Nathaniel Kressen is a Brooklyn-based novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and co-founder of Second Skin Books. He is also a core member of the Greenpoint Writers Group, which meets at Word bookstore on Franklin Avenue in Brooklyn. His latest novel is Dahlia Cassandra, which focuses on a pair of teenage siblings in Idaho who depend on each other, until two strangers arrive in their town—and features evocative cover art created by the author's wife, Jessie T. Kressen. The novel is the follow-up to Nathaniel's independently released debut, Concrete Fever, which was a bestseller at Strand Book Store in Manhattan.
On Friday June 17, Kressen returns to Strand to launch Dahlia Cassandra, featuring a conversation with fellow author and Nomadic Press Brooklyn events coordinator Dallas Athent. Both Dallas and I read at Brooklyn Oenology in March 2016, as part of Kressen's ongoing series of speakeasy readings, The Loaded Canon. Kressen read an excerpt from his latest novel at a Nomadic Press showcase held at Pine Box Rock Shop in Bushwick in November 2015, and fellow Greenpoint Writers Group members Jon Herzog and Luke Ohlson later read for Nomadic Press at the same venue in May 2016. In advance of the Strand release event, I interviewed Kressen about Dahlia Cassandra, Greenpoint Writers Group, and his creative process.
On the Greenpoint Writers Group
The group itself actually pre-dates me, and I think goes back to 2010. My own experience, I ran a theater company for about three years, and the best thing we ever had going was running a writers group. When that kind of dissolved, I was in search of one. I tried different ones in Brooklyn, and couldn’t find one that fit. So this random Saturday, I felt like I needed to take a walk, and I walked without any destination in mind for about two hours, and actually found Word for the first time, which I didn’t know existed. That's where I found this writers group. First time I was going to attend, the person who ran it at the time couldn't make it, and asked if anybody had experience running a writers group. So I said, “I’ve never been to your group, but I’m more than happy to step up.” In four months, he moved to Santa Fe and asked if I wanted to take over. From that, we kind of found the current structure that we have through many evolutions and ideas from people smarter than myself.
"The importance of having a bookstore that feels like a home can't be understated, especially for teens, for 20-somethings, for 30-somethings like myself that are still kind of finding out who they are and what they want to pursue and become."
From a personal perspective, Word has been my creative epicenter. Since the start of the group, I have been able to workshop my own novels there, and my other work there, and work with a lot of people I respect. They’re always really supportive of area artists. They always want to further the next generation of writers. In terms of their support of the group, they host biweekly meetings for us in the winter and the summer, where any writer in the neighborhood can come and workshop their work. They also host intensives with the core group, which means every week we’re in their basement workshopping our new novels and stories and plays and screenplays and non-fiction and whatnot. You can’t really ask for a better home, in terms of making new work.
The importance of having a bookstore that feels like a home can't be understated, especially for teens, for 20 somethings, for 30 somethings like myself that are still kind of finding out who they are and what they want to pursue and become. To be surrounded by the best works ever written, and then see the best new work that’s coming out, and be surrounded by it and be able to go in an afternoon not knowing what you’re going to find, and just fall down the rabbit hole and get recommendations—places like Word, places like Strand, they’re homes for the next generation of artists, and it is an honor to be part of what they support and what they put forward. I find new stuff every time I go in there. I spend much more money than I should every time I walk through the doors of those two places.
On the group's writers
There are two tiers of the Greenpoint Writers Group. There is the open biweekly, and then the core membership. The bi-weekly meetings, where anybody can join, you really get a wide range of people. There are people who are there who are shy, and just want to listen, and there are people who are eager to a fault about workshopping only their own work. You also have everything in between. The ones who have a good sense of both, who have a drive to make their own work, but also really want to listen as much as talk, and help each other achieve what they’re going for—those are the people who stick.
At the start of every year, we open up the application process for people to become part of the core group membership from those biweeklies. The people who apply usually fall in the good category, which is, “I love this workshop process. Not trying to impose my process, or what I would do with your piece onto your piece. I want to help you get where you’re trying to go." They’re up for the constructive environment that we try to cultivate in the group. Those are the type of people who end up sticking around and becoming part of the core group.
I think people who have theater backgrounds also tend to make great writing group members. We have Luke Ohlson, who’s a filmmaker and activist here in Brooklyn, who has a theater background, and actually went to the same college that I went to. Although, we didn’t know each other back then. Jon Herzog is a performer, who also brings a great dynamic to his readings. We have Laura Weinert-Kendt, who was actually a senior reviewer for the L.A. Times and some other places, before moving here, and is married to the chief editor of American Theater Magazine. The list goes on.
On being a good writer versus a good public reader
I think becoming a good reader is a totally different animal than becoming a good writer. For instance, we have one member [of GWG] named Vinny Senguttuvan, who’s been in the group for about four years. When he reads, he reads quietly. But when you read his work on the page, it explodes. That difference is something really interesting to me. In terms of flexing the different muscles—in readings, what I’ve found through doing Loaded Canon, through doing Greenpoint Writers Group, and doing other events with Nomadic, I've found that people attach to an image easily. So for instance, in what will become my third novel (unless I set it down for something), there’s a small chapter I read way back in the day, years ago at this point, that included somebody defending a cat from a coyote in a backyard. It was just that image that stuck, and people still ask me, "What about the coyote? When am I going to find out more about that story?" And I’m like, “That doesn’t even figure into the plot of the book.” But something about that chapter stuck, and that kind of told me the importance of simple imagery.
"If you keep it short and sweet, you leave people wanting more, and you let the important things that you just raised settle."
I also found that dialogue (unless you’re somebody like Jon Herzog, who’s very good at portraying the different theatricality of different characters) is very hard to get across, especially if it’s not a comedic piece. It’s very hard to do justice to those words. So I usually try to stay away from dialogue, unless it can be delivered in kind of a feverish tone, where everything is beating to a rhythm. It’s a really great cheat that I have coming from an acting background. Especially because, as an actor, I always liked the pieces (like Sam Shepard or John Patrick Shanley) that were very visceral, and fast, and almost like a fever dream when you’re performing. Because that marries itself to the fiction that I write most times. So I can create an environment through that, and a momentum through that, and that usually works.
The most important thing overall with reading out loud is I try to stay between five to eight minutes, tops. If you keep it short and sweet, you leave people wanting more, and you let the important things that you just raised settle. If you try to fit in too much, or if you try to race through something longer, it ends up becoming white noise—or worse, people start thinking, “How long is this going to keep going on?” Keep it short, sweet, important and strong.
On running a theater company
My wife and I always say that theater people make the best employees anywhere, because we know how to work by ourselves, we know how to work as part of a team, we know how to work deadlines, know how to anticipate shit hitting the fan, and we know how to communicate, which is hugely understated. In terms of running a theater company, all those came into play, as well as people management skills, and learning when a work is ready versus when it still needs further development—like with my new novel, [Dahlia Cassandra]. It was a huge learning curve running a theater company that basically started because I wanted to produce my own plays, and I found collaborators who I trusted who also believed in the vision. I found out very early on that things I felt were ready were not necessarily ready for audience consumption. So it taught me the importance of the revision process, and it taught me it’s much more important what goes on behind the scenes than what happens on the stage.
On his favorite playwrights
"Every silence hints something that’s unspoken, that’s huge, that’s seismic for the character and important."
Playwrights that really touch me are Adam Rapp, Annie Baker, John Patrick Shanley—three completely different writers, really. I'll touch on what I love most about them. Adam Rapp is just incredible dialogue, incredible stakes in every scene. There’s a darkness and there’s redemption in every single play that he presents, and there’s a huge amount that happens both action-wise and character-wise in every play that he writes, and they’re all starkly different from each other. Annie Baker is just stripped down, bare bone essentials. You can barely get from the page what it is on stage, but you have a sense as to what’s happening. Then once you see both productions, you go back to the page and it’s like, “Wow, as much happens in the pauses as happens on the page." But everything is still in there. Every silence hints something that’s unspoken, that’s huge, that’s seismic for the character and important. John Patrick Shanley is just pure visceral poetry. I started out, and still am at my core, this over-romantic haunted by why can’t things be pure and honest and just exactly what they are, stakes high all the time. It took years to dial back from that so I could function in the real world. John Patrick Shanley writes these characters who are still in that mind space where they’re haunted by this idea of the world as they envision it versus the reality that they’re living, and trying to marry those two. I love that dynamic and that disparity between the two.
On The Loaded Canon
That came about in the writers group, where I was trying to find the right environment for my own work, and become inspired by others' work at the same time. With Loaded Canon, I found Brooklyn Oenology winery tasting room because my wife and I went in for an afternoon drink, and I’m like, “This is a beautiful venue with huge windows, bright lights, just great aesthetic." So I said, “Do you guys ever run events?” They said, “We used to, but not so much anymore. Here’s the contact if you’re interested”.
"I wanted to hear things that people couldn’t find anywhere else—unpublished work, stuff that was purely in raw draft stage."
So I thought about it: What would be an event that I hadn’t done before that would make me excited to do events? Because you go to some events, and they’re in basement bars with loud sound, and a competing event or patrons who aren’t there for the event. The sound quality is tough, and it’s hard to focus. I knew I wanted to create a great backdrop and a great environment that treasured the work that was being performed. Two, I didn’t want a reading series that people read the same stuff all the time. I wanted to hear things that people couldn’t find anywhere else—unpublished work, stuff that was purely in raw draft stage. Because what makes me most excited is the process that people go through before you ever see stuff on the page. Three, I’m a bit of a boozer. I love cocktails and wine and all that, and Brooklyn Oenology has great selections. So all those married together became this event that I pitched at them, and they thankfully accepted. It was all raw new work, live music at the end of the night, and specialty drink pairings attached to each piece. That kind of makes it an event on multiple fronts that people can’t really find anywhere again, even if they return. Even if they see the same readers, it’s going to be different pieces, different drinks and a different musical lineup.
It’s tough to listen to people read words out loud. It’s tough to focus. Especially in the digital age, where we’re very visual, and you’re looking at a new article every 30 seconds, you’re looking at headlines only. It’s tough to dig in deep, and disappear into a world with somebody, and let your imagination flow. But if you have really good wine, or really good whiskey, and you hear that in the piece—the [Loaded Canon] pairings are made based on the piece—once you hear that touchstone in it, it kind of digs you in a little bit deeper to the scene. So not only before you hear that touchstone are you kind of listening for it, but afterwards, depending on the effect of the pairing that you’re drinking, it kind of makes you excited, makes you feel part of the scene a little bit more. With pieces that are supposed to exist on the page, that are being spoken out loud, any way to make that excitement you would feel in your own bedroom on your own time, and share it with everybody else, that's going to make it that much more exciting.
On his Nomadic Press reading at Pine Box
I was honored to be a part of the Pine Box reading, because you guys are doing awesome work around the borough. You’re curating so many different readings, and bringing on so much up and coming talent, and local talent, and giving them a forum to debut their newest work or their freshly published work. It’s awesome to have you guys in our circle putting forth so much dynamic stuff. At Pine Box, I read one of the very last things that I finished before publishing Dahlia Cassandra, which is this chapter that occurs late in the book. It’s a complete separation from the rest of the book, but it somehow ties a whole lot together that’s been building the whole time. It was interesting for me to see how it would fly reading that, because it is from a first person perspective, from a female perspective. Whereas the rest of the book is close third person going between three main characters. So it’s this piece that kind of sums up the entire trajectory of that character that you’ve seen, and things to come, and also touches on the journey of the other characters in the book as well.
The reaction was really polarized in the reading for Nomadic, which was interesting. Because during the reading, it was almost a call and response. There were people who were shouting out, there were people who were laughing, there were people who were really getting engaged. I felt really solid about it, because I had never read it publicly before. Immediately after the event closed, I was kind of standing around and making conversation. One person came up, and what I thought started as a compliment very quickly became “You have no right to publish what you just read. You don’t share the perspective of the character, you don’t share the experience of the character, and you have no right to write stuff like this. So I would take a second glance at what you’re planning on doing here," which was pretty traumatizing, I've got to say. I related it to my better half, my wife, and she totally believes in my ability to write women well, and she does not hold back opinions. So she’s my foremost collaborator, and I trust her above anybody else. Other writers in the writer group, same thing.
"It takes a lot of belief in your own work when you reach a point where you say, 'No more, done, exactly what it needs to be.'"
But it really shook me to hear that reaction from that person, and even while that conversation was happening, even after I relayed it, I thought about it like, "Know what? This piece is not an easy piece, but I believe in it, and I believe it’s exactly what it needs to be.” There’s been years behind it, where it was just revision, including most recently a year and a half where I woke up 4 or 5 a.m. three or four times a week and did nothing but revision—like fine tuning, writing by hand, entering in a computer, printing it out, crossing it out, writing by hand again, on and on and on. It takes a lot of belief in your own work when you reach a point where you say, “No more, done, exactly what it needs to be." So I had reached that point when this interaction happened, and if anything it just prepared me for the inevitable Goodreads reviews. Because I think some of the more colorful things I’ve heard about my first novel, Concrete Fever, are “It was a reason to revive book burning,” “It’s like a high school creative writing assignment that got a C,” “How did anyone ever publish this crap?” It’s really fun. One thing that I learned from this whole process is that people who really connect with your work will write you privately. People who don’t like it will post it publicly. It’s just something that you have to make peace with, and not try to fix, and not try to get your emotions entangled with. Because if anything, this new book is going to just increase that number of posters.
On the inspiration of Dahlia Cassandra
My wife and I organized an artist retreat. It wasn’t big. It was just us and about six other artists. We had visual artists, musicians and writers. We rented a house up in upstate New York, and we all journeyed up there together. On the way there, I distinctly remember this moment driving along Mountain Parkway. I was going up there to continue work on a novel that I set aside to write this book (and have since gone back to, as well as a theater piece I was working on), and this moment happened just driving, where this image came to me of a shack on a farm where nothing grew, three characters that didn’t necessarily belong together that were at the fringes of anything they had ever experienced, and a cop interrogating them. A crime had been committed, and they were covering for it. I had nothing further. Just something about that interaction really got to me. We had a few exercises as part of the retreat, and one thing in there sparked something about that image. So I ended up working on that a lot of the retreat, when I had thought about working on some other stuff that I went in with.
After that, my wife and I went down on our own little artist retreat to a family house that’s in the eastern shore of Virginia, just for a few days by ourselves. The weekend that we went down there, I really started true work on the book. I wrote the first few pages very quickly, and really spiraled it out. Funny enough, that same weekend is when my wife did the sketch that ended up becoming the cover. So it feels very cyclical to have actually started the book together.
My wife is a way better artist than I am. So let’s just get that out of the way, and say I’m really lucky to have people judging my book by her cover. That helps sell a lot of copies. There’s a lot of meaning in the cover. I like to call her style a combination of Ralph Steadman and Dr. Seuss. It’s very harsh, violent, ink splot, ink sketchings, along with very vivid colors, and it kind of draws you into a fantastical but very emotional state. The cover itself is kind of a rorschach-inspired reflective design of this tiny little house in the middle of nowhere, with choppy dead ground, ominous bird flying overhead, and all you see is the same thing reflected over and over with no end in sight.
On the meaning of the title
Around the same time as I started this book, I started an exercise where I was looking at fashion magazines. Something about this one catalog had settings and compositions that really spoke to me, so I started writing inner thought monologues based off of that. That kind of turned itself into a theater piece that I also wrote during this period, and of the characters that were coming to me, one was named Dahlia and one was named Cassandra. So while nobody in the novel was named those, it figures in terms of an idea for how people envision themselves and what their true name is. Concrete Fever dealt with a sense of people becoming who they will end up becoming in one way. This tackles it from another angle. So Concrete Fever I think is a way of saying, “I know who I’m expected to be, but I’m going to push away from that, and become something totally different than myself.” Dahlia Cassandra is almost “I know who I am, but I wish I was something different”, and kind of dwelling in the dreaming of it. The next one will be something totally different too. So I'm kind of tackling self-actualization, and who people are at their core, and what that inspires in them in terms of taking action.
His thoughts about Strand
The Strand to me is the greatest bookstore in the world. Not only because of how well known it is, but they do something different than any other place I’ve been to: they just drown you (as they say) in miles and miles of books, but somehow it’s not overwhelming. They have all those wonderful tables in the front of the store, and then floor by floor, where they curate everything, and it’s always shifting. It’s always an experience, no matter where you are in the store. They also have tons of people on their staff that are eager and ready to jump at a moment’s notice.
"The Strand to me is the greatest bookstore in the world."
The funny thing about my engagement with the Strand, the first time I went in there and talked to somebody at the cashier about possibly selling Concrete Fever on a consignment, I got a little bit laughed out the door. Which was heartbreaking for me, because here was this place that I was looking up to. But that was just one person. I don’t even know if he works there anymore. And the person right next to him said, “You know what, here’s the information of the book buyer, the manager of the store.” So what I thought was, “Ok, if that one cashier can write me off so easily, let me really think about this, and create a pitch worthy of this institution that I can come to and really put the book in its best possible light.”
So I tested out a pitch on many more stores. I ended up getting into I think over 50 stores nationwide. This was all independent distribution, all ourselves. I approached the Strand probably a little after halfway in that process, and the manager was incredibly gracious, and agreed to take a look at one copy. He liked what he saw, so he took ten more, and within the first week those ten had sold. I dropped off another ten, and those sold within a week. It was just purely people looking at the cover, feeling the paper stock in their hands, flipping through, seeing the interior illustrations, and being like, “You know what? I want to take a chance on this.” Also, we were able to price it really low, because we had no overhead. We were doing everything ourselves, and any money that we ascribed for author percentage, illustrator percentage, we’d just throw back into the book.
So within just a few months, we were up to orders of 60 copies, 80 copies at a time, selling more than one copy a day. That was just people walking through, picking it up, and taking a shot. So [the Strand] has really become our heroes, in a sense. They’re obviously the biggest seller that we have, and they’ve also been hugely supportive. I never thought I would ever do an event at the Strand. Not until some larger publisher kind of weighed in on me and said, “Yes, he’s worth being on our author list, and published widely.” Then I would go back to the Strand as a returning son and say, “Yes, thank you for supporting me during my early days.”
My writers group said, “You’ve been selling there as a bestseller for more than two years. Just ask if they would consider doing an event.” So I pitched them a low key event, maybe a month after the release, when people have seen it for a while. Their event coordinator wrote back and said, “We’d be up for doing the launch. If you want to do the launch here, we’d be excited to.” So that just made me smile for about a week straight. We've worked out all the details, and it’s going to be a really cool event, very simple in execution—a couple of readings, a conversation, and a book signing to finish, which to me feels like, “Okay, cool, made it."
On readers experiencing paper books
"In this day and age, we’re constantly 'on.' To have something tactile in your hand, it takes you out of that rhythm, and it lets you settle in and focus in a different way."
We’re on our phones all the time. When we’re not on our phones, we’re at work and we’re watching things. So we’re constantly getting hit with electricity in our eyes. We need a break. I remember somebody telling me that the difference between films shot on film and films shot on DV is that there are no breaks in DV. Film, your eye has time to rest. There’s a split second frame every second where it’s blank, and you’re able to breathe a little bit. In this day and age, we’re constantly “on.” To have something tactile in your hand, it takes you out of that rhythm, and it lets you settle in and focus in a different way. Some of the best compliments I got on Concrete Fever were people who read it in one sitting. They couldn’t put it down. They couldn’t wait to find out what happened. One person who read Concrete Fever was a member of a family who has four girls, all teens. She picked up the book, and while they were running all around, she forgot where she was, and she forgot who she was. This is what she told me afterward. It totally pulled her out of her daily existence to the point where she thought, “What just happened?” I don’t think that can happen if you’re scrolling on your phone, because a text message pops up, or you’ll see what time it is. I’m not saying everybody functions in the same luddite way as I do, but I definitely attach more to analog things than electric things.
On conversing with Dallas Athent at Strand
Dallas is so cool. She’s an incredible writer. There are a lot of independent artists and authors that I work with, and I collaborate with her much more than anyone. There’s something that’s alive and important in her work. Her first novel she has out there [Chicken on the Hudson], I think with the right backing it could become just a seismic fucking novel. It is out there, people can find it, and it’s a fantastic book that does something different than any other book I've read. She’s not only a great artist in her own right, she’s also a huge supporter of the Brooklyn lit scene and the Brooklyn artist scene. She’s always doing about 16 different engagements. But not only like “Come and see me.” She’s curating really cool lineups, including for Nomadic, that put people in their best possible light and debut really interesting work that needs to be seen. She’s also just a hugely kind, generous person that goes out of her way to make people feel embraced and feel supported as they express themselves.