Upper West Side Art imitated life for Joanna Clapps Herman when she used her Upper West Side neighborhood as the setting for her novel No Longer and Not Yet. Although it’s a work of fiction, the stories are based on the many life experiences she’s had with her neighbors, so much so that many of the central characters live at 370 Riverside, the building she once inhabited with her husband and son.
When she moved to New York City from Waterbury, Connecticut, Clapps came ready to find a big family like the one she had at home. It was through her openness that she discovered and contributed to a real sense of community in her buildings. “I love that feeling that there’s a whole world that you live in that knows you and cares about you,” she said.
So you live on Riverside?
I’m on the Drive, yes. I used to live at 370 Riverside Drive. I think I lived there for 17 years. And then my husband and I moved to the building I’m in now, which is also on the block.
Some of the characters are based on your neighbors, right?
Not everybody and not match for match. But definitely, fiction writers always draw from people they know, one way or another.
The book begins in Italy – why did you choose that setting?
I come from a big, provincial, Italian family. My family is from the South of Italy. And Clapps, oddly enough, is a Southern name, even though it doesn’t sound like it. It never got changed, it never had a vowel on the end of it, but it’s all over the town my family comes from. We’re from Basilicata, in the instep of the boot. I really have a passion for Italy – my husband and I both did – and we traveled there a lot, even though we didn’t actually meet there at all. The fact that Italy is a part of our lives somehow allows me to incorporate it into my stories.
Your focus on the relationships neighbors have in their building.
Coming from an Italian family, you understand how important the whole thing with community is. I grew up in the middle of all of my cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. We were always in and out of each others’ houses, and that’s what I expect to happen wherever I live. When I left my big Italian family in Waterbury, I had to create another one where I went. And that building became that for me. It became a big village.
So do you have a lot of friends in your building?
My husband just passed away, but when we first moved into this building, I thought, “I hate this building, nobody talks to each other.” But that’s the way we are, my husband was Jewish. We are very social and make that happen wherever we are. I would ask my neighbors to come over to my house and have a cup of coffee, just like my mother would do with my aunts. People don’t do that as much in New York, because people work so hard here. I do it more than the norm is in New York, because I can’t live without it. I love New York, but that’s the one thing that’s hard for me, that a sense of human connection isn’t automatic.
The doormen are also characters in the book. Are you close to yours?
I love being connected to the staff in the building. I love talking to them and finding out about their families, making sure I know them and they know me. When my husband got sick, the staff was so kind to him and to me. On a hot day I like to bring a cold drink down to the doorman, and in the winter, I like to make sure they have hot drinks or soup.
There’s a part in the book where someone brings a homeless man a sleeping bag. Is that based on a true event?
Yes, that man living in the box, that actually did happen. A friend and I were really so worried about him. And we were constantly bringing him food and then there was a gigantic snowstorm. We were so terrified about whether he was going to freeze to death or not, and that’s where that story came from.
What are you favorite places in your neighborhood?
Oh my goodness, I have so many! I may as well talk about Italian restaurants as part of it. I love Gastronomia which is on 106th and Manhattan Avenue. It’s a relatively new Italian restaurant and it’s spectacular. Pisticci, on La Salle. It’s really homemade cooking. Another one is Max Soha, which is south of Harlem. Now, institutionally, I love Saint John the Divine, it always has incredible art shows and is very socially conscious. I love 110th Street and Broadway, the absolute dead center, it’s a huge intersection. I remember reading a book when my son was a little boy that said the medieval town always had a big crossroad, a cathedral, and a university, and I thought, “That’s 100th Street and Broadway.”
You have a character in the book called “The Flower Lady.” Who is she based on?
She was based on somebody I watched for a couple of years. She was a homeless person, obviously quite crazy. She used to go around and steal flowers from the flower stores, gardens, from everywhere. But she would make the most beautiful bouquets I’ve ever seen in my life, and then she would sell them. I was just absolutely intrigued by her.
You moved from downtown to uptown. What were the differences you saw?
My husband lived on Bank Street and I lived on Grove. Very, very West Village. I don’t think there’s a more romantic part of New York City. I loved living there and would have probably never left voluntarily, but we had a son and needed more space. The Upper West Side is much more family oriented. It’s much more about a grown up professional life.
How did you meet your husband, Bill?
I went to do my masters degree at City College and he was teaching there. Now, he was not my professor. Thank goodness because we both felt that would have been really tacky. I met him through my advisor. We had this wonderful, long courtship in the Village. When I go back there, I still feel like I’m going back in time, to when my husband and I first met.
Visit www.joannaclappsherman.com to find out more about Joanna and the book.
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