January 17, 2018KR BlogBlogChatsLiteratureReadingWriting

An Interview with Naima Coster

Naima Coster’s debut novel, Halsey Street, examines critical issues such as gender, gentrification, anger, and art making. Recently Coster wrote a thoughtful, important essay on the significance of having a black editor. In the essay, she also discusses how she grapples with whether she is worthy of bookish bragging. She shares how she, like many women writers, asks herself the questions, “Is this a thing worthy of pride?” and “Am I deserving of attention?” And I’m here to tell you that, yes, she is.

Caroline Hagood: When and how did this novel begin? Was there a key first image or idea that launched the whole thing, or did the book come to you more fully formed?

Naima Coster: I started Halsey Street the fall after I published a personal essay in the New York Times about gentrification in Fort Greene, where I grew up. I knew I wanted to explore that feeling of dislocation further and to offer some kind of record, however small, of the Brooklyn I knew and loved. I set out to write a book about home, loss, and memory, and I was surprised that it also became a book about an estranged mother and daughter. I started with one character, Penelope, but the absence of her mother, Mirella, started to haunt the book. Slowly, Mirella began to steal the book away and soon the story belonged to her too.

CH: What’s your writing process like? What are your writing rituals?

NC: All I really need is caffeine and to be left alone. I’ve adapted when I write to match the rhythm of my life at any given point. In college, I wrote at night after everyone else had gone to sleep. Now that I teach, I steal time whenever I can, especially during lulls in the semester. The summer is golden time.

I try not to be too precious about my rituals so that I can’t whip up any excuses not to write. I usually set a goal for how many words I’ll write or the place in the narrative I’ll reach, and then I sit in the chair until I get there. That’s it. I try to protect the time by not entertaining interruptions—no texts, no Internet, no breaks. It’s too easy to get derailed.

CH: How do you confront writer’s block when it arrives?

NC: I’ve learned to embrace nonproductive writing as a way to keep working. If I get stuck, I’ll write pages that I know will never make it into a draft: pages of a character speaking directly to me in her voice, descriptions of how all my characters look, memories, a list of insights or sensations I want to incorporate somehow into the story. As long as I keep working, something will eventually crop up that captures my interest and allows me to find my way back in.

CH: What was your journey to publication like?

NC: In the four years I was writing Halsey Street, I thought mostly about the story itself and not how the book might eventually fit into the market. Once I started to shop it around, I felt pressure to compensate for the choice I’d made to write a quiet, deeply internal book that deals with themes of race, gender, and class. I encountered this idea that I’d have to trick or entice a reader to pick up a book like mine, either by making the plot flashier or paring back on the social context. I resisted this logic but I came across it more than once.

I was so lucky to find an amazing editor in Morgan Parker who is also a writer and a woman of color. Morgan had a vision to grow the book, but she didn’t want to change the kind of book it was at its heart. I never felt I had to justify the book’s existence to her or prove it could appeal to a wider audience. It was a huge gift to me so early in my career to work with her and benefit from her encouragement, power, and brilliance.

CH: What advice would you give to other writers working on first novels?

NC: Writing is hard, but it’s also fun and relatively straightforward—you put words on the page, you reread them, change them, write more words. The psychological hurdles are often trickier. Although I’ve considered myself a writer since I was a girl, while I worked on Halsey Street, I still had fears about committing myself to writing and being all in. I had feelings of failure, doubt, anxieties about money, some timidity about giving myself the permission to make art. I don’t think I’d have finished the book if I didn’t have a good therapist, rich relationships, and a sustaining spiritual life. I encourage other first-time novelists to commit to their own wellbeing so they can weather the uncertainties and setbacks that are sure to come up. Exercise, pray, see friends, take medication, whatever you need. The healthier I am the more productive I am and the more clearly I can see what a damn good way writing is to spend my life and time.

CH: Do you have a favorite line or passage from a novel?

NC: Near the end of the novel, Penelope goes for a walk over the Brooklyn Bridge with her landlords’ daughter, Grace. It’s a moment of great tenderness between the characters, and it’s also a love letter from me to New York City. The bridge is iconic and will probably be familiar to many readers, but I tried to include a few surprises and capture some of the magic of walking the bridge at night.

CH: Who are you reading right now and who were you reading as you wrote the novel? To what extent did that reading shape the book?

NC: While I was writing the novel, I read Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante. The intensity of the emotions in the book and the raw edges of the language startled me. I was so accustomed to being more restrained in my own writing both with respect to the pitch of the prose and the action. Ferrante gave me courage to be a bit looser and wilder with the language and the feeling in my book.

As I wrote, I was also turning over and responding to pieces of other novels that have stayed with me—the eviction scene in Invisible Man, the trope of the madwoman in the attic in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, the idea of wifely patience in The Odyssey, and the expansive, beautiful ending of Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Lately, I’ve read and loved LaRose by Louise Erdrich and Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Erdrich writes in a way that allows you to come to know a wide cast of characters so swiftly and deeply. And Hamid’s book is totally engrossing—as soon as it was over, I wanted to read it again.

CH: What sociopolitical issues in particular sparked this book? What lasting messages did you want it to have?

NC: I wanted to write about how gentrification is embodied, how its consequences are felt by individuals and reverberate through a community. I wanted to resist the impulse to treat gentrification as an inconvenient, inevitable backdrop to a good Brooklyn life. I wanted to interrogate the messy, complicated, often devastating ways it shapes people’s lives. I knew I couldn’t tell all the stories there are to tell about gentrification in Brooklyn, but I wanted to make a small contribution against the normalization of gentrification and the erasure of displaced people.

CH: If your book had a theme song, what would it be?

NC: This is nearly an impossible question to answer! Halsey Street is largely about the different things we use to hold our emotions when we feel that we can’t—running, sex, art-making, gin drinking, and, above all, music. But if I had to pick just one song, I’d say, “After the Rain” by John Coltrane. It’s melancholy, but it’s not a song of mourning. There’s the promise in the title of some sort of shift, a kind of renewal after the rain has passed.