The New York City Writer
Thinking of moving to follow your literary pursuits? Australian born and Brisbane raised Lucy Brook did. And as the contributor to many cult magazines she’s well placed to share it’s an experience like no other.
A writer living in New York City. It sounds like a dream existence and is very much a common objective between those who’ve a way with words.
But first, let’s clarify we’re not talking about the type of writer Lena Dunham’s character embodies in Girls – the unpaid ‘employee’ in a publishing firm, still supported by the family as she works towards completing the long drawn out process that is her book series of short stories. Yes, not that writer – but a real one. A paid one. Who, much to the appreciation of their flatmates and parents can cover the rent and then use what remains to eat and see their way through the culinary and culturally dense jungle that is NYC.
Cue that writer – Lucy Brook. A Brisbane girl and former student of QUT’s Journalism school, who, after cutting her teeth at various publications of News Limited, decided she’d do what many with a literary focus desire to do – pack her laptop, find a warm coat, and bunker down for the 20 hour plus commute to that epicentre of promise and opportunity on America’s East coast. Because, as Sinatra said, “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere”…
Fast forward nearly two years and Lucy has made it. Not that this modest soul would admit it. But as a regular contributor to RUSSH, Nylon Guys, The Vine and commissioned by large media organisations for features (ones she can’t discuss…) she’s the embodiment of the NYC writer.
As a firm friend to many in our editorial team, we relished the chance to pick her brain on all things writing and NYC – a rarity for Lucy, for as she notes, “I’m not normally the interview subject!”. We’ve quizzed her on it all. From her days an eager eyed student, career progression, her writing process and lessons learnt along the way. Thrown in the story too you’ll find the spots she’d mourn the loss of if they closed, and the busting of that Carrie Bradshaw promoted myth; that you can live in the city, pen just one piece a week, cover rent and still have great shoes.
What was your path towards becoming one who ‘writes for their supper’?
I remember deciding I’d become a music journalist after I saw Almost Famous in 2000. I was 15 and I still love that movie. I was a total English dork in high school, but didn’t start writing properly until my second year of uni, when I did feature writing as a subject. We had to profile a person of our choice, and I chose author Rebecca Sparrow.
In On Writing, Stephen King writes about how having someone who believes in you makes a huge difference to your confidence, and for me, Bec was that person. My family thought I was great, of course, but Bec was a living, breathing author – someone I admired greatly – and from the second I told her I wanted to write features for magazines and newspapers, she was my biggest cheerleader.
I naively started shooting off ideas, which I’m sure were rubbish, to editors, and a year later, my first story, which I think was about 150 words, was published in Oyster. The same year, Bec, who was writing a column for The Courier Mail, introduced me to Sandra Killen, who edited the CM’s lifestyle pages. I was so green, but she gave me a shot and commissioned me to write a fashion feature. I wrote regularly for The CM after that (as well as for Oyster) until they put me on as a feature writer in 2006. I moved within News Corp to Brisbane News Magazine in 2007, the same year I wrote my first story for Russh, and stayed there until I moved to New York in 2012.
I learnt so much from the journalists and editors I worked with during that time – as well as Sandra, Kylie Lang, the editor of Brisbane News (now Q Weekend) and writer/office comedian Phil Brown taught me how to write well.
I’m still close to Bec and Sandra, who is now the editor of U On Sunday and lets me write for her from time to time.
What prompted the decision to move to NYC? A long and thought out one, or last minute?
A little of both, if that’s possible. I’d been to New York on holidays when I was younger, but in August 2012 I came for ten days on a last minute – as in I booked it about five days before I flew – trip. I was kind of heartbroken and New York seemed like this magical place that was all about possibility and excitement. I really fell in love with the city on that trip, and oddly enough, I stayed at The Crosby Street Hotel, a few blocks from where I now live. I came back to Brisbane and decided I wanted to move, so I broke my lease, quit my job and touched down on Boxing Day 2012.
For how long do you see yourself in NYC? Visas are long noted as a tricky task, how are you able to work and live?
It’s tough to say, but definitely another year or two. I’d love to live in London at some point, but I’m not done with New York yet. I’m on an E3 visa, which I have through a design company that sponsors me – I do their copy writing and get to work with some incredibly talented people, many of whom I count among my closest friends.
They say the city changes you, and it’s like no other… How so?
I guess those things are true, though I don’t know if it changes you as much as it teaches you. Living here has taught me to trust myself, be more assertive, take risks and go after what I want. It’s also taught me to walk really, really fast.
The easiest thing about moving to NYC, and the hardest?
Everything felt hard and overwhelming initially, I think. The first nine months or so were a total roller coaster. I remember being here on holidays before I moved and my friend (and fellow Brissy girl) Thembi telling me how rough the first year was – high highs and low lows – and I thought ‘oh, well that won’t be me, because I love it here!’ I’m pretty sure that’s what everyone who moves to New York thinks, and that blissful ignorance probably helps. The lifestyle here is completely different to Brisbane – it’s busy, loud and relentless and can feel really daunting and impersonal until you find your feet. I moved in December too, and the weather kicked my arse.
The easiest thing, weirdly, was getting around. Put me behind the wheel and I’ll get lost, but give me the subway and a grid system and I’m your girl.
It sounds like such a dream existence, and conjures thoughts of days writing in coffee shops, or dare we say it Carrie Bradshaw references typing on her laptop, overlooking the street below. Is this similar to what it’s like? Or something completely different?
Oh god. I think Carrie Bradshaw is probably the biggest writer-in-New-York myth ever created. All the writers and journalists I know here, freelance or otherwise, work incredibly hard and juggle so many commitments. Living off one column a week seems pretty unrealistic these days, especially in Manhattan, but if that job is going, I’d happily throw my hat in the ring. Still, New York is an incredible town to be a writer in so I suppose it’s a dream existence in that way. It gives you access to millions of people with incredible stories and inspires your own story, as well – my friend Rachel, who is a great journalist, says that New York forces you to examine who you are, so if you’re a writer who is constantly asking yourself who you are and what you want, you’re probably going to write it down.
I never had much luck writing in coffee shops because there are too many distractions, so I tend to work at my desk, which is jammed under my bedroom window. I always have music or the radio on (I recently interviewed a record producer in London whose work I really admire and he encouraged me to listen to more radio, so now I never miss Steve Lamacq on BBC6, and if I’m on deadline, I have a ‘writing’ playlist that distracts the part of my brain that’s telling me I’m doomed – lots of Brian Eno!). Plus, if I’m home, I’m surrounded by things – books, magazines, art, the two pot plants I have not killed – that inspire me.
How does your work flow look? Are you regularly contacted by magazines with what they want you to write, or pitching ideas through?
I pitch ideas almost all of the time, which means when they’re commissioned, I’m writing about artists or topics I really love or care about. The downside is that it’s tiring, especially in New York, where competition is fierce and so much is going on. Having your finger on the pulse here takes a lot of energy.
What’s the best piece you’ve penned while in NYC and who for?
My favorite is probably the King Krule profile I did for Nylon Guys last year. It was one that was assigned to me, actually, and aside from Archy being a great interview, it was so nice to be able to spend a decent amount of time with someone in order to write about them. In Australia, I often did interviews over the phone, which makes it harder to get a sense of what a person is all about and is limiting in terms of description and color. I feel like I’ve been trekking all over the place to interview people in person ever since.
Where do you write?
At home. I go from desk to couch to bed, usually typing with one hand and sloshing tea on myself with the other. I live in SoHo (or Greenwich Village, depending on who you ask) on the top floor – or “penthouse” as we call it – of a 100-year-old walk-up building. The stairs are my excuse to eat everything that’s not nailed down and the view from the roof is amazing.
The city itself is an inspiration, of course, which sounds lame but there are so many interesting people here, and New York gives you a sense of wonder and possibility – you can discover something new every day. I read an interview with Alex Turner a while ago where he said “New York is a good place to write in general because it’s a grid. It’s organized. You know where you are on the map. That centers you and your imagination is perhaps freer to roam” and I think that’s true, too.
I have some crazy talented writer friends who inspire me – Anna Harrison, Elle Glass, Kate Fridkis and Christine Jackman among them – and there are writers like Hadley Freeman, Vanessa Grigoriadis, Alexis Petridis, Jada Yuan and John Harris whose work I love.
Aside from words, music is probably my biggest inspiration. A friend of mine who is a designer says good product design is like a good song – it’s full of different parts that fit together to make something beautiful. I guess writing, and perhaps all art, is similar.
5 spots you’d mourn the loss of if they closed in NYC?
In typical New York fashion, almost all of these are within a stone’s throw of my apartment:
Souen, SoHo – I owe my mad love of this place to Thembi. Unfortunately for my wallet, it’s across the street from my apartment and I’m a rubbish cook.
McNally Jackson Books, SoHo – Books, magazines, (proper) coffee and really good cookies. Heaven.
124 Old Rabbit Club, Greenwich Village –It’s dark, the music is loud, the bar staff are awesome and they only serve beer.
The Dutch, SoHo – Top brunch – or, as an Aussie friend described it the other day, “a strange meal with cocktails that occurs between the hours of breakfast and lunch” – spot. I always take visitors here.
Levain Bakery – This is miles from my apartment, on the Upper West Side, but my best friend Alanna, who lived here for a while, sent me on a mission when I first moved to New York and it was worth the trek. The store is tiny but the cookies are the size of my head and the best I’ve ever eaten.
What’s been the trickiest adjustment?
The weather is a biggie – winter is freezing, summer is sweltering – and lots of Aussies notice the lack of space and nature, but for me it’s probably been learning to roll with the punches. You can’t take things personally in New York, and it toughens you up, which doesn’t mean you suddenly become jaded or hard, just that you speak up when you need to.
Like to contact Lucy and read some of her past work? You can do here. But make sure you’ve got a cup of tea and are ready to settle in… It’s good.
Image credits; Lucy Brook, The Dutch & Levain Bakery.
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