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In ‘Boy Detective,’ writer Roger Rosenblatt investigates his Manhattan childhood

October 30, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Roger Rosenblatt thinks he perhaps pursued a life of words to express understanding of his own life experiences. In "The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood," he draws on recollections of growing up in Gramercy Park in order to craft his memoir. Judy Woodruff sits down with Rosenblatt to discuss the use of memory in his writing.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: A meditation on memory prompted by walking the streets of his youth.

One-time NewsHour contributor and author Roger Rosenblatt new book is “The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood.”

I spoke with him a little earlier today.

Roger Rosenblatt, welcome.

ROGER ROSENBLATT, “The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood”: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the book, “The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood,” this is a memoir, but it’s also a love letter to New York City, that part of Manhattan where you grew up.

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ROGER ROSENBLATT: It is.

It was a kind of neither here nor there around Gramercy Park, where I grew up. And I never felt comfortable with the complacency of the park and the safety of the park. So, as a kid, I would just wander around and follow people, because I was a detective.

And I would put my cap gun in my shirt, because kids didn’t wear suit jackets. So I looked as if I was carrying around a mango. And then people would turn around. And I would have to follow them very closely. Otherwise, if they didn’t know they were being followed, nobody would. And then, when they turned around, they’d looked a little perturbed at seeing a kid following them with a mango in his shirt.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, this whole notion of being a detective, that was for real. That was what you did as a kid.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: That was my job.

If I heard of a crime in the neighborhood, I would go and investigate it. The police would leave me alone. And then I would come home and look under my magnifying glass for a clue. It was my way, even though I didn’t know it then, of expressing interest in the world and trying to solve problems that seemed mysterious.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You — you write about how, as a young man, when there was something you didn’t understand, it was often because you felt you didn’t have the words to describe it, to deal with it.

And, as a grown man, walking back through your neighborhood, you found your words.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: That’s interesting thing that you hit that, because that’s a key passage.

In the sadnesses of a family — and every family has one, and ours did, too — children don’t have the words for this. And I began to wonder and speculate in the various speculations in the book whether I had pursued a life of words in order to be able to express understanding.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, I found the quote where you said — you were writing about a young woman who had been murdered, a woman who worked in a tobacco shop.

And you write: “She understood intuitively that I’d become a writer because no one would love me.”

Did you mean to write that?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Yes, well, I — what I do is, as you know, I vary the ideas that come or vary the kinds of sections.

And I have Edgar Allan Poe actually saying that. And it’s Poe who says, because nobody would love me, because there was a story that Poe pursued this woman who was Mary Rogers, whom he translates to Marie Roget in “The Mystery of Marie Roget.”

And so, every once in a while in the book, I just go into a character and have the character speak.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s a very — it’s an interesting thing you do, because you move from being a detective, to certain flashbacks to your childhood, to dealing with what you have done in your life as an adult.

I want to ask you to read something, Roger, from the book, where you talk about being a writer and being a detective.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Sure. And I do this, as you know, throughout the book. I think that they have similar things, including codes of honor, that ought to be followed.

“But this was easy enough to say that you can be both a writer and a detective. A lot harder to pull it off. The one thing they both require, the writer and detective, is the desire to see what is not there and to make at once orderly and beautiful, as in a flower or the answer to a math problem.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you lay out in that the challenge of writing a memoir. And you and I were just saying you have really come up with a new — a different way of thinking about what a memoir is.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: I have, Judy.

And it took a while. It’s a form in which I am now quite comfortable. The book will be called “A Memoir,” because there are limited categories to discuss literature. And, of course, it is technically.

But I use memory differently. I use memory to fortify an idea. These books, the last one, this one, and a couple that are in the pipeline, are meditations on subjects in which I use my childhood as information to support the theme, the thesis of the meditation. But it’s not a — the book isn’t a memory of my life. I use my life for other purposes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, if it’s not a classic memoir, what would you call this?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: I would call it a meditation. I would call it a — this is a meditation on the subject of one’s childhood or New York or detective, a detective — where “Kayak Morning” was a meditation on grief in which I used memory, I have just a finished a book as a meditation on love. And I have an idea for a book set in Ireland on the subjects of alienation and beauty and desolation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you find that, in dealing with these subjects, it’s important to look back inside yourself and at your own life?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: It’s the only place I have information that I can rely on, and so, therefore, I draw on my life to say, this happened and that happened, and this is how I understand it now, in the light of this idea.

And the reason I mix up the forms, much the way a pitcher mixes up a fastball and a curve and a cutter and a slider, is so that I want the reader to be alert, the way a batter would be alert, but to catch on a little too late, which is what the pitcher wants, to understand too late.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot of surprising turns in the book.

You will be reading along about something that happened, some — some event in your neighborhood. And then you will — you will turn the page, and it will be about a murder.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Exactly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Roger Rosenblatt, it’s a fascinating book, “The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood.”

Thank you.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Thank you.