It’s hard not to be pulled in by a memoir whose first chapter starts with the line, “When I was fourteen, I shot my best friend in the face and watched him die,” as Kemp Powers’s The Shooting (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2004) does. In the book, the 31-year-old Powers details the events and circumstances leading up to the shooting, its lifelong effect on him, his very circumscribed, tightknit Brooklyn neighborhood, as well as his journey from Brooklyn kid to nationally recognized writer. From his home in Los Angeles, Powers emailed his thoughts about being a true New Yorker, the differences between Brooklyn and the rest of New York, and city life growing up in the 80’s.
First I have to ask about your name, because names fascinate me. What does Kemp mean and where did it come from?
People always say things like "wow, what a great writer's name!" A lot of times they think it’s a pen name, but it isn't. It was my grandfather's name, as well as my great grandfather's name. I really like my name now, but man was it rough when I was a kid. Other kids would call me Kimberly. Funny that kids with names like Smajl Rugova and Boris Schurchick would diss my name, but oh well. Nowadays, people tend to mispronounce my first name, even though it's only one syllable. It's always Kent, Ken, or Kim. I only recently realized that when I introduce myself I've taken to automatically spelling my name. So introductions go like this: "Hi, my name is Kemp. K-E-M as in Mary-P as in Peter."
The Shooting stemmed from an article you wrote for Esquire. When you were writing the article, were you envisioning exploring the topic more fully? How did the book come about?
I had always planned to write a memoir about growing up in Brooklyn ever since I was in college. Back then I would recount my childhood with an almost Wonder Years sense of nostalgia to friends in my dormitory. I figured a memoir would also give me an opportunity to talk about the shooting in a way I never could in conversation. I just hadn't planned on writing it so soon. I was thinking more like when I was in my 40s and there was some more distance from it. I decided to write the piece in Esquire as a direct result of some of the things happening while I was living in New York at that time, the late 90's. The Patrick Dourismond shooting really disturbed me. When Giuliani pulled that guy's juvenile record and made the "he was no choir boy" remark, I was pretty disgusted. I figured since I was a journalist, it would be almost irresponsible not to document what happened during my childhood in my own words.
What was the writing process like? How long did it take and were there times you wanted to just stop and put it away after facing all the memories you unearth?
Definitely. I tell people that I don’t think such a short book has ever taken anyone so long to write. There were often months when I just wasn't in the mood to deal with any of the subject matter in my book, and I would put it off. I wrote a lot while traveling for work. I got my best writing done during cross-country flights. I didn't put anything into the computer until about a couple of months before I had to turn it in to my publisher. The entire book was written in several pocket journals.
While the shooting is the event that the book is based around, you actually give a pretty thorough look at your childhood, from your family life to your neighborhood and friends, as both a leadup to the shooting and what happened afterward. Did you plan to tell the story in that way?
Definitely. Some prospective publishers I'd spoken to wanted me to focus on the shooting more. They wanted it to be this book on gun control, which I had absolutely no interest in writing. This wasn't a book about gun control, racism, depression, or anything like that. It's just a book about a kid growing up in Brooklyn, and how a tragic accident changed the course of his life.
You write at the end that the shooting is a chapter, albeit an important one, in your life, but not the sole defining moment of it. How would you characterize its importance, both in how the rest of your life has played out and how it's affected you?
What is it that makes ANY of us into the people we are? I believe that regardless of the power of heredity, there are key events in every person's life that shape the person they become. It's just that in my case, one of those key events was a tragic death. Of course, in almost every way, it shaped the type of person I was from my teens through to my late 20s. For a long time, I was really trying to overcompensate for that mistake, and those years of overcompensation took a toll on me, mentally and physically. Eventually, I broke down, then I had to pick up the pieces and build myself back up.
You draw parallels between your daughter Mackenzie getting sick and having flashbacks to Henry's death. Has becoming a father made you view the shooting differently?
Becoming a father makes me view LIFE differently. I'm sure any parent would say that. You suddenly have to confront a lot of your insecurities. For me, the guilt I felt over being responsible for another person's death was amplified when I suddenly became responsible for a little person's life. Fortunately, being a father also forced me to just deal with so many of those nagging issues. For that I'll always be grateful to my daughter.
Because you were only 14 when it happened, it seemed in the book almost like the shooting happened, and within a very short time, your life was pretty much back to normal, and it was only in your 20s that it started to prey on your mind. Is that accurate? Do you feel that, aside from the shooting, you had a normal childhood (if one can even define that)?
The first part is pretty accurate. As for the second part, my childhood only seemed unusual in hindsight. I'm sure kids born and raised in Tel Aviv don't see their childhood as unusual, but when they describe it to someone in Wisconsin, it probably sounds nuts. It was kind of like that. Freshman year in college, I'd be telling friends stories about life back in the neighborhood, and they'd be shocked. Hey, it seemed normal to me. I was like "you mean, no one threw D-cell batteries from a speeding train at you while you were waiting on the subway platform to go to school? How nice. I must visit this place you call Altadena one day."
The Brooklyn you describe is so sharp and vivid, and what was most striking was the insularity of that world. You have a little map showing a few block radius and then basically the rest of the world. Can you tell me a little bit more about growing up in Brooklyn during the 80's? Why was it so special, and what do you miss most about it?
I could go on and on about Brooklyn for days, but anything I say would just sound like a cliché. Despite all of the problems in the city at that time, the 80's were a great time to be a Brooklyn kid. Mike Tyson was knocking people out left and right and looked like the most unstoppable champ since Ali. Spike Lee was this brilliant budding filmmaker doing flicks like She's Gotta Have It and School Daze. Parcells was still the Giants coach, and the team got a couple of Super Bowls in the 80's. The Knicks got Ewing out of Georgetown as well as local St. Johns star Mark Jackson. I was just starting to get a little money of my own, and was blowing every last cent of it on hip-hop, dancehall and synth pop. I remember the first tape I bought with my own money; Big Daddy Kane's Long Live the Kane. Before that, I had to listen to my mom's collection or my three sisters' stuff. Those were the only things that mattered to me then; weekends in Coney Island, the library, Tyson, the Giants, the Knicks, comic books, hip-hop and movies. Brooklyn didn't even have cable then (only HBO and WHT), so my television pretty much consisted of cartoons during the week and kung-fu movies on Saturdays. I went to Edward R. Murrow high school, which is pretty well known for its acting and theater program. Despite the artistic vibe of Murrow though, Brooklyn still felt like a pretty simple, provincial place. I never would have believed that Brooklyn would be this gateway borough to New York for kids from all parts of the country, and that people all over the world would be rocking Brooklyn t-shirts.
I think it's funny, because most of my Brooklyn guys and family aren't there anymore. They've moved to Staten Island, Long Island, Jersey, or just left the city altogether. It's weird that Brooklyn is this cool, expensive place now, because it was pretty much a cultural backwater when I was a kid. In fact, I often compare growing up in a Brooklyn neighborhood to having grown up in a small town. Both environments were incredibly insular, which could be both good and bad. From the time I was born until my 18th birthday, I'd say I had visited Manhattan about a dozen times. I first went to the Bronx when I was about 19 years old. My earliest memories are of living in Coney Island, a neighborhood with its back to The City. Coney Island was so far from Manhattan, both literally and figuratively, that even the weather was completely different. When we moved to Flatbush, the city took on a more dominating presence, clearly visible looking down Flatbush Avenue. Even then, MY city ended at Prospect Park. My whole world was encompassed in my little neighborhood, and none of us really left it that often. An environment like that creates a nice, familial atmosphere, but it also breeds hatred and racism in ways you wouldn't believe. Every major street was a demarcation line dividing one turf from another, and what separated most of those neighborhoods was race. All of the kids got along pretty well at school, but when school was over, the black and Puerto Rican kids wouldn't be going over to the Italian or Asian kids houses, no matter how good of friends they were.
You write that the Bernard Goetz subway shooting was the first time you became aware of city life outside your own neighborhood. Did that incident, and the rise in gang violence you discuss, affect you and your behavior?
The Goetz incident just made me more aware that the city was a dangerous place. Growing up, you learn to navigate certain obstacles, and it just becomes a natural part of your life. Yeah, on Halloween a lot of people would get beaten with sand-filled hoses, cut up with razor blades and nailed in the head with potatoes, but it's not like you say to yourself "my God, this city is so dangerous!" You just get really good at dodging potatoes and go about your business. After Goetz, there was this citizens’ backlash against street crime. Even though none of my friends or I were getting into trouble, our age and race meant that we were going to be perceived as part of that crime problem.
You write in The Shooting that while you still love New York, you couldn't live here again. Do you consider yourself a New Yorker still, even though you're now settled in Los Angeles? Are there certain qualities that make someone "a New Yorker," or is it simply how one chooses to identify? Are New Yorkers more prideful of being New Yorkers than people in other cities are of their locations?
I will always be a Brooklyn guy, no matter where I live. I'm a product of the New York public school system. Everything I do in life is done from a New Yorker's perspective. I consider myself a New Yorker who lives in Los Angeles, period. I still love the city dearly, it's just no longer what it once was. Some of the changes are really good, but some are pretty depressing. The smoking ban cracked me up. New York is Gotham, and they want to make it into Metropolis.
Brooklyn has become so transient. People move there right out of college, have fun for a few years doing the starving artist thing, then when they decide they want to have a family, pull up stakes and move out. Part of the reason I enjoy living in LA, a place I once despised, is because there are more native born New Yorkers here than any city I've been to outside of New York. I was at a parents’ event at my daughter's school last year, and I ran into point guard Mark Jackson. It turned out his kid also attended that school. It's also funny that I find myself in the unusual position of having to defend Los Angeles in conversations with my New York friends, most of whom aren't even from New York. I can usually end the conversation by reminding them of how much I used to have to defend New York to outsiders, back before people were taking family vacations there. Despite the allure of Hollywood, LA is also a working-class place, just like my Brooklyn.
Please understand that I see being from Brooklyn much different than being from New York. Brooklyn is unique, and being Brooklyn born and bred has unspoken connotations. I have a core group of friends from Brooklyn, and I routinely describe them as "my Brooklyn guys," no matter where they happen to be living. Being a Brooklyn guy means that, no matter how much or little education you have, you're going to approach situations a certain way. You lay out a problem for a Brooklyn guy, and he's going to approach it in a certain way. My mother always stressed proper diction, so I don't even have an accent, but as a friend of mine jokes, when I'm pissed off I go from zero to Brooklyn in about ten seconds.
I think there are plenty of qualities that make a person a New Yorker, but I'd have to say that the most important one is commitment. You don't have to be born in New York or live there to have a commitment to the city. And I mean a real fucking commitment, not some bullshit crush. Ask yourself this, if you weren't pursuing or living your dream as an artist, writer, musician, broker, or whatever; if you had two kids and had to take a job as a janitor for the next 20 years of your life; if the city had the highest crime rate and worst poverty in the entire country; would you still live in New York? If your answer is yes, then you're a New Yorker. Not because you think the place is cool, but because you consider the place your true home, regardless of how much of a success or failure your life is. What makes New Yorkers different is that commitment to the city. People from other places often grow up dreaming of leaving. Growing up in New York, the thought of leaving never really crosses your mind, no matter how poor you are. You leave if you have to, not because you want to. My brother in law got into lots of trouble with the law, but he still didn't want to leave New York . . . they deported his ass.
There's a religious, or at least, spiritual tone to the book, especially toward the end when you discuss your bouts with depression, September 11th and how you've healed. Do you believe in God, and how have your faith and religious beliefs been affected by the shooting and its aftermath?
I don't go to church, much to my relatives' chagrin, but I am a spiritual person. I believe in God, and I pray for those I care about. My extended family is very religious, and my mother rebelled against that, never forcing me or any of my siblings to go to church. We were just plain old Protestants. I think a lack of faith is what contributes mightily to depression and anxiety. It certainly contributed to mine.
In some ways, it seems like you wrote the book to close that chapter of your life, and yet in the process, you are further linking your public persona with the shooting. Does that duality bother you? Do you feel like a weight has been lifted from you since writing the book?
Emotionally, a huge weight has been lifted. My relationship with my family has been strengthened, and writing the book really was a catharsis. However, I am still a very private person, and I sometimes get uncomfortable when I go to a business meeting with someone regarding something completely unrelated and they've Googled my name, then hit me with a dozen questions about the book. Writing this book made me realize how we've become a vetting society. You can't even have lunch with a person without them Googling you. I've got to get used to that.
One of the oddest things you recount is that after the shooting, which you didn't wind up having to serve any jail time for, nobody spoke about it, which in one way seems understandable, because people might not know what to say, but even amongst your family and closest friends, there was a silence. Do you think this was damaging? Did it add to you keeping the story to yourself since then?
I don't know if it was damaging, but it certainly didn't help. It contributed to me internalizing things. It's also probably the greatest reason I became a writer, so I guess I can't say for sure.
Have you heard from anyone, either teens or adults, who've in some way found themselves in similar situations, and if so, was that helpful, to you or them, or both?
Surprisingly, I've heard from plenty of people. It's mostly adults, and sometimes their experiences are in no way like mine, but they tell me something in my story resonated with them. It's good to know that a guy from the Upper Midwest can find some deeper meaning in my little story.
Your mother kept four guns in the house when you were growing up, and you seemed to think nothing of playing Russian Roulette. I couldn't tell if I'm just impossibly sheltered, having never held a gun, and thus somewhat taken aback that a teenager had such easy access to a gun, or if that actually was somewhat abnormal. Looking back, does it surprise you how comfortable you felt with the gun?
Not really. I think many little boys find guns fascinating. The only difference between me and other kids was that I had them readily available.
Along the same lines, has your experience with the shooting informed your views about gun control or people keeping handguns in their homes?
Well, I have never owned a gun of any kind since then. Barring the Red Dawn invasion scenario, I don't think I ever will.
You ask some really tough questions, mainly of yourself, most notably, "would I have been a worse person today were Henry still alive?" Do you have any answers to questions such as those, or was writing them enough to help you at least put them out there?
I don't think I'll ever be able to answer that question, but I no longer have any desire to even try, and that's a good thing.
What has the mood been like at readings you've done from the book? Is it a challenge to read such an intensely personal, introspective work in public?
The first time was a challenge, because I didn't know what to expect, but all of the readings and discussions I've done have been very well received. I had no idea there were so many thoughtful people out there, and it has been quite reassuring.
While often tough, the childhood you describe also seemed to come with a set of close friends and camaraderie. As you parent your own children, are there qualities or experiences of your own childhood you hope to share with them, and conversely, are there things you want to provide for them that you didn't have growing up?
I think we all want to provide our children with what we didn't have, but conversely, sometimes what we didn't have is exactly what helped build our character. It's not having that makes us hungry, and drives us to succeed. Being that I'm a writer, I don't think either of my kids will ever be in danger of being spoiled rotten. My daughter maybe, if her mom marries a rich guy, but my son lives with me, so he's shit out of luck. But seriously, I think they'll both turn out all right. They're such good kids.
Were you thinking about your audience at all while you wrote, or since the book's come out? Do you have a specific type of reader in mind when you envision who might be reading the book?
When I was writing, I wasn't thinking about any audience. I simply wanted to finish it. Now that the book is done, I've found that it can resonate with almost anyone. However, I really like when it makes its way into the hands of other Brooklynites, because they usually have the most pointed, emotional responses to it.
Have you heard from Henry's family or others you grew up with since the book's come out?
A couple of my friends from back then are still among my closest friends. I stayed in touch with Henry's family until college, and then we lost touch.
During college, you began a thriving comic book business, and have gone on to write for numerous publications, including Vibe, Forbes, Newsweek, Details, Savoy, and others, covering everything from video games to music to business. Do you have a preferred genre or area you like to cover, or do you welcome the variety?
I love the variety, but my longtime personal loves have always been music, film and theater. Theater has kind of become the forgotten stepchild lately, because I just haven't had the time to see many plays in the past couple of years. As a journalist, I've gone through a few phases, but one of those three always manages to find its way into my work, regardless of genre. I also tend to do a lot of technology writing, simply because I've always been a closet technophile.
At one point, you write that all roads in journalism lead to New York. Having been a journalist in Chicago, Minneapolis, and now Los Angeles, do you still feel that way? Is it easier to be a writer from New York when you're not living here, or do you simply adapt to your surroundings?
New York is to journalism what Los Angeles is to filmmaking. You in no way have to live in New York to be a great journalist, but most of the major publications are headquartered in New York, so it has this commanding presence in the journalism field. I'm really glad that I got to cut my chops in other places before returning to New York though. Particularly Minneapolis, where I really developed as a writer. I was surprised to find a pretty sizable group of transient New Yorkers mulling about in the Twin Cities writing community. And when it comes to music journalism, you'd be surprised how far the tentacles of that small town reach. I call it the Minnesota Music Mafia. There's plenty of top writers and editors in New York, LA, San Fran and Chicago who all came from Minnesota publications like the City Pages, the Twin Cities Reader, the Star Tribune, or the Pioneer Press. I can only assume that there are other places like that with an emergent writing community.
You received a Bill Cosby Screenwriting Fellowship from USC. Can you tell me about your screenplay and what's happening with it?
My very first writing was back in college when I was writing comic books. Comic scripts and screenplays are very similar, with the major difference being that in a screenplay the writer shouldn't over-direct (that's the director's job), while with a comic script, the writer is basically directing every single panel for the artist. Because of the similarities, screenwriting has been a hobby throughout my journalism career. I never tried to do anything with it, so it was a nice surprise to find out that I had finally gotten good enough at it to win a contest. My fellowship screenplay is helping me scratch my music bug in a roundabout way. My favorite artist is Sam Cooke, so I wrote a comedy script about this obsessive Sam Cooke fan who is at odds with his co-dependent brother. It's not really about Cooke per se, but about the relationship between these two brothers who have very different tastes in music. I love telling a story about how music affects people's lives so profoundly, as opposed to a music biopic. My fellowship just ended, so I'm polishing the script now before I send it around.
What are you working on now?
I'm a freelancer, so what am I NOT working on? I try to have a combination of stories in the pipe, usually a couple of business or tech pieces, as well as an arts or lifestyle piece. Between that and working on my screenwriting, I stay pretty busy. I take my son to Venice beach a couple of days a week. Venice kind of reminds me of Coney Island, which is nice. On weekends when I have my daughter, she comes along too. I also take her to the library a lot. I still love libraries, even though they seem to have been forgotten because of bookstores, and I want them to appreciate them also. I used to guard my library card like my life depended on it, and the first thing I did when I moved to any new city was get a library card. Right now I have New York, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Washington, DC and Chicago library cards. A lot of people don't realize that libraries now let you take out DVDs and music as well as books. The public library system is what gives poor kids the same access to the world as rich kids, and yet it is such as overlooked resource.
The Shooting: A Memoir is available now. Visit Kemp's new blog, Exiled New Yorker, for his dispatches on being a transplanted New Yorker living in Los Angeles.