Acclaimed Sunset Park author found inspiration at neighborhood mosque

Acclaimed Sunset Park author found inspiration at neighborhood mosque
Tyler J. Kelley

Sometimes to get the story, you have to sacrifice some soles.

A Sunset Park author has become the toast of the literary scene for his debut novel, which was inspired in part by his travels around some out-of-the-way parts of Brooklyn. Atticus Lish’s book “Preparation for the Next Life” takes place mostly in Queens, but the writer drew on many experiences close to home. In the five years it took him to write the book, he said he did a lot of walking and biking on an old Huffy with a peeling seat.

“I was fascinated by the parts of the city one wouldn’t normally walk in, by the highways and train tracks,” said Lish. “I wore out a lot of shoes.”

Lish said his fluency in Mandarin, thanks to a year living in China followed by a stint doing technical translations, also helped him to penetrate the outskirts of New York City, past the reach of gentrification.

“There was a feeling of menace and freedom to the city,” said Lish, who grew up in Manhattan as the son of famed literary editor Gordon Lish. “And that may be gone now.”

Menace and freedom are the two essential tones of Lish’s novel.

The book — which was released in November 2014 and received rave reviews from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal among many, many others — tells the story of Zou Lei, an ethnic Uighur from western China who migrates without documentation to the United States looking for work, and her lover, Skinner, an Iraq war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Lish’s characters are familiar types traditionally defined by otherness — a woman sorting through a stranger’s recycling at the curb, and a man in unwashed camouflage pants eating at McDonald’s.

Lish writes in a style that is intimate and sympathetic, narrowing the reader’s world to the size of Zou Lei’s barren room, the strangeness of America, her poverty, and her lack of control over her life as she struggles to repay the smugglers who brought her here.

She finds the freedom she lacks in bodily exertion. After a long run, she comes across a mosque where she prays and is invited to eat. This respite, one the book’s most uplifting moments, was based on the author’s visit to a mosque on Coney Island Avenue in Midwood. Lish said he found the words “preparation for the next life” written on a sign at an Islamic school in Sunset Park.

The book’s most potent menace is an ex-con named Jimmy, who lives above Skinner. In one extremely disturbing passage, Jimmy brutally assaults a prostitute. This violent scene, written with horrendous detail and care, leaves a lasting impression. But Lish said this was not him being indulgent — just being a reporter.

“Say you saw something awful,” he said. “You might feel the need to talk about it.”

Atticus Lish will read from “Preparation for the Next Life” at Franklin Park (618 Saint John’s Pl. between Franklin and Classon in Crown Heights, www.frank‌linpa‌rkbro‌oklyn.com). Feb. 9 at 8 pm. Free.