That New Year’s Day of the Brooklyn literary scene, the Brooklyn Book Festival, is fast approaching. On September 12, myriad writers, readers, and other assorted bookfolk will descend once again on Brooklyn’s Borough Hall. In anticipation, we visited with Kurt Andersen, author (most recently of Reset) and “Studio 360” host on NPR. Andersen will be speaking on a panel at noon at St. Francis Auditorium titled “The Culture of Disaster: How Crisis Defines America.” Joining him on stage will be Naomi Klein (The Shock Doctrine), Jordan Flaherty (Floodlines) and Paul Reyes (Exiles in Eden). Together, they’ll look at issues including Katrina, the economic collapse, and the wars abroad to consider if these recent challenges might actually strengthen the nation. Our approach was a bit more local.
BrooklynTheBorough.com: It seems Brooklyn is experiencing a literary moment: if you pick up any American literary fiction from the last several years, it seems as likely as not that the author’s bio will end with: “…in Brooklyn.” Are there comparisons to American literary movements or moments that you can draw? What might it be about this place that makes it possible?
Kurt Andersen: To the degree it’s a result of writers without a lot of money wanting to live in a cosmopolitan place thick with other people doing creative work, the obvious precedents are Greenwich Village beginning at the turn of the 20th century, Paris for American expatriates a generation later and the East Village a generation after that. It was more space for less money that led me to move (from the East Village) to Brooklyn 20 years ago, plus the writing-friendly peace and quiet and un-self-conscious neighborhoodiness.
BTB: The Brooklyn Book Festival is growing while Book Expo is gasping for air. Why do you think this is?
KA: They’re an apple and an orange: the BBF is primarily about writers and writing, with bookselling as an important but secondary part of the equation. BEA is very much the reverse. Also, a single-day event is probably easier for everyone to pull off than one that lasts several days.
BTB: Have you been to other book fairs? How does the Brooklyn Book Festival compare?
KA: I have been, and like the book fairs in Austin and Miami and similar places, the BBF, being not in Manhattan, has a certain we-try-harder eagerness and earnestness that makes the participants not take it for granted.
BTB: As these things grow they tend to lose the flavor that made them important/exciting/influential in the first place (see CMJ Music Fest) – any concern about Brooklyn Book Festival in that respect?
KA: That’d be a high-class problem to have, as my father used to say.
BTB: More and more publishing houses are pulling up their operations, hopping the East River, and settling into Brooklyn. Do you think having a Brooklyn zip code is a kind of message that these houses are trying to send about the books they publish or the audience they’re courting, or is it just about cheaper rent?
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KA: Cheaper rent much more than sensibility-messaging, I think, just as it was for most of the writers who’ve moved here during the last 20 years.
BTB: Who are you looking forward to seeing/hearing at the Brooklyn Book Festival?
KA: Of the people I don’t know, Jennifer Egan, Russell Banks and Stephen Milhauser. Of the people I already know, every one of them.
BTB: And what are you reading now?
KA: [Jennifer Egan’s] A Visit From the Goon Squad.
BTB: And, why not, let’s look ahead. What do you see the future of the Brooklyn Book Festival being like in ten years?
KA: People will be saying, as they do about all successful cultural institutions 5 to 15 years in, “Yeah, it’s fine, but you should’ve been there back in 2010, when it was still cool and not so gigantic and mainstream.”