The Rumpus Interview with Nathaniel Kressen
When I first saw Concrete Fever on the front table of a local bookstore, I knew it was something special. With e-books on the rise, smart publishers are taking more care to create physical books that are also art objects. With its colorfully-splashed, slightly-ribbed cover, French flaps, and interior illustrations, Nathaniel Kressen’s debut novel stood out among the sea of many new releases.
Published by Second Skin Books, an independent press Nathaniel co-founded with his wife, Jessie T. Kressen, Concrete Fever is not just a pretty book. More than just a well-crafted package, it is the expertly-paced story of Jumper, a young man in distress looking to end his life, and Gypsy, a free-spirited young woman hoping to convince him otherwise.
Over the course of one night, Jumper and Gypsy race between Manhattan and Brooklyn, fighting, drinking, and taking drugs. Woven throughout is also the story of Jumper’s parents, two artists who wanted more for themselves than a frustrated existence and messy divorce.
Kressen, a playwright, screenwriter, and a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, brings to his fiction a love of acting, a knowledge of stagework, and a desire to tell stories without waiting for permission.
We met up at Café Grumpy in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and talked about Kressen’s experience creating the book from start to finish, the importance of editing, the difference between self-publishing and independent publishing, and what writers can learn from musicians.
The Rumpus: I saw your book in the store and found myself picking it up over and over again. It’s so gorgeous. It’s well-designed and the textured cover feels so great when you handle it. I immediately needed to know who published it. When I looked on the spine, I saw it was a small press I’d never heard of, Second Skin Books. On closer look I noticed it was you who was behind it. You are also the author. To me, this felt like it was more than self-publishing, like you were taking it to a whole other level. In my mind, it’s more like indie publishing rather than self-publishing.
Nathaniel Kressen: I think that’s definitely a phrase that’s worth noting: independent publishing versus self-publishing. I think the difference is, an author by themselves who can’t wait to get their stuff out to people might not necessarily take the time to edit everything, think about the design and the materials. They’re just so happy about finishing their product they want to get it out to people, which is totally valid, but I think that’s what self-publishing is. Indie publishing is where you do research and look at other small presses. You see what fits what you’re trying to do, what you would like to explore. You make sure it’s edited to a T, no typos. Make it tight as can be. You give it out to people to look it over and give you notes, and then you make the best possible product you can; make something that people will pick up off the table time and time again. That’s what I think the main difference is.
There are a lot of people doing that around this area. I’ve spoken on a couple of panels about indie publishing, at Spoonbill and WORD, where there are a few people coming from the same place I am. Authors who aren’t necessarily writing stuff that’s so outside of what the mainstream wants, but for whatever reason it doesn’t get the initial traction. So we decided maybe we’re chasing the wrong dream; let’s just make this the best possible thing we can, make it look sexy as all hell, and get it out to people.
Rumpus: You talk about making sure your writing is well-edited and I know you’re part of the Greenpoint Writers Group. What’s been your role there?
Kressen: The Greenpoint Writers Group has been around for about three years, since 2010. I’m the leader of the group, which means I oversee meetings for new members and run logistics on the core group Intensive. We function on two levels: there’s a group of core members that do a twelve-week intensive twice a year. We each come in with one project or multiple projects that we want to work on. Each person shares three times during those twelve weeks and makes whatever headway they can, then performs an excerpt from their work-in-progress at a reading at WORD that, very luckily, is often packed to the gills.
The other side of the GWG is bi-weekly meetings that anyone can attend. Those are going on right now and we have a lot of new blood coming in, a lot of great writers from around the area. I think our mailing list right now is up to sixty or seventy writers, and at any given meeting we might have twelve or thirteen people. From those bi-weeklies, we draft new core members for the Intensive.
Rumpus: Is it a roundtable of people reading their work?
Kressen: No. Everything is read in advance so up to three writers are able to share at any given meeting. Everything is sent out in advance, people come prepared to engage in a feedback discussion. We started out having people read their work aloud but there was always the question of, “Would I believe this if it were just on the page?” or, “Does it only make sense because I’m hearing this person read it out?” For instance, if I’m writing a female character, would readers know that it was a female character if they didn’t hear the change of inflection in my voice?
Rumpus: How did that help you with your book?
Kressen: It was huge. I was actually looking around for different writer’s groups—around Brooklyn, around Manhattan—for a little while. Back in 2004 through 2007, I was part of a theatre company and the best thing we had going on was the writer’s group for playwriting. After the company dissolved, I looked around the city and the borough for a similar experience and couldn’t find it.
Then I stumbled onto WORD and they had something that would become the Greenpoint Writers Group once we got a bit more structure to it. So I came into there and had a bunch of chapters and kept on driving forward, and within six months we formed the first intensive. That allowed me to make a lot of progress on the novel in a short amount of time. Then I took another year of revising it within the group and getting people’s feedback. A handful of people from the core group read it on their own time and gave me constructive feedback.
So, basically, instead of working with one editor I had about seven editors, which was really beneficial. People call you on your tricks—stuff you know can’t fly but you try to push it off anyway.
Rumpus: What have people caught that you didn’t realize you were doing? Is there one specific thing that you do that you need to watch out for?
Kressen: The first draft I run really fast through things. The first sixty pages of this book actually used to be thirty. The whole thing started as a stage play that followed Jumper and Gypsy over the course of one night; there was no second storyline about the parents. I knew that part of the story, so I just raced right through it. It was largely dialogue and hardly any prose and it set everything on a whirlwind. People didn’t have a chance to get settled into the world. I still kind of do this. My first draft is usually really rapid and I push forward just to get pages down, the idea down, and to get to the heart of whatever it is I’m creating. Then once I go back it’s all a process of fleshing it out.
Rumpus: I love that your book started out as a play and that you went to Tisch. You studied acting—or was it playwriting?
Kressen: For a brief moment I was a double major. They often have double majors within Tisch but no one really does both acting and dramatic writing; they kind of discourage against it. I tried to do both but it just wasn’t for me. I wanted to explore formats and subjects outside of what they were prescribing, and so after a semester, I just didn’t feel it was serving me. So I wound up graduating with a BFA in Acting, which in its own way has hugely influenced my way of writing. I’m kind of schizophrenic when I’m working—I perform all of the roles aloud.
Rumpus: I like the idea of writers watching TV and films as a way to learn how to craft stories. Do you do that as well?
Kressen: Do I look to things for inspiration?
Rumpus: Yeah. Inspiration or technique.
Kressen: Sure. I think the things that really grab me are the way people do exposition mixed with action, so you don’t realize you’re getting a lot of information as you’re watching something. You’re just engaged with characters, engaged in the momentum.
I’m a huge fan of Adam Rapp. I forget if it was him who said this or if he just really embodies this, but the strength of playwriting is that you put two people in a room and the audience can’t get out—like, you can create a huge arc over a long amount of time and you’re stuck there, you can explore as many things as you want, you can have innumerable shifts in their power dynamic, and the audience bears witness to all of them. Whereas with screenwriting and TV writing, you want to come in as late as you possibly can and leave as early as you can—as brief and as quick as you can. Get to the point and move on. That’s come in use for both writing fiction and writing those other forms—playwriting and screenwriting—finding out what the strengths of each one of them are and embodying them.
Adam Rapp is a huge inspiration. Aaron Sorkin is a huge inspiration. The writers who trust the audience’s ability to go with you and they don’t cater to you, they drive forward. They go as full as they can, as fast as they can, and they trust that you’re smart enough to keep up.
Rumpus: I know Aaron Sorkin, but who’s Adam Rapp?
Kressen: He’s mostly a playwright. He’s directed a few films that he’s also written. His big plays are Red Light Winter, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He often works with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in the West Village and his big play this year was Through the Yellow Hour, which was this postapocalyptic thing set in an apartment. It’s all about people in really filthy circumstances who are trying to find a bit of redemption, which, obviously, I like.
Rumpus: Yeah. I was just going to say.
Kressen: He’s also a young adult author. His stuff is always really dark. He writes about marginalized kids—teenagers.
Rumpus: This segues well into your story. Your story is pretty dark. It’s about this young guy Jumper who wants to jump from a roof, but he sees a woman as he’s standing on the ledge. She keeps him from going through with it. The story follows one day—or one night—of their life together. They pretend to have a relationship. Can you talk about it for a little bit?
Kressen: It’s funny because people tell me it’s so dark, but for me, it’s not dark at all. The main thing about it is that they’re driving to find some bit of redemption, they’re trying to find a reason to live. She’s trying to find magic to prove to him that life is worth living.
I think it’s so easy, especially in this city, to feel like you’re your own island—like things are tough, nobody cares—and if you get in your head enough it can prove to be a mountain that you’re trying to move, when really all you need to do is take a step back and see the larger picture. Connect with one person and see the magic that can come from it.
I don’t want to sound so crazy-optimistic—I have a dark side too, or otherwise I wouldn’t have written this—but it’s almost cathartic writing something like this. I like to think that any problem can be solved.
Rumpus: The catharsis part is really interesting. You go back to Jumper’s parents and their relationship and it seems like Jumper is either afraid of repeating their mistakes or that he already is with this girl. It brings to mind that whole “nature versus nurture” argument: how much of your past determines your future, and how much your family can shape your behavior. It felt like you were working this out in your head, and on paper.
Kressen: Yeah. I think that’s right on point. I think it’s all about the sins and mistakes of your parents, and how much are you going to let them inform what you do. It’s a silly thing to say, but I only kind of recently figured out that parents are just people who have kids. They’re totally prone to faults and totally prone to mistakes, but their mistakes are amplified in the minds of their kids because they’re supposed to be their image of God, right? And it’s often not like that. You have to get over that impression.
Rumpus: It’s the day you realize your parents are human.
Kressen: It’s jarring, too, you know, that moment when you realize that they didn’t have it figured out and now I have to figure it out on my own. And then you find yourself making the same mistakes and you have to double back on yourself.
Rumpus: Do you see writing as a form of therapy? Steve Almond, for example, says that everybody writes what they’re trying to work out.
Kressen: I think the best stuff comes from what’s bothering me. I forget who it was but somebody’s quote was, “I write to find out how I feel about things,” and so I jump into an idea not knowing where it’s going to end up. It’s scary at first, but then you hit one little note and you’re like “oh, that’s a good line” or “that’s an interesting idea,” and so you go further and further.
I guess it is a form of therapy. I’m happily married. I have a lot of great collaborators and friends around the area.
Rumpus: You seem pretty cheery.
Kressen: Yeah. I’m pretty happy a lot of the time, but there are those moments when that darkness creeps up and all of a sudden you’re looking through different eyes at the world, and I think if I didn’t have writing, it would probably be like that ninety percent of the time. This is the way that I get through that sense of being marginalized, or that sense of not being in the right place and trying to fight against it, or being in a box and trying to get out. I think restriction is probably the main thing that I buck against, whether it’s my day job or whatever else.
Rumpus: So, when you write you don’t know where it’s going to end up. You’re compelled to start and you’re just like, Where’s this going to go?
Kressen: It’s different. Usually it’s a scene that comes to me, whether it’s characters in a room with a certain space between them or…for this I had a cheat sheet, because I’d already written the play, so I knew the trajectory and the ending kind of changed. I didn’t know the parents were going to come in; I didn’t know that was going to happen when I started the novel. The first chapter where they appear I just started writing something about Jumper’s mom. I didn’t know what would happen, and pretty soon that dug its way into my heart and I wanted to find out more about it, and pretty soon I’m getting more excited about Jughead [Jumper’s dad] and Nix [Jumper’s mom] than I am about Jumper and Gypsy. I kept going further and further and it became its own storyline.
Rumpus: You did a great job unfolding the parents’ story and then weaving it into the larger story. You really sparked a curiosity in me, especially about the father.
Kressen: First I was a playwright, then I did some screenwriting for a bit. I kept trying out fiction but couldn’t quite find the right material for it; then, all of a sudden, it made sense to take the stage play and combine it with another idea I had for a novel. Together they married well.
There was a friend of mine who decided to do this dinner-and-sharing—like a salon—and I got the word two days before she had it, and I was like, “Let me see if I can knock out ten pages.” So I knocked out ten pages. Pretty soon it was a weekly thing, and I was just knocking out ten pages at a time; this was before the writer’s group was around.
As soon as I hit the note where Jumper says something about his dad’s flask—where there’s an imprint on the flask—and he says that it’s worth noting that his dad wasn’t always a capitalist drunk but at one time, a promising young artist. And I remember somebody looking at me like, “Well, that’s interesting,” and I think that just kind of got in my head. And all of a sudden it’s like, What makes someone go from being a hungry, young artist to a sellout capitalist? What shifts in their psyche? I was interested in what made this person want to go in that direction.
Rumpus: You said something before about space and I know you’re writing another novel about Idaho. Concrete Fever takes place in New York City and there are moments in Brooklyn, as well. What is it about space and location that draws you in?
Kressen: It probably dates back to stage work. One of the things I trained in at Tisch was a technique called Viewpoints. This breaks performance down into either six or nine elements, depending on who you’re learning from, and one of them is…think in terms of architecture, the way somebody contorts themselves, being curled up versus pretending they’re strong, what each one says about the person and their circumstance without uttering a single word; it crafts relationships, it crafts tension, it crafts possibility. And, so, with New York, I like the idea that there’s constant movement. They’re flitting from neighborhood to neighborhood, they’re trying to find their place.
I like the idea in the new novel, in Idaho, what happens when you’re isolated from everything else in the world. You make up your own fantasy, you make up your own world. Then what happens when somebody else comes in and takes everything that you thought was real and flips it on its head? Now not only are you isolated, but you have no idea of your bearings, because you only have this one person who’s somewhat antagonistic to cling to because there’s nobody else around.
Rumpus: When did you know you were a creative person?
Kressen: I had no idea how to function when I was a kid; I didn’t know how to talk to people. I have a sister with special needs so it was us against the world. I come from a family that doesn’t dwell on problems much; we just make things work. It followed that I saw people in black and white and didn’t understand this gray area where you have to play the game. So I was like, “I’m just going to put my heart on my sleeve and why are people running away?”
I just didn’t know how to function until middle school and I did this theatre production. I don’t know what the director saw in me but I ended up getting the lead part, and after the performance I got a lot of applause and compliments and it was like, wow, this is the first time I’ve ever been told I was good at anything, you know, besides my family. So I started doing a little bit more and pretty soon I realized that I could relate to people onstage much easier than I could offstage.
That ability got me into an arts high school, it got me into Tisch, it got me to realize I can take all the angst and weirdness out of myself and throw it up in a performance as long as it serves the play, as long as it reads well and makes sense. Once it’s out, I’m dealing with people on a much more honest level than I was before the performance.
Rumpus: A stage is public. Performing is public. Do you see the novel as a stage? Is there any connection?
Kressen: Recently, I’ve been thinking about novels as physical art objects, with everything from judging a book by its cover to how it feels in your hand; we chose this textured stock because I wanted something that feels really great in your hand. I mean, I’m a no-name author at this point; I need this to be my marquee. You walk by a restaurant and you see a great typeface on the awning and you think, Oh, I bet they have good food.
Rumpus: It worked.
Kressen: I’m lucky, I’m married to the illustrator and she’s brilliant. In terms of it being a stage, yeah, I think it’s a way for communication. I think it’s a permanent piece. No matter what else I do in my life, I did this.
Rumpus: Did you expect to write another book after this?
Kressen: Oh, yeah. This is what I’ve been put on the earth to do. I’m going to tell stories until the day I die, whether it’s through acting or it’s through fiction or playwriting or if I end up an old man just happy on my rocker telling stories. It’s what I’m meant to do.
Rumpus: What have you learned about publishing from doing this?
Kressen: Tons. One thing is that it’s accessible. It’s not this monster out there that one day you hope to get into as a writer, that somebody believes in your piece. Nobody is going to fight for your piece as much as you. It’s like anything else. As long as you write the hell out of your book, get somebody to look it over, take notes, and revise it fully, as long as you pair up with a designer who understands your vision and really makes it fly, and as long as you’re willing to work your tail off, go around the stores, talk to people, come up with really unique events, just work tirelessly on behalf of your product, at the same time making new writing because that’s the only way you grow, and just go ahead and do it. Nobody has to give you permission.
In terms of the self-publishing avenues that are out there, in terms of print-on-demand, I spent a long time looking at whether that was going to be a good road and I came out with a bit of wariness about it. There are things about ownership of your book. You might own the copyright, but those places might sell your product to retail outlets and never tell you the sale was made. They might have ownership over a certain edition so you can’t go forward and use it anywhere else. Also, materials won’t look as good.
With independent publishing, there’s a community. It’s like musicians—there are people who like creating work and helping other people create work.
Rumpus: I went to school for music business and I’m always so curious about the overlap between the two communities. Musicians have been doing it on their own for so long. What do you think writers and authors can learn from them? Have you put a lot of thought into that?
Kressen: Yeah, absolutely. It’s the same thing where it’s not a bad thing to want your stuff to be out there, to think that it’s ready. I think there are a whole bunch of things that have nothing to do with how good you are, as to why your piece might not be picked up by a big publisher or an agent. It could have to do with marketability, but if you know that there’s an enclave here in Brooklyn that would love this story, why wouldn’t you just go ahead and put the product out to them?
It’s the same with musicians who release a debut album and do the tour set, who book their own dates, who book their own venues. There are a couple of bands that we’re friends with that we saw last night. One of them just booked a cross-country tour for two months. They bring all their own equipment, they released their album themselves, mastered it themselves. The other band that we saw is getting recognition because they’re doing original stuff that they’re packaging, writing, and releasing all themselves. They didn’t need anyone’s permission.
All images courtesy of Nathaniel Kressen and Jesse T. Kressen.