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Elizabeth Gaffney Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Elizabeth Gaffney
© Daphne Klein

Elizabeth Gaffney

An interview with Elizabeth Gaffney

Elizabeth Gaffney explains why she chose to set her first novel, Metropolis, in late 19th Century New York, and what it is that attracts her to this period.

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 different 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 setting—New 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 adolescence—that'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 time—the Brooklyn Bridge—to symbolize my character's aspirations and chose a hidden and generally unmentioned one—the sewer system (also largely built in this period)—to represent the dark underbelly of experience that my character would have to traverse and overcome to achieve his goals.

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 culture—we'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 narrative—both 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 story, a story of social revolution and a story of a mad Frankenstein-like scientist's botched automaton—there are so many things going on. Like Siddhartha, the hero is born into privilege and is at first entirely unaware of the poor laborer 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 book—Harris's being born to privilege and descending into an underworld before he can rise up again—on that of Lang's Metropolis.

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 Smith—a 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 Metropolis—many 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 could 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 good story.

Why did you decide to have two villains, Dandy Johnny and Luther Undertoe?

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, despite 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 circumstances, 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 from my own point of view and limitations. That's also why I chose to write a historical 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 thirty-something 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 book, 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 gangs—including 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 record—the 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 invention.

Your style seems to borrow from some of the traditions of the nineteenth-century 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 fiction.

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 injustices 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 these themes?

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, physiology 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 life.

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 terrain 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 II—V-J Day, in fact—and 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 myrmecologist—an 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 research the more recent past.

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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When the World Was Young jacket Metropolis jacket
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