Lead Review plus chatting to the author
- Book: Everyone is Watching
- Location: New York City (NYC)
- Author: Megan Bradbury
Snapshots of the life and people in the metropolis spanning a century and a half.
This is a very unusually constructed book, a classic of short story pieces. The oftentimes brief chapters chart the lives of selected New Yorkers from the late 19th Century onwards, short, sharp, sexualised at times, how their lives built and broke the foundations of this sparkling and brooding city.
Robert Mapplethorpe, photographer of people, sharp shooter of bodily forms, a quintessential master of creative in the later 20th century is the style icon to whom the author returns time and again.
A colourful character set in what is an array of stark shots, visualised almost in acute black and white, just like the photos that feature between many of the short chapters. “..a photograph is a window into someone else’s life”. This eclectic collection of stories and observations is much like a photo burst, capturing a time and holding it in a frame for the reader to peruse, from the present looking to the past.
Patti Smith and Walt Whitman are well profiled, and Robert Moses who shaped much of the skyline in the city was a larger than life man behind some of the great changes ever seen. It is due to his vision – and sadly his ruthlessness with many of the underclass – that we can bathe in the wonder of the city that is larger than life. He was the driver behind the1964/5 World’s Fair, yet it closed on a very sour note, and he was the dominant force in the creation of Stuyvesant Town on the East side of Manhattan.
A trip back in time takes the reader to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side, and explores the lives lived by the Kumpertz family – the soot and squalor are detailed, and measures were imposed so that germs from the lowly classes on one side of town would not infect the richer echelons on the other side.
Overall this is a novel of stories that challenges the reader in its construct, it veers between being insightful and gripping, and mundane – the polar opposites mirror the life in a city. A book that flits around the city and is perfect for the channel hopping generation. At times I truly wondered where the meandering narrative was going, I tired of it on occasion and yet…. it has really stuck with me and I have this feeling that this will over time become a kind of classic. It is certainly a book that I would recommend to most visitors – but not all because of the scenes of a sexual nature – heading to the city. Echoes of footsteps past will greatly enhance a visitor’s understanding of what it means to explore the different neighbourhoods. Everyone is Watching is a very much a novel about the people who have defined New York to this point in time.
Over to Megan who has kindly agreed to answer our questions:
TF: There are so many iconic citizens who have come to embody the edgy ethos of New York City. What particularly drew you to the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe? And the other chosen people who feature?
MB: Yes, there are many other people I could have written about, and I think that, had I sat down at the beginning of the process with a clean sheet of paper and brainstormed a list of potential candidates, the choice would have been overwhelming. But the way the book came about meant that it wasn’t really a choice – I didn’t plan to write about real people or about art at all at the beginning of the process – all I knew was that I wanted to write about New York City. I thought I would read about the city, learn some background information and write a traditional, plot-driven story. But something else happened instead.
I had the good fortune of living in Edinburgh when I started writing this book, and this meant I had access to the incredible resources at the National Library of Scotland and the Edinburgh Art and Design Library. I began by reading books about New York and by looking at artworks created there really just as a way to get background information about the city and to satisfy my interest. I didn’t really have a plan at the beginning. I just read about what interested me, and then, over time, I noticed that I kept returning to particular themes – urban planning, sex and art. I read about the urban planner Robert Moses and this made me think about who a city is built for – for the masses or for the individual – and about how people’s lives are affected and changed by planning decisions made by those in power. I thought about the balance between artificial and natural spaces in the city, and all of these themes led me to read about the poet Walt Whitman, who I knew to be both an urban and nature poet. His poetry describes people from all walks of life, and this seemed like an interesting contrast to the views of Robert Moses, whose vision for the city was purely mechanical and about the mass – he wanted the city to work as a machine does, with easy access for vehicles and designated areas for residential units – his vision wasn’t for a diverse, dense city, including everyone from all walks of life – his vision was not democratic. I read about Walt Whitman and I read his writing. It was loose, erotic, inclusive. He writes about people without discrimination and finds beauty and organic form in man-made environments. He also describes the human form – male and female – with vibrant eroticism, and this made me think about the city as a sexual space, as a place for watching people, and for both attracting and giving sexual attention. This led me to the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose work is overtly sexual, but his work is also about point of view – it is about how we see other people, and it is about the gaze of desire. This linked back to Whitman. I also recognized a similarity between Mapplethorpe and Moses in their clarity of vision and drive to work. Then I began to read about Edmund White, who I knew had lived in New York at the same time as Mapplethorpe and who I knew had been active in New York’s sexual culture in the 1960s and 70s,
and so I began to read his work, beginning with his memoirs and then reading his fiction, and I was completely mesmerized, not just by the exquisiteness of his prose but also by the candidness with which he described his own sexual past and that of the city. His work made me think about what present day New York, in its modern, gentrified state, might feel like to a person with his diverse sexual history.
The more I read about these figures the more connections I saw between them, and I decided then that I would write about these figures and connections directly, and the book came from there. The passages in the book describing examples of New York City art were part of the same process – there are artists whose work share thematic connections. There were many other artists I looked at but who didn’t fit with the book as a whole.
TF: I had never heard of Robert Moses before and the impact he had on the city. A lot of what we see and experience today is thanks to him, but at great cost to contemporaries it would seem. What kind of person did you feel he was?
MB: Robert Moses was completely driven, and he had no doubts at all about his vision for New York. He was ruthless and went out of his way to fight those who opposed him. He managed to stay in power for over forty years, building public works in New York, without ever being elected. I find him fascinating. He was an incredibly hard worker, and, even though most modern urban planners don’t view his projects in a positive light, he was able to modernize much of New York’s infrastructure, which, at the beginning of the twentieth century, was in drastic need of updating. He did what others were unable to do because he refused to compromise or negotiate. There were many projects he wasn’t able to complete – a mid-Manhattan expressway, for example, which would have seen a six-lane elevated expressway constructed through Midtown (and right through the centre of the Empire State Building) – but, for the most part, he knew how to get a job done. This was partly how he was able to remain in power for so long – he was a useful tool for many mayors and governors who wanted to push through unpopular projects without getting their own hands dirty. He was stubborn and often treated colleagues and the general public with contempt. But he was also, strangely, charming, charismatic and an excellent writer. For anyone wanting to learn more about him, I’d recommend The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro, which is a fascinating account of his life.
TF: You have chosen to write short chapters that aren’t quite short stories. They are almost like photographic snaps. You chose to do this because…?
MB: The style and structure of this book comes very much from the subject matter. I wanted the book to reflect the city. As I was writing I was thinking of frames, windows, rectangular towers – the physical landscape of the city – and I was thinking about photographs. I wanted the book to be like a photographic exhibition in a gallery with images displayed on a wall without commentary. And I also wanted the writing to reflect the art of the characters it was describing. So the chapters that describe Mapplethorpe, for instance, take the form of clipped, economic vignettes, which focus on looking out ‘at’ his subjects and the city, reflecting the style of his photographs. But the chapters describing Edmund White are longer and more free flowing, and are concerned with looking ‘in’ at himself in the context of his surroundings (which is something White does in his own prose). It was important to me that form and content should be linked – this, after all, is one of the major themes of the book – the effect of environment on art.
TF: Do you have a personal interest in photography and how has that come about?
MB: I’m interested in how other art forms make me think about fiction writing in a new way, and, for this reason, I am very interested in photography. Photography is about framing and viewpoint, as fiction is. It’s also about the different ways in which stories can be told – in a single scene, for example, or in multiple scenes that form a narrative, either in or out of sequence. And photographs play an interesting game with the subject of reality – on the one hand they show you something that once existed but a photograph is also an act of interpretation. I’m interested in this conflict between objective truth and subjective presentation because it is often the miscommunication between these states that leads to good storytelling. I am also interested in the different ways in which the purpose of photography has changed – the difference, for example, between a photograph that has a purely utilitarian purpose, such as in the recording of medical conditions, compared to photographs that fulfill a more artistic intention. I am interested in how the meaning and significance of photographs can change just by changing their classification. Robert Mapplethorpe’s lover and patron, the art collector Sam Wagstaff, was one of the first collectors to collect photographs on the basis of artistic merit, regardless of the photograph’s original purpose or the artistic standing of the photographer. He collected all kinds of photographs – photographs of medical experiments and landmark surveillance photographs as well as art photography – all that mattered to him was the aesthetic qualities of the photograph itself. It was his approach to collecting photographs that fascinated me during my research – how the very nature of a photograph changes depending on how we choose to look at it. I wanted to try to explore this further in the form of a novel by writing about real people but in the form of fiction, offering a new interpretation of these figures and their work by presenting them in a new way. I am fascinated by the idea of thinking of fiction in the context of other art forms, and I think this is something I will continue to do in the future. I am thinking along these lines for my new book, this time concentrating on the art form of music.
TF: I loved finding out a little more about NYC through your book, on my next visit I will have real sense of the echoes of footsteps past. Was it a conscious choice to inform your readers in this way?
MB: I’m so glad the book has worked in this way for you. New York City completely changed the way I think and write, and it has inhabited my conscious and subconscious mind now for years. It excited me in a way that no other subject had done before, and it has transformed my writing. Really, this book is about the excitement, passion and desire the city inspired in me, and one of the things I wanted to do with this book is communicate that reaction honestly to others. I hope I have done that. When you feel so passionately about a subject you want to tell everyone about it, and you hope that they become passionate about it too. Desire is energy you want to pass onto someone else. I hope that people who don’t know that much about New York City or the artists I have written about will be inspired to read more about them, and to look at their art. This is why I’ve included a bibliography at the back of the book – so that readers know where to look if they want to read more about these subjects. The book is about how places inspire art and I hope that by writing in this way about the people, places and artwork that inspired me I will, in turn, inspire others. New York City is such a fascinating place and I think that you will find inspiration there, whatever your interests.
TF: You clearly know the city well, what are your top personal tips for anyone intending to visit the city?
MB: One of my favourite places to visit in New York City is the Museum of Sex on Fifth Avenue, on the corner of East 27th Street. This isn’t a sleazy museum of the like you might find in other cities, but an intelligent, exciting and well-curated museum with many interesting exhibits and an incredible archive of artifacts (there’s also a great bar and shop).
There is also the Lower East Side Tenement Museum on Orchard Street, which is a tenement building restored to different periods of the building’s history. The museum offers incredibly detailed tours of its rooms, where you learn about the real inhabitants of the building, and, through them, the wider history of the city.
There are also some incredible sights off the beaten track that will interest anyone looking for a slightly different view of New York. One is Randall’s Island, which is separated from Manhattan by the Harlem River, from Queens by the East River and from the Bronx by the Bronx Kill. Robert Moses redeveloped the island for recreational use in the 1930s, and it’s now home to numerous sports areas. It also functions as a support for Moses’s mega Triborough Bridge (now called the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge), which towers over the island. From the east shore of the island you can see the rapids of Hell’s Gate, a notoriously dangerous stretch of water in the East River. Here, people are having picnics and playing sports on the grass while the never-ending stream of traffic roars overhead. It’s completely bizarre.
Another interesting place to visit is Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, which was the location for both the 1939-40 and 1964-65 World’s Fair (which was another Moses project). The park is now used for recreation and it contains the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, but there are also many relics from the World’s Fair there, including the Unisphere, a 120ft spherical, stainless steel representation of the earth. The park is fascinating and rather ghostly.
My general advice to anyone visiting the city, though, would be to just walk around. Take it easy. Take it all in. Look at all the different areas of Manhattan (but maybe get the subway to strategic places – when I first visited I tried to walk everywhere and learnt very quickly that Manhattan is much bigger than you expect). Talk to people. Drink crappy beer in a crappy bar. Don’t just go to the tourist hotspots. Pretend to be a local. Do some ordinary things. Go see a movie there. It’s fun to pretend to live there, even if it’s only for a short time. And visit the museums and galleries on the days when admission is free.
TF: What was your personal route to publication?
MB: It was a long and lucky process. I began working on this book in 2010. I immersed myself in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh for about a year or so, reading from subject to subject and making notes. I was also working a few part-time jobs in order to save enough money to be able to afford to take a decent amount of time off to write fulltime. In 2011 my husband (who is also a writer) and I moved to Penzance to live with relatives for a year and work on our writing. I wrote an exploratory draft of the book during this time. I also applied for the Charles Pick Writing Fellowship at the University of East Anglia, and, amazingly, I won it, which meant I had another six months of funding with accommodation and an office on campus, and mentoring with the author Jean McNeil. During the fellowship I wrote a proper draft of the book. In 2013 I won an Escalator Literature Award from the Writer’s Centre Norwich, which gave me six months of mentorship with the author Cathi Unsworth and help with applying for an Arts Council Grant, which I won, and which I used to pay for a final research trip to New York City and Los Angeles, where I completed some archival research, visited the locations featured in the book and interviewed experts on the book’s main subjects. I finished another draft of the book on my return to the UK and sent that draft to Sophie Lambert, literary agent at Conville & Walsh, who had shown an interest in the book after reading an extract from it on the UEA’s website during my fellowship. She loved the book and offered to represent me. We then worked on the manuscript for a few months, and, in 2014, Sophie sent the book out to publishers for consideration. It was eventually bought by Picador. I had already met my editor, Paul Baggaley, at an event at UEA during my fellowship, and so he already knew about the book in its early stages. Everyone at Picador is a dream to work with, and I couldn’t be happier.
But I think perhaps the process started earlier than that. I studied creative writing at diploma, BA and MA level at UEA, and spent many years working on other projects that I quickly lost interest in. Looking back, I think this was all part of the process. It took a long time to discover what I was interested in. I have had the help of so many other writers along the way, particularly from my husband. No one writes a book on his or her own, and certainly not in my case.
TF: What is next for you in terms of travel and writing?
MB: My next book is about the American Wilderness, feminism, music, and the American Wild West, and so I’m planning to visit some National Parks and Wild West ghost towns next, and I can’t wait. I’m fascinated to see what will happen to my writing in this new environment.