Author Kate Christensen has never lived in the Astral, the block-long apartment building on Franklin Street (that spans from India to Java Streets), but it is the subject, and title, of her latest book, The Astral, out this past Tuesday, June 14th, on Doubleday. Christensen has lived in North Brooklyn since the early spring of 1990. Bouncing between several apartments in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, she last resided on Monitor Street until the fall of 2009 when she left her charming little Brooklyn enclave for good. “I’ve never been inside the Astral, but during the seven or eight years I lived on Calyer Street, I walked by it frequently. It’s a compelling building. I started to imagine people’s lives there and realized I was going to write a novel about it,” Christensen said.
Fifty-seven-year-old poet Harry Quirk, her novel’s protagonist, emerged from Christensen’s fictional image of the Astral, a man displaced from there and yearning to go back (after having been kicked out by Luz, his jealous Mexican nurse wife). To this day, Christensen has still never been inside the building. At various points throughout the book, Harry ventures to Bushwick and Crown Heights, but the Astral remains the central location of the novel, Greenpoint at the heart of it.
GG: I just started reading your book, and it is very Greenpoint-centric. Are all of the landmarks real? And what is it like to write a fiction story based in a non-fiction setting? Do you find yourself basing a lot of characters on real Greenpointers?
KC: I was steeped in Williamsburg and Greenpoint for so many years, I think at some point I went from being an interloping newcomer to being a curmudgeonly old-timer without any intermediary stage. I know North Brooklyn so well; I lived there almost all of my post-school adult life. The Astral is set on my turf, in my own streets and bars and restaurants, in the heads of people I stood behind in line at the Associated, passed on the street, saw with their dogs in McCarren Park—these people inspired these characters the same way the actual Astral apartments inspired the fictional one. Their real-life existence is, however, and of course, fictionalized. I changed some place names and kept others. This was an instinctive way of creating a fictional scrim over the real neighborhood, reimagining it for myself and for the novel.
This isn’t the first time I’ve used a real place; I do it in all my novels. The house in The Epicure’s Lament, Waverley, is based on Rokeby, a mansion on the Hudson River in Barrytown, New York. All of my New York novels use real places as their settings. The Mexico City places in Trouble are all real.
GG: Does this book take place in Greenpoint now, or at an earlier time?
KC: It’s set in 2010.
GG: I know some of your other books have had ties to Brooklyn. Have any others been so heavily entrenched in, or based in Greenpoint?
KC: This is the first time I’ve written a “Greenpoint novel,” but parts of The Great Man were also set there. Teddy, one of the three main characters, lives on India Street, and the novel opens there.
GG: In your book’s press release, the book is described as “a scintillating novel of love, loss, and literary rivalry set in rapidly changing Brooklyn.” Is the literary rivalry based on anything real?
KC: As far as I can remember, all of the literary rivalry in the novel is between two middle-aged failed poets, and is confined to one chapter where they banter with drunken silliness. As for my own life, I experienced none in Greenpoint. The literary scene around WORD is very friendly, inclusive and warm.
GG: What do you hope your readers and fans get out of your books, and this one in particular?
KC: I always hope people will enjoy my novels, laugh every so often, feel compelled to find out what happens to my characters, and remember them after they’ve finished the book. If a novel also makes them think about their own lives in some way that offers comfort or perspective, that’s wonderful.
GG: What are the book’s main themes? If you were to describe it to someone who didn’t know anything about it, what might you say?
KC: I generally tell people that it’s about a fifty-seven-year-old male poet kicked out by a jealous wife, trying to rescue his son from a cult. Then they look at me blankly and ask if it’s funny.
I’ve never been good at describing my novels in a way that gives any sense of them. They’re character-driven rather than plotted—it’s just as hard to describe people I know to strangers.
GG: I read of your previous novel, The Great Man, that “the great man referred to in the title is already dead by page one.” Similarly, in The Astral, the s—- has already hit the fan, if you will, before the book starts. Are you conscious of this thread, and what is appealing about that type of beginning for you as a writer?
KC: I like starting a novel with everything already in full swing, underway—preferably with my narrator engaged in some kind of high-stakes trouble. I’m obviously more interested in how people find their way back to dry land (or don’t) once they’re floundering, far more than in how they got out into the ocean in the first place. What this says about me, I might be wise not to speculate too much.
GG: When did you know you wanted to become a writer?
KC: I was born a writer. As a very small baby, according to my mother, I watched people and listened to them, apparently obsessively, in a manner that would be considered impolite in an older person. Apparently, I was quiet and happy and tranquil as long as she aimed my baby seat toward the adults’ conversation. I sat there perfectly still and stared, bug-eyed, looking back and forth between speakers, taking it all in before I could talk. I started reading and writing early and voraciously and indiscriminately and passionately. All I cared about were stories. I wrote my first story at five or six—I still have it somewhere, thanks to my mother, my earliest reader.
GG: Are there any other authors you consider influences, or artists of any kind really—musicians, painters, etc.?
KC: I owe an enormous debt to the mid-20th century English writers, every one of them—I was, still am and always will be wildly inspired by that collective, beautiful, fluid, crisp, ironic, socially acute, emotionally understated, unsentimental, often hilarious, dead-on, clear-eyed, deeply awake sensibility. I could listen to Bach all day and often do, especially his choral music; the intersection of the lyrics with the music is thrilling in a way I find hard to describe.
GG: What’s next? What are you working on now?
KC: My next novel is still in the meditative, interior stage, where most of the work takes place for me. I’m imagining something a bit different, something challenging and fun. It’s called Gin on the Lanai, and it’s about a female food writer, a New Yorker, in Kauai, researching Hawaiian cuisine. I intend it to be very dark and funny, but I have no real control over the outcome except to let the character emerge in my imagination and take over the book as I write it.