EVOCATIVE UWS STORIES FROM AN AUTHOR WHO’S LIVED THEM

Joanna-Clapps-Herman1

By Nancy Novick

Not all of Joanna Clapps Herman’s fiction is set on the Upper West Side—as in the author’s real-life journey, there have been detours to other parts of the city and the world—but for the most part, the settings and the sensibility of the stories in No Longer and Not Yet, will be familiar to local readers. A hand-drawn map by author Lisa Wilde precedes the stories and reflects Herman’s personal vision of the neighborhood.

No Longer and Not YetImportant among the landmarks are 370 Riverside Drive, the locale for many of the stories, and the building where Herman, and philosopher Hannah Arendt, once lived. The new 96th Street subway station makes an appearance as does the Westside Market. But don’t expect the map to reflect a greater reality. In Ms. Herman’s world, landmarks like the Hungarian Pastry Shop appear tantalizingly close to Rome, where her first story begins.

Arts reviewer, Nancy Novick, recently sat down with Ms. Herman to find out more about the book and about the author’s experiences as a long-time UWS resident.

This interview has been lightly edited for brevity.

West Side Rag: Tell me about 370 Riverside and how Hannah Arendt became a part of the collection?
Joanna Clapps Herman: I was living in this building at 109th Street—where I stayed for 17 years. One day I saw an article on the mailroom bulletin board that said that Hannah Arendt had lived in the building. And I thought how could that be? A woman of her stature? And then I thought why did that matter to me? Celebrity is almost invariably silly and yet it gets us. I thought about it for a long time. And I thought if you imagine that this is meaningful, what is it you imagine? And it was that there would be a residue of her that would be here. I wanted to write about that idea, that there was something of her that was left here. I made up a character who comes into the building having learned that she had lived there. That’s where I began.

WSR: How long have you lived on the UWS?
JCH: Ever since I first moved to New York (from a small Connecticut town)—and for the better part of 50 years. The UWS side is home. Because it is part of our very sophisticated city, but it has enough of the grounding. It’s so hamish [the Yiddish word for friendly or homey], you feel you’re among people who love the big world, love their families and their homes. When my husband and I lived on 109th street, we loved nothing better than to walk down to Zabar’s through the park, Somehow we were always buying bread and nuts and dried fruit. You just feel like the supplies are right, the bookstores are right.

WSR: You mention that some of your stories are based on being a new mother and raising your son and your memories of those years. Did he go to school on the UWS?
JCH: He went to PS 87 and the middle school down the street from 87—also to the Cathedral School for a couple of years. After that it was Stuyvesant, Berkeley and then City College. Now he works at the NIH. He was mostly served best by public institutions. We were lucky—it worked. Also, I feel that people on the UWS raise their children for the larger world—we give that to them in a million little ways.

WSR: In addition to writing fiction and memoir, you teach writing. Can you tell me more about that?
JCH: I’ve taught just about every age group at every kind of institution—public and private. Right now, I teach fiction at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, and at the Center for Worker Education (part of City College.) I try to demystify the process of writing for my students. Once it’s the Holy Grail you can’t just do it, you can’t just make it work. And all writing is work, like anything else. I try to break it down into a meaningful task to help students understand “what’s the next logical step that needs to be taken here?” And when you don’t know what that is, how to back up, figure it out, and then move forward. I love the intensity of teaching. You care so much about them and about them understanding what you’re trying to communicate.

WSR: What importance has writing had in your life?
JCH: The fact that I have a writing life at all means everything to me. It was that long-held dream.

WSR: Okay, now the important UWS food question—where do you like to eat out?
JCH: Pisticci on LaSalle Street—the people who own it are from Basilicata, the same southern Italian province that my grandparents are from. It has extraordinarily good food. And Gennaro’s, Gabriella’s, and Numero 28 on Amsterdam. Also Henry’s and Turkuaz on Broadway.

WSR: Who do you like to read?
JCH: My very favorite novels are by Virgina Woolf–especially To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway. The scene at the end of To the Lighthouse when Lily is finishing her painting is a gorgeous a discussion of the artist’s connection to their work and the way in which they struggle to create, as well as what it feels like when you get there. I’m completely obsessed with Tolstoy–both Anna Karenina and War and Peace, which I read over and over and listen to on Audible too many times to count. I’m also having my own private George Eliot Festival right now–rereading Middlemarch, set off by Rebecca Mead’s book My Life in Middlemarch.

To learn more about Joanna Clapps Herman and her other work, visit her website at www.joannaclappsherman.com.

Nancy Novick is the arts reviewer and listings editor at westsiderag.com. She is also a medical editor and writer and blogs at Stacked-NYC.com.

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    1. Claire Gardner says:

      Joanna is a friend. We met when she was in Italy. But it is not because of this that I wish to recommend her book: it is because of the truthfulness and frankness with which she writes and because of her choice of words and acute observation. And above all for her humanism which underlies all she writes. We get to know more about how different humans feel and act.Fascinating.