N. West Moss
In Conversation with Elizabeth Martin
N. West Moss' work has appeared in The New York Times, The Saturday Evening Post, Salon, McSweeney's, Brevity, and elsewhere. She was the winner of The Saturday Evening Post’s Great American Fiction Contest as well as two Faulkner-Wisdom gold medals. The Subway Stops at Bryant Park is her first book. For more, visit nwestmoss.wordpress.com Below she discusses finding her characters while sitting quietly with her father in Bryant Park in New York City and exploring their hidden vulnerabilities.
Elizabeth Martin: Bryant Park is less well known in the scheme of Manhattan parks, but you transform it into a place of considerable wonder in your stories. Could you describe Bryant Park for us, as you see it? What is it about this park in particular that holds such magic for you?
N. West Moss: I am a New Yorker, and as such, I have never cared much for mid-town, a place that is usually reserved for tourists and businessmen. I'm a TriBeca girl, and a Brooklyn girl at heart. About 50 years ago, my parents bought a studio apartment right on Bryant Park. They got it cheap because it was known then as “Needle Park,” a haven for drug dealers. By the time my father was dying in about 2010, Bryant Park had been dramatically altered, and my father, unable to get around easily, spent more and more there because of its proximity. Unable to easily navigate the bicycle he used to use to get around the city, or even taxi cabs, he and I would slowly cross the street and sit in the park, quietly watching the world together for hours, just being together. We made up stories about the people we saw, and I came to understand that even mid-town Manhattan is made up of neighborhoods. This park had, in addition to tourists, regular people living nearby. There were older people, street sweepers, doormen, people who lived in the shelters and came to the park during the day, the homeless. It was a microcosm of city life that I was only able to recognize because I sat there quietly, hour upon hour, with my dying father.
Without trying to make it so, the park was appearing in almost everything I wrote, as though it was the canvas I was painting on. After it appeared in three or four of my stories in a row, I realized what was happening, and made a conscious choice then to write about the park, using the setting as both a backdrop and a character. If, in my mourning, I could not stop thinking about it, I would allow it into my stories.
EM: I’m glad you brought up all the people you would see while you were sitting with your father. In addition to the common connection of Bryant Park, your stories interlock as a character we meet peripherally in one story may take the lead role in another. Did you set out to do this intentionally with the collection? What was your process for writing interconnected stories?
NWM: I did not intentionally try to weave characters throughout these stories. If I had, I think it would have been a different book. There were a few real people from the park who haunted me and kept coming up in my imagination including Omeer, Benny, and Dubonnet. These were each based on someone I'd seen and couldn't forget, and they each got their own story, and some of them showed up in one another's stories. If you sit and watch a neighborhood for long enough, you come to realize that there really are people who show up in every story, sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foreground. Benny, for example, sweeps up leaves and garbage in the park. There's a guy I've watched for years who does that in Bryant Park. He's never looked up, never made eye contact. I've never seen him talk to anyone. I just see him work and work and work, day in and day out. I wanted to know what his life was like at home. Did he sweep up at home too, or was his apartment a mess? Was he a good guy or a serial killer? I wrote his story to find out. So this quiet person got a story of his own, but he also struck me as someone who would prefer to play a supporting part in a story, who would shun the spotlight, and so I let him rest in the background of a few other stories too. When I pictured him there sweeping in someone else's story, I put him in the story.
EM: Your character's vulnerabilities are often front and center. I think we're often trying quite hard to hide our most vulnerable parts from others, so I wonder how intentional of a choice this was on your part. What is it about the vulnerabilities of people that intrigues you?
NWM: Hmmm, well it wasn't a conscious choice to look at what's hidden, but I suppose I am not interested in what is most obvious about people. I am interested in what we are all hiding, what we are all ashamed about, our secret hopes and fears. Discovering a character that I want to write about is like falling in love. Sure, I like that their eyes are blue or brown, but I want to know much more than the superficial about them. I want to know what they love, and what they fear. I want to know what's annoying about them and what their own hopes once were, and what they are now that they are grown up and have had to give up on some of their dreams.
In real life, I'm not much drawn to show-offs or bullies. The people who are pushy and seem to want to be known don't interest me either. I like to go to parties and talk to the people who are sitting in the corners. I like the quiet people with enormous hearts, and I guess that's also who I write about. I'll let other people write about the investment bankers. I'd prefer to spend time with artists and doormen and old lonely women who wrap everything they own in Saran Wrap—the more offbeat the better.
EM: Many of these stories deal with loss from multiple points of view, across multiple generations—loss of a beloved family member, loss of a sense of self, loss of dignity—but the stories also find space for the characters to deal with and process that loss. Were there challenges, and perhaps also joys, in writing about loss from so many different points of view?
NWM: When I stand back and look at this collection as a whole, it's as much about my father's illness and death, and the way the family rearranged itself in his absence, as it is about anything else. Dad was larger than life in our family, filled with charisma and exuberance. To watch him diminished by illness into an almost-paralyzed, confused, and shrunken man was shocking. Through his diminishment, I became an adult. I came to understand that even the most vital amongst us wither and die, so the writing of many of these stories was cathartic for me. I was exploring my grief, but also the pain of watching someone I loved suffer, day in and day out. Anyone who has lived through this kind of long-term illness knows the toll that it takes on a family. Watching a beloved person suffer every minute of every day demands a kind of love and stoicism I'd never experienced before. I wanted to look away sometimes, but I don't think any one of us in the family ever stopped thinking about him, and wanting his suffering to end, for all of his final years. I didn't understand, until then, that death could be a relief. I could finally stop worrying for my dad.
EM: Could you speak a little about the choice to write a story like "Sky View Haven,” in which your father is a character, as fiction rather than creative nonfiction?
NWM: Sky View Haven is an actual nursing home and almost every detail in that story really happened. The reason I chose to write it as a piece of fiction is that, when I realized what I was trying to accomplish with that story, I also knew it would be easier to do that if I could play with the facts a little bit. If this had been a memoir rather than a short story, I could have left the real story intact, I suppose, but for the more compressed form of short writing, I didn't want to introduce a lot of characters, for instance, so with the permission of my mother and sister, I took them out. It was just too much complex dynamic for an already fraught piece of under 20 pages. I also compressed time and made the story cover a weekend. In real life, Dad was in the nursing home several times, the final time for a full eight months. So with the freedom of fiction, I was able to take the detail of the woman who spoke to her dog, for instance, who was a real, endearing, heart-breaking human being, and pepper her throughout the story, as she was peppered throughout our lives for a year or so. Did I see her every time I went to visit Dad? No. Not by a long shot, but I felt she was important. Did Dad really dream about a tsunami killing people in Bryant Park? He did, but I don't remember when. I thought it would make a powerful final image for the story and so I moved it there.
On the other hand, "Dad Died" is 100 percent creative nonfiction. It is an exploration of everything that went through my mind in the first hour after I learned of my father's death. So why did I include it? Well, the collection, by some measures is really about the death of my father and that makes the piece a fitting ending, I felt, for the collection. Dad is the reason I ever set foot into Bryant Park in the first place. I'm aware that it doesn't fit as a part of a short story collection because it is nonfiction, but I also felt it wrapped up the collection appropriately, and so I included it.
EM: Your characters often handle challenging situations with tremendous kindness. Like in "Spring Peepers" when we're presented with parallel stories of grown men urinating in unexpected situations (to put it mildly). The immediate reaction of many people, I imagine, could range from disgust or anger to uncontrollable laughter, but your character does neither. Instead, she simply leaves with grace and allows the men to retain a bit of their dignity. Do you think that if given the chance folks generally respond with such great kindness, or are you taking an optimistic view?
NWM: That acceptance of awful situations comes with age. Part of "Spring Peepers" that interested me was the difference in the way a 19 year old might view that situation as opposed to a 50 year old. The 19 year old was grossed out. She was disillusioned by this man she had romanticized, and never wanted to see him again. The 50 year old, on the other hand, is heartbroken by the similar scenario. This old man's infirmities remind her of her father and all she'd lived through as he slowly died. Shrinking away from someone who is physically gross, after everything she'd seen was impossible.
If you make it to 50, chances are that you've watched people you love die. You've suffered through a thing or two yourself. You've probably cleaned up the shit and vomit and blood of someone you loved, and it didn't matter. You've been cruel and had people be cruel to you. You've humiliated yourself and failed at things. All that stuff that seems to loom so large when you’re 20 is absolutely secondary when you're 50. At 50 you would hug the old man who has peed in his pants, because by then you know how to live without regrets, and not hugging him would take a bigger emotional toll than hugging him. That's what I was struggling to convey in that story. I think I could do a better job of that now.
I am drawn to writing that loves its characters, even the villains. Conversely, I do not tend to enjoy literature where it feels like the author dislikes her own characters. That doesn't interest me much. I tend to be moved by decency, or by people trying to be decent. And perhaps what moves me most is how cruel the world is to decent people.
EM: What are you working on right now? What culture are you consuming?
NWM: I am working on a book about some health problems I had recently. It's a memoir of sorts, but it's written in these tiny, poem-like chapters, each a stand-alone piece, but that together, tell a story. I'm also working on what I hope will be an angry, funny novel set in New York City. I'm tired of writing in an elegiac voice. My writing helped me cope with the loss of my father, but I don't feel elegiac anymore. I am busting out of all of that and writing in ways that feel refreshing and fun to me. I trust I'll find an audience when it's all done.
I read a lot. I read over 50 books last year, and that doesn't include the six contests that I read for, or my friends' writing. I have piles of books everywhere and areas of particular interest to me (such as literary fiction, books about the medical humanities, cultural death practices, social insects, etc. In fact, I just finished, and can recommend the astonishingly beautiful memoir When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, written by a neurologist who learns he is dying of cancer. I read it in one afternoon—fascinating and heartbreaking and beautifully written).
I try to read broadly and satisfy my intellectual interests without getting into an intellectual rut. Out of the 50+ books I read in 2016, I would say that only 20 or so were great, and so for 2017 I decided to try to up that percentage and broaden my reading horizons by compiling a list of books gleaned from things like the Mann-Booker short-list, The New York Times 10 Best Books of 2016, the Pulitzer lists, etc. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi appeared on several of those lists, so I'm reading that and it is gorgeous. Gyasi's ability to carry us through hundreds of years of history, while telling one long story, and somehow maintaining tension is a feat. I read to understand my world, to understand myself, and to become a better writer. Like all good and serious readers, I know I will never catch up with the pile of books that I long to read. But here's to trying.
As for other culture, I've taken up the cello this year and have been listening to J. S Bach's cello adagios every morning while I make my coffee. On Tuesday, when I can, I go see good movies with my friend.