Interview with Christopher Herz, Author of The Last Block in Harlem

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A couple weeks ago I reviewed The Last Block in Harlem by Christopher Herz. (Make sure to click on his name and check out his wonderful website). I really enjoyed this book about a neighborhood in Harlem. I talked a little about the author in that review post, but am happy to have him here today for an interview. Christopher is an insightful person with genuine talent for writing. I loved his interview questions, so I'm happy to share them with you!
Pictures for this post taken from the page for the book

1. This is probably a very common question but everyone always wants to know, what inspired you to write this book?

The night we moved into this apartment, we had no furniture. My wife was asleep. The sounds of the block below were so new to me I couldn’t sleep. I pulled out my typewriter and just started going. It was like the bricks and the fire escapes where screaming out to me, and the story started to be written through me as much as it was by me.

As time went on, each place I went on the block just kept the story going – characters presented themselves to me, music provided a soundtrack, and it just happened. It was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had writing anything. The book is a love story to the block, so the inspiration came from a very real level of being I think. For me, fiction is a giant “What If” of present reality. My main focus throughout though was to make sure it passed the test of the people who have lived on this block for years. The story was and is theirs. From the reaction I’ve gotten from everyone up here in Sugar Hill, I did right by them – I guess my inspiration was that: To contribute something to the community.

2. Wow, enlightening and inspiring! What would you say are the main themes of The Last Block in Harlem? What do you hope others take away from reading this?

That’s interesting because every person who reads the book takes away something different from it. For me, the main theme is trying to stay clean in a world that just won’t let you do so. It’s trying to focus on how to live in the moment when so much of you is trying to hold on to the past. In addition, I think it’s about really looking at how we spend ALL of our lives trying to make our mark in the world, trying to do something important to be remembered, then, at the very end, you take a look around and you realize that the most important people have been right next to you the entire time. The need for accomplishment often times wins out over love, so I really wanted to dig into that and expose how nasty and impossible and beautiful that quest was.

3. Considering some of the similarities between you and the main character, how much, if any, of your novel is autobiographical?

I think a lot of my experiences in advertising and trying to fit in with the corporate world (which I could never quite do) is very close to what I went through, but the actions of the main character – the things that he does, how he thinks, I wouldn’t ever do. I like writing in the first person because it gives the reader a chance to see directly at street level and without the barrier of a narrator. For me, the joy of living in New York is that you get to hear all of these amazing stories from random people. Everywhere I’ve lived, my inspiration and basis for characters has always come directly from the stories I hear. It’s my favorite way to receive information, so I try to use it as a story telling device.

That being said, anything that happens in my real life is fair game for plot in my novels – though there is always an enhancement of fiction to it. I think I learned that from reading so much Hunter S. Thomson – for better or worse, that stuck with me. I can’t shake it, not yet anyhow. Ghosts tend to latch on to you when you go looking for them.

4. Tell us a little bit about the relationship between the main character and Namuna. Without giving anything away, of course, what were the motivations behind the storyline with her and the main character?

Ah, Namuna. Everyone wants to talk about Namuna. I think she represents what it takes to make it in the modern world without cashing in your soul to do it. She is by far the strongest character in the book – and also, if you notice, the one who gets the furthest away from the block. She has the unique ability not to be defined by her job, her marriage or where she lives. She is simply herself, and therefore the one who can move in and out of whatever world she desires.

As for their relationship, it’s a love story pure and simple. If the main character would look up and believe 100% that their love is enough to keep him going, everything would be fine and he wouldn’t have to go look for accomplishments to define him. I don’t think she asks too many questions in the book – she just moves how she feels is right and to hell with what anyone thinks of it. She is the value, the base of everything – so when she’s not around or involved, the world has nothing to check itself against. Literally, things could just crumble without her ability.

5. Who was your favorite character to write and why? If it's the main character, who was your second favorite? ;)

This is kind of interesting – because I didn’t know it until after I had finished the book. But, the kid who sits on the bridge looking out at Yankee Stadium, that was my favorite one. I had no idea why.

Now you know, I started off selling this book on the streets on NYC – walking up to people and selling it hand to hand. One of the women I sold it to, I happened upon her as she was finishing the book in the park. It was an amazing moment. She waved me over and told me that she was almost done, and that she was into it. Then, she sat me down and said:

“You know – that little boy who sits on the bridge. That’s you. Did you know that?”

I started to cry right there, because until that moment, I didn’t know it at all. Most people just think the main character is me, but no – it’s that little kid sitting on the bridge. That’s amazing thing about writing and getting reaction from readers – they just see realities that you can’t. I’m still in contact with that woman. She invited me over to her apartment to have coffee with her and her husband and talk about the book.

6. Awesome answer and very powerful... there was something about that boy that struck me as well. What was the best thing about writing this novel? What was the worst?

The best thing about writing this novel was having people who have lived on the block for their entire life, from teenagers to people who have been here for 40 years, coming up to me and telling me I got it right. The worst, I think, was reading a few bad reviews. It tears at your soul and makes you question yourself like crazy – but you know, you have to be able to take it. I think selling on the street made me tough to what people thought. In general the response has been amazing. I still get emails from people I sold to from all over the world – with the new release, the reach has grown. The life of a book is infinite – how amazing is that?

7. Yes, very amazing! That's so awesome that you have been able to "reach" all those people with your book!

I love the title of the book (and the cover, but I figure you have little control over that)... what about the name, though... was it almost called anything else?

Ah, the cover. You should talk to Terry Goodman, my Senior Editor at AmazonEncore. I was actually very involved in the cover process – something that I love about working with this publishing company. Originally I wanted to keep the same cover as the original book, but Terry and the group that designed and edited the book, thought that since it was a second edition, it would be good to have the second cover. The design was theirs – and Terry fought my objections and eventually I saw that he was right. He’s usually right – I call him the Godfather because, well, he just is. However, the image in the background didn’t really work for me, so I sent in an image that Greg Flores took from my fire escape awhile back, and it just flowed in perfectly. The finished product is amazing, but the birthing process was difficult – probably because I am a little crazy when I get something in my head. Again, AmazonEncore made me very much a part of this process. I’m lucky to be part of that venture.

As for the name, no. I had the title before I started writing the book. It came to me right away.

8. I really love the current cover, but if the cover I've seen on your website is the original, I liked that one too! Okay, you’ve mentioned you spent a couple hours each morning working on this novel. How long did it take you to write this book?

Once it got going, it took me a year to write it in those two hours before work, then about 5 months of rewrites (about 15) to get it all done.

9. When we spoke at the Book Blogger Convention in NYC you mentioned that you’re actually somewhat shy. What motivated you to step outside the box as you did and literally hand-sell your books to people on the street? That took guts!!

I think I followed the model of how Hip Hop artists sold their mix tapes to develop a following on the underground level. My thoughts were that if you develop a fan base by yourself, word would spread. Nobody is going to help you unless you are doing everything you can, everything that you want others to do for you, for yourself. That way, you make yourself valuable and others will come to you. As for being shy – perhaps that was the wrong wording. It’s a very intense thing – actually communicating with someone face to face – eye to eye. You’re sharing souls right there. So, in that moment before I approached someone, there was that bit of fear. You have to overcome your fears though – and the best way to do that is to run head on into them and destroy the illusion.

As for my motivation to do it that way – I guess it just made sense to me. I looked around New York – saw all of these millions of people walking around and thought to myself, I just need 10 of them a day to buy a book. How hard is that? I’ve given my all to jobs where at the end of the day, I was exhausted at giving everything I had. What would happen if I gave everything I had to my dream? Well, it lead to a publishing deal. That’s what happened.

10. Awesome! And you're so right about the importance of making things happen for yourself.

What brought you back to New York after essentially growing up in California?

I think New York was always calling me. There is a huge independent lit scene going on here – especially in Harlem, which has always been the center of progressive culture and developing a voice outside of the mainstream that would eventually define the mainstream culture. I wanted to be part of that and draw my inspiration from that – from all of the writers out here who hustle their literature while working other jobs. I think it gives you an edge to be submerged in the real world while trying to create a fictional one.

11. That's very interesting what you say about the independent lit scene. I actually have another book to review that takes place in Harlem and is an independent book... I'm very interested in that whole part of our country. Which brings us to this: I adore NYC... what does New York City mean to you or represent for you?

It represents millions of stories and characters all rubbing up against each other. I think it’s some strange mix of a Frank O’Hara poem and a KRS-One rhyme. It’s subway doors opening and closing in seconds, but in those seconds, thousands of lives intersect with one another and create a narrative that changes on the daily. At the same time, it’s a grind unlike any other because you need to hustle like crazy to keep from getting stepped on – but sometimes you do. Sometimes you dance, sometimes you fall, sometimes you’re above it all. Regardless of your place in the play of that day, you’re part of the bloodstream.


Love, love, love this answer!!

12. What are your favorite books/do you recommend any particular books? Were there any, in particular, that inspired your writing?

I’ll try to keep it short, but here you go in no particular order. Iceberg Slim, Black Mama Widow. Milan Kundera, Life is Elsewhere. John Fowls, The Collector. The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man. Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts. The Wu Tang Manual, The RZA. Warrior of the Light, Paulo Coelho, Hunter S. Thomson, The Great Shark Hunt.

I’m sure after this is published I’m going to think of more, but I guess that would be my base, with Kundera and Eillison leading the charge. These are some fantastic folks to lead you into any literary battle you may be fighting.

13. I definitely plan on checking some of those out! But I also look forward to more from you... Are you working on anything new? Can you tell us about it?

One short term and one longer term. The short term is a novel set in early 90s San Francisco. Set against the switch from the analog to the digital age. I lived through that and would like to get it out of my system. The other is set in a similar time period in Mongolia and is going to be more of an epic scope – one that is requiring tons of research and extreme mapping. I hope to have both done by the end of the year. Hope is a good thing. I like stories that take place in a transition period. This way, you get things to move all over the place and have the characters be the stabling points in the plot.

14. Anything else you would like everyone to know about The Last Block in Harlem?

I would say to go into the story without any of your pre-conceived notions of what IS. By that, I mean just walk through it as if you were the eye, and experience the book within the book. Let the emotions work their way through you before you pass judgment. There is a lot going on beneath the surface, so look close and walk slow where you can. Think about who the villain is and who are the “good guys.” You may find that there are neither. You may find that they are you.

Thank you so much for doing this interview!!

Get the book here. Learn more about the author here and see pictures of the people on the streets of NYC he originally sold his books to here. (Make sure to scroll down).


Trisha said...

What an excellent interview! I have to admit that I typically just skim author interviews, but Herz actually wrote answers that sound like they come from a real person. :) I've had the book on my wish list since your review, but this made me move it up the list a bit. Thanks Jenny!

Jenny said...

Trisha, I completely agree with you! I usually skim over them too which is why I don't do too many but I thought his answers were so thoughtful.

Zibilee said...

Very cool interview! I liked his answer about his inspiration and his writing of the book. I have heard some of the best authors often say that at times, the book writes itself. Very, very cool. I am going to have to move this book up on my wish list, as this interview has gotten me really curious!

Jenny said...

Heather -- it's funny because sometimes after reading an interview I think to myself, ah, yes, they were meant to be a writer, lol!

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