MysteryPeople Q&A with Rob Hart

Rob Hart’s New Yorked is both a quirky take on the the hard boiled crime novel and a heartbroken valentine to his ever-changing city. His hero, unlicensed Brooklyn PI Ash McKenna, has as much trouble with hipsters than criminals. we got a chance to grill Rob on writing, his book, and his town.

MysteryPeople Scott: Ash is such a unique tough guy hero. Is there a specific way he came about?

Rob Hart: I wanted to write a private detective-type character, but at the beginning of his career. We often join these characters after they’d been operating for years, jaded and set in their ways. I wanted to open at the start—dig into what would push someone onto that path, make it a story about a good-hearted but misguided kid looking for his moral compass. He’s capable and he’s tough and he’s good with his fists, but he’s also immature and impulsive and still has a lot to learn about the world.

MPS: The backdrop is a gentrifying New New York that angers Ash. What did you you want to question about it?

RH: New York is two cities. For natives, it’s this thing that gets in your blood, and you love it no matter how much it hurts you. For people who came from somewhere else, it’s Shangri-La; the answer to a question you’ve been asking your whole lives. And those two factions can often be adversarial. Natives grumble about gentrifiers taking up space. Gentrifiers grumble about the holier-than-thou natives.

I’ve lived here my whole life, so I understand those feelings of displacement and frustration. You think you’re due something for putting up with all the bullshit this place throws at you. But I also understand how this could be a place of reinvention and salvation.

Really, I’m just endlessly fascinated how this city exists for people—it’s so big and so diverse no two experiences are the same. I wanted to take a snapshot of mine.

MPS: What is the biggest misconception about the city?

RH: That it’s still dangerous as it used to be. It can be dangerous, just like any big city, but we’re very far removed from the Death Wish era. If anything, the city is safe to the point where it’s lost an edge. Living here used to be something you had to earn. Now it’s so sanitized and expensive, it’s easy to feel like in another twenty years there will be armed guards on the bridges, turning away anyone who doesn’t make a six figure annual salary.

New York is two cities. For natives, it’s this thing that gets in your blood, and you love it no matter how much it hurts you. For people who came from somewhere else, it’s Shangri-La; the answer to a question you’ve been asking your whole lives. And those two factions can often be adversarial. Natives grumble about gentrifiers taking up space. Gentrifiers grumble about the holier-than-thou natives.

MPS: For your first novel, did you draw from any influences or did you simply expand from your short work?

RH: This grew out of a short story I wrote in a workshop led by Craig Clevenger. It’s very different—different narrator, different circumstances. It was set around the closing of CBGB. If I dug up that story now I wouldn’t be surprised to see that none of the details survived from there to here. But that feeling of displacement, of the way this city can wear on you no matter how hard you love it, that stuck with me throughout.

MPS:  You also work on the publishing side of things. What should every author know who doesn’t have your experience?

RH: No one knows what they’re doing and anyone who tells you they do is lying. So much of publishing is unknowable. Something works and you just try to replicate it until something else catches fire—then you try to replicate that.

That said, the publishing industry is full of kind, passionate people who work very hard to put out good books. They often get cast as villains, called “gatekeepers” like it’s a dirty word. Yes, good books fall through the cracks, and good authors have gotten bad deals. But at the same time, a rejection doesn’t have to be an indictment of the whole system—it might just mean you have to work harder.

MPS: Ash sees his possible escape in moving to Austin. As a resident of that town, I was curious why you picked it.

RH: I wrote this during a period when I was convinced I was leaving New York. Austin was at the top of the list. A good friend of mine lived there, and my brother went to college in San Marcos, so I’d been down there five or six times, and I loved it. I felt like it was the kind of place I could live, and I don’t feel that way about a lot of places. Plus, I was thinking of setting the second book there, since I envisioned it as a play on a Western.

Sadly, it didn’t work out—I stayed in New York, and I moved the second book to Portland (a much more absurd location for a Western). That said, Ash did go to Austin immediately after the events of New Yorked, and I’m toying with the idea of writing a short story about what happened there that it didn’t work out. He probably got himself into some trouble on Sixth Street. Maybe someday.

You can find copies of New Yorked on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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