By Robert Anasi
At the exact hour on February 12, 2012 that I was supposed to be ferrying the manuscript for The Last Bohemia to the FSG offices, I was puking into the toilet of my Greenpoint sublet. Dubious Chinese and sleep deprivation were to blame. After peeling my hands off the tile, I scrubbed my teeth, got dressed, and made my way to the subway. I felt like a human bruise.
In March of 2011, the good news had come: FSG wanted me. I’d submitted the proposal in September and… waited. There was a catch though (isn’t there always?) – I had to deliver the manuscript in less than ten months. Ten months to write a book. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. As Kafka put it: “We are permitted to crack that whip, the will, over us with our own hand.” My whip hand had never been more ready. The contract came through in April and I started to write on a cross-country drive from SoCal to Brooklyn, typing on my laptop in the three hours a day my mother could handle the wheel (Neal and Jack we weren’t).
Writing well is never easy, be it a sixteen-line sonnet or the forest that falls for a meta-novel. Writing on a strict deadline only adds to the degree of difficulty. Mine was a research-heavy book: I needed to do field work, conduct interviews, peruse archives, all of which took an unshrinkable duration. You can get on a roll and write a chapter in a night, but you can’t interview forty people in four hours.
As the torrent swept me toward Deadline Falls, I realized that I had to change my practice. I like to take time with words, Flaubert my sentences, follow marginal byways, sink into deep history, but if I did that with my new book, I’d still be on chapter two when the advance police kicked in the door. My subject was a neighborhood in the north corner of Brooklyn, not the history of everything, but that neighborhood has a population of 103,488. I couldn’t talk to all of them. I couldn’t even talk to all the people who had created bohemian Williamsburg – the owners of the bar who had seen the first artists rub elbows with second-shift factory workers, the impresario who had staged renegade parties in an old meat-processing plant, the stylish transvestite who had dubbed Williamsburg the next Soho. I had to be ruthless.
The first and best decision I made was to include only people I knew. Even as a misanthropic writer, I had a few friends – I’d lived in the neighborhood for fifteen years, after all – but it wasn’t quite a hundred-and-three thousand. That turned out to be the essential decision. I still conducted thirty-odd interviews, but they all reverberated in the same sphere – subjects who knew other subjects in different contexts, entirely different takes on the same events, a living cross-reference of data, a human archive, in which my perspective served as one among many. Most of those people had come to Williamsburg, and stayed in Williamsburg, for reasons similar to mine. I realized that I’d always been drawn to people from similar backgrounds – people who didn’t have money from places where a career in art seemed foolish. For me, that was the definition of a bohemian.
The second decision was to only cover events that had affected me directly. Some of those had little resonance outside of a small circle—the shuttering of Kokie’s, the rise of Black Betty, the murder at a Bindlestiff show. Others refracted widely—9/11, the zoning change in 2005. This allowed me to draw on fifteen years of Williamsburg journals scrawled on pH-balanced sketch books. Most of it was semi-legible dreck. As the years went by, the scrawl shrank, and headings arose (inspired by Brecht’s notebooks): ‘Girls,’ ‘Travel,’ ‘Work,’ ‘Williamsburg,’ the journal as professional instrument. In the journals, a sense of Williamsburg as a place to document slowly clarified. What was happening there seemed fascinating and strange. The neighborhood was more than just a place to crash before getting on the L train to Manhattan. I cursed myself for missing important events, for spending so much time complaining about another hangover Sunday. Often my emphases were askew – I’d been more interested in a bar flirtation than with the details of the Bindlestiff murder. My Amtrak ride back into the city the day after 9/11 only received four sentences, even though the train had stopped on the bridge into Brooklyn and the conductor said, as we faced the pillars of smoke, “And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where the Twin Towers used to be.”
I ended up with just one version of what happened in Williamsburg but it was a version that no one else could have created. There was a particular series of experiences attached to it, brought on by similarities of age, outlook, inclinations. It remained broad – a Dominican barber and a Swedish model don’t have all that much in common – but it gave me a foundation. The inward focus also enriched it. I was representing a tiny circle, but it was a circle that had meant more than itself. I don’t know if it would have been a better book if I’d had two or three years to write it, but it was a different book. Compression affected everything – I couldn’t always locate le mot juste, sentences had to be serviceable, not remarkable. At the same time, the constriction created a unity that linked paragraphs and pages, all written by roughly the same person at roughly the same time. Write a book over five years and someone different is writing the last pages. The Last Bohemia is a document drawn from a single gaze, a camera pan across a landscape and an era.
Robert Anasi is the author of The Gloves: A Boxing Chronicle (North Point Press, 2002) and The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn (FSG Originals, 2012). He teaches literary journalism at the University of California, Irvine, where he is a Schaeffer and Chancellor’s Club fellow. He is also a founding editor of the literary journal Entasis.