In his debut novel Restoration Heights, Wil Medearis explore gentrification through a murder noir set in the Brooklyn art world. The conglomerate of ideas came to the author over a series of events spread across years.
In the novel, a young art handler is the last to see a woman alive and becomes captivated by what happened to her. He becomes a sleuth trying to piece together her disappearance. Medearis himself has a background in art and watched his Brooklyn neighborhood change rapidly before his eyes.
After a failed attempt at a novel, he finally realized he needed to write what he knew well to turn all of his interests into a gripping story about gentrification, art, and murder.
I spoke with Medearis about how Restoration Heights developed over the years and how he learned – and eventually overcame – the pitfalls writers encounter trying to complete debuts.
Where did the idea for this book start?
There were a couple of things. It was a confluence of different things happening in my life. First, I live in Clinton Hill on the edge of [Bedford-Stuyvesant] and go to the Bed-Stuy YMCA that is featured in the book. There were a lot of things happening in 2010 around the area and to me during the time. I spent a lot of my life at the Y on a day to day basis. I had some resentment of seeing a place I really liked turning into a vegan coffee shop or seeing a cool, historic building being turned into a condo complex.
I was aware that I was apart of the reason those changes were happening. I didn’t necessarily have the standing to complain about them. I kind of thought that was a weird place to be in and knew I wanted to write about that. Write about resenting the changes happening to a neighborhood and then on another level recognizing my own complicity in those changes.
That was the general thematic direction I wanted to go but had no idea of the structure of how to express that.
Separate from that, the incident that opens the book where Reddick runs into Hannah in the book, happened more or less like that to me. The details were a little less mysterious, but just seeing this girl in an alleyway who makes a pass only to disappear stuck with me. It was open to sinister interpretations though. I thought: what if no one ever saw her again. What if that was the last she was seen?
It felt like a good mystery and it wasn’t until I started digging into the mystery when I realized I could pull in all of my other interests with the neighborhood and gentrification.
There is a lot to unpack there. I live in Phoenix and gentrification in my neighborhood has started to unfold with an even more rapid pace. My favorite diner just moved locations into a new building they build from the ground up and there are mini-protests outside from time to time. The diner has been there almost a decade, but because they moved recently, it seems to have become a problem.
I keep thinking about how from my perspective it’s good for the neighborhood because more people are coming in and spending their money, but is it really?
Exactly. In talking to people and writing the book, gentrification is an issue that is very easy to line up in a way that there are very rapacious invaders that are stealing the neighborhood. I have characters in the book who feel that way. They argue if you’re a property owner in that neighborhood or invest in it, there is a way to help shape it so it doesn’t lose its soul.
That is definitely a conversation Bed-Stuy is having. It’s different than a lot of neighborhoods in Brooklyn where the landlords didn’t live in buildings so they weren’t really apart of the communities and were displaced from it. It was just another rent check from a tenant. Whereas in Bed-Stuy, it’s a slightly different flavor. In many of the brownstones, you’ll have people living on one floor and then renting out the rest of the floors. Those people tend to be more invested in the neighborhood.
Another thing you talked about was the opening scene. A lot of the times when I am reading a book, I can tell the opening scene was the image that kicked off the entire idea for the book. Yours really felt that way. It was so vivid. How long did you work on the opening scene?
That initial scene happened to me in a slightly different way. I was coming back from the gym with my wife and saw a few people from the party. Then I ran back out with some garbage by myself and the partygoers were back inside. At that point, a girl thought I was someone else and came running up to me. She was drinking or whatever and didn’t care if I was who she thought I was or not. I was conscious of how incredibly stupid that was on her part to follow an unknown guy into a gated alleyway.
It thrust me into this role of having some moral responsibility for her. Then later it struck me at how that could be a story’s hook. I wrote it down in the first person quickly and just sat there as a chronicle of that moment while I worked on another [failed] book.
How long did that scene sit there while you worked on the other novel before revisiting it?
It’s weird because I was working on the other book and shopping it for an agent, but it was riddled with problems as first books often are. I was working on that for three years before I started even sending it out. I had put a lot of time into it.
It wasn’t based in Brooklyn and wasn’t based on what I knew very well. It was all of the things people tell you not to do.
I knew I wanted to write a book that was closer to home. I was still actively putting a lot of effort into shopping that first one around when I started tinkering with what eventually became Restoration Heights. There was about six months of brainstorming and writing notes. It wasn’t always consecutive. It was interrupted by a lot. I would be at my day job taking notes, or whatever. It percolated without doing any writing on the draft for at least six months. Once the plot came together, it happened very quickly.
Before talking more about this book, let’s go back to that first novel and the problems it had. What were there examples of things you tried that people always say not to do while writing?
It was all about write what you know or are close to. I had settings in the book that I had only been to on Google Earth. I figured I could take a research trip but then I figured I could just make it up. Being an utter novice, I was just figuring things out while I went along.
You have an MFA, but not in writing, in painting. Where was that shift where you decided to write?
I had written short stories and taken writing courses. I didn’t go to school right away; I bounced around with a wandering path. It was during that path where I did some writing and some painting. That’s when I discovered I just like to create. When I ended up in school, I had some teachers I liked in the art department and I got drawn into that. I didn’t do a lot of writing during my BFA or MFA. I was very much focused on art and trying to make it as an artist. When I got out of the structure of school, my passion for writing started coming back because I would be able to tell stories in my writing that I couldn’t portray in my art.
When you finally got to this book after your art career, a failed novel, and the opening scene swirling in your head, how intricately did you work on the mystery within this novel?
I knew that I wanted the novel in terms of the way the mystery worked to be more of a detective novel or a procedural novel than a guess whodunnit novel. I love both and grew up reading whodunnits, but that wasn’t the type of mystery I wanted here. I was much more interested in noir fiction and how they have these plots that have pieces and twists leading into one another. I like the idea of readers learning something new and it casts a previous piece of information in a new light. I wanted everything to seem sort of unclear until you got there.
Was that ending something you had pretty much in mind from the beginning?
I had the ending. The ending actually helped galvanize the project. Early on, when I was doing the plot outline by putting up pieces of story onto a board with the days of the week on it, I had to know the end point I was working toward.
Once I knew what the con was, then I could go in a structure things to get to that reveal in a way that would make sense for the reader.
In that first novel that didn’t work out, you mentioned you googled and just tried your best to capture the setting. With this one, there is a lot of personal touch to it. You went to the Bed-Stuy Y, you were an art handler like Reddick. What other research did you have to do?
The elements of the book that I hadn’t directly experienced, I did the thing I should have done for that first book: reach out to talk to people face to face about what I wanted to write about. I talked to NYPD detectives about gang structure. I had to make things I didn’t know have a more personal touch than a Wikipedia entry.
Are you doing this research like with NYPD and gang structure while writing or is it beforehand?
Some of it was while writing because I felt like I had a pretty cohesive plot outline. But then while writing things become more important or less important to the plot. Things shift; there is fluidity on top of the structure.
I don’t think I realized how much I was going to have to know about certain characters. I needed to flesh out motivations. I had to reach out to [people like these characters].
One thing that surprised me while writing this book is how generous people are giving up their time to help. I would go have lunch with lawyers or former detectives to have frank conversations about the criminal justice system in New York. We talked about things that worked and things that didn’t work.
I think a lot of young writers get hung up on research. I like to goof off on Reddit and read the /r/writing sub a lot. I see a lot of people discussing research or plotting and how they do both so heavily before even starting to draft. But what you said is so vital for young writers: fluidity matters. The novel can take on a life of its own in the middle of it.
Yeah, there is no way of knowing what you need to know when you start. You can guess and you should guess, but you don’t know everything.
Another thing I frequently see is that writers discuss how they get stuck on something and can’t move on. Are you a linear writer?
The way it works for me is to do a rough draft that is incredibly linear. I try to do as little going back as possible until I have a first draft. Sometimes I feel I’ll have to change sections, but now I go back and make notes about what I have to fix after the draft is done. Those annotations get fixed after the draft. It’s important to me to get everything down front to back before editing. Then it becomes less linear.