A Conversation with Elizabeth Gaffney about Metropolis
What was the inspiration behind Metropolis? How did you
come up with this particular story and these characters?
My first two decisions were to write about a time
from my own and to take up a male character as a protagonist. I
wanted to learn something while I was working on the novel and to get
away from the limitations of my own point of view. Where I stuck close to
home was in the settingNew York City. I was born here and have lived
here most of my life. In fact, I was interested in the idea of using the city as
one of the main characters right from the beginning. The title was one of
the first things to come to me. I chose a young, unlucky, struggling immigrant
character for my hero because I think everyone can relate to the difficulty
of creating an identity. It's the biggest job we human beings have
during that trying period of puberty and adolescencethat's why coming-of-age novels are so universal.
By picking the 1870s as my time period, I was
trying to make the book a coming-of-age novel for the city and for the
nation, too. This was a time of grand infrastructure projects that still shape
our urban landscapes and allow us to sustain the population density that we
do. I chose an inspirational and very public structure that was built around
this timethe Brooklyn Bridgeto symbolize my character's aspirations
and chose a hidden and generally unmentioned onethe sewer system
(also largely built in this period)to represent the dark underbelly of
that my character would have to traverse and overcome to achieve
The late nineteenth century was also a time when a great wave of
immigrants came into our country, which necessitated the eventual opening
of Ellis Island as an immigration center. Immigrants have always been
at the heart of New York's culture, and this whole country's culturewe're
almost all descended from immigrants, after all, except for Native Americans.
So I knew I would be writing about an immigrant. I decided to make
him German because I had spent time living in Germany and I knew the
country well. I made the other main character, Beatrice, Irish because Ireland
is a large part of my own heritage, and also because the Germans and
the Irish were the two largest immigrant groups during the period I chose
to write about.
You use the same title as the great silent film by Fritz Lang. What sort
of connection do you see between your book and Lang's Metropolis?
I find Lang's Metropolis to be a quintessential urban social drama,
and I was greatly inspired by it. For me, a futuristic vision like Lang's is not
all that far from a historical narrativeboth step away from the here and
now, but in so doing are capable of commenting on the present perhaps
more strongly than a story set among all the familiar features of our everyday
existence. Lang's Metropolis combines the personal coming-of-age
story of its protagonist, a scion of the ruling class, together with a love
a story of social revolution and a story of a mad Frankenstein-like scientist's
botched automatonthere are so many things going on. Like Siddhartha,
the hero is born into privilege and is at first entirely unaware of the poor
class that makes his world possible. But once he learns that it exists,
he chooses to descend into that underground world, where he finds terrible
suffering and injustice, and he makes sacrifices to set things right. He
devotes himself to serving truth and justice, not the status quo. I can't say
any of my characters are quite so saint-like or revolutionary, but I did partly
base the structure of my bookHarris's being born to privilege and descending
into an underworld before he can rise up againon that of
What attracted you to this particular period in New York's history? How
long did you research this book? What were some of your more interesting
or unexpected sources?
The biggest things that drew me to the period (roughly the 1870s)
were the sewer system, which underwent a major renovation and expansion
then, and the Brooklyn Bridge, which was under construction at the
time. For me, those two elements of the city's infrastructure were symbolic
of the unsavory hidden underworld and the highest possible intellectual
and artistic achievement of American society. Both were opportunities to
look deep into the lives of ordinary workingmen and women of the period
and what their lives were like. I chose not to write about the engineers or
the powerful politicians and financiers; rather, I wanted to take up the unsung
common people as my characters.
The research was a lot of fun and I
was constantly discovering new facts throughout the seven years I spent
writing Metropolis. Sometimes what I found made me introduce substantial
plot changes into the book, so I could add interesting new details I had
just come across. For instance, when I read about the women's medical college,
I knew I had to include it. That gave rise to two new characters who
are both important: the white doctor, Sarah Blacksall, and the black doctor,
Susan Smitha real figure by the way, who practiced medicine for many
decades in Brooklyn, and elsewhere, after she married and moved away.
The line between truth and fiction is blurred in Metropolismany of
the people and places are real, while others are fictional and still others
seem somewhere in between. How did you decide what to use from history
and how did you make it your own creation? Who were some of the real
people from history that became characters in your book that the reader
might not have known?
Aside from Susan Smith, there are many real characters in the book,
but not many famous ones, since I was seeking to document the other side
of society. A few well-known people, like P. T. Barnum, have walk-on roles,
but I was more captivated by stories like John Dolan's, and that of the brush
manufacturer Mr. Noe. The murder that occurs towards the end of the
book is based on reality, and some of the details, including the monkeyheaded
cane that was the murder weapon, are drawn from contemporary
newspaper accounts or from books like Herbert Asbury's Gangs of New
York. Piker Ryan, one of the Whyo gang members, was also a real person.
I saw a mug shot of him, and he was so dumb-looking and just so plain ugly
that I couldn't let him lie. In general, I tried to use real stories I felt I
adapt freely to my own, keeping a line of real material running through the
narrative, while not being too bound by facts. The balance I sought was
one that allowed for both a realistic portrayal of the times and a rollicking
Why did you decide to have two villains, Dandy Johnny and Luther
I am interested in seeing how various people with similar backgrounds
can evolve differently. I suppose it's a way of studying character. At
any rate, if you examine Johnny's early childhood and compare it with
Luther's, you will find that they were similar; both lost their fathers at an
early age and grew up in the rough world of the Five Points with morally
compromised immigrant mothers. But as villains, they are quite different.
Luther is pretty much a sociopath, while Johnny is a player, a criminal who
has charm and charisma to mask his dark side. I think having characters
who are variations on a theme is an interesting way of exploring the human
psyche. For that matter, Harris had a lot of the same setbacks as Johnny and
Undertoe, and is certainly led toward a life of crime, but he resists it,
some missteps, and remains a fundamentally moral, promising
human being. You could look at the central women characters and see similar
patterns among them, too. But each person reacts differently to the
and that's how you know what sort of person each is at her core.
There are many strong women characters in the novel, but your hero is
male. How did you decide to go with a male main character? Was it difficult
to write from a male point of view?
I set out to use a male protagonist as a sort of exercise, to get away
my own point of view and limitations. That's also why I chose to write a
novel. I wanted to learn something new and to expand my own horizons.
It turned out to be fascinating and illuminating. I wouldn't have had
half as much fun or have learned nearly as much if I'd written about a
aspiring writer who lived in New York City. The way I see it, if I
was having fun as a writer, then there was a chance I could give some of that
same energy to my reader, so it was about keeping it interesting. That said,
I could easily borrow a line from Flaubert and say about Harris: "He is me."
I relate to him on so many levels. That's true of all the characters in the
bad and good. I'd never do what Undertoe does, but I have had impulses to
be cruel and destructive. I've been tempted to take my frustrations and troubles
out on others. I tried to tap into the full range of emotions I could imagine
and play them out to their extremes where they suited the story.
Were the Whyos and the female counterpart gang the Why Nots based
on real gangs from the period? Is the Whyo language your creation?
The Whyos was a real gang, and there were real girl gangs affiliated
with some New York gangsincluding a group called the Forty Little
Thieves, who worked with a gang called the Forty Thieves. But I made up
the Why Nots. As for the Whyo language, it is based on the recordthe
Whyos did have some form of covert communication, but I couldn't find
anything at all about the specifics of it, so all the particulars are my
Your style seems to borrow from some of the traditions of the
novel, and yet in other ways Metropolis seems very modern. Which
writers have influenced you, particularly in the creation of Metropolis?
I wanted to tap into the form of nineteenth-century novels by doing
certain things, like having short chapters with cliff-hanger endings, leading
the reader from one chapter to the next. It seemed to suit the material.
Some of what I do in the book, such as my use of a somewhat intrusive omniscient
narrator, is both quite old-fashioned and quite postmodern. You
see that kind of voice governing the earliest novels, from Don Quixote to Tristram Shandy, and then again in much more recent and contemporary-seeming
I wanted the novel to straddle the past and the present, and
for some of its issues to speak to present-day issues. As I see it, the social
of the nineteenth century are still with us, just in different forms
and particulars. By having my narrator be aware of modern genetics and
that sort of thing, or about social statistics such as the rate of abortions
among various demographic groups, I wanted to suggest how little the
world has changed. There are still a lot of diseases that afflict the poor
much more often than they afflict the middle and upper classes, for example.
I was trying to make a book that had some of the pleasures of escapism
that a good novel can give, but I didn't want the book to exist only on that
level. And I didn't want it to be a mere costume drama. I always appreciate
it when there's some substance behind a story, and this was my way of trying
to provide that.
Metropolis has very strong female characters, and some of the themes
are very forward thinking for the time period (the women's medical college,
women running gangs). Who were the historical women that inspired
Susan Smith was real, as I said. She graduated from the first class of
the Medical College for Women. Her friend Sarah Blacksall is based
loosely on the director of that institution, Elizabeth Blackwell, who was a
generation older. I mention briefly a famous fence named Marm Mandelbaum,
who really existed, as well as a real-life abortionist and charlatan who
called herself Madame Restell (though she was not the least bit French).
The late nineteenth century was a time of visionary thinkers and social
change. Women were asserting themselves in any number of social contexts.
Margaret Sanger and a rival of hers named Mary Ware Dennett were
promoting women's health care and contraception. There were colonies
that practiced free love, the communal raising of children, and open marriage.
The suffrage movement was well under way. The thing that struck me
over and over as I did my research was how advanced the society was in its
thinking, and how we haven't come quite as far as we think we have, given
where society was then. Certainly not half far enough. Or maybe the point
is that progress itself is not inherently good.
There's a good deal of nineteenth-century medicine and science in
the book, including women's health issues, a number of references to epidemic
diseases such as typhoid, a fairly graphic account of a heart attack,
and several characters who are doctors. What role do medicine and science
have in your story?
I am fascinated with how the whole world works, from how a city is
built to how a body functions to how a person thinks and acts. I was interested
in placing the physiology of a society, or of a city, side by side with
the physiology of its component parts, great structures and individual flesh-and-blood human beings in their most bodily manifestations and in their
behavior. I see all sorts of interesting parallels between infrastructure,
and the psyche. We are all alive, after all, and our physical bodies are
such a great part of our lives. I am surprised more writers don't focus on this
part of the human experience. For me, it makes a death more understandable,
more manageable, to know about the medical causes behind it. It can
also reveal things we wouldn't otherwise know about the narrative of a person's
You include a lot of technical information about engineering, street
construction, and that sort of thing. Why was that important?
Again, the whole world is a stage for a novelist. I see my task as one of
exploration, and that means looking in the closets and under the counters
and down the manhole covers, not just eavesdropping on conversations
that take place in living rooms and parlors. I am especially interested in
that is commonly overlooked or avoided, especially for reasons of social
propriety. Very few writers go into the bathroom with their characters,
but often I find that important things transpire in the bathroom (or indeed
the sewers) and see no reason to look squeamishly away.
What are you working on now?
My new book is called The War Effort, and it is set in the period between
the end of World War IIV-J Day, in factand the Vietnam War.
The action all takes place in New York, once again, and to a great extent
the book is focused on the effects of war on the home front. The issue of a
good war versus a bad war comes up, as does the civil rights movement, and
some scientific and mathematical discoveries that were taking place in that
era. One of the main characters is an aspiring myrmecologistan ant specialist.
Her mother is a depressed housewife who enters into a sordid love
affair. Under the same roof, her invalid husband lies in bed, suffering from
late-stage polio while his contemporaries go off to war and win honor and
die with glory. Another character is a Marine who comes back from Vietnam
badly damaged. Overall, the book centers on the ongoing relationships
of two families, one white and one black. I'm excited to delve into a
whole new set of social and emotional situations, and to get a chance to
the more recent past.