Ottawa Writers Festival: Adam Gopnik takes the measure of his New York in the 1980s

Adam Gopnik. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

On the day we talked, Adam Gopnik, the well-known New Yorker writer and essayist and Canadian ex-pat, was in a hotel room on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. He was looking out at a car wash, a billboard and a dime laundromat.

It was an ironically appropriate location for a discussion about his memoir of his arrival in New York in the early 1980s with his wife Martha Parker, a pair of youthful adventurers coming to the big city.

Much of the memoir centres around the places the couple lived in those early years. One was a teeny, tiny apartment affectionately called the Blue Room. And then later the couple lived in a bigger loft in the then-undiscovered SoHo neighbourhood of Manhattan.

“This whole book and whole life in New York in this period was set in two rooms,” Gopnik says.

“We make our lives in rooms in the spaces we inhabit. I am always drawn to those kinds of stories … simple domesticity, where you live, what you buy.

“In the loft, instead of having this open way of life, you have these very defined, invisibly defined, areas of living. This is where we dine, where we sleep. There is a deep human need to create these zones.

“Even in the Blue Room we had zones. We had a place to eat, a place to write. I had a study. This was all about three feet long That human need to articulate space in the light of your aspirations is very deep one. I like writing about spaces in that way. I get very attached to them.

“So much of my writing has been about the specificity of spaces, whether it’s Paris (where he was a correspondent) or New York.”

For Gopnik, the key is trying to make a personal experience work as a common experience. He believes many people have started their adult lives in a place that they look back on with some disbelief and say “I can hardly believe we lived there.”

“I am always trying to make these little microcosms a prism of a kind for common experience.”

To check to make sure they work, Gopnik is a regular at a storytelling venue called The Moth in New York.

“I sort of pre-tested this collection of stories because I told almost all of them narrative chapters as stories on stage. I do this hambone one-man show of storytelling.”

One of the singular themes of the book is the attraction of the big city.

“We had a romantic vision of New York. We loved Montreal; I love it to this day. There was nothing unsatisfying about coming of age in Montreal except it was a secondary place and we wanted to be in the primary place.

“That’s been a motive and a magnet that has driven people forever. What made it complicated in those years, was that New York seemed to most people to be a forbidding and dark place.”

This was the Taxi Driver New York era.

“Our parents, particularly Martha’s mother, were not enthusiastic. But we were blinded by love and faith and we wanted to make our lives in the Big Town.

“I think the impulse in writing this book was partly to put out these stories about arriving in a city, which I hope is sort of a universal theme … young couple packs their bags, gets on a bus and goes to London, Paris, New York or Toronto and tries to make a life out of the absurdities of their circumstances.

“The other impulse was that it occurred to me that the 1980s now seems like a very different time.”

Gopnik’s personal half-serious theory is that a period that is 40 years in the past “is always the one we feel nostalgic about.”

It’s a decent theory. People are reconsidering the Reagan era in the United States and the Trudeau-Mulroney era in Canada these days, especially as we reconsider free trade with our American neighbours.

“We are at a point when people are interested in the 1980s as an epoch or an era. And, as I hope I suggest in the book, people did things differently then. Even though the seeds of our current times were planted then.”

His life in New York introduced Gopnik and Parker to many now famous folks. They became friends with the famous fashion photographer Richard Avedon. He was ‘Dick’ to the Gopnik-Parkers.

And on the streets of SoHo, they would interact with visual artists such as Jeff Koons and Frank Stella.

SoHo in those days was a genuine art village, Gopnik says.

“You sort of bumped into people in a natural way, the way people might have bumped into each other in Chelsea in London in 1890. I don’t that’s true any more.

“It seemed to me I was experiencing life as it came at me, the back and forth between people. I tried to describe it in the chapter I wrote about our friendship with Dick Avedon, who was hugely important in our lives. There were things he wanted from a young friend and things a young friend wanted from him. That kind of passage back and forth between the generations makes for stories.”

Gopnik says his favourite book is James Boswell‘s The Life of Samuel Johnson.

“Boswell came to London looking for experience. He didn’t know what he would find, but he ended up having dinner with Dr. Johnson. That’s how we make our lives in the metropolis. It’s a combination of serendipity and shape. You don’t go to the big city unless you want to meet the big city folks. Which big city folks you meet and how they change your life tends to have as much accident as design in it.”

Gopnik has made a living writing about visual art.  He was at one point trying for a PhD in art history which he did not finish. He got a job instead.

“I always loved art and still do, even while feeling myself something of a misfit in the art world.

“I’m a writer. As I say in the book, there is a certain kind of contradiction, hope it’s not a hypocrisy, in being devoted to standard of craft in writing and at the same time being very open to avant-garde experimenting that dismisses craft in visual arts.

“What was thrilling about being around in that period in SoHo was that a lot of good work was being done there.

“One of things that was impressive was how much the art of the time captures the time, (for example) when you look at Jeff Koons’s Bunny and see how it’s a little demon of Trump Tower. I’m impressed again by how it always seems to happen that Art traps Time.”

Another lesson he has learned is not to “be a scold. It never plays to be an old scold and it really doesn’t pay yo be a young scold” if you are writing criticism.

“If you feel out of sorts with the art of your time, you need to find something else to write about rather than lecturing artists.”

Today he fears that the possibilities present in the ’80s of a real job and of real life experiences may be gone.

“I’m like any parent, I care more about my kids’ future than my own. I fear that many of the pleasures and possibilities that were there for me won’t be there for them. It is much much harder to make your way in the world now.

“In the ’80s, if you got a foot on the ladder of ambition you could climb the ladder. It’s much harder now.”

Every generation makes its way, he says. “The trick for all of us is to avoid becoming crabby about things that are unfamiliar to us.”

After many years, he believes the legendary magazine that he works for has changed greatly but it is still as good as it was and in some ways better.

“When I started at the New Yorker, it was commonplace to have 30,000 word stories and no extreme exigencies of being temporal. It’s totally daily now. The bulk of stuff I have done in the last few years has been web stuff. I love doing that.

“But the DNA of the publication is quite hardy. The New Yorker since beginning has been a literary magazine and a weekly magazine a mix of urgency and gravitas.

“It also started as a comic weekly and the urge to make it funny is something very deep. Nothing makes me happier than to write a piece that is relevant and funny. I’m grateful it persists and I have made most of my adult life under its canvas.”

At The Strangers’ Gate: Arrivals in New York
Adam Gopnik (Knopf Canada)
In town: The author will be at the Centretown United Church, 507 Bank St., on Oct. 15 at 7 p.m. Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.