Chicago-based author Stuart M. Ross grew up in Elmhurst, Queens. His debut novel, Jenny in Corona, was published in September of this year by Tortoise Books. The novel, set partly in Queens, is currently available for purchase directly from the publisher, as well as on Amazon. Here, he speaks with us about his most vivid memories from growing up in Queens and about the long road to publication. You may learn more about Stuart's work on his website, or follow him on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.
When you think of Queens, what first comes to mind?
The light of the R train shining into the Roosevelt Ave station, which meant I would soon be home. I grew up between the Grand Avenue and Woodhaven Boulevard stops. Like right between. I think I once counted the steps and Grand was twenty steps closer, but getting off at Woodhaven meant I could walk through the mall.
Other memories include my dad searching for free parking a mile from Shea Stadium, tagging up my initials down under the Maspeth LIRR tracks, and, when I worked off the 36th Street stop in college, taking the train to Lexington so I could slurp Hale and Hearty soups, with the real players.
How does Queens influence your writing?
Well, I’m not “I am Queens Boulevard” like Vincent Chase or anything, but the tension between diversity and oneness in Queens is an evergreen subject . . . the up-and-coming-ness of Queens overall . . . having to travel interborough to the LES or Brooklyn for parties . . . the desire to leave but never leave your apartment: these are all important themes in Jenny in Corona. And of course the art feel in Queens in general: A Tribe Called Quest trading rhymes on the boulevard of Linden, Joseph Cornell boxing himself in, and Kerouac writing novels in Ozone Park.
What kind of music, if any, did you find yourself listening to while writing this novel?
I don't normally write to music. But I think everyone sooner or later ends up making a playlist for what they're working on. I actually shared a playlist for Jenny in Corona with Largehearted Boy, which can be found here.
What is the last piece of writing you read that made you laugh or cry (or just especially moved you)?
A poem in Ryan Black’s The Tenant of Fire called “Why Bother?” Ryan is the Director of Undergraduate Creative Writing at Queens College. This poem turns from a knowing critique of Jonathan Franzen’s essay about how the celebrated yet still melancholy author needed to escape Queens for the whiter pastures the Yaddo writer’s colony in Saratoga Springs, into an emotional account of a family member’s overdose. Ryan’s entire book of poems challenges the notions of what it means to be relevant, what it means “to bother”, and what it means to be a white writer from a non-white place.
How did you come to write this novel?
Like many novels, especially debuts, Jenny in Corona had a long road to publication. I moved to Chicago in 2007 and wasn’t writing much. In the summer of 2010, I was back in Queens, and we were sitting in a Forest Hills schoolyard, my friend Justin's exactly, and we were thinking: what happened to us here? My sister was there, often she wasn’t, and I must have assumed some of her resolve. When I returned to Chicago I started writing for real again, which ended up what was eventually published, on September 10th, as Jenny in Corona. So that’s about nine years. Which isn’t bad!
What does your writing process/routine look like?
I rarely sleep.
What writing project(s) are you currently working on?
Just finished a new novel. Right now it’s called I Love Our Cyclops. It’s about a wealthy Chicago couple’s fertility journey. Half parody, half heartfelt. We have high hopes for it.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?
I live very close to Lake Michigan. At sunrise, I ride the free city bikes in circles around the bike path. Lake Michigan isn’t the ocean, but it’s close. As a friend of mine from the UK says, Lake Michigan seems bigger than my entire country.
What is your favorite bit of Queens trivia?
There are passages in “The Future April” chapter of Jenny in Corona that take place around the St. James Church in Elmhurst, which my grandmother always called the oldest church in America. Grandma was incorrect. But I still believe her.