by gravity.

When I was imagining a title for the first volume, years after 9/11, I somehow remembered that formulation and it clicked. A title ought always to do more than one thing. And it will, if we let it. You're right about the pragmatism in the text. I hadn't thought of it that way, but there it is. Faced with certain situations, one's behavior and one's prose both reflect a more concentrated energy.

Six or seven years ago I began practiced an internal form of Chinese martial art called Ba Gua Zhang. It occurs to me now that, beyond the cheerful connotation it had in initially in the text, the phrase "things fall together (for you)" may have been pointing me — in advance of the crisis — toward finding my center in whatever circumstances. By implication, things fall together fuses the image of those buildings coming down with an exhortation toward seeking modes of bodily and spiritual alignment that can keep us from collapse.

Antonio Gramsci, another of my numerous culture heroes, was once asked if he was a pessimist or an optimist. He replied that he was a pessimist of the intellect, but an optimist of the will. Until recently that more or less summed up my ideal position. After 9/11 and a serious bout with pneumonia, I had to take cognizance of the limits of my will. Shock, illness and middle age will do that for you. After years of practicing Ba Gua, I'm learning that my power lies less in my will, than in my form, the spirit that animates the form, and the intention that guides it. This awareness has leaked into my writing too — especially in the latter volumes. Maybe I'll live long enough to one day find myself, and my books, soaking in it.

If I have a wish for readers of Things Fall Together, it is that they use the text as a manual for spiraling together and harmonizing, even and most essentially in the worst of times, the streams of optimism and pessimism that run through them. Ride that river wherever it flows. No way to stay dry.

 

Susan Tepper, fiction writer and poet, is author of the soon-to-be-released epistolary novel What May Have Been: Letters of Jackson Pollock & Dori G (with Gary Percesepe), as well as a collection of short fiction Deer & Other Stories (2009), and the poetry chapbook Blue Edge.