Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Ghosts of Those Around Me

Many of you know that I have incredible honor and privilege of calling myself a writer in residence at the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street.

The room I work in—the Allen Room—is reserved for writers with book contracts.  I spend three or four days a week there.  I have a bookshelf of my own where get to keep the books I need from the library’s extensive collection.  On each visit, I can take any empty cubicle and spread out my research, open my laptop, and go to long ago and far away in my imagination.  It’s heaven.

It’s also a bit intimidating.  For one thing, some writers I MUCH admire, who write absolutely splendid books, are frequently in that same room.   I often wonder what I am doing in there with them.

Right inside the door as one enters is a bookshelf as tall as I, filled with volumes that were written in that room.  The one I am most aware of on those shelves is Lily Tuck’s The News from Paraguay.  I had already begun to research Invisible Country, my story set in the same time and place, when her book won the National Book Award for fiction.    Clearly, Lily Tuck and I studied the same source material.

What a daunting notion!

But I stay, and work, trying my best to tell a really good story.

If I were to run home, there are awesome ghosts all around where I live.  Here are some of the works produced below 14th Street, beginning with our hero EAP:

113 ½  Carmine Street: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allan Poe

147 West 4th Street: Ten Days that Shook the Word by John Reed

Grove and Bedford: Alice’s Let’s Eat by Calvin Trillin

Charles Lane: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

Washinton Mews: Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

12 W. 10th Street: Etiquette by Emily Post

13 East 8th Street: Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe

East 2nd Street & Avenue A: Kaddish by Allen Ginsberg

Horatio and Washington Streets: Slaves of New York by Tama Janowitz

West 12th Street and Sixth Avenue: In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

21 Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain

5 Bank Street: My Antonia by Willa Cather

For twenty-five years, I lived on the last block of Waverly Place just before it ends at Bank Street.  Right at the end of my block stood the former home of Willa Cather.  I came and went, frequently aware of who had lived there, picturing her with pen and paper and her imagination taking herself back to the prairie.

How can I keep going, with all these impressive ghosts around me?

Actually, I cannot stop, no matter how intimidated I am.  Being a storyteller is a calling, a vocation.  It grabs some of us, and we have to do it, no matter what.  Even if we cannot do it as well as we would like, or very well at all, even if our gifts don’t measure up to our hopes and expectations of ourselves, we must keep trying.  Writing stories is not what we do.  It’s who we are.

Annamaria Alfieri


  1. Annamaria, that's just wonderful you have that lovely privilege! Back in the years when I was able to walk, I was a member of the historic New York Society Library on East 79th St., a block east of Mayor Bloomberg 's home. As soon as I walked into that elegant building I felt inspired by all the writers who also worked there! It is wonderful to have symbols of one's craft or calling, that give constant inspiration and make one stand taller and be proud of the world we dwell in! Thelma Straw

  2. Distinguished company indeed. Trust me, you belong there.

  3. So, Annamaria, I knew nothing about any of this. Oh, let me be clear. I'm familiar with all the authors but I didn't know at all about your writer in residence status or the New York City geography. It's all fascinating.

  4. You forgot: Annamaria Alfieri, Waverly Place & West 4th St...Don't screw it up!

  5. Thank you all for your comments. Sorry to be late responding, but yesterday was cook-all-day day. When I say I'm am privileged, I mean it. The NYPL is the third greatest library in the world. Only the Library of Congress and the British Library have larger collections, but in both of those, you need to go through a check point to get in. In the British Library, they vet you before they let you use their materials. Not the NYPL, all you have to do there is show up. Trotsky called it the most democratic place on earth. I could never write the stores I write without it.