In Greenport, A Story of the Messiness Shared by Love and Art

Pictured above: Author Melanie Mitzner with her new novel, “Slow Reveal,” at Aldo’s in Greenport.

Like many ports along the Eastern Seaboard, the depth of Greenport’s history is evident in even a casual stroll down Main or Front street. The work done by the people who lived here throughout the village’s history is like a silent archeology just under the surface of the tourist sheen that glosses over the village today. 

While local historians can tell you something about the lives of the pillars of the community who have changed this village’s history, it’s the untold stories that shape family histories that fascinate Greenport author and screenwriter Melanie Mitzner.

Ms. Mitzner’s latest novel, “Slow Reveal,” tells the story of one family’s inner life and trauma, at a particular time in Greenport’s history that hasn’t yet been explored by historians.

In the mid-1990s, Greenport was still a struggling, working-class town, and like most stories of gentrification, this current period in the village’s history began when a critical mass of artists flocked here during those years. 

Ms. Mitzner and her partner, abstract artist/photographer Nicke Gorney, were among that wave of artists, part of an exodus from also-rapidly-gentrifying lower Manhattan, which reached a boiling point after the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.

It’s at the early phase of this movement of artists that Ms. Mitzner captures, in her novel, a creative family struggling with addiction, their relevance as artists, and the revelation of the mother’s long-hidden affair. 

“The 1990s were such a transitional time in New York. Artists could still live there,” said Ms. Mitzner, who recently moved back to Greenport after a decade taking care of her in-laws in Canada. “There were small businesses and galleries but they were being pushed out. It’s symbolic of the changes going on in the relationships in the novel. Now nobody can afford to live in New York unless they have a rent-controlled apartment.”

Ms. Mitzner had been living in the East Village before she first moved to Greenport in 1994, and she could feel a sense of promise in this village, which has always welcomed outsiders.

“Greenport was really cool back then,” she said, filled with artists, musicians, dancers, actors and writers who were trying to do innovative things. 

“There were more serious galleries. Now it’s more geared toward tourists,” she said, in an interview over coffee at Aldo’s, one of the few Greenport mainstays that’s still going strong through these decades of change. “I’d hoped it would have become an artist enclave.”

Ms. Mitzner had previously worked as a journalist, but realized it was nearly impossible to pursue a career writing creatively while writing journalistic copy for a living.

Prior to moving to Greenport the first time, she had written a novel about a child who was raised by a man she thought was her father, but he’d actually been her abductor. She sent the manuscript to Toni Morrison, who was then an editor at Random House, and was surprised when the legendary author responded with extensive feedback, something that would never happen today as the publishing industry has consolidated and is struggling to hang on. 

She then studied screenwriting at The New School with Meade Roberts, who had adapted Tennessee Williams’ plays for the screen, after which she wrote a black comedy, “Out to Lunch,” about a child who develops food phobias after their mother dies of food poisoning.

She managed to get some meetings with people in the film industry to discuss her screenplay, but refused to budge when Disney asked her to rewrite the script so the mother didn’t die. 

“I sabotage a lot of situations,” she said, adding that this isn’t uncommon among artists, whose vision is often confronted with conflict when it comes time to collaborate.

The core of her work, she says, is the “enigmatic nature of the nuclear and chosen family.” 

“Slow Reveal” zooms in on the emotions of each of the members of a family, in turn, as they deal with recovering the trust broken by the mother’s affair, with another woman with whom she’d bought a farmhouse in East Marion where she lived a second life. 

The subject matter has helped give the book airplay on the Canadian LBGTQ+ radio program “Rainbow Country” and circulation among organizations committed to gay art, but the themes she explores could apply to all relationships.

“I write about emotional heredity,” she said. “We inherit a lot of generational trauma, and I question the idea of nature versus nurture — whether we have the ability to influence our own personal decisions.”

In the novel, the father is a visual artist and addict devastated by the backlash to his political work, who is now working in advertising. His wife, a film editor, believing she was in an “open marriage” because her husband had had some brief flings while he was using drugs, fell deep into a relationship with a female poet who was experiencing some success. 

But, like many people in long-term relationships, she and her husband had never actually discussed what they expected from each other in terms of fidelity and trust. This sets the stage, as they work to redefine their marriage, for an unraveling of all sorts of messy family secrets, misunderstandings that had blossomed over decades, and of the way their own family histories, going back generations, had set them up for the situation they were in.

This kind of work requires that the author explore the dark sides of peoples’ lives, which “informs so much of what we do,” said Ms. Mitzner. “You can’t skim on the surface. Generational trauma is present throughout our lives. It’s a part of human nature, but we can find ways to cope with it. But as we become more aware, we become more volatile.”

That volatility is also a subcurrent of an artistic life, she says, in part because art involves a level of intimacy that can be risky and messy.

“I wanted to explore the parallel between the creative process and relationships,” she says in her promotional materials for the book. “The chasm between conception and realization is deep and wide. We experience infatuation and abandonment, live precariously in the moment, face challenges over and over, of wanting more out of life, of going deeper no matter where that leads. At times, we’re energized, on occasion, electrified. When the work or relationship takes flight, the galaxy of shimmering light is astral, otherworldly. Even in death and desperation, we never let go.”

In the end, the characters redefine success as “the courage to embark on the artistic process, which is as risky, messy and unpredictable as building intimacy and trust in love.”

Living in Canada, said Ms. Mitzner, gave her an appreciation for the Canadian government’s support for the arts, which has helped contribute to the cultural vibrance of our neighbor to the north.

“Slow Reveal” was released by Toronto-based publisher Inanna Publications at York University on May 3, listed as a Best of Women’s Fiction Debut 2022. 

She’s now turning back to working on a manuscript that she began while living in Canada, “Paradise at our Feet,” about a neurochemist who is abducted (possibly by Big Pharma) after she finds a micronutrient that could cure depression, and her adopted son, who was raised in a fundamentalist madrassa, whose faith leads him on a quest to protect his mother and understand himself. 

It’s a messy story, just like life, and it’s cracking the code of what motivates us and drives our actions that sends Ms. Mitzner back to her writing desk each day.

“It takes courage to embark on the creative process,” she says. “Day after day, you start from scratch. It never totally measures up to the ideal, and that’s what keeps you going.”

“Slow Reveal” is available at Burton’s Bookstore in Greenport, bookshop.org and on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Find more info at melaniemitzner.com.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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