The ProsenPeople

An Inside Look at an Early Draft of Bed-Stuy Is Burning

Thursday, July 13, 2017 | Permalink

Brian Platzer, author of Bed-Stuy Is Burning, has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series.

Bed-Stuy Is Burning is a novel about a fictional race riot in contemporary Bedford Stuyvesant, one of the most historically volatile neighborhoods in New York City. The novel initially focuses on Aaron, a disgraced rabbi turned Wall Street banker; Amelia, his journalist girlfriend; and Simon, their infant son. The infusion of upwardly mobile professionals—like Aaron and Amelia—into Bed-Stuy’s historic brownstones belies the tension simmering on the streets below. After a cop shoots a boy in a nearby park, conflict escalates to rioting—with Aaron and Amelia at its center.

Below is an early-draft excerpt from when the novel was written in alternating first-person voices. Here, Amelia is more blunt and callow than she becomes in later drafts. In this passage, she thinks about her infant son and the actor Adam Driver.


I didn’t want my Simon to suddenly die, but if he did, I wanted it to be Aaron’s fault. I could survive Simon suffocating, and I could forgive Aaron if he accidentally suffocated Simon, but I didn’t know if Aaron could forgive me.

When a couple gets engaged, they’re repeatedly asked a series of questions: How did he do it? Did she know it was coming? Did she cry? Can I see the diamond?

The questions allow friends and family to share in the couple’s joy, to feel part of their love. The answers matter less than the conversational enthusiasm they enable. When a couple has a child, they’re asked questions that play a similar a role: what was the birth weigh? How long was the labor? Who do you think he looks like? Do you love him so much? More than you ever loved anything?

It was hard to say I loved Simon before he knew I existed. Before he knew that I was different from the wall and my boyfriend and himself. I’m not sure non-reciprocal love exists. I cried when I leaned around and saw his little head sticking out of my body. I knew he was inside me and I felt him there for months, but when I saw the baby who would be my son for the rest of my life, it was the most powerfully emotional moment of my life.

But it wasn’t exactly love.

It was pride, for one—a kind of pride that makes me wonder if adopting is more significantly different from giving birth than I would have thought. I’m proud that my body—with its bad eyes and thin hair and lactose intolerance and basal cell carcinomas—could make a new body inside it. I’m proud that I made a thing as fat and short and perfect as Simon. But my guess is that the pride fades away and what’s left is the other most powerful emotion I feel, that of protection.

My son turned one a few weeks ago, and I’ve just now stopped waking up every night to hover over his crib to make sure he is breathing.

But if he does die, I don’t want it to be my responsibility. I want it to be Aaron’s. But it won’t be. It will be mine. I know that. Somehow I know.

I couldn’t sleep so I thought about what would happen if Simon were to die, and I thought about my boyfriend sleeping next to me, and I thought about my interview with Adam Driver, who played Adam, Lena Dunham’s boyfriend, on Girls and now is in the Star Wars movies. I interviewed him that day and I liked him. He had many of the same mannerisms as his character on Girls, and he even had a background that I imagined his character shared—like his father in real life was a preacher, and he joined the military after 9/11—but he also had this unassuming, almost apologetic smile that he fell back into all the time in real life that the director or editor or someone on Girls must have worked hard to remove all traces of, because in real life he has an athletic boyishness that balanced his self-seriousness. That’s what I’m going to write about. His boyishness.

Adam Driver is married, but the whole time I was with him I knew that if I was feeling better about my body and I wasn’t breastfeeding and I was feeling sexual again and not just a mother and I wasn’t attached to Aaron because of Simon and Aaron wasn’t such a great guy and it wouldn’t hurt him so much if he found out and if it wouldn’t ruin Simon’s life, I’d really want to sleep with Adam Driver. And not just as a physical thing. I’d want to sleep with him as a life-experience thing. Almost as if I were doing it for Simon. For Simon’s future. In the same way I think it’s good for him to live in Bedford Stuyvesant and grow up in such a diverse neighborhood, I think it’d be good for him for his mother to be intimate with Adam Driver.

Brian Platzer has an MFA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, and a BA from Columbia University. His writing has appeared often in The New Yorker’s Shouts and Murmurs and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, as well as in The New York Times, the New Republic, Salon, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and two young sons in Bed-Stuy, and teaches middle school English in Manhattan. Bed-Stuy Is Burning is his first book.

An Open Letter of Apology to Chad Harbach

Tuesday, July 11, 2017 | Permalink

Brian Platzer, author of Bed-Stuy Is Burning, will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series.


Five years ago I wrote a series of intellectually insincere articles with the sole purpose of building a resume. I was a few years out of my MFA and beginning the search for an agent to represent my own fiction, and I wanted to boost my credentials above those of my peers who, like me, had academic accomplishments but few or no publications to their names.

I’d earned my MFA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, a wonderful program with brilliant teachers who focused on teaching craft over professional development. However, they always implied that the proper stepping-stones into publishing were literary journals. The idea was that we were workshopping our stories each week both to learn skills and to polish the stories themselves to the point where they’d be submittable to the journals we had lying around the department offices. But aside from very rare exceptions, we were all rejected. I certainly was, over and over again. Dozens, then hundreds, of times.

I was eager to believe my more sophisticated and cynical classmates when they told me that the world of literary journals was governed by nepotism. That until I had favors to trade I wouldn’t get published, and that most of these magazines had more people submitting to them than actual readers. The truth was I didn’t know if any of this was accurate. What I knew was, just as when I hadn’t been invited to the party in high school, I was happy to hear stories of how only scumbags had been there, anyway.

So upon graduation I figured the next best thing was to review books for reputable publications. I sent clippings from college everywhere, from the Times to Time Out New York to websites that covered my Brooklyn neighborhood, but, again, nobody responded.

I’d been querying agents at the time, and no one was responding those emails, either, so I was growing desperate. I selected a novel that was receiving a lot of attention—The Art of Fielding—and I wrote a reckless takedown. I emailed the review to a random editor at Salon.com, who attached a click-bait headline that barely had to do with my piece—English teacher: I was wrong about “Hunger Games”—and published within 24 hours. My wife and I celebrated.

But the piece was really, really bad.

In it, I admit to urging a student to read The Art of Fielding before I’d read it, myself. I affect the tone of a moral librarian, instructing readers on what constituted more and less valuable literature. Try to make sense of this sentence: “If the literary establishment wants our teenagers to fall in love with literature, it must stop cynically writing and imprudently reviewing books like ‘The Art of Fielding’ as though they were examples of adult literary fiction.”

What did I mean by any of this? What was this “literary establishment” that was both “cynically writing” and “imprudently reviewing” books for “our” teenagers?

All that stands out to me now is my naked opportunism and, mostly, jealousy. Jealousy of Harbach’s success, of his having accomplished everything I wanted but that seemed so far from my grasp, and of the reviewers who were blessed to be reviewing for the Times or the New Yorker where they could think honestly and wisely about a work of art—and where they could build reputations with which to publish their own novels.

Harbach, of whom I’d always been a fan (I’d circulated his essay on the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry), had never made any of the claims that I was so vainly dispelling. He’d simply written an entertaining novel about baseball, academia, sex, love, and friendship.

Well, my strategy worked. With this piece, I was able to I publish elsewhere. I slowly built a resume.

Today, July 11th, is the publication date my debut novel. Not only do I shudder at the prospect of reciprocity—that someone will use the novel that I’ve spent years writing as a stack of papers to publicly set aflame in order to gather attention—but also, like a job applicant scanning through Facebook at pictures of him or herself making lascivious faces and drinking Jagerbombs in a skimpy bathing suit, I’m horrified not to be able to erase the wanton indiscretion of my needy and vulnerable years.

When I am at my most self-forgiving, I allow that these early essays were a means to an end. That what really mattered was my novel. I did what I had to, and people have done far worse. But I’m not sure. Why does a novel that a few thousand people will read matter so much more than essays that a few thousand people will read? The novel has more cultural cache, but that’s probably just among my friends who spent years earning their MFAs. I’ve worked harder on the novel, but that just means I should have worked harder on the essays. Nowhere did I, even for a moment, elevate any work of art—whether Harbach’s or my own—over my ego or ambition. And even after all this, even as I write these words, I can’t help but still hope that I’ll be noticed.

Brian Platzer has an MFA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, and a BA from Columbia University. His writing has appeared often in The New Yorker’s Shouts and Murmurs and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, as well as in The New York Times, the New Republic, Salon, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and two young sons in Bed-Stuy, and teaches middle school English in Manhattan. Bed-Stuy Is Burning is his first book. Check back on Thursday to read more from Brian Platzer.