In Conversation with Novelist & Playwright Nathaniel Kressen, Lead of the Greenpoint Writer’s Group

Dahlia Cassandra cover, artwork by Jessie T. Kressen
Dahlia Cassandra book cover, artwork by Jessie T. Kressen

The name Nathaniel Kressen may ring a few bells to anyone familiar with the lit scene here in Greenpoint – he’s the novelist and playwright who leads the Greenpoint Writer’s Group and is preparing to launch his second novel, Dahlia Cassandra, at the Strand Bookstore this Friday, June 17th.

His first book, Concrete Fever, was a labor of love – literally. In true renegade fashion, he and Jessie T. Kressen – his wife and the illustrator for both books – co-founded Second Skin Books and hand-bound the first 250 copies, which proved to be an indie best seller at the Strand.

They collaborated again on Dahlia Cassandra and the result is an equally stunning work that features Jessie’s dreamy artwork throughout. I spoke with Nathaniel about his upcoming book, his writing process, and what’s near and dear to his heart in Brooklyn. 

Greenpointers: First of all, congrats on your new book! Let’s start with this trailer (for Dahlia Cassandra). The trailer for your first book, Concrete Fever, set a perfect tone for the book in its raw, urban ambiguity. The trailer for Dahlia has a more listless vibe and introduces the blank canvas of an Idaho field…. What was the core impression or feeling about this book that you wanted to get across to viewers?

Nathaniel Kressen: Somehow, it only occurred to me how different a book Dahlia Cassandra is than Concrete Fever when I started looking for book trailer music.

The Concrete Fever trailer leveraged some quick rough cuts and some overlayed footage and this relentlessly pounding song “Charm Bracelet” by the incredible Matt Roi Berger. I wanted to set the tone of a skewed urban landscape in which the book takes place. The characters never stop moving even as they struggle to find their balance.

Whereas, in Dahlia Cassandra, the characters are sort of stuck. You can go miles without seeing another person in that part of the country, or, conversely, you can see a figure on the horizon drawing closer and closer and not be sure if that person’s going to be your salvation or your undoing.

Inspiration from Idaho
Inspiration from Idaho

So for this trailer, that Idaho landscape had to feel hugely expansive and yet somehow claustrophobic. The song we chose, “Shed Skin” by Pat Hull, is simultaneously dreamlike and desperate and captures a lot of where the characters’ minds are at. They have no one and nowhere to look to to understand how the world works, so they create a world of their own.

GP: You went to Idaho to film the trailer. Did you draw any inspiration from filming the trailer that guided you in writing the book? With Fever you could just hop over the bridge to draw inspiration from the city. Assuming you wrote the manuscript for Dahlia while in Brooklyn, was it harder writing a setting so different from your surroundings?

NK: My wife and I traveled to Craters of the Moon National Monument just as I was finishing a first draft. We lived out of a campervan for a week – basically to see what I got right, what I got wrong, and what I didn’t think of. That last one proved so important. On average, we would see four shooting stars each night. We would get hit with heat waves every morning and thunderstorms every afternoon. We heard silence.

The book changed tremendously as a result of that trip. I gutted an entire storyline that I suddenly realized was detracting from the heart of the book. I understood the characters more, what their concerns would be, their everyday experience, and wrote a lot of new material as a result.

Concrete Fever cover, artwork by Jessie T. Kressen
Concrete Fever cover, artwork by Jessie T. Kressen

GP: Readers may know that Concrete Fever was a collaborative effort with your wife, Jessie T. Kressen, and that the first 250 copies were hand-stitched by you (which is super rad, btw). Will Dahlia have any personalized elements to its physical creation? And will Dahlia feature Jessie’s artwork interspersed throughout the story (in addition to the cover art)?

NK: If I were to publish any book without my better half, it would be a lesser product, plain and simple. Her illustrations and cover art for Concrete Fever set the bar pretty high, but I think she surpassed it with Dahlia Cassandra. The book includes photographs she took on our Idaho trip as well as dip pen sketches that just explode off the page. I couldn’t have asked for a more talented collaborator.

Hand-stitching a couple hundred copies of Concrete Fever was an exercise in determination and patience, if nothing else. You have to really believe in the work to put that much time and energy into making its physical manifestation. You have to believe in its right to be out there.

Dahlia Cassandra cover art by Jessie T. Kressen
Dahlia Cassandra cover art by Jessie T. Kressen

GP: Obviously Concrete Fever had a huge aesthetic/physical element to it, and Dahlia’s cover is gorgeously done again by Jessie. In hand-binding the first book using original artwork and custom paper, the reader experience goes beyond just a pretty cover – which is something you lose in a digital format. How do you feel about ebooks / would you ever consider epublishing?

NK: I’m a pretty analog guy, I still have a flip phone. That said, everybody enjoys their art in different ways. I do have an ebook version of Concrete Fever available through different channels, and Dahlia Cassandra will be made available the same way. It’s just my own personal preference not to have to look a screen any more than is absolutely necessary.

GP: You workshopped your first book, Concrete Fever, with Greenpoint Writer’s Group. Did any of Dahlia Cassandra make it into workshops? How did the process for the second book feel different from the first, if at all?

NK: Oh boy. Yes. They would like those hours back, believe me. All told, Dahlia Cassandra took three drafts to complete, all of them completely different. Everything from some pretty substantial plot points to the depictions of the main characters shifted – and my poor fellow writers saw it all. I consider myself lucky to have such a talented horde of boozers helping me drive to the heart of what this book was meant to be.

GP: Concrete Fever was originally birthed as a play and was later shaped into a novel. Is Dahlia an incarnation of something else? Where did the initial idea come from for this book?

NK: Nope, Dahlia Cassandra wasn’t a derivative of any other piece I’d written previously, which – surprise, surprise – made the process seem at times like walking around in the dark without a compass. I recently unearthed the first paragraph I ever wrote for this – a snapshot of the concept that came to me like a flash, basically just three characters isolated on a farm where nothing grew. A crime’s been committed and the innocent one is covering for the others. This idea expanded and lost its way a number of times before I finally wrestled it back to that original vision. Anyone who says writing books is easy is lying through their teeth.

GP: How does Brooklyn inform and inspire your writing in general?

NK: Coffee, chocolate, burritos, bourbon, music, friends, burritos, people coming home late from bars while I’m awake early doing revisions… burritos.

Artwork by Jessie T. Kressen
Artwork by Jessie T. Kressen

GP: Question for Jessie: where did the inspiration come from for each of these projects’ covers?

Jessie T. Kressen: When it came to the cover of Concrete Fever I really wanted to create a design that would confuse the eye and not be readily recognizable, but also invoke one of the scenes that stuck with me the most from the book. I ended up staging and taking a lot of pictures of the scene I wanted, then manipulating those silhouettes into something else entirely. The best comment I’ve gotten from readers is that they’ve finished the book and are like, “Oh…that’s what that is.”

Book artwork by Jessie T. Kressen
Book artwork by Jessie T. Kressen

Nate made my job super easy on Dahlia Cassandra. I drew the cover illustration on an art retreat with him down south while he was coincidentally starting the first draft of what would become the novel. He picked it as the cover that day and it’s been waiting for this project ever since. It’s cool to see it come together. 

GP: Question for Jessie: Do you draw from the storyline itself or are these pieces independent of the book?

JTK: Concrete Fever had been a play first, which was the first project Nate and I ever collaborated on. I was kind of in love with the magic of it and the way it appeared on stage, as well as the chemistry of the actors. We were lucky to get the original actor who played Jumper [the main character in Concrete Fever] to come back and pose for a photo shoot with us along with a very talented actress friend, so I could use the photos as a base to recreate that chemistry for the interior illustrations.

Book artwork by Jessie T. Kressen
Book artwork by Jessie T. Kressen

 

I’ve been thinking about the illustrations for Dahlia since Nate started writing it, and they went through a lot of iterations in my head. The turning point was when we took a research trip out to Idaho and camped for a week at Craters of the Moon National Monument. I came back with all of these photos I expected to use as drawing research, but when I started to manipulate them I knew there was no better way to represent the writing, so I ended up focusing on those and framing them with smaller moments – images I had stuck in my head on repeat from reading drafts of the novel. I think it’s important for illustration to allow room for imagination when it comes to illuminating a specific moment or through line, that’s what I want myself as a reader, so I’m happy with the vagueness/emptiness of the images. They are more about a feeling than showing the reader “this is what happened.”

Book artwork by Jessie T. Kressen
Book artwork by Jessie T. Kressen

GP: I’ve heard some authors say that they isolate themselves from other literature while they are writing so that it doesn’t muddy the process/mental focus. How do you feel about this/do you agree/disagree?

Nathaniel Kressen: I tend to have a lot of voices rattling around in my head when I’m working on a project, so it’s hard to enjoy anything that demands its own sort of attention. That said, if I’m feeling stuck or bored, I’ll read a bunch of off-the-wall stuff to shake something loose. One of those books this time was With My Dog Eyes by Hilda Hilst – raw language, subjective POV, its own crazed logic. It’s important to keep the lifeblood flowing, and if I steer away from other people’s art for too long, my own work tends to get kind of stale or uninspired… So yes and no. Simultaneously.

GP: What are some of your all-time favorites/biggest influences in literature/art/music/otherwise? And what are you digging right now?

NK: For all-time writers, I’d say Rudolph Wurlitzer, Sam Shepard, the playwright Adam Rapp, & Gabriel Garcia Marquez have probably had the biggest influence on me. The artists I loved growing up haven’t changed – Van Gogh, Pollack, Degas, Monet – but more recently I’ve been drawn to photographs that create a strong sense of environment or story. In terms of music, when I’m writing, I’ll typically listen to certain albums on continual repeat, different ones at different stages of the process – most often Radiohead, Sigur Ros, Sufjan Stevens’ Seven Swans, and Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew or Sketches of Spain. And as for other influences, I mean, there are some excellent hour-long dramas out right now, most of them on Netflix or HBO. If something has conflicted characters, original story arcs, and a solid ear for dialogue, chances are I’ll like it. All-time favorite show though has to be Six Feet Under.

As for what I’m digging right now, there are some seriously incredible artists and collectives in this borough doing great work while also creating opportunities for other artists, among them Dallas Athent, Melissa Hunter Gurney & GAMBA Artist Salon, Christian Niedan & Nomadic Press, Joanna Valente, Niina Pollari & Mind Troll, Teen Girl Scientist Monthly, The LoveHowl, Ghost & Goblin – not to mention all my people in the GWG. Come to a reading or head on over to our blog at http://greenpointwritersgroup.org for some truly varied and killer lit. They’re my homegrown heroes and stalwarts. 

GP: What are some of your favorite spots in Greenpoint for: writing? food or cocktails? just enjoying the weather?

NK: WORD is my creative epicenter. If you have not browsed their bookshelves, go now…

Notebook in hand, I’ll probably head over to Newton Barge Playground or another park by the river. If I’m thirsty, I’ll grab a cocktail at Broken Land. Hungry, a quick slice at Franklin Pizza. Nice weather, I’ll either hang out in the backyard at Milk & Roses or play basketball on the courts across from WORD.

GP: What’s next for Nathaniel Kressen?

Nathaniel and Jessie T. Kressen
Nathaniel and Jessie T. Kressen

NK: My wife and I flew out to the Pacific Northwest recently, camping in state and national parks along the coast in northern California, Oregon, and Washington. We also just got back from a week in this bungalow artist shack on a beach in Cape Cod – writing a bit but more so grilling local seafood and lazing about with our dog. So basically, enjoying my marriage, gathering inspiration for the next novel, and remembering what it is to be a real person.

GP: How will you be celebrating this book debut (besides your launch at the Strand)?

NK: I bought myself long-overdue clothes, begrudgingly. You can’t have a two-time novelist with holes in his socks.

Artwork courtesy Jessie T. Kressen.

About Patty Scull

Patty Scull is an event planner, writer, crafter, Greenpoint resident, and crazy cat lady. Find her at @ThatCatBlog or @scullenator.

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