Mark Chiusano’s debut collection of stories, Marine Park, chronicles the lives of the often overlooked Brooklyn neighborhood by the same name. The characters populating Chiusano’s world sometimes leave, but in the end, all are tied to the place. Salon editor Dave Daley joined Chiusano at McNally Jackson Books for a discussion of the collection, the neighborhood, and Brooklyn.
Chiusano explains that the best thing about focusing on the neighborhood is that its both a self-contained place while linked to the possibilities of New York City. He says the skyline was always looming in the distance. When Daley asks why Chiusano chose Marine Park, he quips, “never been there,” to a raucous laughter from the crowd. Chiusano actually grew up there. Many of those in the crowd still live there.
Part of his interest in the neighborhood though stems from the lack of interest by others. Marine Park is mentioned once or twice in history books, but is otherwise removed from the mind of popular culture. He says he wanted to explore the historical elements of the neighborhood. Many of his neighbors knew nothing about the areas history, and he hoped to expose them to it.
Representing the people of Marine Park was also important to him. “You grow up in Brooklyn and there is a lot of ‘rep your hood!'” he says, adding though that the sentiment now seems a bit outmoded. Part of that change is in that Brooklyn as a borough has grown more popular. “I don’t think anyone has to rep DUMBO,” he says.
The characters in his stories do leave Marine Park. Some come back, some don’t. Chiusano traveled to Boston to attend Harvard, and then returned to Marine Park. He says he recently moved out of the neighborhood again. Though much of the borough has changed, he says Marine Park seems to have remained the same. Many parts of Brooklyn are like Marine Park, untouched by the changes besetting more popular neighborhoods.
Chiusano says he took inspiration from authors like Stuart Dybek whose writings focus on neighborhoods in Chicago. To some extent, Chiusano even worried people would think he was plagiarising because one of his stories closely mimicked Dybek’s style.
The stories are all linked to Marine Park. Once he realized that link, he could build the collection towards something bigger. “Endings are hard,” he says.
Daley turns to the story “Heavy Lifting,” about kids shoveling snow after a blizzard. The children go around knocking on doors shoveling snow for money. Chiusano says it was something he did, and kids of the neighborhood still do. Its an odd experience where kids are interacting with adults, getting money, having their first experience of work. He wanted to capture the essence of that awkwardness.
One of the stories, Shatter the Trees and Blow them Away, is actually set in Los Alamos. Its a love story between two scientists working on the Manhattan Project. He says he wanted to enter a different time period, but wasn’t really quite sure how to get there. Also, though he wanted to create a connected world, he also needed to build in some distance. The story is the most unique among the collection as a result.
He spent a lot of time trying to decide on the order of the stories. He works in publishing, and an editor he works with has always argued that stories and essays should be chronological unless there is a specific reason to not order them that way. Chiusano had no reason not to place the stories chronologically in the end. The stories build around characters entirely linked to Marine Park. Eventually, as they grow older, they begin seeping out of the area into other neighborhoods.
Brooklyn gentrification seems impossible for Chiusano to avoid discussing. He describes the areas around Brooklyn Bridge Park as “embarrassingly nice,” especially by comparison to the time when his family members worked nearby. The former dock sites have been repurposed into a park space, and luxury housing is under construction. Area residents, meanwhile, are fighting plans to build low income apartments. It all presents a complicated situation in part because its a public and private partnership that created the space. “Its a changing city,” he says, adding, “Everyone is still dealing with that.”