Brooklyn BookBeat: Brooklyn Author To Launch Poignant Memoir in DUMBO
By Samantha Samel
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Tracing her own history by conjuring the spaces that shaped it, Brooklyn author Ann Peters, in her poignant memoir “House Hold: A Memoir of Place,” invites readers to journey with her from eastern Wisconsin to the mountains of Colorado to upstate New York and Brooklyn. Painting an array of scenes — among them rural highways, fast food parking lots, cornfields, glacial lakes and Brooklyn brownstones — Peters revives her past through lyrical prose that examine how architecture and landscape can inform our identities.
Peters opens her book by describing “The House on the Ledge” —the split-level home her father designed and built in Wisconsin farm country in 1971, and the structure that houses most of her childhood memories. Her visions of the space are vivid: “My siblings and I knew the house too intimately to ever take a false step,” she remembers. “We climbed the beams, leapt from the bridges, curled in the lofts above our parents’ heads, cats reclining in the sun […] In the walk from the bedrooms out to the rest of the house, we moved out of darkness to light, solitude to communion, constriction to expanse […] The skylights were designed to catch the morning sun over the top of the ledge. Six stairs down and you were in that light, looking down again through the glass of the living room windows to woods, lawn, field, farm, and lake. There were no curtains.”
Peters goes on to recall not only further details of her childhood landscape, but also its implications on her family and lifestyle. She contemplates how that house shaped her own trajectory: “However happy I’ve been in the places I’ve lived since leaving Wisconsin at eighteen, I’ve also been a little ill at ease […] We moved into that house when I was five. Just as I was coming into consciousness, my parents, like many of their generation, were coming to an awareness of the natural world and the need to conserve it. I picked up on this early […] Nature was clean, man messy.”
Peters later describes her move to New York, remembering her “first New York cliché: how the city never stays put […] how it can send you out in a taxi high over the Brooklyn Bridge and deposit you at the end of the night in a deli’s dark corner, the blink of the ATM machine reading a balance of less than zero while the outside meter ticks.”
Before moving to Brooklyn, Peters first lived in Queens and Manhattan. She conjures her first Brooklyn home in Fort Greene; among her fondest memories is the writing space she created by a window that looked out on the clock tower of the old Williamsburg Savings Bank. Later, Peters moved to Clinton Hill, and she writes that “In old issues of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle I can read about the apartment in 1880, how the living room was done in ‘leather pressed paper, with handsome frieze’ and the ceiling ‘frescoed in flower effect, light and airy, with birds flying.’ The birds are gone, but the apartment does have transom windows scraped clear of paint and a view of winter that makes me think of a Stieglitz photograph or an Edith Wharton afternoon glimpsed when lace curtains are pulled away.”
Peters paints her neighborhood’s history and evolution, ruminating on how she too evolved in the environment. She remembers feeling instantly connected to her Clinton Hill home, where she still resides today.
The author will appear in Brooklyn to launch her book on March 3 at DUMBO’s powerHouse Arena. In anticipation of the book’s release, Brooklyn Eagle checked in with the author. She shares with us why she chose to move to Brooklyn, what she’s learned living here and offers a preview of what she’s working on now.
Many writers author memoirs, but yours is unique in its focus on place. What motivated you to write this book?
For years, I knew I wanted to think about how we organize our memories, make life patterns, using the rooms and the neighborhoods where we’ve lived. Of course, so many memoirs really are about place, even if they aren’t defined as such. Maybe what makes this memoir unusual is the way it merges two kinds of spaces (architectural space and literary space). Motivating me at the start was a desire to show how deeply linked these two spaces are for me. How do I inhabit books like they are houses? How do I read houses like they are books? So, for example, when I wrote about the house my father built in Wisconsin, I knew I needed to include the literature that helped me understand that house and that man.
In the book you indicate that you may have to leave your Clinton Hill home. Do you intend to stay in Brooklyn?
Only a few weeks after I finished the book, my husband and I learned that the owner of our building, a brownstone on Washington Avenue, was selling it to people who were turning it into a single-family home. In “House Hold,” I predicted that this would happen, but it was still a shock and sent me spinning for a while. There’s a whole chapter in the book about my attachment to that apartment and the neighborhood. And there are several chapters about what it means to try to make a home in a constantly changing city when you are always worrying about where you will go next.
Like so many New Yorkers, I’ve spent a lot of my time here—twenty-five years—moving or worrying about finding a place I could afford. It was unsettling to find myself back in real estate anxiety after writing so much about that state of mind. It felt as if I had another chapter that I didn’t get a chance to write. My husband and I spent months looking all over Brooklyn, but couldn’t find something we could afford in commuting distance to work. So after fifteen years in Brooklyn, I am moving to Queens.
Can you talk a bit about how your Brooklyn home and neighborhood have shaped your identity?
The book makes clear that I’m a pretty nostalgic person. Living in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill for the past fifteen years pushed me to think more clearly about my nostalgia. Of course, these neighborhoods already have a nostalgia built in — the history, the architecture. But there’s also the fact that I lived in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill during a really swift period of gentrification. So much of my thinking about place in the book was shaped by this experience.
What do you learn about the meaning of home when you are watching a neighborhood transform, almost, it seems, in the blink of an eye, outside your window? And how do you deal with the fact that you are resenting the changes to a neighborhood (the “intruders”) when you yourself were someone else’s intruder? In a way, Brooklyn in the last fifteen years has taught me something about America, even about my childhood and the rural area where I grew up. Unless you are a Native American—and maybe not even then— this state of believing a place was yours first is always fraught, always complicated. It forces you to take a hard look at yourself.
Brooklyn has such a rich literary tradition and history — can you comment at all on why you think so many writers are drawn to this particular place?
I wonder about this all the time. I chose Brooklyn because I wanted the city but also wanted some distance on the intensity of Manhattan. Some distance is good for writers. Or at least it is for me. For lots of writers today, moving to Brooklyn comes from an opposite impulse. They see certain neighborhoods as the literary center. There’s the draw of other writers, a literary community—the readings, the bookstores, the appeal of Greenwich Village a century before.
In “House Hold,” I write about how I first came to New York seeking some kind of artistic or literary community, an imagined Bohemia, and how hard it was for me to find, in part because of the logistics – the long subway rides, the high rents, the friends spread across the boroughs. So I understand my friends who have moved to Brooklyn in order to get closer to a literary community. But this hasn’t been my story. However much I romanticize this idea of a literary scene—a café or bookstore filled with writers—I don’t seem to seek it out. I might even avoid it. Still, I like knowing it’s there.
You write so eloquently about your youth in rural Wisconsin. Did you find it difficult to adapt to New York City, and now that you have, could you see yourself living somewhere that more closely resembles the environment of your childhood?
In the early years, I did have some trouble adapting. Now I’ve lived in New York City longer than I lived in the rural Midwest. I have a huge family of friends. I meet a memory at nearly every stoplight. New York City is home. But long ago I realized that in order to survive here, I would need to get to trees and lakes every few months. Five years ago, my husband and I bought an old farmhouse four hours north of the city. Buying that house was a form of commitment to the city; in having some kind of refuge, I knew I’d be able to stay in New York.
What are you working on now?
About a year ago, I started researching the story of an artist community in the rural Midwest in the 1930s. The writing coming out of this research is hard to figure out at this point. Is it a biography of three artists? Will it be a long essayistic rumination? I’m beginning to think it might be a novel.
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The March 3 event will begin at 7 p.m. The powerHouse Arena is located at 37 Main St. in DUMBO.