Ben Schrank and author and frequent Forward contributor Joshua Furst met up at The Brooklyn Inn with the intention of drinking some beer and discussing fiction, Brooklyn and their complicated relationships with Jewishness. Schrank recently published his wise, big-hearted new novel, “Love Is a Canoe.” Since much of the story revolves around publishing and the role that books play in our lives — and large portions of it take place in Brooklyn — the time seemed right to bring these two friends together to discuss these issues. As is their way, the men leaped right in, as though their conversation had been going on for hours.
Ben Schrank: So Philip Roth tells us he’s a regional writer?
Joshua Furst: He said he was a regional writer, and his region happens to be made up of Jews.
If Philip Roth is a regional writer, then we are all regional writers. I identify, shamefacedly, as a Brooklyn writer whether I like that definition or not.
I consider you to be a Brooklyn writer. But of a more authentic Brooklyn than the one we seem to be living in now.
Well, historically, being from cultural Brooklyn is the same as being culturally Jewish. I grew up in Brooklyn, so I have to self-identify as someone who grew up in a series of neighborhoods that were bedroom communities to Manhattan, and that’s really what they were — these self-created communities.
Primarily Jewish self-created communities.
Primarily liberal self-created communities. I would identify as culturally liberal and culturally Jewish and familiar with, you know, Leonard Michaels’s “Men’s Club.” My father was in a men’s club in 1972, 3, 4, and I must have derived my identity from that existence. Secondarily, its relationship to being Jewish and having proximity to a world center like New York. If you grow up in a place and never leave it, you become doubly identified with that place.
Do you identify with the new literary Brooklyn, the Brooklyn of Jhumpa Lahiri and Jonathan Lethem?
I am happy to know of that Brooklyn, but I don’t think I can identify with it. Although, Lethem grew up on Dean Street and so did I. But do you get to identify as what you want to be or as what you are and who identifies you?
Do you think it’s even possible anymore to identify as a nonreligious, culturally Jewish writer? Is that a thing anymore?
Maybe the question, if you identify as a thing and no one cares, then you can’t wear that identity. A Jewish writer as I understand it is someone who writes about Jewish concerns, primarily for a Jewish audience. Which is a fine thing, but no, I don’t think that anybody would allow me to wear the title of Jewish writer.