Adam Langer on Musicals, Real Estate and Faith

Adam Langer is the author of Ellington Boulevard as well as the cult-hits Crossing California and The Washington Story. He will be reading and signing copies of his book as part of the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival on Monday, September 15 at 8:00 pm. He answered a few of our questions in-advance of his appearance this Monday.

Q: Your prior books, Crossing California and The Washington Story were firmly rooted in your old West Rogers Park neighborhood in Chicago. Ellington Boulevard is a thoroughly New York novel specific to a unique neighborhood. Was it much of a shift to go from Chicago to Manhattan?
No more than it was a shift to move from Chicago to Manhattan. As a writer, I am very cognizant of the role of place, and since I was living in New York, it made sense to write a novel set there. The major shift was in moving from writing about the past to the present, but that was liberating to some degree. Writing in the present allows you to incorporate everything you see and hear and smell and not worry about whether you might be using anachronisms.

Q: Did you really get your real estate license as part of your research? Have you helped sell/buy any properties?
I attended real estate school and passed my tests. Basically, I did everything except get the license because, in New York, you actually have to get a job with a real estate company in order to sell real estate. And since I really wasn’t planning this sort of career move, it seemed disingenuous to go on job interviews for a job I wasn’t going to take.

Q: I kept thinking of the musical Wonderful Town while reading the book, and music plays such a large part in the novel – it’s even subtitled, “A Novel in A-Flat.” So, can we expect the musical version of Ellington Boulevard? And why A-Flat?
There are a ton of musicals that informed the structure and content of the novel, but Wonderful Town was certainly one of them. But there are elements of and references to Company and Saturday Night and Candide.My favorite musical composers have always been Weill, Sondheim, and Bernstein. And I like to think of this book as a blend of their work-Weill’s irony, Sondheim’s sense of alienation, and Bernstein’s indefatigable optimistic spirit. A-Flat obviously plays on the word “flat,” meaning apartment, but in some ways, it’s an appropriate key. Not a lot of major works are set in b-flat and those that are tend to be idiosyncratic and usually more upbeat than the more familiar b-flat.

Q: The characters in Ellington Boulevard all seem to have a complicated relationship to their work-life, whether they are an academic, a real estate agent, a theater producer, a literary editor or a musician. What do you think is the relationship between the idealism of a profession and the economic imperatives of simply living in NY or any city?
Sometimes it can be hard to maintain optimism when one realizes that even the most idealistic-seeming professions are still, ultimately, businesses. And this applies to academia, theater, publishing, and so on. But writing a novel or a play is in itself an optimistic act, an act of faith. The moment the economic imperative becomes a factor in the artistic act, the artistry bleeds out of it a bit. And yet, the reality is there. Hopefully, while one is working, one can block it out of one’s mind, at least for a little while.

Q: One of the most outrageous characters in the book is a newly-Orthodox Jew. I have a hard time figuring out if he is the most or least principled person in the story?
Well, yes, he’s quite principled. I just don’t share his principles.

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