Karl Taro Greenfeld on His New Book, Urban Origin Myths and Whether Dads Can “Have It All”

"I think every writer tends to write about his immediate environment."

  • Share
  • Read Later

Karl Taro Greenfeld’s new novel, Triburbia, opens with a detailed map of Manhattan below Canal Street. Drop pins mark the addresses of the book’s supporting characters: the photographer, the playwright, the puppeteer. But the novel’s main character is the neighborhood itself—the gritty-turned-gentrified Tribeca, where sweatshops and factories gave way to spacious lofts and bohemians gave way to bankers. In this tightly knit collection of stories, Greenfeld traces the origin myths of a well-heeled New York community and the stories behind the street facades, at a moment of pre-financial-crisis prosperity.

Greenfeld is a TIME contributor and a former editor of TIME Asia, and the author of five nonfiction books. He published his first short story in 2008 in The Paris Review (where I was then the managing editor). He talked to TIME about brand-name neighborhoods, dads who have it all and why he made the move from nonfiction to fiction.

TIME: The thing all your characters have in common is their neighborhood. One way or another they end up in Tribeca. What significance did the place have for you? How would you explain it to a non-New Yorker?

KTG: I live here, and I think every writer tends to write about his immediate environment. But Tribeca in particular worked in this case because there’s two concurrent ideas about Tribeca. It has a brand name which is synonymous with wealthy, urban living. It sounds like Malibu or Beverly Hills. It’s one of those neighborhoods that means something. But in New York, Tribeca has a more refined meaning—it’s the definition of extreme gentrification. It was settled by artists and bohemians, and the next wave that came in were faux-bohemians, bourgeois bohemians, and this book is about the period when those people are beginning to be driven out by people who are just rich. I bought my loft from a puppeteer. I have a feeling I’m not going to be selling it to a puppeteer. I’ll be selling it to someone in financial services.

(MORE: All-TIME 100 Novels)

The book is very much about boomtown NYC. You started it before 2008, right? Did you know how much the financial crisis would change the lives of your characters?

I wrote the first chapter for The Paris Review, around 2008. I had this idea that I would write this book that was like a Winesburg, Ohio or a Dubliners of Tribeca—not that I’m comparing myself to Sherwood Anderson or James Joyce, but that idea of using a bunch of stories to bring to life a place and define a time and an era. I began writing these stories one after another, but my editor didn’t think that was a viable form for a novel at that time. So I went to California for a year or two in 2009 and Tribeca sort of froze in my mind. So my idea of Tribeca was encased in Lucite, and I could just walk around it and look at it. That’s why it feels like it’s all from that time. While that was happening, Visit from the Goon Squad happened and The Imperfectionists happened, and that idea of novel as stories was rediscovered.

In the first chapter you introduce a set of decently successful Tribeca dads who hang out and have breakfast after they drop their kids off at school. I took this scenario as proof that men can have it all. There’s a lot in the book from the father’s perspective, which isn’t something we hear about often.

I was interested in fatherhood since it’s been the defining experience in my 30s and 40s. Your investment in a place changes once you have kids. Tribeca was the place where my kids became part of my life in this community in a profound way. They were at school, I knew who was in their class, and those dads I was having coffee with were my daughters’ classmates’ fathers. You begin to feel wrapped in the web of a place in a much stronger way. The stakes change and the problems change. That’s why you have someone like the gangster character, who can deal with almost any problem by a combination of physical force and power and wealth, but the one problem he can’t deal with is when his daughter is being bullied in the fourth grade. That may be a particular Tribeca dynamic—there’s a certain code of behavior among the parents that you only realize when you rub up against it. It’s very laissez-faire about the inter-kid stuff. It’s a strangely capitalist way of dealing with inter-child relations, that they’re just all supposed to work it all out.

There’s a quality of luck about the Tribeca of Triburbia, as if it’s a place where people live charmed lives. Did you have the feeling you were tapping into some American Dream narrative? Does everybody’s life come down to real estate?

In New York, in America, in the world—isn’t land reform the biggest issue of our time? New York has always been about property—it’s the defining attribute of people’s lives, to the point where rent-control tenants will never leave their apartments, even when they’ve outgrown them. To have been lucky enough to buy a place in Tribeca at the right time, maybe that is the thing that sets these fathers apart. But I do go to pains to explain how people get where they are. I didn’t want to just write about rich people. Some of it’s dumb luck. Some of it is somebody who’s shrewd—it’s usually the wives who turn out to be the shrewd ones in the book, which is probably true in real life.

(MORE: Kurt Andersen on His New Novel, the Generation Gap and Pyromania)

One of your characters, who is accused of a James Frey-like scandal involving fabricating a memoir, says, “I had ended up writing nonfiction instead of fiction because of the realities of modern publishing. Magazines wanted journalism; book publishers wanted nonfiction. Who was I not to oblige?” You’ve written five nonfiction books. Why start writing fiction?

I would attribute it a little bit to the realities of publishing, and also the way that journalism has changed over the course of my career. I feel like my journalism has gotten less adventurous. I don’t take as many risks. My stories are less narrative-driven. Sometimes journalism can transcend and become great narrative art. Most of the time it doesn’t—most of the time you’re trying to pleasantly give information. I realized I just wasn’t very satisfied as a writer anymore, strictly writing nonfiction. I wasn’t as expansive in terms of storytelling. That was for me what precipitated a shift. I could tell stories in fiction that I could never tell in nonfiction anymore—maybe because I wasn’t as good a reporter, but also because I felt constrained. The world seems to be looking at all these things in a different way. And then I was lucky enough to publish a story, and I thought, OK, I can do this. It’s more satisfying creatively for me. And I can still do journalism. It’s all writing, but it’s a different muscle.

What are you reading this summer?

I just read Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker. I’m reading the John Irving. I’m really looking forward to Canada, the Richard Ford novel. And I just read The Darlings—that’s a real top 1% novel—by Cristina Alger. A Madoff type of story. And now I’ve got to read stuff for work, so I’m reading nonfiction again.