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June 2, 2007 / GO Brooklyn / Perspective / Books / Checkin’ in with...

Gabriel Cohen

The Brooklyn Paper
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Author and Sunny’s Reading Series founder Gabriel Cohen might have ditched his Boerum Hill digs for the big sky country of Ditmas Park, but he’s still got the old ’hood on the brain. His second novel, “Boombox” — out now from Academy Chicago Publishers — focuses on a shared courtyard behind one of the neighborhood’s row houses that becomes more of a battleground than backyard.

Cohen dished to GO Brooklyn’s Adam Rathe about his new novel, the fifth year of his reading series and what’s next for him.

Q: The neighbors in your book definitely don’t get along. How do you get on with your own neighbors?

A: Great. For 16 years, I lived on Wyckoff Street in Boerum Hill and I used to work in my kitchen, which faced the back courtyard — very similar to the book— and it was very quiet. A neighbor kid actually bought a big sound system and started blasting rap music into the courtyard. That much is based in reality. It drove me nuts for a few months, but it occurred to me that instead of being frustrated with the problem, I should write about it instead. I should say that the other characters in the book are not based on real neighbors.

Q: How was writing this book different for you than writing “Red Hook,” your first book?

A: I didn’t have to deal with the genre elements of writing a mystery, which people expected. It was similar in a sense because I was still writing about the mystery of why people behave the way they do. It’s really the same challenge.

Q: What do you miss about living in Boerum Hill?

A: I moved in 1990 and I saw that whole neighborhood change so drastically. When I moved in, I was right around the corner from the Gowanus Houses and I assumed that my block would never get gentrified. Obviously, I was really wrong. I got forced out — my landlord sold the little brick row house I was in for a million dollars. That just blew me away. I find the neighborhood really interesting in that those housing projects are just a block away from Smith Street and I really wonder what people [in the housing projects] think of the invasion of their neighborhood.

Q: What attracted you to Ditmas Park?

A: It’s a bizarre neighborhood in that I didn’t know it was here until recently. It doesn’t look like the rest of New York. It looks like a genteel Southern town — every house has a front porch.

Q: So, how did the reading series at Sunny’s begin?

A: I was jogging through Red Hook and I ran into Sunny Balzano, who was standing outside his bar. He and his wife are both painters and they had this big interest in making the bar more than a bar. They wanted to do plays and live music and to have a lot of cultural stuff happening. They mentioned that to me and a lightbulb just went off over my head. It’s an incredibly beautiful bar and a great place to do a reading series.

The series is going to have its fifth anniversary on June 3. I’ve only read there twice. I read from this book last month.

Q: What’s been your favorite part of the series?

A: It provides an atmosphere that’s ideal for writers and the audience because it’s not easy to get to, so the people who show up are there because they care about good writing.

Q: What are you planning for the anniversary?

A: I’m having 16 different authors come and read one page from somebody else’s book that has inspired them.

Q: Are you reading?

A: No, but if I was reading, I would read the first page of John Updike’s “Rabbit at Rest.”

Q: Since your novel is called “Boombox,” what do you listen to your music on?

A: I tend to listen to my iPod.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: My next book is coming out in November, it’s a sequel to “Red Hook,” and then I have a non-fiction book coming out in February. It’s a bizarre fluke that I haven’t had a book out in five years and now I have three books coming out in 10 months.

“Boombox” is available at BookCourt (163 Court St., between Dean and Pacific streets in Cobble Hill). $16. For information, call (718) 875-3677.

The Fifth Anniversary of Sunny’s Reading Series will take place at 3 pm on June 3 at Sunny’s (253 Conover St., at Reed Street in Red Hook). Free. For information, call (718) 625-8211.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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