There is a line by the late, great, gonzo writer Hunter S. Thompson that states, the hardest thing in this world is to be yourself while all around people are trying to change you into something your not. This line could easily be applied to the characters that inhabit Arthur Nersesian’s New York City novels. Writers, artists and actresses, all with one common goal; the pursuit of their art while living the struggling, starving artist lifestyle.
In a world full of corporate clones selling out en masse in order to keep themselves in Starbuck’s lattes, Nersesian’s characters willing leap onto New York’s sacrificial alter, giving hope that there are still a few people out there who are willing to risk everything and not be lured by the corner office with a nice view. In today’s color by numbers world, where people without talent or originality are celebrated, Nersesian’s view of a New York City inhabited by risk takers and dreamers is welcomed with open arms.
Reading an Arthur Nersesian novel for the first time is similar to chancing upon a classic Indie movie late at night while channel surfing through mindless mainstream dross. A line of dialogue grabs you, and you slowly begins to realize that you have happened upon something meaningful. The characters, dialogue and plotlines in Nersesian’s work ring true and this is down to the writer himself being the real deal. Nersesian has lived in New York City for almost 50 years and has endured the struggling writer lifestyle.
His first and best-known novel is The Fuck-Up, a beautifully written tale of an aspiring writer stumbling around a 1980s, East Village. The anonymous slacker is the blueprint for every twenty-something who knows there is something out there worth searching for; it’s just taking a lot of hard work to find it. Although The Fuck-Up is now in its 18th printing, it was only picked up by a publisher due to Nersesian’s sheer tenacity. He decided to take the route that most unpublished writers think about but rarely have the faith in their own work or marketing skills to follow through on.
“I published The Fuck Up myself because it had been rejected by over thirty publishers. That was when I decided that I had given publishers far too much power. When I brought it out in a small print run, the books sold so quickly I couldn't keep them on the shelves. In fact, when a bookstore gave me my first reading, the book sold out before I could actually get to the podium.” Nersesian said, bringing hope to every unpublished writer.
I caught up with Nersesian just before Christmas and he talked openly about his life, work, New York City, the future of publishing and the starving artist’s lifestyle.
GC: Do you see some of your early books as a timeline of your life in the East Village?
AN: In parts, but the order is slightly jumbled.
GC: The Writer's Bloc section in the East Village Tetralogy dealt in part with the competitiveness of writers, do you feel in competition with other writers or does this go when you become published with good reviews?
AN: Good reviews are wonderful, but the advance—or amount of money an author gets—sometimes vary widely, and this can be a source of envy. The good thing about competition is it might explain why some generations flourish above other generations. Ultimately though we rise or fall on our own.
GC: A few of the reviews on your books have described your characters as life's marginal characters. I see them more as people in society who have the courage to follow their dreams no matter what; to some people I would think they are inspirational.
AN: Dogrun, Chinese Takeout, and Unlubricated were initially intended to be an interconnect trilogy. I wanted the same group of characters to run through all three books. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a publisher who would agree to publishing all three books, so I had to make each book stand alone. I wanted the trilogy to be about dreamers—actually they're all pretty cynical—young artists who devoted themselves to their art and try to show the varying degrees and types of success and failure. To some extent I wrote these books as a response to the zeistgeist of today. The highly charged period I grew up in, during the 1970s and '80s seem to have all but flat lined. Of course, this isn't merely a comment on artists, it also extends to the entire culture.
GC: You are described as a cult writer, cult writers to me always seem to have more to say about the world than some big, mainstream writers. Are you happy with the cult writer description?
AN: I see your point about cult writers saying more about the world. Unfortunately, cult or niche writers sound like mid-list writers, which is death in the publishing industry. Publishers would rather drop a pile of cash on someone who might be the next best seller, and catches the next trend, than a writer who is original or has a steady intelligent following. Frankly I'd love to have one of those Di Vinci Code/Harry Potter monster best sellers.
GC: There is a line from Chinese Takeout that says, "the passion, the reversals, and all the little intrigues and gambles, with no guaranteed outcome, that was the whole point to life," would you advocate the starving artists lifestyle?
AN: I read that the playwright Edward Albee who teaches his craft always begins by trying to persuade students not to be playwrights. If you can do anything else, you should. But it writing, like all arts, kind of possesses you. Writing is both the best and worst of jobs. I enjoy writing, but I always say that I would've made a lot more, and would've had job security and a pension if I worked at a local Starbucks.
GC: I noticed in Chinese Takeout you referred to Elise Cowen who was herself a kind of marginal figure in the history of the Beats. Does the lifestyle and writing of the Beats play a big part in your own life philosophy?
AN: They had a naive, undisciplined freedom, but made a lot of mistakes along the way, many of which I try to learn from.
GC:How does the East Village compare now to your younger days, has it become yuppified as Nottinghill in London has? It seems that certain corporate minded people once they have made some money long for the bohemian lifestyle while living the complete opposite.
AN: It's like having a leper for a lover. Artistic communities tend to be a lot more fun and colorful than suburban residential beehives, so young investment banker types will move in. The problem is artists usually make less than everyone else. So property values and the cost of living rises to the highest customer, thus driving out the artist. In the course of my life, the East Village went from being a Latino ghetto to a quirky struggling artistic community to simply the Lower East End of the hyper-gentrified Upper West Side—almost all that once gave it its identity is gone. All that remains are the friendly Latte-sipping Visogoths who think they're hip.
GC: The Fuck-Up was such a beautifully written book that I recommend to everyone. Did you have a sense when you had finished it that you had written something that would be thought of, by many, as important?
AN: The initial impetus of writing the novel was a bet I had made with my girlfriend back in the mid-80s. We were both young writers in our mid-twenties. She was turning out coffee table books, and I was writing short stories that I couldn't get published. We made a bet for $50 to see who could write a novel first. She left me in 1990. When I finally ended up publishing it, I still offered to dedicate it to her. She said she didn't want to be associated with a book that had the work Fuck in the title.
GC: Many people (who do not write)are under the impression that publishing a book is easy but many writers compare it to trying to win the lottery, do you think e-publishing has made a big difference to unpublished writers?
AN: The problem with e-publishing is that the masses are still asses. Instead of giving new books a chance and spending some time perusing unknown writers, most people will read the most hyped book of the day, which is usually what the person in the next cubicle is reading. Those books simply tend to the best publicized––In the future publicists will win the Booker and Pulitzers and Nobel Prizes. It's the same copycat way we pick our politicians, clothes, everything, without any real independence, creativity or courage.
GC: I like the fact that some of your books do not end on the writer or artist becoming widely successful but there is always hope. Did hope drive you in your early days as a writer?
AN: Usually I've gotten just enough success and cash to go to the next work. No more and usually less. I'd certainly say it's one of the great motivators.
GC: I read in a past interview that your books were not great sellers in Europe and France. I would have thought that the French would have loved your writing, is this still the case?
AN: With the way the French used to fetishize America, I've always thought that myself. In fact my very first book deal––even before Akashic brought out The Fuck Up––was with a French publisher, I forget the name of the house. I signed a contract and they paid me half an advance. Almost immediately they went out of business. To date none of my books are published there.
GC: Banning of books usually helps the sales, how did you feel about the banning of Suicide Casanova in Indonesia?
AN: You're right, banning usually helps with sales. About Fifteen years ago when I was the managing editor of the Portable Lower East Side, arch-conservative Senator Jesse Helms waved a copy of our journal (that particular theme was of gay & lesbian writers) and said, "This is the kind of filth that NEA money is being wasted on..." We lost our grant, but it really put us on the map.
GC: In your books New York itself is a main character, when I visited New York I loved it compared to London but has the cleaned up New York lost some of its character?
AN: After living here nearly half a century, New York is sort of a busy graveyard to me. When walking around the city, I constantly find myself trying to remember what used to be here. What shops or stores or restaurants were on this or that corner. I'll have flashbacks on certain corners remembering places I went with my grandparents or parents back in the 60s, 70s, or 80s. The thing about New York is that it's constantly changing. People don't seem to stay very long -- a lot of people pass through, it's their New York period. Different politicians and developers are always trying to reinvent it. Once barren streets, which most would avoid, where muggers or the homeless or hookers prowled are now busy and filled with ridiculously expensive shops and boutiques. Now I eat at restaurants where the bill cost half the price I would've paid in rent twenty five years ago. The city as well as the cost of living here is considerably different than the place I grew up.
GC: Has the starving artist become romanticized just as Woody Allen builds his own dream of New York in his films, have you built up the struggling artist role in your books?
AN: Needless to say, I've gone through the struggling artist thing, and I wanted to try to capture that because it does carry a unique kind of drama that comes with vision and sacrifice. On the other hand, I've always hated romanticized cliches, of New York, of the homeless, of artists. It's usually neither as bad or as good as it’s made out to be.
GC: Name some of the jobs that you had to support yourself while writing?
AN: As described in The Fuck Up, I was both an usher and a manager at various movie theaters. Like Joey Aeiou, I was a paralegal and legal proofreader at various law firms throughout the city. I worked as a carpenter and painter. I sold books on the street, like Or in Chinese Takeout. I went door to door doing the 1990 Census for New York City. I was a cook at Caroline's Comedy Club. I taught G.E.D. prep classes at a woman's shelter in Crown Heights, I taught ESL to a labor union in Williamsburg, and eventually taught at Hostos Community College in the South Bronx. There were more jobs I blocked out ofmy head.
GC: Your books have a lot to say about social and political conditions; you seem to come across as anti-corporate. What are your views on the take as much as you can with no thought for the consequences type of person?
AN: Under cause, the death certificate of our planet will probably read, "Refusal to accept personal responsibility." The vital signs of the earth are clearly flatlining, but the corporate world, which is profiting off this slow demise, spends millions of dollars covering this fact up. The difficult part is that there really is no Hitler or Saddam. Though there are some genuine monsters out there -- fascist leaders, corporate presidents who should be strung up -- our little planet is being killed in a million little ways by a million little people every day.
GC: Finally any clues on the new book, The Swing Voter of Staten Island.
AN: It's a departure from my trademark social realistic trapping. I've written a suspense thriller in an unusual setting––set in 1980. Through the past I've tried to look at the sad direction this planet, country and city are going.