NYPL Researcher Spotlight: Ada Calhoun

By NYPL Staff
June 17, 2022
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
Ada Calhoun

This profile is part of a series of interviews chronicling the experiences of researchers who use The New York Public Library's collections for the development of their work.

Ada Calhoun is The New York Times–bestselling author of Why We Can’t SleepSt. Marks Is DeadWedding Toasts I’ll Never Give, and the new memoir Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me.

When did you first get the idea for your research project? 

In the fall of 2018, I was in the basement of my parents’ apartment building in the East Village and found a box of cassette tapes from the 1970s. Turned out, they were research my father, The New Yorker art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, had done as official biography for the poet Frank O’Hara, his hero. He never finished it. In addition to writing my own books, I’ve ghostwritten twenty books in the past decade. I’m often brought on as a fixer to make difficult projects happen. More than once, I’ve been called Mr. Wolf—the murder cleanup specialist from Pulp Fiction. So I knew I could knock this out. I thought it would be fun. It wasn’t fun. Chaos ensued.

What brought you to the Library? 

I’ve been hanging out at NYPL branches for more than forty years, ever since I was a regular at the Jefferson Market Library as a little girl. I’ve written all my books in whole or in part at the Library. I go there for research and a quiet place to work and just to be in the vicinity of millions of books—a good and humbling place for a writer to spend time. You need a lot of confidence to look around and think, "The world needs at least one more of these".

What's your favorite spot in the Library?

The Allen Room! Librarian elves bring your ordered books there while you sleep! I would live there if I could. Before I was given access to that room, I would go to the Rose Reading Room or to the laptop room across from the main hall, the one with all the portraits. It’s not as majestic as the great hall, but it feels kind of like a train station waiting room in a nice way; I always got a lot done there.

Describe your research routine.

I call in a zillion books and go through them one by one. Some I wind up spending only a few minutes with and others I live with for years. I also like to go across the street to what I still call the Mid-Manhattan Library (I still call where the Mets play Shea, too). I visit the call numbers in the neighborhood of my topic and pull a bunch of books off the shelf. I pretty much always wind up on an interesting tangent. While I’m there I might grab my kid some graphic novels, get the family a travel guidebook for our next vacation, or order a coffee and sit on the roof and look out at the city.

What’s the most unexpected item you encountered in your research?

When I was working on St. Marks Is Dead about a decade ago I got sort of obsessed with this hustler/do-gooder Urbain Ledoux who went by the name “Mr. Zero.” I called in the only thing the Library had by him and was floored. It was a bonkers autobiographical pamphlet he made in the 1930s telling his story, with religious reflections and photos of himself as a savior to the poor. There can only be a handful of these left in the world and it’s an amazing look at lower Manhattan during the Depression. And of course NYPL has not one but two copies.

Describe a moment when your research took an unexpected turn.

For reasons I go into in the book, I wound up not being able to do the Frank O’Hara biography I thought I was writing. The book wound up being a strange biography-memoir hybrid instead. Fortunately, it wound up being a bigger story, not just about a beloved mid century poet but also about what to do with an imperfect parent and about what it takes to be a writer in any era. 

How do you maintain your research momentum?

I listen to music on my headphones. I compile a playlist for each book while I’m working on it. In my last four books I printed the playlist in the back along with the bibliography. My newest one is online here.

What tabs do you currently have open on your computer?

Chicago Manual of Style, New York Review of Books, and MLB.com, because I’m buying baseball tickets for a game while I’m on book tour.

Who makes the best coffee in the neighborhood?

Blue Bottle coffee on the south side of Bryant Park. When I hang out with Susannah Cahalan or other friends who use the Library too we usually get coffee there and sit in the park. But if I’m on my own I usually opt for a green or blue smoothie from Joe & the Juice on the north side of the park. They’re pricey and might be made entirely of mashed-up dates, but they’re delicious.