Park Slope author writes hard-boiled Manhattan-Brooklyn crime thriller
Brooklyn BookBeat: Eagle Interview with Colin Harrison, Author of ‘You Belong to Me’
Colin Harrison starts his terrific new thriller “You Belong to Me” with a lapel-grabber: “Her story, his trouble, begins in desire.” Spare, economical and hard-boiled — that’s about as perfectly crafted an opening sentence can be as found in current fiction. Hard not to be hooked. And you will be.
In 1979, Simone Signoret wrote a memoir titled “Nostalgia Isn’t What it Used to Be.” Harrison’s noir isn’t what noir used to be. It’s high-tech, sophisticated and ready-made for the multiplex. That being said, Harrison’s prose is terse and nicely lurid. Plus, timely and caustic. Take this acerbic description of Manhattan’s haut monde: “The room was loaded with lovely women and wifeys and chicks and MILFs and the usual high-gloss rich young things who all knew one another from private schools and name-brand colleges, there with their dates or husbands, not a few of them hedge-fund zombies waiting for someone to die and relieve them of the necessity to appear employed.” Raymond Chandler couldn’t have said it better (although MILF wasn’t in common usage in the ’40s and ’50s.)
Recently, over lunch with Harrison at Rock Center Cafe, we discussed his meticulous research, his limitless fascination with New York City and an obsession he shares with his novel’s protagonist: Collecting vintage maps of Manhattan.
Below are edited excerpts from our conversation:
Eagle: In many ways, if not all, your novel is about possession: Paul and his maps, Billy and Ahmed with Jennifer — even the title. Was this a premise you started with or did it evolve as you were writing?
Colin Harrison: It evolved. In the beginning, I just wanted to have a main character who collected maps. And, over time, my natural inclinations toward sex and violence [laughing] overtook that. So, at that point you get obsession, possession, desire, sex, all that good stuff. Inevitably, the book returns to my DNA as a writer, which is to tell stories of intrigue in the context of men and women, high and low.
Eagle: What made you decide on the third-person voice? Why not first person?
CH: The book started in first person and I could see it wasn’t going to work. There needed to be a weave of different third-person points of view. This is something I’ve struggled with in a lot of my books. Sometimes I’ve begun in first person and gone to third and other times I start in third and go to first. But when you use first person, there are certain kinds of stories you can’t tell.
Eagle: You can’t be omniscient…
CH: Yes, and in this book, I move around a lot — in space particularly. Third person is what this story needed.
Eagle: How far along were you into the writing did you make the decision to switch to third?
CH: Not very far; about 60 pages in. Less even…
Eagle: Did you know from the start that New York City itself would be a character in the book?
CH: Oh yeah. New York City is always a character in my books, absolutely. The question is what can I say new about New York that I haven’t said before? That’s kind of a challenge.
Eagle: So, what was the answer you came up with for this novel?
CH: Well, certainly the concept of the maps of the city, the cartography of the city. There are a few riffs on the city’s history, from the map point of view. It allowed me to use the map collector Paul Reeves [the novel’s central character] as my main guy.
Eagle: When did you yourself develop your obsession with collecting maps?
CH: A while ago; at least 15 years ago. I walked into a framing shop in Park Slope called “Prints Charming,” (which is still an ongoing concern, although in a new location) and there was a framed map of Manhattan that I fell in love with and I just bought it. And [laughing] it’s been downhill ever since.
Eagle: Were you ever tempted to have Paul and Jennifer [the novel’s femme fatale] sleep together?
Eagle: I got that feeling.
CH: Definitely yes. That’s a smart question. There’s certainly a sexual tension between them, but meanwhile Jennifer is sleeping with two other men and there’s that moment towards the end of the book — SPOILER ALERT! — where there’s a moment when it might happen but to Paul’s credit he says no.
Eagle: In that regard — his chivalry, how Paul is always the knight errant — he definitely reminded me of Marlowe [a private detective created by Raymond Chandler, for the novel “The Big Sleep,” written in 1938].
Eagle: Yes, because…
CH: Marlowe never sleeps with the femme fatale?
Eagle: Yes, actually. And it’s not even until Chandler’s last, uncompleted novel (meant to be a sequel to “Playback”) “Poodle Springs,” that Marlowe even marries.
CH: How does that end up?
Eagle: Badly. Anyway, enough Marlowe. Do you feel your day job [Harrison serves as editor-in-chief at Scribner] helps you as a writer?
CH: Yes, because in my day job I have to deal with questions of structure and rhetoric and concept. But in terms of time, no, my day job eats up my time.
Eagle: Do you take sabbaticals?
CH: No. Never.
Eagle: How do you manage to juggle?
CH: [Laughing] I don’t — I drop the ball a lot. The answer is really that I nickel and dime my way along [with the book I’m writing] and take little vacations where I work. We have a place out on Long Island where I go — and I hide.
Eagle: Having a wife as a writer … I imagine she understands. [Harrison is married to the writer Kathryn Harrison.]
CH: [Smiling] I hope so…
Eagle: Your femme fatale, Jennifer, are we as readers meant to be ambivalent about her — about her character, her motives?
CH: I think so. She’s clearly flawed [and] dangerous in that she’s gotten herself into dangerous circumstances, somewhat knowingly. And yet I do want the reader to feel for her. That scene where she goes home to her mother, I want you to feel pain for her in that scene. Actually, I want the reader to understand, if not always like, all of my characters.
Eagle: It’s interesting how babies and the making of babies sort of floats through the book.
CH: Yes, that’s true. Rachel [Paul’s girlfriend] wants to get pregnant, Jennifer has a baby that she keeps hidden from her husband, one of Paul’s ex-wives is infertile and so on. I don’t know how all these pieces rhyme or match, but I hope they click.
Eagle: Finally, in reference to something you write in the book: Did Nazi U-boats really lurk off Coney Island?
CH: Yes! I didn’t make that up.
Eagle: Sounds like a book…
“You Belong to Me” is published by Sarah Crichton Books, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, www.fsgbooks.com.