The Big Idea: Daniel Polansky

In the writing of A City Dreaming, author Daniel Polansky learned that staying in one place doesn’t necessarily mean settling into a rut. What did this mean for his novel of New York? Read on.


I moved to New York in 2013, after years of aimless wandering. Melancholic by nature, I feared waking up every morning in the same place, eating the same things, looking at the same people. Travel is a constant reminder that no man steps into the same river twice, as Heraclitus says, that our lives hold value if only by virtue of their brevity. To be in some strange foreign land to which you will never again return, or only return in some distant year, bent and infirm, is to know yourself mortal. Absent this encouragement it becomes easy to forget how terribly transient our lives are. Routine casts its long shadow over everything, months and then years swallowed up by the mundane. But this is a flaw in our own perception, a trick of the light. Life is extraordinary, filled with strange and horrifying and beautiful moments; it falls to us to seek them out, and to grab them as they pass.

A City Dreaming grew out of a conscious attempt to celebrate the surreal and wondrous in my day to day life, a task aided by the peculiar attributes of New York. Who could fail to see magic in so strange a metropolis, where storm-eyed Tatianas stalk in the shadow of towers that would have shamed Ludwig II, where billionaires and beggars share space on a crowded rush hour 4 train, where you might hear half a dozen languages being spoken on the way to the corner bodega. A city whose inhabitants are perpetually half-lying about themselves anyway, and thus under no compulsion to dispute your own delusions.

At night and over a drink I would rework the events of the day in a fashion just slightly more surreal than they had seemed to me while experiencing them. The constant expansion of coffee shops in my fast-gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood became the workings of an unknowable alien intelligence, intent on overtaking the entire borough. An exhausting warehouse party was repopulated with pooka and naiad and elder gods and things still more unrecognizable. Bad dates became apocalyptic, sunny days divine. It was less a process of creation than of alteration, adding a dash of spice to a stew already rich and bubbling.

And at some point I looked up and realized I’d written a book, about life in the most populous city in North America here in the opening days of the 21st century. The misadventures of ‘M’, called by some a magician though he himself would never be so gauche as to use that term. M is not the son of a god, he is not the child of prophecy, he has no plans to champion light against the coming forces of the dark. M’s plans, like ours, don’t go much further than his next drink, his next meal, his next date, his own pleasures and interests the ne plus ultra of his own existence.

Around M grew a cast of characters; Boy, his best friend, a mercurial, brilliant, and terrifically violent ingenue; Stockdale, a hero sprung straight from an Edwardian children’s story, no bother that he was born in a distant southern corner of the Commonwealth; Celise, the Queen of Manhattan, and Abilene, her outer borough counterpart, their internecine plotting threatening constantly to force M out of his life of easy going debauchery. A world of magical duels, of turtles living beneath Manhattan Island, of demons big and demons small; but also a world in which everyone is worried about paying their rent, about finding someone to go home with, surviving into the next day and perhaps even enjoying it a bit.

The big idea behind A City Dreaming is a simple one; that the world is in turns wondrous, bizarre, and horrifying, and that New York is a particularly refined draft of this already heady vintage. That the fabulous and the banal are layered so closely atop one another that it can be difficult to distinguish between the two, but that we still have to. It was a true and authentic labor of love, and if the only copy had been tossed in a fire before I sent it to out to my editor, I would have counted the time writing it well spent. Since that didn’t happen, however, and we even went so far as to print it up and slap a pretty cover on the front, you might as well go out and find yourself a copy.

Take a bit of care, though – it’s a strange world that M resides in, very nearly as strange as our own.


A City Dreaming: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

5 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Daniel Polansky

  1. Daniel’s the best. Love his work. Amazing prose. Even his Big Idea piece is written with style.

  2. I’m just agog someone writing on the internet used “populous” when they actually meant that and not “populace.” The fact that that’s an apparently-fascinating book involved ices the cake! Definitely on the To Read list.

  3. After following the link to read an excerpt I am much impressed. Mr. Polansky’s prose has a delightful, off-kilter turn of phrase that reminds me greatly of Douglas Adams. The characters seem deeply built and complex, and I’m not certain if the author is writing fiction or offereing an accurate account of an unseen world. All that from one chapter, no less!

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