I think the first question is about the challenge you gave yourself with Gods of Gotham. Re-creating New York City circa 1845. The question I ask is, Why then? But what I am really asking is why you took the difficult path. Why not New York in 1945, or even now? I read this book and from the writer's standpoint, kept asking myself, Why did she take this path? Wow!
Ha! Yes, absolutely - in a certain sense, the project was very difficult. My hubris in trying to write a novel set in 1845 New York was about the fact that I specifically wanted to do day one, cop one of the NYPD. Origin stories are very compelling. And when you think about how renowned the world over the NYPD is today, for reasons both positive and negative but all of them highly dramatic, you find yourself wondering what such an organization looked like at inception. It's almost mythical, the fame they've achieved and the advances they've made, and I was deeply curious to know how they started out. I wanted to take a historical event and turn it into a legend, in the sense of making something iconic and resonant, and when I discovered that the NYPD was founded in 1845, my time period chose itself.
In another sense, I should add that I was once on a library panel where a very clever author said we don't write historicals to choose the difficult path, but rather the lazy one. It's almost impossible to commit a decent crime these days, what with CCTV and the Internet and credit-card tracking and forensics and ballistics and security cameras and such everywhere. I have a simple bachelor's in English lit, not an advanced degree in criminal science, and to be honest, I find the complexity of modern-day crime solving much more intimidating when it comes to plot. I know that TV shows like CSI, etc., make it all look more magical than it is in fact, but I'm interested in how people solved crimes before forensics was even a line of study. How did the first cops go about it? What tools did they employ? I greatly enjoy reading modern mysteries, but I'm constantly staggered by the omnivorous technical know-how they require.
What's most impressive about this work is how the world of New York is so full and real. Can you walk us through the research that goes into a project like this? How long were you putting this part together before you actually sat down to write the book, or do both things happen at the same time?
Thank you very much indeed - I want all of my historical fiction to be an immersive experience, so to create that effect, I bury myself in the world in question for at least six months before embarking on a first draft. This time around, that meant poring over diaries, setting up my own tent shanty in the New-York Historical Society, camping out with a cookstove in the Bryant Park extension of the New York Public Library's microfilm department, etc. Syntax and fashion and food and architecture and all the other aspects of the culture fascinate me, so I try to soak it all in like a big fluffy pancake. It's irritating for me to be constantly looking up facts or grasping at vernacular as I'm writing, so I've learned to spend half a year at research first. It saves me time in the long run.
My research includes history books, always, but original sources are ultimately much more important to me. I read all of the Herald newspaper from January 1st through December 31st for 1845, for instance. Countless people wrote travelogues and social essays and satires in nineteenth-century New York, and those were invaluable. I wanted to know what the people of the time period thought about their city, their politics, their lifestyle. What did they think and say about race? Religion? Where to get the best oyster pie? How that uppity tart cousin of theirs looked at the fireman's ball last night? That journey of discovery is always a fabulous one.
I think it's easy in a historical novel to make the time and place the star - to sort of wow 'em with your research. That usually leaves the story short on character. You escaped that pitfall with a host of characters, leading with Timothy Wilde. It seems that equal preparation went into Wilde as did into your historical research. Can you say where Wilde comes from?
See, this is something I love talking about, because historical fiction that shows off the research involved rather dismays me. The author presents you with a narrator who is, for example, a tavern girl. She's plucky and wonderful and when running for her life from sinister guardsmen, she stops to tell you that the building she's racing past was erected in 1814, by whom, with what variety of stone. I'm exaggerating, but I make it a principle not to include any information that my characters wouldn't find relevant. Or I try my best to avoid it.
So it's very fair to say that as much effort goes into my characters as into the world around them. Tim is culled from multiple sources. To name a few, when I realized that the early NYPD was inextricably tied up in politics, I determined that I wanted him to be an outsider with his own set of principles, yet I still wanted him to be highly competent. I was in the restaurant business for ten years; my husband and many of my closest friends are bartenders, and you ought to be aware that they know more about you than you suppose. Barkeeps are keen observers, and I realized that a former career in an oyster cellar would be grand training for the NYPD. Tim's physical appearance is more or less based on a dear actor friend of mine I used to work with when I did musical theater. Many bits of Timothy are, of course, me. Fountains that don't work make me irrationally annoyed; they annoy Tim, too. Finally, my favorite aspects of Tim are those sort of alchemical moments when a character you're imagining takes on a life of his or her own.
It was pure genius to anchor this story in two significant events - the potato famine and the founding of the New York Police Department. There is probably substantial documentation of these two things. How do you take them and blend them into fiction? Were you a slave to drama or a slave to the facts/truths of that time?
The historical confluence of the Great Famine and the inaugural year of the NYPD was a gift of twenty-four-karat writerly gold. If I'd found a genie on a beach and asked it for ideal dramatic material, I couldn't have done better. That was 100 percent luck, actually - I was researching the first cops, and then I found that the potato blight had just been discovered the previous year in Europe, and that thousands upon thousands of Irish were fleeing their homeland. "Native" New Yorkers were up in arms about emigrants ruining their democracy in the name of the Antichrist of Rome, all that unfortunate hyperbolic political grandstanding that happens when too many people want the same resources. It was total chaos, and it changed the face New York City society.
Blending the stories of the copper stars and of the emigrants was a challenge, but a riveting one for me. As you say, both the potato famine and the first police force are well documented. I was a slave to the facts in the sense that I wanted to do as much justice as possible to my ancestors, who were seeking new lives in what turned out to be a hostile environment. The influx of Irish refugees continued for quite some time, so I'd copious material to cull from. It became very real for me. The chapter titles all feature a quote from the time period, for instance, to help us bear in mind that poverty and religious bigotry and corruption were rampant and real. The thin line between success and despair they walked is as shocking and relevant today as it was then, so by virtue of being a slave to the facts, I managed to be a slave to the drama simultaneously.
Your last novel, Dust and Shadow, also blended fiction and fact - Jack the Ripper - and historical research. Aside from these two very large, real events that we start with in TGOG, was there a smaller, true incident that inspired this story?
Yes, indeed. The story of Eliza Rafferty and her infanticide was entirely true - it took place in 1849 in a house at number 6 Doyer Street. When I read about her distress and incomprehension after killing her own child, I set myself the gruesome task of finding out what sort of life could inspire such an act. The neighbors were rightly shocked by the baby's death, the police appalled. Today I think we'd term her state a psychotic form of severe postpartum depression, but apart from lacking modern medicine to save her and her child, she probably lacked everything else as well - ample space, adequate food, any sort of safety net whatsoever. As Tim's introduction to the atrocities a policeman must face in order to do his job, it's horrifying but also immediately brings home how high the stakes are going to be.
Here's one I bet you never saw coming. (Not really.) What is next for you? Will you stay with a historical project?
Yes, I'm thick in the sequel to Gotham! It takes place six months later, in the winter of 1846. Timothy and Valentine have quite a bit of baggage to work through, after all, so I think it would be rather cruel not to give them a shot. The usual suspects will be back in force, and writing it has been a fantastic experience. I've never written a sequel before. Wish me luck! And thank you ever so much for the truly thought-provoking questions.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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