“Everything feels like it’s at once past, present, and to come”: An interview with Jim Lewis, author of Ghosts of New York

Jim Lewis’s Ghosts of New York (WVU, April 1) has been called “a marvelous novel” by Rabih Alameddine and “masterful” by Richard Price. Lewis—the author of previous books with Knopf and Graywolf—talked with Claudia Acevedo of Vesto PR for our blog. You can hear him read from his new book here.

Was there a particular event that made you set out to write Ghosts of New York?

There was a series of them, not all of which are manifest, or even hidden, in the book itself: a reporting trip I took to the eastern Congo 15 years ago; the deaths of some old and dear friends and exes, and the regrets that they induced in me; my sense that it was time I wrote a novel set in my hometown, now that I no longer live there, and to write something about being an artist, in particular about being a photographer, since I write so much about photography in my other life.

What draws you to the idea of ghosts?

Well, they’re everywhere, aren’t they?  Even if they don’t exist at all, they’re everywhere.

A lot of the book feels like a memorial. The most obvious example of this is the “Ghosts of New York: A Partial Account” chapter, which is basically an obituary for dozens of people with nothing in common except for the city they lived in. Who were they, and how did you learn/find their stories?

Oh, I made them all up. A few of the background events are real, of course: the Happy Land Disco fire, the AIDS horror, 9/11, the 1918 flu, but the others just came to me, and all of the specific characters and deaths are fictional. It was great fun to write, and I could have come up a hundred more, but I had to stop or they would have overwhelmed the living population of the book.

In a similar vein, I’m curious about how long this took to write. There is an encyclopedic quality to it that brings to mind extensive research and years of journal keeping.

Well, it took forever. My first three books took three or four years a piece. This one has consumed about 14, give or take a year here and there. Several other potential novels were cannibalized along the way. I wish I had a quick and vivid explanation for why this one took so long, but I don’t. Part of it was that I didn’t want to write another book just because it was time to publish another book. I wanted to write something different, and ambitious in a different way, something that would justify whatever time people spent on it, and hopefully add to our understanding of what a novel can be and can do. I make no great claims about my success at that, but it was my goal.

It was time I wrote a novel set in my hometown, now that I no longer live there, and to write something about being an artist, in particular about being a photographer.

On top of that, I was traveling a lot and writing essays and reportage; I went around the world a few times, and saw as much of it as I could—not so that I could write fiction about it directly, but to give a certain depth and worldliness to whatever fiction came next.

And then there were false starts, long stretches where I got lost, and a lot of moving things about, looking for internal narrative rhymes and dissonances, patching cracks, shaping and patting the things into place, again and again and again. It’s not a technique I recommend—among other things, it’s very inefficient—but that was the way the book demanded to be written, so I succumbed.

NYC is the character that interrupts (sometimes pleasantly), kills, takes away, but also shelters so much. Could this book have been set anywhere else? What would it look like?

Not by me, surely. Probably not by anyone else. But then, I don’t think much could be different than it is, in the book as it stands. I believe that all books have a Platonic form, and that the author’s job is to instantiate it, in this world. To put it another way, if you listen very closely, with just the right attention and at just the right time, your book will slowly, painfully, tell you what it wants to be.  If you don’t attend to that, if you try too hard to force it to be what you want it to be, you end up with a crippled mess. This book wanted to be about New York.

If you listen very closely, with just the right attention and at just the right time, your book will slowly, painfully, tell you what it wants to be.

I don’t mean to sound mystical or bullshitty, but I’m not quite being metaphorical, either. If you’re trying to do a mathematical equation, the solution already lies in the numbers and their operators, and they will eventually tell you what the answer is. But it’s very hard work, this listening, and one gets it wrong many times before one gets it right. The mathematician deserves some credit, but the answer was always there.

This was a heartbreaking book to read, not just because of the tragic events in it, but because of the level of detail, the delicate and meticulous way in which everything from sounds, to little rituals, to the curves of people’s bodies are written about. It was as if the speaker was trying with everything they had to preserve a memory, for better or worse. Why do you write?

The answer to this starts with an unanswered question which you asked above, in the fourth question, about research and journals and so on. I don’t do much of either. The book isn’t about me, in any interesting sense, though I’m familiar enough with the milieus. So the memories aren’t mine, or only a few of them are, and then only in a very attenuated way, and they’re distributed among the characters, so there isn’t one who represents me. You’re right that it’s the speakers’ memories that matter, but the speakers are fictional. And details are what memories are made of—at least, the most vivid and moving of them. The tiny pulp of a lemon wedge. The way a specific girl says, “Really?” The way you read a little further into a book that you’ve already decided not to finish. A grinning, three-legged dog that a friend once house-sat for. And so on. You make these things up (I don’t know anyone who’s ever house-sat for a three-legged dog); they start to accumulate, and something emerges, and that becomes a character, a setting, an event. It thickens like a sauce, or seeds like a crystal.

Why do I write? I ask myself that every fucking day. . . .

I think I write to break people’s hearts, and it’s almost unseemly how much pleasure I take in it, so I’m cheered to learn that I’ve broken one more.

I write to remind myself, and others, that the world is real, and that we are real in it, and that all of this counts, somehow.  The fact that fiction can best convey that is, of course, a paradox, but hell, I don’t make the rules. And of course, I write for the same reasons that composers compose: to provide a kind of entertainment that can’t be experienced any other way.

The past, the future, and the present are constantly interacting here. There are chapters written in the future tense, though. Who is this voice? Could you talk a bit about your treatment of time in the book?

This what happened: I decided to write about New York in the late ’70s and ’80s, and then thought, “Who wants to read another damn memoir about how cool the city was when we were all kids? There have been a thousand of them.”

So one day I took what I’d written and set it in the future, just to give it a more timeless sense. But it’s an odd effect: I don’t think anyone’s done it before, though I could be wrong. Even science fiction is written in the past tense. And English doesn’t even have a future tense, really: in French, you conjugate the verb—“Je jouerai” to mean “I will play,” and so on. In English you just add “will” or “going to” to the present tense of the verb. So it’s not a grammatical tense, and it has a very strange presence on the page, and what I found is that it’s unexpectedly authoritative, almost prophetic, and I liked that.—As you say, who is this voice? Well, it’s the same free indirect, standard narrative voice as the rest of the book. But it feels very different. It feels, just a little bit, like Jeremiah. It feels like the voice of fate. It’s a powerful feeling to play with.

Who wants to read another damn memoir about how cool the city was when we were all kids?

At one point I tried to write the whole book that way, but I realized it would quickly become tiresome, so I only used it for three sections—two of which are, by standard time, the earliest sequences in the book. Does that make sense?

What I wanted, in a way, was to force readers to just give up and accept this passing parade of events, without trying too hard to put them all in order. That way, everything feels like it’s at once past, present, and to come, which gives all the sections the same, complex emotional weight: part wistful memory, part the simple, forceful flowing of standard book tense, and part a kind of expected experience, with all the dread and hope we bring to bear on things that haven’t happened yet, but surely will. The only tense I didn’t use was the present, because I can’t stand fiction written in the present tense. That’s the tense of TV and movies, and we have enough of that.

Books do a lot of things, besides just narrating. Take the Bible: there are myths, etiologies, explanations of place names, histories, laws, lists, love poems, songs, advice, instruction, prophecy, and much more that’s inexplicable. Why do novels limit themselves to telling straightforward stories about things that have already happened?

In Ghosts, people have lost other people, places, and things, but they are also lost themselves. What would you like the main takeaway from this book to be for your readers who are currently experiencing a great deal of loss and uncertainty?

That’s such a difficult question. Obviously, I finished the book well before the events of this past year. In fact I finished it three years ago. And while I find it fascinating that the world has, in some ways, caught up, I didn’t intend it to be relevant in that way. More than that, I’m very reluctant to suggest that readers take anything specific away from a novel. All I want is for them to engage with it for as long as it holds their attention, and to experience something beautiful, hopefully in a way that they haven’t before. After that, they can make of it what they will. I like to think of my books as found objects—to the reader, anyway.

How do you think your work—fiction, specifically—has changed/will change in light of recent events?

I hope it won’t change at all, except inasmuch as everything you take in makes you bigger. I often reflect on the fact that my parents lived through the Depression, WWII, the Holocaust, the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and many others, Nixon’s resignation, and on and on and on; and many good things, too, like the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Movement, Environmental Movement, and so on. I think crisis, uncertainty, fear, and also hope, confidence, and determination, are always with us. Art rarely reacts explicitly to the news of the day, though there are occasionally exceptions. Art makes its own news.

We’re living in a culture, right now, where art has gotten very political, and topical, and event-driven. I can understand why, and I appreciate some of it. But there should always be room for things that exist outside of our current moment, for things that are permanently strange, contingent, eccentric, fragile, complex and indeterminate, committed to refusal. The expansion of publishing to more readily include new voices is absolutely essential, and by no means complete, but what I hope to see in it is less a new normal than new forms of defiance.

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