Last week, I had what I’m going to call a panic attack. I’m hoping that no one noticed, because I was in the middle of moderating an authors’ panel for the New York Public Library at the time. The subject was New York Noir, and we were more than an hour into it when an audience member with an Australian accent asked, “How do you feel about non-New Yorkers setting their books here? And how long do you think you need to live here before you write about it?”
The question provoked a spirited debate, in part because all of the panelists had lived in the city for decades (or their whole lives). “They should never do that,” one answered, and I laughed because I thought he was joking. As he went on, I realized he wasn’t. All of the panelists had strong views on the neighborhoods they wrote about. While they didn’t agree that outsiders couldn’t write about them, they thought that their knowledge of the history and the culture gave them special insight, and that they had access to insider secrets that an outsider wouldn’t know or even comprehend.
It was fortunate that they all wanted to speak about the subject, since it hit me then that I was exactly the kind of outsider that they were talking about. I haven’t even lived in New York for a decade — which seemed to be the minimum required time frame — but that didn’t stop me from setting my novel, The Damage Done, here. I’d never considered setting it anywhere else.
The ironic thing is that some people ask if my day job, travel writer, helped me give a stronger sense of place to the book. My answer is invariably conflicted. Yes, it certainly helped that I wrote countless articles and a book of walking tours about New York. Pacing out the tours was a great way to get acquainted with different neighborhoods. But, at the same time, no. The New York I’ve written travel pieces about and the New York in The Damage Done are not the same city. That isn’t because I invented places in the novel. I opted for real locations, even visiting the Office of the New York City Medical Examiner — yes, the morgue — before writing about it. Every place from the Jan Hus Church to the Rosa Mexicano restaurant, and from the Pitt Street police station to the methadone clinic in Cooper Square is real. (The one major exception is a glass-walled luxury hotel built on the site of a church that had been razed by an arson; its backstory is pure fabrication, and so is its location. I hope that the post office workers in Lower Manhattan don’t mind that I’ve demolished one of their buildings and built a hotel on the site.)
The difference is this: The Damage Done is narrated by Lily Moore, and my greatest hope is that readers will see the city through her eyes. The book begins with her climbing the stairs of the Lower East Side tenement on Rivington Street where she used to live, and where her sister had been staying. She’s been told that her sister died in the apartment, and while Lily quickly discovers that isn’t true — the dead body belongs to a woman who’d been using her sister’s identity — the fact that the death took place on the anniversary of her mother’s suicide rattles her. For her, New York holds many painful memories, which is why she’d abandoned it.
Writing about New York through her eyes meant, to me, that I needed to understand so much about her. When her sister has gone missing in the past, where had Lily searched for her? Where did the sister’s heroin dealer spend his time? Where did she go when she wanted to forget about her problems? What about her everyday life — where did she drink and eat and shop? Her city is almost like a character with nerve endings that crackle against her own and bring back memories. The shape that the city takes is built around the attraction and revulsion it generates in Lily.
Even though I didn’t grow up in New York, I do understand the power of memory in shaping one’s experience of it. The first time I moved here was for an internship at Harper’s Magazine in 1995. I stayed for five months, working for free and living on protein bars. I remember the long days at the office, the parties that editors would send us to, and the quirky intern rituals, like selling review copies at The Strand for food money but blowing it all on a single great meal. It glows in my mind, the polar opposite of when I moved here in October 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11. The city long ago picked itself up and moved on, but there are places that bring back those days for me, and they are not always obvious. Seeing Ground Zero itself doesn’t make me as sad as the 69th Regiment Armory, where there were literally thousands of photographs and flyers and handwritten cards pleading for any information about those who had disappeared. Even writing about it now makes me gulp.
The New York I write about in The Damage Done is almost entirely shaped by invented memories. My hope is that it will seem real to readers, not because it has the accuracy of a travelogue, but because of the intensity of Lily’s journey through it.