Being a great writer requires tons of imagination and creativity, and the same goes for great parenting.
In this exclusive interview, Brooklyn writer, teacher, and self-proclaimed “silly dad,” Andrew Cotto tells NY Parenting readers about his family life and comical, laid-back parenting style, as well as the two gripping, New York City-based novels he penned while he and wife Pamela were busy raising their children: daughter, Sophia, 12, and son, Julian, 8.
Cotto’s first novel, “The Domino Effect” is a “Catcher in the Rye”-esque coming-of-age story about the plight of a tough, charismatic kid who grows up by the seat of his pants on Queens streets. It was followed by another book, a sort of urban noir, about a drifter who gets embroiled in a series of weird situations and unexpected twists and turns, titled “Outerborough Blues: A Brooklyn Mystery.” Both tales feel real and gritty, like the neighborhoods they’re set in.
Cotto, 46, said he and his wife — an admissions associate at Mary McDowell Friends School in Brooklyn — have “bounced around Brooklyn since 1997, from Downtown to Clinton Hill to Carroll Gardens,” where they have been for the past seven years. He says they like their neighborhood’s feeling of community and the easy access to Manhattan.
Tammy Scileppi: When did you first start writing?
Andrew Cotto: I began writing late in life. I discovered a love of literature and a knack for storytelling in college, but I didn’t dedicate myself to creating and completing narratives until I was in my mid-30s, and I just knew it was something I needed to do, so I wrote in my spare time until I was convinced my talent was developed enough to give it a go, full-time. I had been working in the entertainment industry and living in New York City since graduating college, and I decided to quit my job and pursue writing, which began formally with a year living in Italy.
TS: How did your year in Italy inspire you?
AC: Living in Italy was a dream for me. So much of what they cherish — the pleasures of company and food and wine — happen to be what I’m passionate about, as well. I’m from an Italian-American background, but I never felt particularly akin to fellow Italians until living there for a year.
I went there with my wife and daughter (who was 18 months at the time), with a novel already in mind to write (“The Domino Effect”), so I wasn’t so much inspired narratively, but I was certainly inspired to create among all the beauty. It was like the greatest writer’s retreat I could ever imagine.
TS: Tell us about your children.
AC: My daughter is all about dance. She goes to MS 51. My son loves sports. He attends PS 58. Neither of them are so into writing at this point, but I could imagine them picking it up some day, since they both love narratives, especially those of Roald Dahl. We also have a much-loved super-mutt named Ally.
TS: In “The Domino Effect,” you paint a touching and humorous picture of protagonist Danny Rorro’s life. The story tugs at the reader’s heartstrings as it reveals the damage that can happen when an innocent gets tainted by a family’s checkered past and unresolved conflicts, which inevitably spill over and shape an already challenged childhood. So, what’s the meaning behind the title?
AC: The book is about a kid from Queens whose nickname is “Domino.” Through social and familial challenges, both at home and at a boarding school, he discovers how one’s behavior has an effect on others, like dominoes falling. It’s a coming-of-age story, which I’ve always loved since the subject matter is familiar and vital to anyone who has survived adolescence. It seems to me more of a book for adults than young adults, though I’m happy to have readers of all ages.
TS: What was your family life like growing up?
AC: Until I was 12, we lived in a middle-class neighborhood in northern New Jersey that was full of kids from disparate backgrounds, and we ran wild, on our own, all the time. My kids’ lives in Brooklyn are much more orchestrated and supervised, and I think this makes our home life a little difficult, since they tend to still have energy to burn at the end of the day.
On the other hand, my sibling was of the same gender, and much closer in age; he was older and a pretty difficult kid (to put it mildly), so we had many more physical confrontations in our home, which creates its own complications and stress.
We also ended up moving around the country throughout my adolescence, which always makes things interesting, since relocating and being a teen go so well together.
TS: Why has “Outerborough Blues” been described as “Brooklyn noir?”
AC: “Outerborough Blues” is definitely only for adult readers. It is set in Brooklyn, [at] the dawn of gentrification in the ’90s. Its protagonist is a young drifter from a broken family of Italian and Irish descent, who settles in a predominantly African-American neighborhood where he finds himself immersed in a mystery. Publishers Weekly wrote that it “reads like Raymond Chandler taking dictation from Walt Whitman,” which exceeded anything I could have possibly imagined in the form of a compliment. If I ever get a tattoo, that would be it — right across my chest.
TS: So, how do you feel about Brooklyn’s growing gentrification in areas like Williamsburg and Greenpoint, etc.?
AC: I’m ambivalent about gentrification. It’s the dominant theme of “Outerborough Blues,” though I don’t attempt any statements about its evil or inevitability, or whatever, though I do think it makes a fascinating subject matter since it generates conflict on so many levels.
TS: What was your dad like growing up and how is your parenting style different from his?
AC: My dad was (and still is) a very supportive father, who provided a terrific model in many ways. He always seemed to be on the right side of things, in a very practical and moral way. He also happens to be the smartest person I’ve ever known, which is kind of cool and kind of annoying.
I’m not as consistent. I’m on point for the most part, but with my dad, there was a clear expectation as to acceptable behavior, and a clear consequence when those lines were crossed. I tend to be a lot more outrageous with my kids than my father ever was with me. I can be kind of crazy at times, and not overly concerned with appearances, so I end up doing stupid or shameless things that my kids often (not always) find hysterical. I love cracking them up and instilling a sense of silliness in them, but it’s also hard to switch hats to “serious dad” since I’ve, in some ways, undermined myself as an authority figure. It’s a tough thing to balance, and often my wife has to get involved in ways which makes her life more difficult.
TS: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
AC: My spare time is fairly limited since I teach English full-time at LIM College in Manhattan and part-time at St. Francis in Brooklyn Heights. And then there’s all the writing, which is both fiction and journalism. That said, when I do have free time, my favorite thing to do is cook and eat with family and friends. I’m clearly in love with Italian food and wine, so if you’re coming to my house, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get plenty of both.
TS: What do you do for fun with your family?
AC: My family spends a lot of time in Brooklyn Bridge Park. For me, the perfect family day is a quick train ride to Chinatown for dim sum, followed by a walk home over the Brooklyn Bridge.
TS: What have you been working on lately?
AC: I’ve been doing a lot more non-fiction writing since “Outerborough Blues,” including regular contributions to the New York Times, which I take great pride in. I did, though, conceptualize and write a few episodes of a Brooklyn-based TV drama called “Kingsborough,” which my agent is shopping now. I’m also about to start a new novel about an American living in Italy for a year, so maybe I can finally draw some autobiography into my work.
TS: What makes a great writer?
AC: Great writers understand a combination of language, storytelling, characters, and insight into the human condition.
TS: How did you meet your wife?
AC: My wife and I lived in the same New Jersey town where I had spent my early childhood. After my family moved away, I’d visit frequently and got to know her through mutual friends. After college, we crossed paths as Manhattanites and ended up in a relationship. We’ve been married since 1996.
TS: Do parts of your books reflect your own life experiences?
AC: Neither of my books are particularly autobiographical narratively, though there are certainly consistent themes which have been inspired by my experiences and interests: displacement, family strife, the urban experience, acceptance, privilege, class, race, violence, morality, father-son bonds, music, movement, food, friendship.
I think, ultimately, what I’m after in each novel is a sense that, for most people, life is difficult, yet there’s great hope and possible satisfaction through perseverance.