The author Jonathan Franzen said: “The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention”. I understood what he meant by that when I sat down to write my new novel The Ballad of New York.
The book is the story of a young Irish musician who is living in what he feels is a dead-end relationship and working in a dead-end job. He decides to move to New York to try to make a living doing the one thing he loves – playing music.
Although I lived in New York for nearly five years, The Ballad of New York is NOT a memoir. In fact, I like to call it a “fictional memoir”. I didn’t set out to write a memoir. I set out – first and foremost – to write an entertaining book. And I wanted the book to be about more than just my experiences in the city. I wanted to try to capture the essence of New York and specifically, of Brooklyn where I lived.
Brooklyn is a hundred different cities squeezed into one landmass. Paris has its Arch de Triomphe, its Gardens of Versailles, and its Pere Laichese; Brooklyn has Grand Army Plaza, Prospect Park and Greenwood Cemetery. Atlantic City has its boardwalks; Brooklyn has Coney Island. San Francisco has its bay and its bridge; Brooklyn has the Narrows and the Verrazano Bridge.
All the countries of the world are there. Bay Ridge with its Irish bars, the young bar staff straight off the plane, its Egyptian cafes where the men sit smoking hookah pipes and drinking coffee that looks like tar, and its sports bars, where the last of a dying breed gather to hum Sinatra tunes and talk about what life used to be like; Russia in Brighton Beach; Poland in Greenpoint; the Caribbean on Flatbush Avenue; Israel in Borough Park, where orthodox Jews swarm the streets in the early hours of Sunday morning after the Sabbath has ended; Mexico, Guatemala and Puerto Rico in Sunset Park, and Italy in Bensonhurst.
New York is timeless. Twenty years before I was there, someone else lived there and had a similar experience to me, and right now another person is there having a similar experience. That’s what I wanted to capture. That it’s not about me – this could happen to anyone.
So, I took my experiences and I added stories I’d heard from other people, and I even invented a few scenarios. In the process, the book became more than just a story about New York – it became a story about growing up in Ireland in the 80s and 90s, and a story about music. The power that music has to touch us in a way that almost nothing else can – the power to change our lives.
As I say at the start of the book, some characters and events are fictional.
A lot of it is true.
The Ballad of New York will be launched in GOMA Gallery of Modern Art, Waterford on Oct 20 at 6pm, as part of the Imagine Arts Festival.