If you had told me ten years ago I’d be editing a volume of stories featuring Dennis Lehane, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Connelly, Jonathan Safran Foer, Lee Child, and Pete Hamill—and if I told you then that I believed you—I’d likely also be the proud owner of the bridge you’d subsequently tried to sell me. Let’s just call it the Brooklyn Bridge. But this past November my company Akashic Books published USA Noir: Best of the Akashic Noir Series (LJ 8/13), which indeed includes this star-studded cast, along with 31 other literary luminaries.
In 2003, Tim McLoughlin approached me with the notion of editing an anthology of stories by Brooklyn-affiliated writers. I knew Tim to be a proud Brooklynite from his novel Heart of the Old Country, which was one of Akashic’s early successes. Tim and I shared a passion and appreciation for Brooklyn’s diversity and knew the volume could only work if we gathered a roster of writers reflecting the complexity of the borough’s physical and psychological landscape.
When we began work on Brooklyn Noir, we had no intention of launching a series. We decided to approach the volume first by setting a high literary bar and then by asking the contributors to situate each of their stories in a distinct Brooklyn neighborhood. Not only did this give us an organizing principle for the volume, it also helped us identify the writers who could best represent each neighborhood.
Hyperlocalism as Key to Success
Our goal was to leave the reader with the impression that each story could only be set in the location it’s written. This notion of hyperlocalism is the secret to the success of the series, but it is not a unique model in the book business. In fact, I’d say that we’re pretenders to the aesthetic when compared to the one institution in publishing that truly functions on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood level: libraries. They’re the only literary institution to touch whole swaths of America.
No one knows neighborhoods better than libraries, and branch locations are often unmistakably intertwined with their locales. When we embarked on a (first-ever) 15-neighborhood book tour for Brooklyn Noir, the Brooklyn Public Library proved this. Librarians Jay Kaplan and Meredith Walters were hugely supportive from the start and helped arrange book events in a diverse array of branch locations: Coney Island, Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens, Clinton Hill, Crown Heights, and, of course the majestic Central Library at Grand Army Plaza. Hearing our contributors read in the branch libraries associated with their stories was a truly special experience.
In each city we visit with this series, it has been a natural fit for Akashic to engage with libraries. Last year, the central branch of the Kansas City Public Library hosted the launch event for Kansas City Noir and featured the book in its “While the City Sleeps” reading series. The Glendale Public Library selected Los Angeles Noir for its “One Book, One Glendale” program. In fact, in all but a few cases, every single book set in the United States has been launched with some form of collaboration with local libraries.
Then there are various other points of library contact: portions of the profits from New Orleans Noir are donated to the New Orleans Public Library Foundation; a number of cover photos in the series have been licensed from library archives. I’m also pleased to announce that Laureen P. Cantwell, an Instructional Services Librarian at the University of Memphis, has just signed on as coeditor of Memphis Noir. She and her coeditor, book critic Leonard Gill, join an illustrious group of volume editors that includes Lawrence Block, Laura Lippman, Ken Bruen, George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, and Joyce Carol Oates. And perhaps most important, the series has connected us with so many talented authors—more than 800 writers have contributed to the 60-plus volumes so far.
Focusing on Community
With each volume, we’ve maintained the organizing principle that fueled the success of the inaugural collection: each story is brand new and set in a distinct neighborhood or city location. Without this stipulation, we fear most stories might congregate in just a few sections of the city. We want to explore the underbelly of whole cities, serving the Noir Series’ community-based goal of holding a mirror up to their true populations.
My own hope is that publishing will somehow become more community based, even as it remains focused on the “bigger picture” of the digital and international realms. There are hints of this, such as the rise of Greenlight Bookstore in my home neighborhood of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, which is a model of community engagement. You could say of Greenlight that it has a library sensibility.
As our Noir Series has continued to expand, we apply the same criteria to identify editors for the series that Tim and I used to distinguish the different writers who could best represent Brooklyn’s different neighborhoods. Who better to explore the ins and outs of a Boston we’ve never lived in than that city’s own Dennis Lehane, or Haiti than Edwidge Danticat? We’ve been delighted to discover that so many of our big-name editors are willing to work with our small-name press because the series helps them serve their own goals of community engagement. The only common element that appears in every editor’s introduction is community pride.
I hope USA Noir provides readers new to the series a point of entry and leads them to explore what for me has been an unforgettable literary tour, with some of today’s best writers acting as the guides.