Sunday, November 14, 2010

Story Rx: Flirt with your favorite city... in writing. Make a city a character

I'm in a New York state of mind.

And I have Rachel Cohn and David Levithan to blame for it.

A couple weeks ago, it was through their avatars Nick & Nora and their infinite playlist of snarky yet tender banter, their quintissential bridge-and-tunnel meets lower East Side I-cut-holes-in-my-stockings-that-I-just-got-at-Ricky's-on-my-dad's-credit-card vibe. Maybe I was never as cool as Nick & Nora, but they weren't so judge-y as to remind me of that fact as I read their novel. Just as I wasn't so crass as to remind them that I was a middle aged woman with my own credit card and they weren't even of age, nonetheless, well, real.

It was a perfect relationship. Me, the two make-believe teens with alliterative names, and the city. *sigh* The City.

Nick&Nora didn't seem to mind if, even in my Manhattan heyday, I never went to clubs with queercore bands or walked around Park Avenue at sunrise, or even ate borscht in some alphabet city diner.  But their novel reminded me of a time when Manhattan and I were much more flirty. When I actually dressed up (or dressed down) for my rendezvous with the city. When the city and I locked eyes in the subway, exchanged phone numbers in Gristedes, and kissed in running taxicabs. Before I had kids, before I hit the suburbs, before I went gluten free, Manhattan and I used to pick up baguettes and cheese and wine and have picnics in central park - whether the symphony was playing or not. New York uncomplainingly held my purse while I shopped for chachkis in Chinatown, it held my hand in the dark at the Paris theater, and it took me for breakfast at 3am at that great French place in the meatpacking district WAY before it became trendy.

I was a little bereft when I had to leave Nick&Nora behind the closed covers of their book. More bereft, perhaps, than when I actually left New York City. And so I'm just beyond delighted to have met my two new New York City loves: Dash&Lily. Oh, and one more character in our menage-a-many urban romance: the Strand bookstore.

The Strand. The Straaand. The Strand! *shiver* Ah, that delightful palace of bookishness, that perfumerie specializing in eau-de-slightly-musty-out-of-print-volumes, that kink store of orgasmic intellectualism.

I drove down 5th avenue yesterday morning from 110th street to 23rd... my love New York was still rubbing the sleep out of its eyes. But even with sticky-up hair, even with bleary eyes, even with morning breath steaming out of its subway grates, my city was beautiful. From Harlem and El Museo del Barrio to Eloise and the Plaza, the UN, and everything in between. But to be honest, I have Dash&Lily to thank for reminding me how much I love this city.

Which got me thinking - what other novels make me feel this way? About this city or any other? The television show Sex and The City did, for about a season, until it spoiled our romance by over-selling the idea of "city as character" -- kind of like, I guess, the Disney-fication of 42nd street. After a few seasons, and a few thousand Manolo Blahnik references, that idea didn't feel fresh any more. Not so with either Nick&Nora, or Dash&Lily. (or, I suppose, Cohn and Levithan)

So I thought I'd ask you, what novels (YA or otherwise) remind you how much you love your city (ies)?

How many of you have written "cities as characters" in your own writing?



  1. Not sure I have - but I want to. lol My novel wip does take place in the city, but at the beginning I wasn't sure it did or if I should make up a city or if it was the city with a few changes . . . Anyway, in the beginning it was any city and I am not sure I have yet managed to give it the city flavor.

  2. I love reading Edith Wharton because her city is familiar but different for obvious reasons. It is interesting to read about Manhattan at the turn of her century and compare it with my own. I get so homesick sometimes it hurts. This is the time of year when it affects me deeply, with the holiday season gradually taking over the streets, everything lit and decorated to a sparkly madness.

    As for making place more relevant in my own writing, I have moments where I think I do it well and then others when I can see I am not really sure where my characters live. How can they move through their lives when I don't even know where they are? It's all a process.

  3. Thanks for the comments Satia and Story Treasury - I love Edith Wharton for that same reason - it's sometimes like time travel, isn't it, to walk through a place (Washington Square Park, for instance) NOW but remember the description of THEN... I was also thinking about Rohinton Misry and the way he does that same thing for modern day Mumbai. Salman Rushdie too.
    Good luck with both of your writing too!