By Leslie Lindsay
A multigenerational tapestry of homes, neighborhoods, ghosts, and more in this bold and atmospheric novel.
~WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
When I heard UNSEEN CITY by Amy Shearn (Red Hen Press, September 2020), I knew I had to get my hands on it. It’s a bit of a love letter to NYC (Brooklyn, in particular), but also to those childhood books that shaped us as readers (and writers!) and also about a little-known neighborhood called Weeksville. But it’s also about love and grief and ghosts and oh gosh…it’s just so good.
Meg Rhys is a self-identified spinster librarian. She lives alone–with her beloved cat–in a rent-controlled Brooklyn apartment. On Friday evenings, she grabs her pile of holds from the library and bikes home, staying in most of the weekend, because that’s how she likes it. But she’s mourning the loss of her dead sister, who died tragically in an accident. She soon becomes obsessed with a library patron who is researching a possibly haunted house. His house. Rather, his parents. That house has it’s own story to tell, too. It’s about love and grief, war, race, more.
UNSEEN CITY is such a fabulous study in homes and architecture, neighborhoods, gentrification, and a little slice of history I knew virtually nothing about. The writing is wry and incisive. I found myself completely absorbed within the elastic walls of this narrative, wanting to fall into the folds of the book and research right along with Meg and Ellis.
I absolutely loved the sections when we go back in time, to the house in Weeksville, as we learn the history and reasons for it being haunted. Seriously: goosebumps. It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s touching…and really quite brilliant. Like all 5-star reads, this one makes me want to write. It makes me want more–more books like this, images of Weeksville. I lust for details.
But first, please join me in conversation with the lovely and talented Amy Shearn:
Amy! Welcome. I kind of feel like we could be soul-sisters and I mean that in a good way. I have such a ‘thing’ with homes and architecture, hidden stories, and also we have this Twin Cities and Chicago connection, we’re writers and mothers…well…first, I have to know what haunted you into writing UNSEEN CITY?
Leslie! Thank you so much for all your kind words, and for having me and my book on your site! That’s funny about the Midwestern connections – the Twin Cities – where I went to grad school — and Chicago – where I’m from — were so formative to me as a writer and a person. And I’m always happy to find another mother/writer/kindred spirit!
UNSEEN CITY, like all my books, came from a couple different ideas colliding in a way that surprised and excited me as I wrote. One piece was that I had been thinking about my parents, who met and fell in love after each had lost an immediate family member unexpectedly and young; I became fascinated by the way a shared—and/or mutually understood—sense of loss can kind of glue people together. So I knew I wanted to write about two people coming together and bonding over loss. I also knew I wanted this book to work on at least two levels, and have a kind of macro story as well, one that was also about how we as a people, as a country, heal, or don’t heal, after loss.
Another piece of this was that I like giving myself the challenge of writing in formats I’m not super familiar with. I’d always liked haunted house and ghost stories but had never written one or really studied the genre, so that felt like a fun challenge – and a haunted house felt like a suitable way to connect past and present stories of loss. I was thinking a lot at that time about houses and homes and what makes a place yours, the imprints we leave on the spaces in which we live, and about real estate in New York City and how gentrification is a kind of a ghost story.
And as soon as I started digging into New York City history, I was reminded that you can’t scratch the surface of American history without getting to a story of race, racism, and land trading hands in problematic ways. In my early research, I discovered the new-to-me history of Weeksville, a sort of utopian 19th-century farming community of free African-Americans in pre-Civil War Brooklyn before it was Brooklyn. The community was eventually subsumed into the rest of Brooklyn and much of its history forgotten, only to be rediscovered by amateur historians in the 1960s. I loved the idea of a story being lost then found like that. I was starting to write this book as the Black Lives Matter movement was first coalescing, and I was thinking a lot of about how our entire country is haunted by racism and a shared sense of unresolved grief.
So, a lot of forces and ideas were haunting me as I wrote this! Writing it didn’t resolve anything, but it was a good exercise for me in empathy and imagination – as any creative act should be.
Meg is a librarian and when she was younger, she and her sister, Kate, would read books like crazy, trading them back and forth. In so many ways, UNSEEN CITY is a bit of a literary love letter to all of those books that shaped us as readers (and writers). Can you talk about a few that really, really got you hooked? For me, I think it was A WRINKLE IN TIME, but before that, my dad would read picture books to me and I started thinking I’d be a children’s author/illustrator.
Ah, I love this question! UNSEEN CITY is definitely a literary love letter, I love that description of it. Meg is one of those people who, like many readers, feels very much formed by the books she’s read and loved, almost like they are part of her cellular structure. I think I’m that way too, but I also think some of the most formative books for me in the way I think you’re referring to were not actually very good books. I know I loved actually great books like yes, A WRINKLE IN TIME, and also THE SECRET GARDEN, THE LITTLE PRINCESS, ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, THE BOXCAR CHILDREN, THE WIZARD OF OZ books, anything where dreamy strange bookish girls got to have adventures – imagine that! But honestly, I think that like many future writers, I also got really hooked on not-great books that you can sort of devour compulsively, book series that are totally formulaic and artlessly written, where you can really just study said formula and learn how a book is put together, if that makes sense. I love the new podcast Wokefield that’s all about the SWEET VALLEY HIGH books – I was more in to the more innocent younger-readers iteration, Sweet Valley Twins, but I loved that series so much, and the podcast is really helping me to remember what absolute hot trash those books are. This may be sacrilegious to say but I think the NANCY DREW books are like that too – they’re very appealing but not actually great books. It’s funny to me – my daughter is 11, super smart, and very much a writer/future writer, and she often has gotten obsessed with terrible series of, like, junk food books – like, years ago, her poison was the Rainbow Magic Fairy books. And I had this moment, wanting to claw my eyes over those books, when I realized that consuming not great books just for the sheer silly pleasure of it is actually really helpful to a budding creator. It gives you a fictional world to escape to, yes, but it also helps you learn what to do and what not to do in terms of creating art.
I think maybe great books made me want to be a part of the conversation of writers and readers – there’s a sort of magic in that mode of communicating across time – and not-great books taught me to think about how books are constructed. It’s easier to study and learn from something where all the bones are showing, you know?
“Luminous…The presence of ghosts is easily believable, helped along by the characters’ shared sense of grief. Shearn’s nimble storytelling unearths a fascinating and fraught history.”
And houses! I totally geek out with homes. Older ones are better. Can you offer a few more details about the Weeksville house? Maybe something that didn’t make it into the book? And just what *is* Weeksville? Is it still a neighborhood in Brooklyn?
Oh yes! New York City feels so haunted to me – there’s so much hidden and forgotten history in every nook and cranny of the city. And I love old houses too. I’ve actually never owned a house, though, so I don’t know how I would feel about old houses full of history if I had to deal with, like, the heating bills and roof repair everything. But I do love being in interesting old buildings.
So, Weeksville was this self-sustaining farming community in what is now Crown Heights, Brooklyn, not far from where I live. It was founded in 1838 by an African-American stevedore named James Weeks, and soon was one of the largest free Black communities in pre- Civil-War America. There were churches, schools, a newspaper, and this thriving community of activists and scholars. It also provided safe haven for Black people who were threatened and targeted by the violent 1863 draft riots in Manhattan – which I wrote about in the book. Eventually, the town was sort of subsumed in the rest of Brooklyn as the Brooklyn Bridge and Eastern Parkway brought populations further out into the farmlands.
Then in the 1960s, a couple of the remaining Weeksville houses were rediscovered by a researcher named James Hurley and his friend Joseph Hays, who was a pilot and flew over Brooklyn looking for evidence of the community. They found a handful of houses that were standing off the city grid, showing the evidence of the previous map of the area, and the shape of Hunterfly Road, which had been part of Weeksville. They spearheaded a campaign to save the old wood-frame farmhouses, three of which have been landmarked and restored and can be visited today. I went to visit the Weeksville Heritage Center a couple times when researching the book – it’s really incredible to be in those homes and see all the work they’ve done to preserve and activate the history of the area. It’s a pretty magical feeling place.
It’s even better when those old homes are haunted. [She says with a twinkle in her eye]. Do you believe in ghosts? Because I do. Also, the house in UNSEEN CITY reminds me a bit of what I know of the house that was Margaret Wise Brown’s, an old farmhouse buried within the bowels of NYC (known as Cobble Court). Are you familiar?
I love the idea of ghosts so much! I just wrote about this in an essay for Lit Hub. I don’t think I’ve had any compelling interactions with ghosts, but I really love the idea of them, and it makes sense to me that there are things in this reality that we can’t totally see or understand, that there’s some stage between alive and dead. I definitely feel like places hold the imprint of people who pass through them. It’s true even of our own lives; how walking through the city, where I’ve lived for 15 years now, I will often feel as though I’m encountering different earlier versions of myself.
I do know Margaret Wise Brown’s house! It’s tucked away in what is now Greenwich Village – very funny to be walking around in the city and come across this strange cute farmhouse. I love encountering weird hidden buildings or gardens or parks or houses that seem totally out of place and that you can just tell have stories behind them. New York City is great for that – there’s something inherently messy and chaotic about the way this city formed and continues to form.
I’m also curious about your writing process. Particularly the research piece. It can be a rabbit-hole digging into the past like this. Fun, sure, but how and when do you have to cut it off to do the actual writing? Do you write and research simultaneously?
This is the first book I’ve written that had a lot of research involved. I did a lot of it before I started writing – because I knew I wanted this historical piece but I didn’t know what it was at first. I had to do so much more research than I ever would use, too – it seems so inefficient but I think that’s just how it works – how you can create a fictional world that feels convincing. I’m not one of those writers who has a hard time starting or thinking of ideas though, so it’s not like I was in danger of using research as an excuse to procrastinate. It’s more like, I have to make myself wait until the story is ready so I don’t rush myself. So anyway, I did a lot of research before I started writing, and then as I wrote the historical chapters, I did a lot of trying to kind of live in that historical moment, if that makes sense. Like at that point I kind of had the facts and timeline down, but I still wanted to listen to music of the era, watch documentaries about it, look up things like what fabrics dresses were made of, what daily meals were like – so I would kind of dip in and out of my research materials as I wrote those parts.
Amy, I could probably ask questions all day. Is there anything I forgot, or something you want to ask me?
Thanks so much, this is really fun! I’m curious to know why you started this great site of yours, and how you feel interviewing other writers helps you as a reader and author yourself. Is there one thing you’ve learned from interviewing so many writers that stands out to you?
That books are amazing. And the people who write them are, too. Writers are filled with so many curiosities and talents and magic. And not one of us is exactly the same. Our processes differ, but our questions are essentially the same: how can I tell an emotional story about ___? It’s about connection. Before, long before, I always thought most writers were plotters. That’s not the case. The ones I’ve interviewed, anyway, are instinct writers. This makes me grin. Because what’s writing if not exploration? Finally, I’ve learned, it never gets easier. It doesn’t matter if it’s book #1 or book #101, writing is damn hard and each book/essay/poem brings a new set of challenges.
Why I started this site? Because books are amazing. And I was a little selfish. I think it started as fan mail. I wanted to learn about some of my favorite authors and books. It’s totally working. ; )
Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Let’s connect on Instagram @leslielindsay1 #bookstagrammer #alwayswithabook
For more information, to connect with the Amy Shearn, or to purchase a copy of UNSEEN CITY, please visit:
You may also enjoy THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY (Matt Haig) because there are several overlaps with the character (librarian, self-proclaimed ‘spinster,’ gay brother, even some philosophical similarities). It also reminded me a tiny bit of ROSEMARY’S BABY–but no, don’t get the wrong idea. UNSEEN CITY is not horror; the similarities are the NYC apartment connection, the supernatural elements. Others, too might enjoy Fiona Davis‘s historical fiction on sites and landmarks of NYC. Also, another title to look at is Vivian Gibson’s THE LAST CHILDREN OF MILL CREEK (Belt Publishing, 2020), HALSEY STREET (Naima Coster) and also the collection of poetry in HOUSE CROSSING by Laurie E. Patton.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Amy Shearn is the author of the novels Unseen City, The Mermaid of Brooklyn, and How Far Is the Ocean From Here. She is a senior editor at Forge, a fiction editor at Joyland, and her work has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Literary Hub, and many other publications. Amy has an MFA from the University of Minnesota, and currently lives in Brooklyn with her two children. You can find her at amyshearnwrites.com or @amyshearn.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012) with second, updated edition coming fall of 2020 and former Mayo Clinic child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. She is at work on a memoir, about growing up with a mentally ill interior decorator mother and her devolve into psychosis. Leslie’s writing & prose poetry has been published in Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, Cleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The Waking, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, Manifest-Station, Coffin Bell Journal, and forthcoming in Semicolon Literary Magazine and The Family Narrative Project. Her cover art was featured on Up the Staircase Quarterly in May 2020, other photography in Another Chicago Magazine (ACM) and Brushfire Literature & Arts Journal and shortlisted for the Manhattan Review. Leslie has been awarded one of the top 1% reviewers on GoodReads and recognized by Jane Friedman as one of the most influential book reviewers. Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 bestselling and debut authors on her author interview series. Follow her bookstagram posts @leslielindsay1.
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~UPDATED, 2nd EDITION of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA coming soon from WOODBINE HOUSE!~
Querying MODEL HOME: Motherhood & Madness
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Amy Shearn and used with permission. Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Let’s connect on Instagram @leslielindsay1 #bookstagrammer #alwayswithabook]