“Nobody promenaded the boardwalk anymore because you could trip on a rotting board and break your leg… the wonderful old hotels were now crumbling castles, left to dust after the film stars and bootleggers discovered air travel. Elephant Beach might have been only fifty-two minutes from the city by car or rail, but if you could fly to Santa Barbara or Cuba or the French Riviera, why would you spend your summers here?”
The above is an excerpt from Judy Chicurel’s novel, If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go. It’s the tale of a group of friends on the edge of adulthood, facing an uncertain future in post-Vietnam America. And – it’s set in a fading beach town called Elephant Beach.
If you lived in Long Beach in the 1970’s (or know the legend of elephants building the original boardwalk) you’re likely to find Long Beach intimations sprinkled throughout this book. But it’s most definitely fiction, which the author had to remind even close friends after they read it. One friend, puzzled by the character of Mitch, a Vietnam Veteran, pointed out, “but we didn’t hang out with any vets.” To which Judy responded, “I know, it’s fiction!”
Without a doubt, Judy’s natural affinity for writing about beach towns comes from her many years of living in coastal communities. She was born and raised on W. Chester Street in Long Beach, spent six years on Martha’s Vineyard, and currently resides in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn. Elephant Beach is the imagined composite of Long Beach and Martha’s Vineyard.
She found the West End particularly intriguing to explore in the pages of her novel, telling me, “It’s like a village, and I wanted to write about that.” Consequently, her Long Beach readers are in for a treat, contemplating which locales might be based on long-gone landmarks.
Judy also shared some non-fictional memories of the West End with me, beginning with Vito’s on New York Avenue. “He loved the people and would hang out and talk to everyone.”
And she recalled, “The West End ticket booths were the go-to place to hang out before dances at West School. We’d be all dressed up and cram ourselves in the ticket booths to get out of the freezing cold. You can fit a surprising number of people in those booths.”
But of course, the beach was the biggest hangout spot. Back then, if the cops came to chase them away, “chances were that one of the kids would know one of the policemen and leave us be,” she says. “It was a different time.”
A decade or so after high school Judy moved to June Walk and hung out at Chauncey’s, The Arizona, and The Digs in East Atlantic Beach, which she remembers as “a more sophisticated place, where the bouncers were always proofing her because she looked so young, even though she was eighteen.”
Embarking on a writing career wasn’t something she decided to pursue, it was just always “there.” She wrote poems in high school, contributed to local newspapers, and eventually began writing for Newsday and the New York Times.
“But it was tough to make a living,” Judy explains, so she became a teacher and channeled her creative energy into writing and producing plays.
Then, in 2010, she went looking for a writing program and found the CUNY Graduate Center Writers Institute Fiction Writing Program. As a lover of the short story genre, this program was perfect for her because all the instructors hailed from literary magazines. She found a mentor, landed an article in Granta, and got her first agent. But she quickly learned that short story writing was yet another hard way to make a living. So she turned her attention to writing a novel. Her debut, If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go was published in 2014. She is currently at work on her second book.
Judy left Long Beach in 1993, but says, “no matter where I go, I run into someone who has lived in Long Beach at some point in their lives.” It seems Long Beach people are ubiquitous!
She often thinks about coming back. “I really miss it in the winter, walking the boardwalk and watching the sunset.” When she returns for a visit her favorite eateries are Gino’s, John Henry’s and the Lido Deli – specifically for their dark meat turkey sandwich.
Judy is booked to appear at the West End Library Branch on November 2, 2016 for their monthly Book Club. She’ll be chatting about the inspiration for her novel and doing a Q&A. Start time in 7pm. FYI – the West End book club meets the first Wednesday of every month and anyone is welcome to join.
Copies of If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go are available at the main branch, or if you would like your own copy for the author to sign, you can purchase her book at Barnes & Noble.
Coming up next on Short Stories from Long Beach: Carl Savino – Executive Chef