Love in the time of Van Booy


"If anyone speaks Italian, please leave," Simon Van Booy warned the small group gathered at 57th Street Books on Monday night. "I have to pronounce some Italian words." Dressed in a brown polo shirt and pristine white sneakers that made him feel "like an escaped mental patient," Van Booy—a professor at New York's School of Visual Arts and Long Island University—read from his collection of short stories The Secret Lives of People in Love (Turtle Point Press, 2007). Over the course of his U.S. promotional tour this spring, Van Booy learned "the power of suspense"; at the start of his trip, he said, he would read full stories, but then people would walk out satisfied. Now he reads only half a tale to leave people "wanting more."

Sharing selections from three stories set in New York, Paris, and Italy, Van Booy explained, in a quiet British drawl, his real-life inspirations for each piece. He paints settings in minute detail, down to the "Versace sunglasses" worn by a small-town man in "The Still but Falling World," and writes only about places to which he's traveled. Starting his reading of "Little Bird" with a paraphrased quotation from George Eliot's Silas Marner ("Sometimes a man…is led away from the path of destruction by a child"), Van Booy said that the story's main character Michel, an ex-con living in Paris, is "one of my favorite people." Even though the character doesn't really exist, he said, he has met many "Michels" around the world: men who are "rough around the edges" but then change after finding love. In "As Much Below as Up Above," he molded the narrator—a Russian ex-sailor in Queens—from two distinct images: the tragic sinking of a Russian nuclear submarine in 2000 and a neighborhood in Brighton Beach, NY, where "it could be 50 degrees and Russians are on the beach in Speedos, drinking vodka." The tale shifts between the man's past in Russia and the present, his life with his beautiful American girlfriend Mina.

Ruthie Kott

Photo: Van Booy shares his Secret Lives of People in Love.

June 13, 2007