Michael Cunningham: I agree that Chang-rae Lee should be more famous.
Kitamura: But he is very famous, right?
Cunningham: I know I know. But there should be more statues. There should be more pop-up shops that only sell Chang-rae Lee-related products. Like many others I have researched, this book portrays diverse New York. One of the things I love about city life is that you can’t really go out and walk for 10 minutes and look at the people you pass on the street and imagine that you are, in some way or another, a typical member of the human species. This is perhaps at least as true for New York as for any other major city, and perhaps more so.
Guadagnino: This brings me to my next question, and I’d be especially curious to hear what the fiction writers in the group think about it: Does New York particularly lend itself to fiction?
Kitamura: I will say that stories can sometimes feel bigger in New York. I’m not just speaking in terms of fiction but, when I’m in town, the stories, the dramas, the emotions all seem higher, and I think that lends itself to a certain type of fiction. But Michael, you should answer – I’ve never written anything set in New York.
Cunningham: And it seems like I only write stuff that takes place in New York, mostly because I’ve lived here a long time and feel like I can at least talk about it with some degree of authenticity. If I lived in Paris, the novels would take place in Paris. Although I suspect it is more possible for someone like me to live in a Paris where you would see very few people who are not like you.
Chotiner-Gardner: Michael, can I back up a bit? I agree with this premise overall. However, I think many New Yorkers live in enclaves. If you lived in the West Village, where the bookstore I work in is, and you never left, I think you would see a very small layer of New York. Even though most of us wander around the city or try to visit different boroughs or even just take the subway, some people never seem to do these things.
Cunningham: I totally understand. It is undeniable that there are parts of New York that are sequestered. But I’ll push back because I’m speaking to you from the West Village, a block and a half from Washington Square Park. Spend the proverbial 10 minutes in the park and you’ll see plenty of non-white, bohemian villagers. It’s almost a question of which block we’re talking about.
Chotiner-Gardner: Sure, and how much you want to look outside of yourself, right? How much you notice and put into other people’s experiences is why, to some degree, I think we all come to books.
Kitamura: It’s also a great premise for character building, isn’t it? What they see and don’t see as they move around the city. One thing I think the novel [as a form] is particularly effective in capturing a relationship between an individual and a larger social context or structure. And I think New York has plenty of them. You can have singular stories that may or may not engage with the city around them.