Arthur Nersesian could be a character in one of his own books. In fact, Arthur is (approximately seventy-percent, he estimates) the protagonist in his famous novel The Fuck-Up, a down-and-out tale about a New York City that no longer exists. The author of eleven books, Arthur is a born-and-bred New Yorker, whose seen his hometown change from a burnt-out urban desert into “simulacra of itself,” yet he retains a palpable love for the city.
In Arthur’s writing, New York feels less like a setting and more like a world-sized character. His novel The Fuck-Up was a CONVICTS’ Book Club favorite. By turns brooding and hilarious, tragic and thoughtful, The Fuck-Up follows a nameless protagonist on his misadventures through a city far grittier than its current iteration.
He lives in the same nookish East Village apartment where he wrote The Fuck-Up decades ago. In person, he brings an underdog vibe and finely-aged cheekiness to the table. We met up with Arthur at an unnamed compound in Williamsburg, saw him read in Bushwick, and visited him at his home on First Avenue, which was the starting point for what was, undoubtedly, the best tour of the East Village given in 2017. Along the way, we got Arthur’s word on a lifetime spent writing, suffering, living, and misadventuring in what remains one of the greatest cities on earth.
How’s it going Arthur?
Good good. How are you?
I’m alright. Little sweaty. To start, tell us where you’re from?
I was born and raised in New York City. I’m actually third generation on my father’s side and something like fifth generation on my mother’s side. I’m from New York City but a different New York City. I went to high school in Brooklyn and college at City College up in Harlem. I’ve lived in different parts of the city: Midtown, Times Square, mainly East Village. Somewhat in Brooklyn. What else can I say?
Can you talk about just the way that the city has changed in your time here? I know that’s a whole story in itself.
I’m gonna need about eighteen hours. I’m gonna need a Jerry Lewis telephone for that. It was actually a bunch of small towns and now it’s a big tourist trap. One can go on at length and talk about the pros and cons. It was dirty and dangerous but it was also cheap and had a lot of opportunities. It’s kind of a shock to try and adjust to it. I’m not used to it. I think of the 70’s in the city and I remember going through Soho and you wouldn’t see a person. You might see one of two people between Spring and Prince Street all the way down. It was just empty. It was a little scarier because it was empty. You didn’t want to buy real estate in New York, you could actually get it for free. There were abandoned properties, and there was a homestead program and the city that if you took a property over for seven years and lived in it and fixed it up, then it got onto tax rolls. Is that enough about that? I could go on forever.
I think of you quintessentially as a New York writer. I don’t know if that’s a limiting label, but how does New York exist in your books? Is it more character or place?
Well, that’s it. It really had its own character. When I first started reading and considering being a writer, I was looking for New York in other books but it really didn’t feel like many writers were representing it accurately. You would see little pictures here and there but no one ever gave it the attention I felt like it deserved. A lot of wonderful writers were local writers in many ways. Faulkner and O’Neill focused on distinct regions and through that, were able to describe the world. I was just trying to portray the New York that I grew up in, got to know, and is now kind of gone.
What does it feel like to see the city change around you?
It’s kind of a heart break. Any New Yorker can come up with a list of favorite places that, one-by-one, are gone. The tiniest little hole in the wall places that were affordable or quaint or your own, have been replaced with these overpriced ridiculous, I don’t know, franchise style places. They’re not actually franchise places, they are just kind of heartless. It’s like, “Where did my city go?” It’s so sad. It’s easy to get into that though. I’m trying not to get nostalgic. You can get really whiny. I could cry you a river. But then no one’s going to invite me to any parties anymore. That cry-baby author.
You got any good stories from the East Village back in the day? You were talking about Allen Ginsberg earlier.
Let’s see. Some vintage New York stories. Where do you start? I guess the most New York-iest times are when the city kind of has a disaster. The blackouts, the transportation and sanitation strikes, stuff like that. The Thompson Square riots were a lot of fun. You used to see more celebrities. You would see Ginsberg regularly, and that was nice. You would see Norman Mailer in Brooklyn Heights. Even though he was kind of an asshole I wanted to kind of say, “Hello, Mr. Mailer,” but I was always afraid he would punch me. Ginsberg was very accessible. You would say “Hi” and he was really nice. He would ask you if you liked older men. Things like that.
Am I correct in thinking that you still live in the apartment that you lived in when you wrote the fuck-up all those years ago?
Yes. I meant to live there for about six months, but time moves on and now with places and the rents they have, I’m glad I did. It suddenly seems a lot bigger and cheaper than anywhere else so…sometimes sloth can work for you.
I’ve been hoping to hear that for years. Must be wild seeing this neighborhood change the way it has.
My signature story for how dangerous the city, or the East Village was, is that back around 1975, I was fifteen when I lost my virginity to this woman who lived between A and B on 7th street, next to Thompson Square Park. We went to her place and we did the sacred act, you know, the holy wonderful moment of transition into manhood or whatever you want to call it. But when I look back at that evening, all I remember was the absolute terror of walking home that night: there were no stores, no shops, there were barrels with fire coming out. I remember someone threw a bottle at me. I was just trying to make it to 3rd Avenue which was regarded as the safe zone, but the area was so empty and destitute that it was like walking through a ghost town where you feel a thousand eyes on you. I remember thinking “This is not worth losing your virginity for.” So I don’t know if that’s of any indication, but that’s what the East Village was like back then.
Some of your books, like Suicide Casanova deal with the “old” Times Square. Can you talk a bit about that?
So Times Square was basically eight blocks down and a few avenues across. I remember it before it went completely into porn. It wasn’t that bad, it was still kind of riff raff-y, but because of its location it was a crossroads for the theater community and so on. It became this really strange mix of culture, of poor and middle class, of sex and drugs, and actors and all those types. Then Giuliani kind of came and steam rolled it all away. The porn arcades were bizarre. These twenty-five cent arcades were all over the place and it was an unusual New York thing. Really, I think that was one of the things that made New York New York. By getting rid of that, we’re destroying authentic New York to bring in this kind of bizarre simulacra, a duplication, a counterfeit New York. It’s a really bad imitation of itself and the things that really made it special are being kind of systematically eliminated.
Talk a bit about Suicide Casanova?
Well, it was published in 2001 and it alluded to porn. At the time VHS porn was pretty popular so we shaped the book like a VHS tape: different parts are labeled “fast forward,” “rewind,” “play,” “stop,” and “eject.” It’s basically about a bankruptcy lawyer who becomes obsessed with a porn actress and engineers this kind of meeting with her and basically winds up living with her. I guess the moral there is ‘be careful what you wish for.’ I mean there are some really responsible porn actresses, but she’s not one.
When did you start down the path toward being a writer?
It’s interesting. In retrospect, it was kinda like being gay and not admitting it. ‘Cause I kept writing and I kept thinking, “I know that being a writer means poverty, and hard work and it’s thankless and it’s isolating and I don’t want to do this” but I kept getting kind of pulled into it. I actually wanted to kind of make money and have a nice, decadent life and then a one point I just realised that, I’m a goddamn writer, I just better embrace it, stop fighting it. I advise anybody out there that it has its benefits but it is kind of hellish.
Hear that. Let’s talk a bit about The Fuck-Up, your first and best selling novel. What was the genesis of that story?
It was in the 80s and my girlfriend and I actually had a fifty dollar bet as to who would write a novel first. And she wrote actually a pretty good book and I wrote basically what was the first draft of The Fuck-Up. I was about 26 and I had no intention of trying to get it published. But that was the spark that started the book. And a lot of it was autobiographical.
This is an annoying question, but how do you balance fiction and autobiography in your works?
Well, take it as you need it. I’ve never been a memoirist even though I’d like someday to go back and talk about all the awful things that were done to me. But I managed the movie theatre that was in (The Fuck-Up) and there are things that shouldn’t have happened that did happen, that were kind of loosely described in there. Relationship, blunders that kind of happened. I used and shaped them, because it’s what you know. I probably could have called this a memoir. I remember there was a whole flurry of very successful memoirs in the, in the 2000s. The point is at least 60% of The Fuck-Up actually happened. Maybe even 70%, which for me constitutes for a memoir. It would have sold a lot better if I sold as a memoir. So instead of a hundred and twenty thousand, I could have probably hit a million copies and I wouldn’t be in this dump.
What happened with you and your lady friend at the time?
I offered to dedicate this book to my girlfriend back then. But she said she didn’t want to have a book dedicated to her that had “fuck” in the title. So ‘fuck you’… I hope she doesn’t see this. True story.
Can you talk a little bit about your writing process?
I do some writing in the morning, then I come out here and bother my friends and then I go back to my lonely life and do some writing at night. Depending on how late it is, I might do a third installment of writing. A lot of writers are very structured in that, they will get up at six and write till noon. I remember reading all these biographies of writers of when I was growing up and how everyone had their schedule. I’m a little more organic, I don’t really have that fixed thing. But I write every day.
Is writing something you actually enjoy doing?
As I get older, it becomes less of a joy and more of a chore. But if you try to have some kind of single purpose or focus or a build up to something, it makes everything a little bit more justifiable at the end of the day. That, I guess, is the function of art. But it could be just as easily doing an informative blog that tells people the truth about things or whatever. You have to try to find some kind of higher purpose to justify the boredom and the pain.
How long did The Fuck Up take from that first draft to its final, manifestation. How long did that take?
The first draft probably took under a year. And then it took about another two years of redrafting and then it took about thirteen years to get it published with the mainstream press. I finished it and sent it out to agents, got an agent, he sent it around and I got rejected by all the major houses….
So what is it that literature can specifically do that other art forms can’t? With shows and movies you can have narratives and characters, what is it that sets literature apart?
That’s a good question. For me there are three things. Number one, you, the individual, can control it. That’s not even entirely true when you consider compromises that are made with agents and editors along the way. But you basically create this product of your own without having to worry about investing money and getting actors. More importantly, you get this line-by-line, thought-by-thought creation of the work. In a novel you can really go into the motivation, ask why they are doing something and give more of the psyche and the thought process. You can move into psychology and sociology and the history of things, you can just focus on the aesthetics and the style and the words. There’s many number of areas that you can move through when you work on a piece of literature that you don’t see in film or song.
How have you supported yourself throughout your career? I know you taught college up in the Bronx, but have you held other odd jobs throughout or have you been able to basically devote all your time to writing?
Oh, no. I mean I had some checks here and there but if you boil down all my advances and divide the amount of time I put into this, I’m sure I could have made a lot more as a barista at the local Starbucks. You can’t support yourself on this. And as far as things that I have done: I have walked dogs, I have adopted dogs, I have turned dogs into glue. No, no. I sold books, I have a workshop, Monday nights 7pm. If anybody wants an inexpensive writing workshop, check out my website Arthurnersesiannyc.com. Feel free to send me a message.
Other than get out while you can, do you have any advice to young writers?
Writing is both the best and the worst. It’s avocation versus vocation. With one you get paid and the other you don’t. It’s a really great way to spend a life. Writing always gives you something to do and gives you focus. It gives you something to always get a sense of value from. On the other hand, as far as money, that’s the real problem. I think John Steinbeck said it best: “it’s like making a living at the track.” Everything’s a gamble and you usually have the odds stacked against you, so as long as you have another source of income, it’s actually a great thing to do. It gives me something to wake up for in the morning.
What are you working on now?
Well, the project is fifteen-hundred pages. It’s five books and each one is about three-hundred pages. It’s a continuous story. They’re coming out in a hardcover volume but they’re also being split into five paperback books. It’s in Stalinist Russia, but kind of a statement on Trump’s America. You always look for a mirror effect, that’s being literary fancy. The idea behind it could be reduced to people relating to their government. I don’t want to say what the the perils are…well, they’re the price of love. Every joy you have, you have to pay for.
Let’s go back to The Fuck-Up. There’s a real sense of suffering in that book. Could you speak about suffering in the book and its importance?
Well, I never thought about the virtue of suffering. Well, I say this: we only learn from pain. Pleasure is wonderful but it’s the suffering that defines us and strengthens us, revises us. That is a bit of a downer but who would want to read a book about a bunch of happy things happening to somebody? You throw the thing against the wall.
A buddy once told me “I don’t want to give you my book yet, because I don’t want you to have to lie to me and say you liked it.” Do you feel that sentiment at all?
A good way to lose friends as a writer is asking them if they read your book. You should never ask that. You can assume what you want, but don’t ask them. It’s true. Sad, but true.
Right on Arthur. Thanks for the chat. We’ll be hitting you up about that workshop soon.