Comedian, podcaster and author Maeve Higgins’s new collection of essays “Maeve in America” details her experiences as an Irish immigrant in New York. Our reporter Kevin Duggan, also a recent Irish newcomer to Brooklyn, talked to Higgins about her new book and what he can expect from life in the borough.
Kevin Duggan: Your new book covers a wide range of stories. What holds all of these stories together?
Maeve Higgins: I think three things. One is jokes, two is immigration, and three is New York. Most of the stories are in New York. It’s a bunch of essays about my time since I moved here five years ago and everything that’s been happening to me.
And it was so important to me that the book be funny. And even though some of the things I’m doing, like a comedy workshop in Iraq, are very serious and sometimes sad, because I work with a lot of immigrants and they have been under attack these past two years. But I still try and keep some levity there because that’s important.
KD: When you came to America, did you know right away you wanted to live in New York City?
MH: Yeah I always wanted to live in New York. I had this romantic idea of being a writer in the city and about Brooklyn being the heart of some kind of literary culture.
And honestly, it hasn’t disappointed me. I mean, definitely some things have been shocking. Like I found out that you don’t really get paid for writing and I found out about some of the more competitive elements which turn me off, but I have met such interesting people and I’ve had some really wonderful opportunities since I’ve got here.
KD: When you got here, was it what you expected?
MH: I was expecting big drunken lunches with loads of writers in the Algonquin Hotel, where everybody was trading quips and saying things like ‘Watch out for her, she’s got a sharp tongue.’
No, I thought I was going to be in the 1930s or 1960s New York with Maeve Brennan and, I don’t know, like A.J. Liebling [both writers for The New Yorker in the 1940s] or something. I was kind of mixed up. But it’s actually just a lot of anxiety-ridden freelancers who are scrambling for things to write about.
KD: Are you still in Brooklyn?
MH: Yeah I still live in Brooklyn. When I first got here, I was on Church Avenue and then I moved to East Harlem and now I’m in Park Slope.
KD: How do you like the neighborhood?
MH: I really like it. You know, sometimes I’m frustrated that there’s two origami paper shops and there’s nowhere to buy milk. It’s quite expensive, but I have a lot of friends around here and there’s a lovely community atmosphere. I have a dog, and the dog knows all the neighborhood dogs. And that really makes me feel at home here.
To me, Brooklyn is the comedy center of New York. I mean there’s clubs obviously in Manhattan, but the fun stuff is happening here.
KD: What advice would you have on living in Brooklyn to a newcomer?
MH: Try and buy a monthly MetroCard, so that if you are broke you can still get around the city and do fun stuff. Another thing is, this is going to sound so dorky, but when I first got here and I didn’t know anybody, so I went to tons of readings in bookshops and I never talked to anyone. It was just a really fun, intellectually stimulating and free thing to do. And there’s loads of good bookshops around the borough.
I would also say use the park. I lived close to Prospect Park for a year before I realized how cool it was. And now I love it, I live near the park now and I go there every day. I have got a dog, but even if you don’t have a dog, try and get to the park, it’s really good for your mental health.
KD: What do you think it takes to succeed in America?
MH: If you’re already white and wealthy then that really helps. If not, then you have to be very lucky and very tenacious and also remember that even if you’re not financially doing well that there’s other measures to a person. I think it’s easy to forget what’s actually valuable.
I definitely came to New York because it’s an ambitious city and I’m ambitious. But I also try and check in every now and then. You know you achieve something here and you suddenly want the next thing, there’s no end to it.
KD: What do you do to get out of the rat race mindset?
MH: I try and turn off my phone and just read. I read lots of novels and long-form reported pieces and those are worlds that are not about me and I can really lose myself in. That’s really helpful.
I also try and spend time with people that are not my age and are not on the same hamster wheel that I’m on. There’s two little girls that I used to babysit and, now they’re older, they’re teenagers. But I love hanging out with them and listening to what’s going on with them in summer camps. It’s just refreshing to know that not everybody is worried about who’s writing for what TV show or am I going to get on the bestseller list. Just the competitive element isn’t there and that’s really relaxing.
Maeve Higgins celebrates “Maeve in America” at her weekly comedy show “Butterboy” at Littlefield [635 Sackett St. between Third and Fourth avenues in Gowanus, www.littl
And at Books Are Magic [225 Smith St. at Butler Street in Cobble Hill, (718) 246–2665, www.books