Published July 12. 2013 4:00AM
A few years ago, highly renowned and bestelling author Dennis Lehane was awarded his own imprint from HarperCollins Publishers.
On Tuesday, Dennis Lehane Books released its second novel, Ivy Pochoda's "Visitation Street," a melancholy study of the search for a missing girl set in Brooklyn's waterfront Red Hook neighborhood.
The book has earned overwhelmingly positive reviews, and Pochoda appears today at an author luncheon in Mystic's Bank Square Books. But Pochoda's visit to the area is far more than just a tour stop. It's a homecoming of sorts.
In 2009, Pochoda was a selected fellow for the James Merrill House Writer-in-Residence Program in Stonington Borough.
"I can't believe I was lucky enough to get (the Merrill fellowship). There are so many deserving writers out there. I loved living in the Merrill House and I loved the village. I came in the winter and was there through spring and into summer. It was a wonderful way to experience the Borough," says Pochoda, on the phone from Boston where, the previous night, she and Lehane had discussed "Visitation Street" at the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square.
The Merrill House, though, serves as more than just a local-curiosity asterisk in Pochoda's career.
"I actually started writing 'Visitation Street' while I was living (in the Merrill House), although in a totally different form," Pochoda says.
The story starts when two 15-year-old best friends, Val and June, bored on a sultry summer's night, decide to float on a raft into the Upper Bay between Brooklyn and Staten Island. The next morning, Val is discovered washed up on the beach - and June is missing.
"Though the book ended up being very different over the course of several rewrites, that chapter stayed pretty much the same and set the tone," Pochoda says.
The narrative unfolds through the viewpoints of several Red Hook residents thrown together by the situation. There's Cree, a young man trying his best to come to grips with the murder of his father; Fadi, a Lebanese bodega owner who wants more than anything for the neighborhood to develop a sense of community; Jonathan, a Juilliard dropout and lackadaisical school music teacher whose descent into alcoholism is directly related to his own familial guilt and self-disappointment; and a mysterious graffiti artist who appoints himself Cree's protector when police start suspecting him of having something to do with June's disappearance.
And of course there's Val, the surviving friend who can't or won't remember the events of the raft trip - and whose subsequent identity and sense of self-worth is tattered.
Though Pochoda lives in Los Angeles, she graduated from Harvard, got an MFA in fiction from Bennington College and spent years in Europe as a professional squash player. Her first novel, 2009's "The Art of Disappearning," takes place in Las Vegas and Amsterdam.
But she grew up in Brooklyn and says "Visitation Street" is very much a novel she wanted to write about Red Hook, its citizenry, and a slow return to gentrification after years of gang wars and drug violence.
"I remember my past and growing up in Brooklyn very fondly," Pochoda says. "I wanted to write about the history and the beauty, but I also wanted to describe a little bit of the melancholy because it was a place in transition and there was a definite element of crime and violence and loss."
Pochoda initially started writing about real people she observed in her travels through Red Hook, but she says they quickly morphed into fictional characters. She also had the scene with June and Val on the raft and June's disappearance, but, she laughs, "Then it occurred to me I also needed a plot."
The answers to June's disappearance are essential and the connective tissue to the narrative, but Pochoda says, "It's not really a mystery as much as it is about these characters. I had to rewrite and rewrite and I ultimately had to tie it all together. Ultimately, I looked back and realized a lot of the plot answers had been there all along; I just had to work through the characters before I could see the answers."
If "Visitation Street" indeed contains a mystery that demands a solution, there is also a decided literary quality to the book - not just in the musically lyrical depictions of the urban landscape, but also in the depth and prescient insight into the characters and how they fit into the cultural latitude and longitude of the community.
There is also an almost supernatural element to "Visitation Street." A few tangential but important characters are spiritual seers who seek solace through efforts to communicate with the dead.
"It's interesting," Pochoda says. "Those supernatural elements occurred to me as natural extensions of the characters. People grieve in various ways and it's up to the reader to decide if (the spiritualist characters) are actual conduits to ghosts or just grieving."
In graduate school, one of Pochoda's readers told her, "You've got a great book here, but whenever I read something that goes into phantasmagora, I have no patience for it."
"I thought that was wrong," Pochoda says. "Who knows whether the character sees or hears ghosts or it's just a way to move on - a stage of grief."
Granted, during her stay at the Merrill House, Pochoda says she experienced a bit of a ghostly presence on the evening of what would have been the poet's 83rd birthday. Though a bit unnerved, she wasn't frightened but ultimately inspired.
"My favorite parts of 'Visitation Street' are almost the supernatural elements, and I think a lot of the ghostly stuff came from my time there. That house has its share of spirits," she says.
In that context, is it safe to say the idea of a Merrill House haunting is enough to keep her from ever returning to Stonington Borough?
"Oh, my, no! If it all worked out, I'd maybe go back and live in Stonington," she says. "If I could figure out how to do it, I'd definitely be open to it. It's a wonderful place."