Concrete Fever by Nathaniel Kressen

Nathaniel Kressen, novelist and playwright, is spewing literature all over town: he recently appeared at The L Magazine’s Literary Upstart, then did No. 8 Literary Society’s party, and now he’s coming to Brooklyn Fire Proof on June 6th to release the paperback edition of his debut novel Concrete Fever. But even if you’ve already read your signed limited release hand-stitched edition a few dozen times, come out anyway and see Teen Girl Scientist Monthly perform and then listen to a whole slew of local writers riff on the theme “Bad Romance.”

We talked with Nathaniel about life as an author and a reader in modern-day Bushwick. Also, his short story was recently featured in our ‘Sunday Read’ section!

BD: How long did it take you to write the book? 

NK: Concrete Fever took about a year to write and another to revise. I started out as an actor and playwright rather than a writing major, so I had an ear for dialogue but no experience structuring a novel. There were some false starts with other ideas that I thought might work, then discovered they didn’t carry enough weight. It took a lot of trial and error to find the right balance. So you could say two years, or a lot more. Without those early struggles, I couldn’t have written this.

BD: What would you describe as the ‘germ’ or ‘seed’ of the story? Can you pinpoint a moment when you first began thinking about it? 

NK: In 2007 I wrote a play about a young couple in a relationship who resemble two caged animals. They push one another to the breaking point time and time again, testing each other’s limits, all trying to get at something honest. At any moment, though, they could go too far and tear each other to shreds. The play was produced at Walkerspace in Soho by a theater company I was in at the time, and it felt like the start of something special. The actors were fearless; the design team was killer. We hung these lanterns from the venue’s ceiling that made the stage look like Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over The Rhone. After the run of the show, those characters stuck with me, their story was unfinished somehow, but I realized that if I wanted to go further, and really flesh out their relationship, I would have to go at it from another angle. Years later, the idea for the book came together, and I got to play around with the story of Jumper and Gypsy so much more fully.

BD: Obviously, small press/independent publishing must be important to you as an emerging writer. In this regard, what do you think are the most dire problems facing the literary community right now?

NK: I’m not sure the term “dire problems” applies, because I want to think that if you don’t like your situation you can find a way to change it, or at least find a way to work within it. I do think there are challenges in the lit community that aren’t so easy to solve. Big publishers seem to have these narrow parameters for the books they’ll want to publish. They want to recoup their investment, and doing that means reaching the widest audience possible without offending anybody. You can’t blame them for being a business, but it’s frustrating to see marketability play such a key role in artistic decisions. The books that shaped me most growing up were the ones with marginalized protagonists and weird, out-there plotlines, the ones that didn’t fit within a given pattern. If books can’t risk offending somebody to say something important, we’re all missing out.

That’s why small presses and independent publishing are blowing up, I think. People are starved for content that might be ignored otherwise.

BD: How do you feel about e-books? 

NK: I personally like a real book in my hands, my eyes get tired of looking at a screen. I don’t have a TV, I’m kind of analog. I see the benefit of e-books in that it gets more people to read, and at lower prices they’re more likely to try something they wouldn’t have picked up otherwise. To each their own.

BD: What is your biggest source of inspiration for writing this book? 

NK: There’s a lot in there about honesty. In a lot of my work, actually, one character will push another to be real, to quit playing pretend. It’s funny, because on one level the book’s premise is that these two characters are playing pretend. It’s supposedly a fake relationship acted out over the course of one night. But what happens instead is they end up being more honest than they ever would otherwise, because they have that veil of playing a part. I felt kind of isolated as a kid, I missed out on learning the games that come with dating. I was straightforward to a fault, and got frustrated when that wasn’t the way of things. We’re all so fearful when we’re young. In Concrete Fever, Jumper and Gypsy get the opportunity to be direct for the first time in their lives. They get to ask the big questions, they get to test their own mortality. They get to make each other bleed. It’s beyond honesty. It’s something more primal.

BD: What are you reading right now? 

NK: I’m working on a new short story that’ll be released this year or next in a collection all about Bushwick, so as inspiration I’m reading a bunch of Hemingway. It’s giving me an excuse to be barebones with my language, to eliminate the words that aren’t essential.

BD: Favorite books, favorite authors, favorite childhood books? 

NK: The childhood book is probably Maniac Magee. I don’t think I ever stopped loving books where a conflicted loner goes deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, and you’re rooting for him to get out. You’re rooting for his redemption.

Naturally, that makes The Catcher in the Rye one of my favorites. Nog by Rudolph Wurlitzer is a fever dream, it showed me there were no boundaries as to what you could write, the structure the narrative could take. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is probably my all-time favorite. Also Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, Let the Great World Spin by Collum McCann, Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, the list goes on.

BD: Anything else you’d like Bushwick Daily readers to know? 

NK: My favorite kinds of bourbon are Bookers and Widow Jane, in case you catch a reading and love it. Nothing makes a writer feel more loved than a smile, a handshake, and a high-class bourbon.

The book release party takes place on Thursday, June 6th at 7:00 PM at Brooklyn Fire Proof (119 Ingraham Street); admission is free.