Winning the National Book Critics Circle Award for one’s first published book promises a loyal readership and an eventual body of work that one can look back on with well-earned pride. That’s exactly what Ariel Sabar achieved with his first book, My Father’s Paradise, (also deemed a “Best Nonfiction Book of 2008” by the Christian Science Monitor).
Sabar wields his storytelling talent again in the nonfiction Heart of the City, releasing this Valentine’s Day. The book casts the City of New York as Cupid, telling the true stories of nine couples, from 1941 to the present, who met by chance in one of the city’s great public spaces.
Before he begins his book tour for Heart of the City, Sabar tells PopMatters 20 Questions about the lasting influence of an excellent newspaper editor he once knew.
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
This is a little embarrassing, but you know that Folgers commercial, where the brother comes home from the Peace Corps on Christmas morning and his little sister’s at the window waiting for him? He has a gift for her, but she sets it aside and says something like, “You’re my present this year.” Their exchange of looks is one of the most tender things I’ve ever seen on TV. It’s corny as Kansas, but it kills me. I wonder if it’s because I have a son and daughter who, I hope, feel that way about each other when they’re of coffee-drinking age.
Heart of the City: Nine Stories of Love and Serendipity on the Streets of New York
2. The fictional character most like you?
J.J. Gittes, the private eye played by Jack Nicholson in the movie, Chinatown. Dogged, risk-taking, suspicious of authority, well-dressed and well-met, but vulnerable and occasionally foolish.
3. The greatest album, ever?
I’m a former musician, so I know it’s in extremely bad taste to pick a greatest hits. But I’m going to do it anyway: The Best of Ray Charles: The Atlantic Years.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
My ignorance of all things Kirk and Klingon brought me down a few pegs among some of the geeks I hung around with in grade school. I was a very active kid — I liked leaping off roofs and ghost-riding my bike — and I somehow preferred the high physical velocity and story-telling of Star Wars to the intellectual chess of Star Trek. I also found Trekkies to be strangely tribal, always eager to set the record straight if you misrepresented some fact about the show, like the name of the actress who played Spock’s human mother in the original series.
5. Your ideal brain food?
I run on the streets of Washington, DC every other day, and something about the sound of my own breathing and the rush of air against my face clears away all the riddles and roadblocks that jack my brain when I’m at my desk. I’ve done some of my best writing, or pre-writing, in running shoes.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
Winning a National Book Critics Circle Award for my first book, My Father’s Paradise, was something I never expected. I’m particularly proud because of the exposure it’s given to the ancient and little-known story of my father’s people, the Kurdish Jews. The award also confirmed a suspicion I’d long had that the best stories — no matter how obscure their subjects — deal in universals: love, loss, change, rebirth.
7. You want to be remembered for ...?
Professionally, I’d love to be thought of as a writer who brought light to dark corners, who found compelling human stories in unlikely places. I know what you’re thinking: My Father’s Paradise, about the Jews of Kurdistan, sure. But come on, Sabar, what about your new book, Heart of the City? Haven’t New York love stories been told, like, a few times before?
My answer is, Not in this way. A long line of entertainments — When Harry Met Sally, An Affair to Remember, Sex and the City, and almost every Woody Allen film — have paid homage to the role of chance in New York City romance. But they are all fiction. Heart of the City shows us what it looks like in the real world.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
I’m in awe of writers who make truth as spellbinding as fiction. There’s a long list of folks who I think do that well: Joan Didion, Jonathan Harr, Janet Malcolm, Erik Larson, Michael Lewis, J. Anthony Lukas, Truman Capote, Katherine Boo.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
The Catcher in the Rye.
10. Your hidden talents . . .?
I play the drums. The funk/acid jazz band I played with in college moved in the mid-‘90s to San Francisco, where we gigged in many of the big clubs. We recorded a couple singles with an L.A. label, opened for Branford Marsalis, and were offered — but turned down — an invitation to appear on Star Search, the cooler one, hosted by Martha Quinn.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
Tom Heslin, a phenomenal editor at the Providence (RI) Journal, the first real newspaper I worked for, once said something like, “People don’t curl up at night with a great set of facts.” Of course, many articles call for the classic “inverted-pyramid” structure, which moves from a broad overview of the news to finer-grained details. But Tom urged us to take writing risks, to use the techniques of fiction—sharply drawn characters, scenes, dialogue, dramatic tension—to tell true stories.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
My son is in the third grade and he’s getting so much homework now that we recently bought a simple desk for his bedroom. I think my son was a bit surprised to come home the other afternoon and find me up there clicking away on my laptop. What? His bedroom has a pair of big, second-story windows with terrific light. I should spend all my days in my dungeon-like basement office?
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or . . .?
I grew up in West Los Angeles in the Less than Zero era. What do you think?
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
Outside my family, I’d have to pick George Orwell. Great writer. Great thinker about writing. Great social critic. But I’m not sure how comfortable he’d feel at the Ritz. I worry he’d spend dinner kicking up a fuss about working conditions in the kitchen.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
I’d love to travel to Zakho, in Iraqi Kurdistan, in the mid-‘30s. I conjured the town in fairly vivid detail in my first book, My Father’s Paradise, through interviews, historical records and two visits. But man, how cool it would be to meet all the characters in my book back then. My father’s oldest sister was kidnapped as an infant, and her disappearance remains a family mystery. I’d like to believe that were I there, I could have saved her, and that she’d be among us today.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
The “Off” button. There’s a fundamental rewiring of my brain that happens when I shut off my smartphone. My breathing slows. My thoughts run wider and deeper. I’m present again. I’m listening to the voices in the room. I’m connecting with my family in the here and now. I’m trying to do that more, but as my wife will tell you, I backslide.
Wait a sec, Is that my phone beeping?
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or . . .?
Caffeine focuses the mind and alcohol unfocuses it — both very valuable for the writer. But I can’t make it through the day without a really big chocolate chip cookie.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
I was born in Manhattan, raised in Los Angeles, and live now in Washington, D.C., so I definitely skew urban. I’ve really come to appreciate smaller cities with vibrant, walkable downtowns and lots of old buildings and history. A few of my favorites: Providence, Rhode Island; Charleston, South Carolina; Pasadena, California; Lawrence, Kansas.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
I start my tour for Heart of the City on Valentine’s Day, and am putting together a talk that I hope interests people in the book. I’m also working on a long magazine piece that grew out of research for the book.