The Taos News
John Biscello goes back to Brooklyn
ORIGINALLY FROM BROOKLYN, N.Y., writer, poet, performer and playwright, John Biscello, has lived in Taos since 2001.
The author of three novels, Broken Land; a Brooklyn Tale, Raking the Dust, and Nocturne Variations, a collection of stories, Freeze Tag, and a poetry collection, Arclight. Broken Land was named Underground Book Reviews 2014 Book of the Year. He has also adapted classic fables paired with vintage illustrations by artist, Paul Bransom, for the collection: Once Upon a Time, Classic Fables Reimagined. Another collection of poems, Moonglow on Mercy Street, was published last year. The author is as prolific as he is well-read. He devours literature and nods to myriad and diverse influences in his own work.
For this new outing, Biscello returns to his point of origin: the gritty, mean streets of Brooklyn before gentrification; the Brooklyn that has always been the gateway to the waves of immigrants that have created this melting pot, that is America. A borough of immigrants – Italians, Irish and Jews, then Puerto Ricans and Asians, now Russians and Arabs – it has a storied history in America’s melting pot experiment.
I wondered how that aspect – the scrappy, hardscrabble side – came into play while writing Brooklyn? Turns out with Biscello, you don’t judge a book by its cover (discover more in Amy Boaz’s review on page 10.)
I caught up with the mercurial and very busy Biscello recently, to catch up and chat about the book. We share Brooklyn roots (my father was born there) along with a shared penchant for Henry Miller, another Brooklyn native, which lends a certain camaraderie to our infrequent conversations.
No Man’s Brooklyn eh? One look at the cover and I know I’m jumping into a pronoun situation I can’t be sure of, but sense a NYC vibe I am slightly familiar with – a walk on the wild side for sure! Wanna dive a little deeper with a tease for our readers?
The interesting thing about that cover ... I had approached my publisher, who is this world-class photographer, and asked him if he would dig through his material, and see if there was an image he thought corresponded to the book, one that might make for a good creative
marriage with the spirit of the book.
Enter this drag queen from a Parisian event that Pierre (my publisher) had covered, and there was something deliciously intriguing about this image, and somehow it did fit with the book, though not in any direct way.
I get a sort of ribald Toulouse Lautrec vibe from the pic. And I thought it was a wonderful crossroads, this photo snapped in Paris, which was representing a Brooklyn book. As for the title (cue Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”) No Man’s Brooklyn, as in a “no man’s land,” yet also the book speaks to masculine aggression, the machismo and flinty “manliness” of the neighborhood where I grew up, while also diving into the limited and impoverished character that often marks father-son relationships.
This habituated need to protect one’s “masculinity,” to not reveal “weakness” or vulnerability, is definitely something I grew up with, something I saw everywhere (still do), contend with myself ... There’s also that sense of getting lost or stuck in the place where you grow up, whether it be an urban neighborhood or a small town, that fear of not being able to escape, or get out. Wanting to broaden one’s horizons and all that jazz.
You have several books under your belt, have lived here in Taos for two decades, co-parenting your daughter here; yet you remain the quintessential New Yorker – what made you circle back to the ‘hood for this story?
I circled back because I got the itch to write my “Brooklyn” novel. I had written a collection of stories, Freeze Tag, which reflected my neighborhood (Bensonhurst), but wanted to get the Brooklyn of my youth channeled into a novel. Several stories from Freeze Tag provided starting points and a framework for No Man’s Brooklyn.
I wanted to expand on certain themes and ideas, go deeper. There’s this saying, “When you leave Brooklyn, you ain’t going nowhere.” I always felt that to be true, in a way that was specific to my own sensibility as a writer. I have lived in Taos for 20 years, but a part of me continues to live in the Brooklyn of my imagination, the Brooklyn of my childhood, or revisits there for endless source material. From a distance, I feel closer to things, and that has definitely been the case with my days as a Brooklyn boy with eternally scraped knees and dirty elbows.
There’s this passage from the book, to which I relate or which resonates with me: “Childhood is an ongoing historical fiction that changes based on who you are when you’re examining it. Who you are in certain periods and chapters in your life, determines what your childhood is ... would imply that childhood is fixed in some kind of static port, but that would not be accurate. Is because it changes according to you, the viewer.”
What else do you think might have inspired you write this story at this time?
Well, another reason for this book: after I had finished my novel, Nocturne Variations, which was more experimental in nature and structure, I wanted to do something that was a bit more straightforward, something that felt like “home.”
These characters, though fictionalized, are all very near and dear to my heart in reflecting a bygone era, and a time of innocence and innocence lost. At the heart of this tale, is a love story, first love in all its messiness and excitement and confusion and wonder. Then there’s the hungry ghost of addiction and the way it swallows lives. That too is a big part of this book. I went off on a bit of a tangent there, but so be it. I’m a tangential kind of guy.
Your partner is an amazing visual artist (Izumi Yokoyama) will you collaborate on more projects in the future?
Izumi and I worked together on a book called The Jackdaw and the Doll, a fable that I wrote and she illustrated. It came out several months ago. The process between us was quite harmonious, and getting to see the “art sorcery” Izumi conjured, from the text I had written, was absolutely thrilling. We were like co-midwives, helping to birth a beautiful book into the world. So, yeah, that book is out and available, and I highly suspect that she and I will work together on future projects. To love someone, and to be able to creatively merge and collaborate with that someone you love ... how sweet it is!
Not one to ever sit on your laurels, what are you working on now?
I am presently at work on a new novel, titled: No One Dreams in Color.
For more information on John Biscello and his work, visit johnbiscello. com.