By James Maher
Name: Arthur Nersesian
Location: St. Mark's Bookshop, 136 E Third St. between Avenue A and First Avenue
Time: Wednesday, Nov. 19
Picking up with the last paragraph from Part 1
I always wrote. It took time to learn how to do it. Writing is a wonderful calling but it’s a bad profession. I always equate it to being a heroin addict without getting high. You spend your whole life struggling to do this thing, to set time aside so you can write. You beg, borrow and steal to be able to create the time to do all this work. And I’m regarded as this relative success. My 11th book came out and I’m still doing odd jobs. It’s a hell of a profession.
My earlier books, a lot of them were set in the East Village of the early 1980s and 1990s. A lot of them dealt with artists living in the city, finding love, and supporting themselves and doing their art in different varieties and different tones. "Chinese Takeout" is about a painter who is living out of a van, "Unlubricated" is about an actress trying to get a start in acting and film, and "dogrun" is about a woman writer who does a collection of short stories.
Each of them have their own little stories and dramas. I initially wanted to do them as a trilogy that were interconnected, but I couldn’t find an editor who would publish it, so I ended up doing three separate books. I had met so many artists over the years back then and thought that this was a fertile ground for some wonderful work. All of them were kind of a Frankensteinization of my life and people who I knew.
I wrote "The Fuck Up" in 1988 and I finally got an agent to accept it after sending it to 50 or 60 agents. He sent it to all the major publishers and by 1989 or 1990 he threw it back in my lap and said, "Can’t sell it, I’m sorry." Then I just figured, fuck it, I’ll publish it myself, I’ll never write a book again, this will be my tombstone, but I put years of work into it.
I self-published and went to the St. Mark's Bookshop, and they kindly gave it a nice display in the front and I thought that would be the end of that. Then I went by there a few weeks later and they sold out and said, "You got any more of these?" I was like, "I don’t know that many people, who was buying them?" So I gave them more and it kept selling and it sold through the printing and then I reprinted it. It took about 10 years before I got a letter from a small press and then it went from there to a large press and it just kept selling and selling. I think now it has sold 120,000 copies. But I really had no hopes.
The bookstore is an integral part of the neighborhood. They’ve taken up their cause because to me it represents literature in the neighborhood. It's a great old store and it has a wonderful tradition. Everyone in the neighborhood used to go to one of the old businesses. I remember when the bookshop was kind of the outpost of civility in the East Village. This was a frontier and you did not come this far south or east for anything and there was this neat little bookstore that had this great selection and they would be packed until closing. There was no Internet. They were the Internet. You'd find everybody there
I have had one book that sold to film, "dogrun." We ended up selling the film rights, which after a mishap with the taxes I ended up getting less than my agent. That was in spring of 2003 and it had a 10-year aversion clause, so by the spring of 2013 I thought that there were no longer any rights out there.
So last year about this time, I was leaving a book party and I got a message from EV Grieve on my Facebook page, and it said, "Congratulations, your film's being made!" And I wrote back, "I’m sorry, I don’t have a film being made." EV Grieve said something like, "Go into Tompkins Square Park and take a look."
So I go into the Park and there’s a film set in the dog run and I see Heather Graham and Gina Gershon. The PA stops me and says, "I'm sorry we're shooting a film here you can't come in." So I said, "Can I ask what's the name of the film you’re shooting?" And they said, "My Dead Boyfriend, it's based on a novel by Arthur Nersesian called dogrun." And I said, "Oh shit, I’m Arthur Nersesian, can I speak to somebody because I think that the rights have lapsed?" It turns out that they had some kind of extended clause and there was a very limited time where they were still allowed to film the thing. It’s still in editing or I don’t know where it is.
It was funny because I spoke to the director, Anthony Edwards who was in "ER" and he was flabbergasted. He was very gracious and said I could be a background extra on one of the scenes. They were shooting a Wigstock scene. I used to go to Wigstock and so I go and there are all these people in the scene and Lady Bunny is on the stage. She was the big MC. So I suddenly realize, Tompkins Square Park was loaded with addicts and stuff. It still is, so I’m going to pretend to be nodding off. I started keeling over and nodding off throughout the takes and the other extras started coming over to me, saying, "Are you OK? Do you have epilepsy?" "No no I’m a heroin junkie." They didn’t know what it was. For like three hours I had to nod off, but none of them knew what I was doing.
My new novel is "Gladyss of the Hunt." It’s a crime novel but I try to use a serial murderer as a metaphor for land development in Manhattan. I remember back in the 1970s thinking, "God if only the city was just a little more upscale." Be careful of what you wish for because once you get that toothpaste out of the tube there’s no putting it back.
I worry that, in time, the East Village as well as New York City is going to get this representation as this sort of sterile corporate platform.
It’s a tricky line to walk because it’s so easy to romanticize the good and forget the bad. You have to keep perspective and remember that it wasn’t 100 percent. I think it was better on the whole for artistic and creative types because it was affordable. Half my life you didn’t want to be in the city and it was terrifying and cheap but dirty and dangerous, and the other half of my life I can’t afford the city and I feel kind of marginalized, pushed out and intimidated by it. There was this brief time in the middle where it was just right.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.