From a Newtown Literary contributor: Nicholas Clemente
Writer Nicholas Clemente’s work was featured in issue #12 of Newtown Literary. We interviewed him about his writing and his answers are below.
When you think of Queens, what first comes to mind?
Queens is first and foremost a place where people live, which is an unfortunately unique situation in New York City. When I look at footage of Manhattan from the 1980s and 1990s I am struck by how little scaffolding there is, how little construction. I assume this was because people were busy living there and not just flipping real estate. In Queens, there is also not so much scaffolding. People here are living, not competing. When I lived in Brooklyn I always found myself in inward opposition to everyone around me: locals who clearly did not want me there, other artists who clearly did not share my vision, and arrivistes who were clearly driving the rent even higher. There is much less of that in Queens, for the simple reason that Queens is a place where people live.
How does Queens influence your writing?
I love getting to know people who live outside the typical narrative of other artist-transplants like myself. Though it's a terrible and exploitative idea to write explicitly about the people around you, a few discreetly borrowed details are enough to seed an entire story. Normal, middle class, unambitious, un-neurotic people who have never read a book, the type of people you'd never meet in an MFA program—I wish I could more eloquently express the beauty inherent in this type of life.
Unfortunately, it seems that to be able to write well about a place you have to be alienated from it as well. How Italian was Stendhal, how Irish was Joyce, how southern was Flannery O'Connor? I acknowledge that I'll always be something of an outsider here, but life in this borough is always a fascinating window to look into.
What inspires you?
Mostly I'm inspired by French and Russian writers from the Romantic and early Modern eras. I love their dedication to psychological realism and philosophical inquiry, the quiet confidence with which they unfold their ordinary stories. The structure of our society may have changed since then, but I think it's still important to look at these writers and try to figure out what was so rich in their literature and what is so lacking in ours. (Maybe we should put more duels in our books?)
Outside of literature I'm always inspired by artists who don't break rules just to break them, but create an idiom that is entirely their own within the confines of existing conventions. In the world of film, Terrence Malick and Martin Scorsese come immediately to mind, but there are countless examples across countless mediums.
What does your writing process/routine look like?
I like to work in small batches of drafts to avoid getting too attached or hung up on a particular manuscript. Usually I'll write out a couple stories at once, then cull the best, edit them, and eventually type them up. Even at this point they might get left behind, since you only send the most promising examples out for publication, and by the time all the rejections come in there's a new project that you're more excited about anyway. It's a lot easier to let go of the inevitable false starts this way than by doing something drastic like throwing them into the fireplace.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?
I spend a lot of time helping out at St. Sebastian's church in Woodside. Whenever I'm talking to an artist in crisis (and we are almost always in crisis) I like to remind them that they'll go crazy if they make art the most important thing in their lives. Second most important is probably fine, but it's definitely unhealthy to hinge your happiness on success, which is fleeting at best, and at worst, a matter of chance.
What writing project(s) are you currently working on?
I have a couple novels that are constantly under revision; as with my stories, I like to rotate them around to get a fresh look at them and make it easier to cut out huge swaths of manuscript. Then I'll put them aside for months or years and work on short stories when I feel I need a break. Publishing is such a gamble it's a big help (psychologically, if not practically) to keep a lot of bets going at once.