Right after I finished reading “The Falconer,” I wanted to talk with Dana Czapnik.
Actually, that’s not quite accurate — after I finished Czapnik’s debut novel, one that immerses you so thoroughly in its characters’ milieu that, at a certain point, you feel as though you’re living the story not just reading about it, I felt as if she and I had already had a long conversation. We talked about ambition and heartache and what it was like to be a kid growing up in the city. We talked about bands and weed and Kurt Cobain and Georgia O’Keeffe and sports. Really, I don’t remember half of what we talked about.
Except we never had a real conversation. I had only read her book, picked it up almost at random one night at Book Culture near Columbia University then had a really tough time putting it down.
A coming-of-age tale of love and basketball set on the Upper West Side of Manhattan during the time of Nirvana and Liz Phair, “The Falconer” has an effortless charm to it, one that recalls the best work of the playwright and filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan. Or maybe “Breaking Away” transplanted from the 1979 heartland to early 90’s Zabar’s Country. You could compare it to “Catcher in the Rye” too, I suppose, but that would be boring.
Of course, “The Falconer” is a novel and a very good one, so, if you care about those sorts of things, there is a plot, one that deals with a teenage b-ball phenom grappling with looming adulthood while enjoying a freedom she won’t have for very much longer. But plot is almost beside the point. What lingers here is the longing, the deadpan humor, and the sense of being inside characters’ lives instead of watching them from afar. All of which and more is what makes “The Falconer” one of the most enjoyable novels of 2019 and one of my all-time favorite New York books. And it’s also why I took a long time before I reached out to talk with Czapnik — I wanted to wait a little while longer before allowing the spell to be broken.
This conversation — about living in the New York of “The Falconer” while coping with what that New York has become — has been edited for length, clarity and flow.
Adam Langer: Have you ever had a novel or a work of art affect you to the point where you didn’t want to actually meet the person who created it? Like you thought the book or the song or the film was so good that you worried that talking to the person might somehow harm the experience?
Dana Czapnik: I haven’t really. I’ve seen artists and writers who gave readings that I was slightly disappointed in. I’ve also seen writers who have completely blown me away and who have made the books that they’ve written even more incredible. But this is an era where there aren’t too many bad boys in the art world like there used to be in the time of the Beats when so many of the great artists were assholes. I’ve actually had this conversation with other writers and we were all sort of sad that you have to be so well-behaved these days, that there are no more iconoclasts.
AL: When you mention that you’ve seen people who’ve blown you away, who are you thinking of?
DC: Patti Smith totally blew me away. I’ve actually never seen her perform, but I love her music and her writing. In person, she’s equally impressive and even more erudite and well-spoken and has incredible artistic recall. I find her mesmerizing.
AL: One of the things that appealed to me about your book is that a lot of novels that are considered “New York books” have a pervasively smug, clubby New York attitude to them. I didn’t sense that in your book at all. I’m assuming that you’re writing about your era and the New York you grew up in.
DC: I’m a little bit younger than my protagonist, Lucy Adler, but I grew up on the Upper West Side in the 80s and 90s, yes.
AL: And you still live there.
DC: I do.
AL: So you’ve had a front row seat at the gentrification of the neighborhood. Have you noticed it as it has been happening? Or have you been so close to it that it’s hard to notice the changes?
DC: I notice everything. I know there’s a backlash to people who lament the bad old days. Obviously, crime has gone down and it’s a much safer city and it’s much cleaner — all those things are true. But I really feel as though, during the Bloomberg and also the Giuliani administrations, the soul of the city was sold to the highest bidder. Every day I look out my window, there’s another patch of sky that’s being replaced by a completely useless high-rise that’s just going to sit half-empty. I feel very sensitive about what’s happening to New York. But everybody feels the same way, and no one’s been able to do anything about it.
AL: You have a long history with the city; your grandparents lived here.
DC: They came here in 1947; they were Holocaust survivors. They lived in Harlem for most of my dad’s life. They moved to the Upper West Side in 1965.
AL: Did you grow up knowing their stories?
DC: I did, but they never told me their stories to me specifically. My grandmother only once referenced her story when she was talking to me. She had escaped a cattle car; she jumped out the window. On her way to one of the camps, somebody handed her some kind of knife to cut the chicken wire on one of the windows and she squeezed out of the window while the car was moving. She was shot twice in the back by one of the S.S. who was on one of the cars and saw her. It was winter at the time and somehow she got lucky. The bullets passed through and didn’t hit any major organs and she was able to wait, and the snow helped her wounds congeal, and in the middle of the night, she was able to creep into a local village. Somebody took her in and hid her in a hole in the basement with a couple of other Jews who were fleeing the Nazis. She hid there for the remainder of the war. I don’t know how long she was in there but it was a long time, maybe two years.
AL: You heard this story from your parents?
AL: How did knowing this story impact you?
DC: My grandparents were Hasidic — my entire dad’s side of the family was Hasidic. I was brought up very secular; my dad said “this isn’t for me.” My mom also comes from a very religious home and she felt the same way as my dad. I grew up in a very secular Jewish home, and I describe myself as very much a cultural New York Jew. My immediate family and my grandparents and cousins and all that — we were kind of Others to each other. After a certain age, I wasn’t allowed to give my uncle a hug. It was this different world, and I’m sure we seemed like The Other to them. I grew up with the ambient trauma of the Holocaust because my dad was very haunted by his parents’ stories and the psychological effect it had on them, but he also grew up with these absolutely incredible stories of survival. My grandfather was a Talmudic scholar; he had all of this knowledge. And if he had read a lot of Western literature, he probably would have loved it, because so many of his stories had a literary quality to them. His stories felt so far away to me and from my own childhood and the world that I was growing up in in New York and in America, but what I took away from them was the sense that nothing is ever guaranteed. And growing up, there was always a sense of never taking any of what we had for granted.
AL: Did that state of mind, that tendency to question, help to form you as a writer?
DC: In some ways, yes. I have an obsession with America in a way that a lot of Jewish writers that have preceded me have had. Most of us came here running from something and because of that, our experience is very different from those who were born into it. Though, my book isn’t necessarily about America in that broad way that Philip Roth was writing about America or Bellow was writing about America, but I am similarly interested in it.
AL: The statue of the falconer in Central Park is very important symbolically for Lucy, the main character in your novel; did it have the same sort of significance for you growing up in New York?
DC: It mostly became relevant when I was writing the book. I always liked the statue but it never had any kind of meaning for me. I picked that statue because I wanted to have a scene in Central Park, and I thought how cool would it be if Lucy stumbled across a statue where she saw something of herself. I was walking around and I couldn’t find a statue of a woman. It never occurred to me that I’ve been walking through this park my entire life and every single statue I’ve been looking at has been the statue of some historical man. That sort of made me think, well maybe there’s something in that, that girls don’t see themselves represented in public art. So, that’s sort of how that scene developed for me.
AL: The old New York — what do you miss most about it?
DC: I miss the character. I really miss it. And I guess it’s really just all sort of about aesthetics which feels sort of shallow. But there was a lot of charm to this city. I miss the grittiness even if the grittiness was unsafe.
AL: Did anything unsafe ever happen to you?
DC: No, I never had any problems. But if you’re a New York City kid, you know where not to go and what not to do. You have kind of a Spidey sense that somebody who’s just coming into the city for the evening from the suburbs might not have. And the thing that I had too which I don’t think kids have now was complete and utter freedom. As long as I was home by a certain time, I could go wherever I wanted to. I had a subway pass and my friends and I would go all over the city and my parents would have no idea where I was.
AL: Are there specific things you miss — not just ambience, freedom and grit?
DC: Two things: I grew up on 82nd Street. And Shakespeare and Company used to be on 80th and Broadway. It closed maybe in 1994. It was a beloved institution, and everybody was devastated when that bookstore closed.
AL: What’s the other thing?
DC: The other thing that I’ll mourn forever is H & H Bagels.
AL: But there’s another H & H Bagels open on the Upper West Side now.
DC: Yeah, but it’s not the same.
Adam Langer is the Forward’s senior editor for culture and features. Born and raised in Chicago, he is the author of the novels “Crossing California,” “The Washington Story,” “Ellington Boulevard,” “The Thieves of Manhattan” and “The Salinger Contract” as well as the memoir “My Father’s Bonus March.” His forthcoming novel “Cyclorama” will be published in 2022.