The historical novelist (and Center for Fiction reading group leader) talks with MaryAnne Kolton about playing dress-up, discovering "vivid particulars," and deciding what to cut
Following her remarkable debut, Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson, Lyndsay Faye entices us to enter the roiling streets of New York City in The Gods of Gotham. The year is 1845. Two seemingly unrelated events, the Irish potato famine and the creation of the “copper stars” are the basis for a riveting tale of desolation, crime, politics, and intrigue.
I find that most people like to know something about the early background of the authors they read. With that in mind, will you tell me what books you read as a child? Did anyone specifically encourage you to read? What was your family life like?
I grew up with books. My mom read to me and my little brother continually, and my dad did too. I always adored stories, so a time without books doesn't really exist in my recollection. I'm very grateful to both my parents for that, for having a house where it was no question you loved reading. And I learned to read for myself quite early, I think. All the usual classics --The Secret Garden, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Peter Pan, Ferdinand the Bull. We loved the Narnia books, my brother and I. I'd an early mind to be a playwright/director, so I outfitted my brother in a pair of khakis, paper cloven hooves, and some kind of horn headband, and then glued cotton balls all over his chest with Elmer's. He made a fabulous Mr. Tumnus.
When I started reading for myself, I was voracious about it. The Lord of the Rings series was a huge favorite. I pored over them. Something about the bravery and self-sacrifice enthralled me to the point that I read the entire thing aloud to my little brother (with a few canny deletions of endless descriptions of forests). At about age ten, I discovered the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and I've been obsessed with those ever since. It turned out that hero stories are my mojo.
We grew up in the Pacific Northwest, so we pretty much had free rein of the neighborhood. My parents were always careful, but the town was safe, so we put pennies on railroad tracks to flatten them and sailed Lego men through dyke tunnels and fostered families of mice we found in the meadow. If we weren't reading tales of adventure, then we were out running amok imagining our own.
Finally! A writer with an idyllic childhood. Costume design, staging and directing at such a young age— someone must have been trying to tell you something. What made you leap from actress to historical novelist?
That was a very strange leap of faith. I hadn't been auditioning much after my husband and I moved to New York--which seems counter-intuitive, but I suppose I was a bit overwhelmed by the system and the sheer talent and motivation involved in being halfway decent at surviving as a New York actor. And then, there are times when all an actor wants to do is to stop belting out high notes for skeptics and seize a little career autonomy. I'd picked up a Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper novel on a whim, found the style engaging but the solution wildly improbable, and groused to myself that there didn't seem to be a pastiche that treated both Sherlockiana and Ripperology with respect simultaneously. I wanted to read that book. So when the restaurant where I was working got knocked down with bulldozers, I sat down and wrote it.
And you chose historical fiction. As I’m sure you are already aware, combining the first NYC “copper stars’ with the events in Ireland was brilliant. The research must have been riveting. How many months before you felt comfortable enough to begin writing?
Every book I've written has involved about six months of research before I even start a Word document. I generally divide my time between the New York Historical Society and Bryant Park Research Library, and then order other books that I can't do without. That phase is very distinct and enjoyable for me. I get to learn amazing incidental things like the origins of tap dancing and the history of the word "okay." (The cultural intersection of blacks and Irish in the Five Points had a great deal to do with the development of tap; okay was a deliberate joke standing for "oll korrect.")
One thing that distinguishes The Gods of Gotham from other historical fiction is that the plot, historical connection, and characters are all so well layered and finely drawn that neither one overwhelms the other. How did you achieve that balance?
Oh, thank you—-that's very kind. Well, ultimately, I think the novel is a completely character-driven engine, or at least I intended it to be so. The historical setting and events force the characters to make certain decisions of necessity, which in turn creates the plot. By which I mean all the characters contribute. They're in a maelstrom of their own making. And we're not talking about a mystery where the good guys are tracking DNA evidence and fibers and cell phone signals—-in truth, while I do love reading modern mysteries with nice juicy forensics and clever crime- solving, I'm far more interested in how people behave. And I don't have an advanced degree in criminal science. Any attempt I made at a tech-driven book would be woefully lacking. So I write about what makes people tick instead.
I'm hugely gratified that the book seems layered. The technique is simply one of character relevance. Did the event affect my character Tim? Put it in. Is it peripheral history that fails to engage him emotionally? Skip it. Does it matter to him what this particular street looks like? Include it. Does he care when that building over there was constructed? No, so don't narrate that information. Timothy likes creating word pictures and he's a bit dazzled by his city (at the same time he's disgusted by it), but I try my best never to put words in his mouth that don't belong there. If I've somehow achieved balance by being (to my mind) massively unbalanced on the side of character, then hallelujah and pop the champagne.
I also found your incredible attention to detail and the descriptive passages in this book so significant. I was so there! Not all writers are capable of achieving this level of involvement. Is this due to preparation or creative writing skills? Or are you just steeped in the aura of New York City past and present? For instance: "Neighborhoods in New York change quicker than its weather. Spring Street…a mix of people in the usual everyday sense: blue-coated Americans with their collars over their lapels and their hats neatly brushed, laughing colored girls waking your eyes with canary yellow and shocking orange dresses, complacent ministers in brown wool and thin stockings. There are churches in Spring Street, eating houses smelling of pork chops with browned onions. It isn’t Broadway north of Bleecker, where the outrageously wealthy bon ton and their servants peer down their noses at one another, but it isn’t Ward Six either.”
That's lovely of you to say. When I'm conducting research, I keep a long list of details that engage my senses. I have no formal training in creative writing, but it's what any good actor would do--inhabit the world. If I'm reading a book of historical fiction, I don't want to be told they stopped for a meal, I want to be told they stopped for fried herring wrapped in newspaper, because that's a concrete image, and a meal isn't. So when I encounter vivid particulars in my research, I record them as meticulously as I do historical facts. More meticulously, actually, because not every historical fact will be relevant, but every dress style or restaurant description could be relevant if I need a setting.
Anyone can do this with practice, diligence, a dash of creativity, and a mild case of OCD, by the way. It's about finding primary sources. Diaries, satires, newspapers. The key is to be omnivorous. When I'm researching by reading a newspaper from 1845, I don't just write down the headlines. The headlines are often immaterial. I record the advertisements, the concert listings, the society gossip, the slang expressions, the ins and outs of everyday life. It isn't difficult, just time-consuming.
The layout of The Gods of Gotham was especially impressive. The endpaper maps and the slang dictionary were notable as well as functional. Were these part of your plan?
Any author who goes so far as to plan her own layout and endpapers is destined for swift, painful lessons! But my editor, Amy Einhorn, is very generous, and all about historical clarity as well as the beauty of her hardcovers, and so we worked together on what would serve the material best. I couldn't be happier with how it looks. The book is gorgeous, and that's all due to the mapmaker and the interior designer and the cover designer. I was consulted on the map's street layout details and historical accuracy, and I wrote the slang dictionary. Otherwise, all credit goes to the artists.
You have said that the story of Elizabeth Rafferty and her infanticide is true. Did you consider other real crimes with which to test Timothy? And if so, how did this one win over the others?
I just found the story of Eliza Rafferty so heartbreaking and compelling. She killed her child in what was almost certainly a very confused state of mind, whether due to malnutrition or postpartum depression or psychosis we of course can't determine any longer. But she had no safety net whatsoever, and many thousands of Irish people found themselves in the identical position when they arrived on our shores. The murder of Aidan Rafferty I chose specifically because it would serve as a springboard from which to create imagined crimes for Timothy to solve, because people reading about such a terrible tragedy immediately say, "Oh, those are the stakes. The stakes are that high."
Have you been approached by anyone who wants to option the book for a movie? Even as I was reading it, I could see great visuals. And with your background, you must have thought about the possibility.
I try not to think about movie options since they're such longshots for authors, but that would absolutely rock my world. I'd die of bliss.
I hear you are writing the sequel to The Gods of Gotham as we speak. Do you have a working title? When might we expect to see it in print?
We're mucking about with the title at the moment, but it'll be out next spring.
Photo by Gabriel Lehner
Lyndsay Faye moved to Manhattan in 2005 to audition for work as a professional actress; she found her days more open when the powers that be elected to knock her day-job restaurant down with bulldozers. Her first novel, Dust and Shadow: an Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H Watson, is a tribute to the aloof genius and his good-hearted friend whose exploits she has loved since childhood. Faye's love of her adopted city led her to research the origins of the New York City Police Department, the inception of which exactly coincided with the start of the Irish Potato Famine. Her second and third novels, The Gods of Gotham and its sequel, follow ex-bartender Timothy Wilde as he navigates the rapids of his violently turbulent city, his no less chaotic elder brother Valentine Wilde, and the perils of learning police work in a riotous and racially divided political landscape.
MaryAnne Kolton’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous literary publications. Her public email is email@example.com, and she can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.