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The Sea Beach LineThe MTA’s Sea Beach Line, better known as the N train, now has a fascinating new novel named after it, by Ben Nadler. The Sea Beach Line takes the reader from the Southern Brooklyn neighborhoods of Coney Island, Sheepshead Bay and Brighton Beach to Manhattan’s Washington Square Park and the Upper East Side.

The book’s narrator Izzy Edel has a mystical bent and is well-versed in Jewish texts, both real and imaginary. After getting kicked out of college for hallucinogenic drug use, he travels to New York in search of his estranged father, who is missing and presumed dead. A postcard with a tattooed mermaid and a letter with a return address in Coney Island lead him to his first clues at a private museum run by a business associate of his father’s. A runaway from a Hasidic sect and her relatives, Uzbek gangsters, and his father’s fellow book vendors are among the novel’s intriguing cast of characters.

ATZ asked novelist Ben Nadler, who lives in Brooklyn and teaches writing at City College and the College of New Rochelle, to fill us in on the backstory of The Sea Beach Line in the following Q & A. You can preview the first chapter for free on the publisher’s website.

Q: In Stillwell Terminal there’s a sign for the Sea Beach Line which I rarely see anywhere else. What is the history of the line and how did it come to be the title of your novel?

A: The Sea Beach Railway was an independent line which went to Coney Island in the 1800s. It was bought by the BRT, but kept its name as The Sea Beach Line. The BRT was bought by the BMT, which, along with other companies, was in turn bought by the city. Eventually, everything was folded together into the MTA. So, The Sea Beach Line is known today as the MTA’s “N” train. But it retains its full name; in addition to the station signs, the words appear in the illuminated signs on the side of N train cars.

There are some crazy articles from around the turn of the twentieth century in the New York Times archives about independent “inspectors” throwing fare evaders off the Sea Beach Line, on the way to Coney. Some people were seriously assaulted, and at least two women actually died, after being run down on the tracks. These stories inspired me to invent the painting by the artist, R. Galuth, which plays a central role in my novel.

More generally, though, I’m really interested in the layering of history in New York. That’s a lot of what the book is about, digging up these layers of history, experience, and meaning. So referring to a common subway line by its historical name, and elevating into a more a mythic place, is very much in line with what the novel is.

Ben Nadler

Ben Nadler

Q: Tell us about your relationship with Southern Brooklyn– Coney Island, Brighton and Sheepshead Bay–all featured prominently in the book–along with Washington Square Park in the Village. Have you lived or worked here? Have any bits and pieces of your personal history turned up in the book?

A: I live in Midwood, Brooklyn, and have lived here over the entire course of writing the novel. This is sort of the very top edge of Southern Brooklyn, but part of the same world in some ways.

I have been fascinated with Coney Island, specifically, since I was very young. Several of my father’s relatives, including his grandmother, lived in the Amalgamated Warbasse Houses when he was a kid. They were Yiddish-speaking union members who moved down from the Lower East Side when the development opened in the ‘60s. My father always imparted to me that Coney Island is a special place. And because it was the location of the older, immigrant generation of his family, it always seemed more connected to the past than other places for me.

I first moved to New York City in 2002, and would often come down to Coney alone or with friends, to walk on the beach and boardwalk at night. In around 2008 I started dating my girlfriend, Oksana, whom I’m still with. She was born in Russia, but grew up in Coney Island, on West 23rd St. Some of her family still lives there. Oksana further introduced me to the broader Coney Island neighborhood to the west of the amusement area, as well as to Brighton to the east.

The Manhattan material has more of a direct connection to my experiences: I was a bookseller on West 4th Street for a few years. I came to New York to study at the New School in the West Village, and ended up working as a bookseller for the last couple years of college, and for a bit after. I don’t think there is anything from my own biography in the plot or the characters, but the accounts of the bookselling business, and the street culture around the park in the early 2000s, are very much a pastiche of my memories and experiences.

Q: The scenes that flash back to 11-year-old Izzy meeting and bonding with his estranged father as they go crabbing on the pier in Coney and make a meal of the catch are masterful. How did you come up with this chapter?

Thanks. This was actually the very first part of the book that I wrote. Everything grew from there.

Basically, a friend and I were spending a lot of time crabbing and fishing on the pier that summer. It was mainly an excuse to make ourselves get up early, ride our bikes down Ocean Parkway at dawn, and drink on the pier in the morning. So the scene started to come together in my mind over successive weeks, sitting on the pier bench, waiting for the tug on the line. The characters were birthed from the setting, to a degree.

Q: The mix of Jewish mysticism and noirish plot drew me in. Can you talk a little about what inspired that combo?

A: Honestly, this wasn’t a planned combination. These are just things I write about.

That being said, I think there are some natural connections between the two elements. Hasidic tales in Eastern Europe were all about taking complex religious and mystical traditions, and bringing them into narratives that could be accessibly shared amongst common people. And noir/ hardboiled/ pulp novels in America were a way of taking the literary form of the novel, and making it into something accessible (in terms of plots, language, and the actual ownership of books) to a wider, and largely working class, audience. So they fit well together. Especially in the streets of Brooklyn.

More than anything though, we are talking about different forms mystery. The search for what’s hidden.

Sea Beach lineQ: Have you written anything else about Coney Island (nonfiction/journalism) or set in Coney Island (fiction)?

A: Yeah, over the years I have done some freelance nonfiction writing about Coney Island for different blogs and publications. My favorite example of this is the article my girlfriend and I wrote about the reconstruction of Steeplechase Pier after Hurricane Sandy.

Several years ago, an editor from Sea Gate tried to start a local Coney Island newspaper. He got a publisher who was supposed to sell ads and fund it, and he hired he me and a photographer to put together some stories. I did a lot of great interviews, and got to meet some awesome people, but then the publisher skipped town, and the paper never got printed.

Coney Island pops up in a lot of my writing. A chapter of my out-of-print first novel, Harvitz, As To War, takes place in Coney Island, in the projects. One of the pieces in a comic book, Line & Hook, which I made with Alyssa Berg and is forthcoming next month from Perfect Wave, is written from the perspective of an old drunk on the Coney Island boardwalk.

Q: You seem very familiar with Coney Island – for example, putting the fictional Galuth Museum on 18th Street, which is one of Coney’s mysterious missing streets. What place in Coney Island, past and/or present, captures your imagination?

A: A missing street is such a great opportunity for a fiction writer. Because it doesn’t exist, I had total freedom to construct my own location. But at the same time, because it’s located between two real places, it was firmly grounded and contextualized in the experiential world.

In Coney Island, like a lot of New York City, the tenements were destroyed in “slum clearance” and replaced with public housing projects. It is debatable if this was the best thing for people or not (or if it could have been a better thing for people if the history of the projects unfolded differently, with more support). In any case, you can’t really talk about life in Coney Island today without talking about life in housing projects. But I am entranced by these disappeared neighborhoods. Throughout the city, there are old neighborhoods buried under NYCHA projects, under expressways, under skyscrapers, under Lincoln Center.

For pure mystery and imagination, though, you can’t beat Dreamland. This was the quintessential Coney Island amusement park, a reified world of fantasy and imagination. It lasted for just seven years before disappearing in flames. When I look at old post card photos of the front gate, with the giant angel statue in the middle, my imagination goes wild.

The Sea Beach Line by Ben Nadler. Fig Tree Books, 2015. Softcover, $15.96.

Related posts on ATZ…

October 25, 2015: Autumn Reading: Novels Starring Circus Mermaids, Coney Island Sideshows, Traveling Shows

December 1, 2014: Autumn Reading: Ward Hall – King of the Sideshow!

November 22, 2014: Autumn Reading: The Brooklyn Theatre Index of Coney Island, Brighton Beach & Manhattan Beach

November 10, 2014: Autumn Reading: The Lost Tribe of Coney Island

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Circus mermaids and freaks, Coney Island sideshows, and a traveling circus and carnival take center stage in this trio of literary novels that we read over the summer. Wondrous and horrific by turn, these stories will have you turning their pages well past the witching hour.

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler. St. Martin’s Press, 2015. Hardcover, $26.99.

The Book of SpeculationErika Swyler’s The Book of Speculation is a suspenseful novel that combines some of our favorite things — traveling shows, sideshow performers, mermaids, family secrets and rare books. The rare book is the 17th century log of a traveling circus which the narrator receives in the mail from a stranger along with a mysterious message: “A name inside it–Verona Bonn–led me to believe it might be of interest to your family.” The women in Simon Watson’s family, including his mother and grandmother, were circus mermaids who drowned, always on July 24. The novel alternates between the magical tale of Simon’s ancestors documented in the logbook and his present life on Long Island, where he is in danger of losing both his job as a librarian and his family’s historic home. As the date of his mother’s death approaches, Simon becomes convinced that his sister, who ran off with a carnival, is doomed to drown as well. Can the revelation of a family secret save them both?

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman. Scribner, 2014. Hardcover, $27.99; Paperback $16.00.

Museum of Extraordinary ThingsCoralie, the enchanting heroine of Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things, was born with webs between her fingers. Pressed to perform as a “human mermaid” in her father’s museum of freaks and curiosities in early 20th century Coney Island, she escapes after hours by swimming the Hudson River. Sightings of “a sea monster” become a tabloid mystery. Coralie’s story unfolds parallel with that of Eddie Cohen, a Jewish immigrant living on the Lower East Side who works as a newspaper photographer and fishes the river for his supper. It’s clear that their worlds are going to intersect and they are destined to fall in love, but that doesn’t lessen the allure. First published in 2014, Hoffman’s novel was on the New York Times bestseller list and was the Long Island Reads selection for 2015. Set in 1911, the year of both Manhattan’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and Coney Island’s Dreamland Fire, the story has an authentic ring to it. Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson was among the early readers of the manuscript.

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry. Ecco/HarperCollins, 2015. Hardcover, $26.99.

Church of MarvelsThe Church of Marvels of the novel’s title is an 1890’s Coney Island sideshow, but the sideshow has burned to the ground and its proprietor Friendship Willingbird Church is dead before the book begins. Her twin daughters Belle, a beautiful contortionist and sword swallower, has fled to Manhattan, while Odile, who was born with a curvature of the spine, struggles to make a living as the Target Girl on Coney’s Wheel of Death. Initially, we were disappointed the novel did not have more scenes set in Coney Island or the sideshow, as we had anticipated. Leslie Parry’s exquisite prose and the surprising twists and turns of the narrative won us over. Odile’s quest to find her missing sister takes us inside the lunatic asylum on Blackwell’s Island and the tenements and opium dens of the Lower East Side before circling back home to Coney Island.

Related posts on ATZ…

May 17, 2015: Summer Reading: Undertow by Michael Buckley

December 1, 2014: Autumn Reading: Ward Hall – King of the Sideshow!

November 22, 2014: Autumn Reading: The Brooklyn Theatre Index of Coney Island, Brighton Beach & Manhattan Beach

November 10, 2014: Autumn Reading: The Lost Tribe of Coney Island

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The quirky characters and Coney Island setting of Tara Altebrando’s new novel were so engaging that I read it on the subway to and from Coney, and then in a car on the road, in an effort to keep the story from ending.

Who wouldn’t want to belong to the Dreamland Social Club? In this novel for teenage readers, the club is an unofficial group frequented by a freaky clique at Coney Island High School. Among its members is Babette, a goth dwarf who befriends the novel’s 16-year-old heroine Jane with the explanation: “You seem cool. And you’ve got carny blood, even if it’s highly diluted.”

Jane is cool, though it takes most of the book for her to develop a sense of belonging and join the club. She and her brother Marcus have lived a nomadic life with their dad, who has designed roller coasters from Tokyo to Paris. The carny blood that Babette refers to comes from their mom’s side of the family, who were genuine Coney Island characters. But Jane and Marcus have never met their late grandparents and can hardly remember their mother, who died when they were little kids.

As a carny kid and Coney Island devotee, I felt drawn to the story of Jane’s life in Coney, where her family moves after inheriting her grandfather’s house. There’s lots of fun stuff in the attic. Jane soon learns that her grandfather “Preemie” Porcelli got his start in Coney as one of the premature babies on exhibit in Dreamland’s Baby Incubator Show. Her new friends remember him as the operator of a water race game on the Boardwalk calling them in to win prizes.

There’s also Jane’s tantalizing flirtation with Leo aka Tattoo Boy, whose father owns a Boardwalk dive bar that’s being evicted by a real estate developer who has bought up Coney Island. Does the last part sound familiar? The author has done a remarkable job of weaving Coney history and current events—both real and imagined– into a marvelous coming-of-age story.

Among the novel’s memorable details are a carousel horse from the fictional equivalent of Coney’s “B & B Carousell” chained to a radiator, vintage films of Jane’s grandmother who was a “Birdwoman” in the sideshow, and keys hidden away by her mother that still unlock long-vanished attractions. Jane’s family home gives up all of its secrets and Coney Island becomes her real home.

Tara Altebrando will appear at “Great Summer Reads for Teens” with a few other teen authors on Thursday, June 16, from 6-8 pm at Books of Wonder, 18 West 18th Street, New York, NY 10011. Ph 212- 989-3270.

Dreamland Social Club by Tara Altebrando. Ages 14 and up. 389 pages. Published by Dutton Books, 2011. Hardcover, $16.99.

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Related posts on ATZ…

June 19, 2011: Coney Island Summer Reading: The Wonder City

January 8, 2011: Boardwalk: Photos by Meredith Caliento, Spoken Word by Michael Schwartz

December 8, 2010: Children’s Book Tells Coney Island Carousel Carver’s Story

September 27, 2009: Coney Island 1969 by Edwin Torres: Fave Poem from Parachute Festival

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