Ivy Pochoda does such a complete job of conjuring a gritty sense of place in her second novel Visitation Street—in this case, the Red Hook section of South Brooklyn—that you almost forget you are reading a complex, but nimble, mystery. In Visitation Street, which Kirkus starred, Red Hook is alive and lurching. It is aptly depicted as a small, conflicted neighborhood—forever on the cusp of gentrification—within a vast, unblinking city.
Pochoda drops the reader in the middle of Red Hook amidst a suffocating summer and swiftly sets the gears in motion. One night Val and June, two 15-year-old girls looking for some not-so-typical fun, board a pink raft and push out into the open water. Only Val returns (and just barely at that). The book builds, carefully and slowly, to a reveal built almost entirely around a small but deeply drawn cast of Red Hook characters. There’s Cree, the restless local boy and immediate suspect in June’s disappearance; Fadi, the conflicted bodega owner swimming with and against gentrification and Jonathan, the epitome of a messy musician in free fall.
Visitation Street is a beach read with brains. It is literary mystery without pretension and a lovingly drawn portrait of a Brooklyn neighborhood with its own unique heartbeat and rhythm. Dennis Lehane was prescient to publish this novel (it’s the second book from his own imprint at HarperCollins): Ivy Pochoda is a talent and Visitation Street is exquisite.
Why Red Hook? What makes it different from more of the well-known parts of Brooklyn (e.g., Williamsburg)?
I lived there; I grew up in Cobble Hill [adjacent to Red Hook] and it reminded me of the Cobble Hill I grew up in. There is a community of people that you know and Red Hook has an authentic history as a neighborhood. It has an organic feel. It had a community that newcomers like myself could build on. It didn’t feel invented like some other more well-known communities in Brooklyn. It really reminded me of where I grew up and it was exciting. Before moving there my friend told me about this amazing bar in Red Hook. It was called Lilie’s and it was wild and crazy and drinks were two dollars. I loved it. I started looking for an apartment the next week.
You seem familiar with the two distinct Red Hook’s, the Red Hook of lower income housing and the more gentrified Van Brunt Street area. How did you learn about the less known part, where the projects are?
There was a guy who used to hang out at The Pioneer [a Red Hook bar], a 60-year-old black guy. We talked a lot. He grew up in the Red Hook Houses; we would talk about growing up in Red Hook and he would invite everyone from the bar to a cookout and he was my liaison between the two sides of Red Hook. I spent a lot of time talking to him about the way it used to be. I used him as the voice with regards to that part of the community. I used to mentor in an urban squash and education program in Harlem. I had a mentee that I watched grow up, so I kind of had an insight into what it might be like to be a low-income African American teenager in New York: what she was facing, the pressures of boys. I used those two outlets to inspire the story.
The theme of gentrification runs throughout the book. How do you feel about gentrification in Red Hook?
I have seen the problems of over-gentrification in Brooklyn, but as my friend who lives in Allentown, PA reminds me: over-gentrification is a problem he would like to have. It’s good and bad, but gentrification does put a lot of things out of reach of the general population. Red Hook does not feel over-gentrified. Yet.
I am always interested when and why authors choose to use real settings, but fictionalize some real landmarks. For instance, I noticed Local Harvest is the fictional version of Fairway a well-known supermarket in Red Hook. Why not just call it Fairway in the book?
Changing the names freed me from a lot of criticism from residents who might critique the small stuff. It freed me from having to get every real minute detail right. Originally, I changed the name of the neighborhood too. I called it Dutch Basin…it allowed me to invent everything in the book without worrying about criticism. When I sold my novel, my editor finally said, “This book is set in Red Hook. Why don’t you just call it Red Hook?” It’s like writing a book about New Orleans and calling it Bayou City. So I changed it immediately, but kept some stuff fictional for personal reasons.
Red Hook must be a visceral part of you. Visitation Street doesn’t feel like a journalistic or touristy evocation. That said, I was surprised to hear you live in Los Angeles now. Was there a specific episode that made you leave?
I left because of my husband’s job. He works in film and he kept missing out on film opportunities. I would move back to Red Hook in a second.
Matt Lewis is the co-owner of Baked, a bakery in Red Hook, Brooklyn. He has co-authored three best-selling baking cookbooks and his writing has also appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Eater.com, Medium.com and the broader interwebs.