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Editor, Brooklynite Jonathan Santlofer speaks on new anthology ‘It Occurs to Me That I am America’

February 2, 2018 By Peter Stamelman Special to the Brooklyn Eagle
Editor Jonathan Santlofer will be in conversation with Brooklyn authors Bliss Broyard and Philip Gourevitch at Greenlight Books on Feb. 5. Photo by Clarke Tolton, courtesy of Simon and Schuster
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Editor’s note: In “It Occurs to Me That I Am America,” writers and artists share the stage. Both writing and art are essential to the book’s editor Jonathan Santlofer, who divides his life between the two.

Santlofer grew up wanting to be an artist, went to art school, undergrad and graduate, and spent the first half of his adult life as a fairly successful painter. When a gallery fire destroyed nearly ten years of his artwork, he became a writer. His first novel, “The Death Artist,” about a serial killer in the New York art world, was an international bestseller. Since then, he has written several novels.

He has also edited and contributed to many anthologies and has even illustrated a few. His memoir, “The Widower’s Notebook,” will be published by Penguin Books in July 2018, and he is at work on a new novel.

Santlofer has lived in many places but always comes back to New York City, one of the most culturally and racially diverse cities in the world. He currently teaches at Pratt in Brooklyn.

If you buy only one book in 2018 it should be “It Occurs to Me That I am America” edited by ex-Brooklynite and Pratt MFA (and current professor of Graphic Novel Writing at Pratt) Jonathan Santlofer. The stories and the art in the book are astute, clever, elegiac, funny, penetrating and heart-wrenching. What they are not is polemical or partisan. The book is not meant only for blue state readers; it is meant for readers in all states. Of all races, religions and ethnic backgrounds. It is meant for dreamers and for the Dreamers. The stories and art in the book do not pontificate – they illuminate. They ask us to step back, consider and, perhaps, reassess. The stories and art stretch beyond the moment to the future. To 2020 and beyond.

The list of contributors reads like a staggeringly impressive Who’s Who of Contemporary Writing and Art: Russell Banks, Lee Child, Roz Chast, Louise Erdrich, Eric Fischl, Susan Isaacs, Joyce Maynard, Walter Mosley, Joyce Carol Oates, Sara Paretsky, Richard Russo, Art Spiegelman, Alice Walker, Edmund White. In addition, Santlofer has included a generous selection of art and stories from newer voices: Anna Dunn, Angela Flournoy, Heidi Pitlor, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith and Bridget Hawkins.

Like Whitman, the book embraces multitudes — and Uncle Walt would have devoured it. Although the year is young, “It Occurs to Me That I am America” already must be ranked as one of the most important books of 2018.

It also should be noted that all of the artists and authors who signed on to contribute to “It Occurs to Me That I Am America” did so because they were inspired by the mission and work of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in response to civil rights and liberties which are under threat in our country. As Anthony Romero, executive director of ACLU, writes on the book’s back cover “We are both thrilled and humbled to see that so many great writers and artists have come together to support the ACLU as we confront the greatest civil liberties fight of our time. History has shown the crucial role artists play in challenging injustice during times of crisis.”

Recently I spoke by telephone with Jonathan Santlofer, the editor of the anthology who was in San Francisco in the midst of a multiple-city book tour. Below are edited excerpts of our conversation.

Eagle: You have gotten contributions from 51 writers and artists. How many did you actually approach to get to the 51?

Jonathan Santlofer: My original email blast went out to 30 writers and artists. When I didn’t get much of a response, I threw the net wider and doubled the blast’s distribution. Then the responses started pouring in.

Eagle: I like the way many of the writers and artists come at the book’s subject — the election of Donald Trump in 2016 — obliquely, rather than head-on. Paul Theroux’s “Stop & Shop” and Lee Child’s “New Blank Document” are Exhibits A & B. Did you find that you needed to give the writers and artists any guidance?

JS: No, in fact, I deliberately left the idea of approach, style, voice, up to them. Most of the writers just took the ball and ran with it. A few emailed or called me with some concerns, questions. The most imposing element of the project was the timing. Touchstone wanted the book done in six months so they could publish on or near the first anniversary of Trump’s inauguration. That deadline was both daunting and exhilarating! There was a lot of time pressure and, as writers and artists often do, many asked for deadline extensions, which, of course, I gave them but with a very tight drop-dead date. As far as their needing guidance, the only thing I said was to “write something that has to do with democracy; but no political rhetoric, no treatises.” It was more of my suggesting “what civil liberties are you currently thinking about? And be as subtle as you’d like.” Ideally — and I had this in my head from the beginning – the book would contain stories and art that registered and resonated for both sides of the divide.

Eagle: Talk about “subtle:” Walter Mosley’s contribution “Between Storms” is off-the-charts crazy. At first I thought it had mistakenly been put in the wrong anthology!

JS: Yes, I know. When Walter first submitted the story he told me I would be in for a surprise. But isn’t it terrific?

Eagle: It certainly is. He takes Superstorm Sandy and, pun intended, blows away all of the reader’s initial conceptions of what the story is truly about. Philip Gourevitch also does this with his haunting quasi-love story “Unaccountable.” It takes a very oblique path toward the anthology’s overarching subject.

JS: I’m so glad you say that because all the stories and the art in the book are meant to go beyond the moment. For example, Bridget Hawkins, who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant and is currently getting her MFA in Writing (and is in my Graphic Novel class) at Pratt, captures and distills our current climate of post-Charlottesville fear and uncertainty via the story of her great grandfather “Punchy.” Another Brooklynite, Bliss Broyard, comes at by way of a Martha’s Vineyard cocktail party filled with unnamed menace and dread. There is grief in the story, but there is also optimism. Which I think rings true for much of the fiction and art in the book.

Eagle: Because we still have three years of President Trump, do you anticipate a Volume II?

JS: (laughing) No! It would be really a tough task to get all of these, and more, brilliant writers and artists into one book again in the next three years. Not incidentally, I must give a shout-out, as I do in my Introduction, to David Falk, my editor at Touchstone. In fact, more than a shout-out, he deserves the lion’s share of credit. He fought for the book, he agreed to having the endpapers be the Bill of Rights. He’s been the book’s unwavering champion.

Eagle: Finally, about the book’s title: did you already have it or did it emerge from Richard Russo’s “Top Step?”

JS: No, I had already come up with the title. It is the last line of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “America.” Virtually all of the contributors have told me they love the title. That’s why Richard decided to include it in his short story.

Eagle: You could not have chosen better: It’s clarion clear. Well-done!

JS: Thanks!

“It Occurs to Me That I am America” is published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Jonathan Santlofer, Philip Gourevitch, Bliss Broyard and Anna Dunn will be appearing at Greenlight Bookstore, 686 Fulton St., on Monday, Feb. 5 at 7:30 p.m. for a panel discussion and book signing.

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