Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Faye Calls in the Cops

On behalf of Kirkus Reviews, I had the good fortune not long ago to interview Lyndsay Faye, author of the propulsive new historical mystery, The Gods of Gotham (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam).

If you haven’t yet heard about it, this novel is set in New York City in 1845 and traces the escapades of Timothy Wilde, a young bartender who--following a devastating downtown fire that causes his disfigurement--signs on with the city’s embryonic police force, a company of “copper stars” (as those early patrolmen were known) who are still trying to figure out the best means to curb Manhattan’s escalating crime rate. After literally running into a 10-year-old girl covered with blood, Wilde sets out--with his elder brother’s help (and sometimes his hindrance)--to determine where she’s come from, what horrors she’s witnessed, and whether her story about a field of corpses secreted in a woodland north of 23rd Street can possibly be true.

In addition to discussing that book’s plot, I talked with Faye (the pen name used by New York resident Lyndsay Farber Lehner) about her first novel, a Sherlock Holmes tale called Dust and Shadow (2009), as well as anti-Irish violence of the 1840s, Wilde’s complicated personal relationships, and her use in Gotham of “flash talk,” or the arcane lexicon spoken by thieves and other street toughs.

You’ll find my Kirkus interview here.

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Not being somebody who finds it easy to stop asking questions of authors, I came away from my interview with Faye having many more words available than I could squeeze into the Kirkus piece. Therefore, I am posting the remainder of our conversation below.

J. Kingston Pierce: You were trained as a stage actress. How do you think that training has helped you as an author?

Lyndsay Faye: I’ve found that stage training helps immensely, particularly with the sort of books I want to write. Actors are taught to closely observe other people, they’re taught how to mimic them, and in addition I’ve done productions using everything from a Northern Irish accent to rapid-fire Nashville to tony Brit.

I don’t always get dialect right, but it infuriates me when I get it wrong, and I think that’s good for the overall product. Language and personalized vocabularies are enormously important to me, so I’m lucky to have been taught how to capture them.

JKP: It’s often noted that you are “a true New Yorker,” in the sense that you were born elsewhere. So where were you born? And did you move to Manhattan simply to advance your acting career?

LF: I was born in San Jose, California, grew up in southwest Washington state, and then moved back to the Bay Area. One day my husband and I (he’s a painter) looked at each other and realized that we had extremely tolerable routines, with wonderful friends and idyllic weather, and microbrews and fried artichokes on the coast every weekend, and that we could spend the rest of our lives that way, or we could challenge ourselves. We’re both quite affected by the pace of where we live, and we thought, How much more could we accomplish if we moved to New York? We wanted to dare ourselves to do better.

JKP: Have you pretty much put your acting career on hold now, in favor of composing more books?

LF: I’m often asked this question, and always say I’d prefer to be good at one thing than bad at two things. Acting careers require total dedication--writing, for me, is the same. If there were two of me, I’d still be singing Sondheim and touring Shakespeare. It breaks my heart a little that there aren’t. But I’m still in the union [Actor’s Equity]. I can’t bear to think of giving that up, since I worked so hard for it.

JKP: What sort of things did you learn by writing Dust and Shadow that you applied when putting this second novel together?

LF: I learned that I am capable of completing an entire novel, a lesson that sounds obvious but isn’t to be underestimated. Research--into the history, the language, the culture--is essential but also a real joy. If you’re wondering whether that sentence is necessary, cut it at once. Do the most terrible things to your protagonists you can think of, then do worse things.

JKP: I hadn’t realized, until after I finished reading The Gods of Gotham, that the downtown fire you describe actually happened. How did it affect New York at the time, and did it convince the city to change its fire-prevention or -suppression tactics?

LF: The fire of 1845 caused around $6 million in property damage, according to the Herald, and destroyed 300 buildings. A huge swath of downtown was decimated. But I’ve seen nothing to indicate that the blaze changed the system of volunteer firefighting. The fire was a series of unfortunate coincidences--a whale-oil storehouse being so near to a brandy and gunpowder supplier, for example. The firemen did their best, but they were working against an extraordinary combination of poor circumstances.

JKP: Manhattan was a vastly different place in 1845, still very undeveloped, still rampant with wild pigs and thick with forests if you went far enough north. Living there now, is it hard to imagine the city as it was during James K. Polk’s presidency? And I seem to remember reading somewhere that you are a big fan of the mammoth non-fiction book Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace. How helpful was that work, and others, in transporting you back through time?

LF: I didn’t find imagining Manhattan with woodlands intact and chickens roaming the streets difficult per se--it was exhilarating. Countless diaries and newspaper accounts from the period have survived, so locating original sources about what life was like in mid-century was shockingly easy. In addition, New York had just decided that it was the center of the American universe, and that lurid travelogues should be widely published about it. Gaslight-and-shadow-themed accounts of the “real” city, the poverty-blighted and vice-infested underbelly, were very popular; I studied those voraciously.

I read Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 from page one right up until it hit the 1850s; it was hugely helpful, and I’m in Wallace and Burrow’s debt. Five Points, by Tyler Anbinder, was also a fantastic source of information, as was City of Eros, by Timothy Gilfoyle.

JKP: Could you imagine yourself living in New York in 1845? How would your life have been different?

LF: If I lived in 1845, I’d suffer from an extreme paucity of career options. Actresses were not necessarily the cream of society, though they were often celebrated, and while a few women were successful published authors, they were much more restricted as to style and content. I’d like to think that I’d have been one of the adventuresses, but possibly that’s wishful thinking and I would be running a boardinghouse or married to a businessman who’d no further expectations of me. One of the aspects of my research that shocked me was how very close to the edge women lived, economically speaking--one disaster could easily ruin your life.

JKP: Do you read other novels set in old New York? Can you recommend some titles to readers interested in such works?

LF: I’ve been a Caleb Carr fan for quite some time, and Stephanie Pintoff and Jed Rubenfeld also write great crime novels about old New York. Doubtless there are countless others, but my reading taste is quite omnivorous.

JKP: The Gods of Gotham has much to do with the creation of the New York City Police Department. What circumstances finally led to that force’s founding, and what had the city done previously to keep down or solve its many crimes?

LF: The ruling political parties had been arguing about the formation of a police force for years, because the system in place simply did not work. A city of 400,000 people requires more than a night watch and a semi-professional group of constables. When crime reached the point that the watchmen (who were laborers expected to stay alert through the night for an extra pittance) were more of a joke than a law-keeping force, a Democratic majority in the Common Council finally managed to form an official police department. No single incident caused the NYPD to be founded, but the city was by that time in dire need of better law enforcement.

JKP: In your novel, you describe widespread distrust of the NYPD at its inception. Why, if the force was designed to quash crime, were even respectable city dwellers suspicious of its value? At what point in the past did the NYPD finally find favor with the general populace?

LF: Well, the NYPD’s detractors were entirely correct, after all--they feared that the police force would be inextricably tied to politics, and supposed that having no officers would be better than having corrupt ones. I don’t mean to suggest that good men didn’t populate the copper star force from day one, but appointments were always made based on cronyism and political affiliation. It’s important to recall that the police were in Tammany pockets for decades, which was one of the things its opponents had been so concerned about--and they were right. The other people loudly declaiming against a “standing army” when the star police formed were the criminals. If you were making a tidy profit by illicit means, it was a good idea to couch your anti-police arguments in the terminology of freedom and patriotism.

As to when the NYPD found favor with the general populace, that still depends on who you’re talking to. One hundred percent of my personal interactions with the NYPD have been positive--they’re brave, intelligent, resourceful people who deeply care about the community. But if you ask someone who lived in the Bronx in the 1970s, or even an Occupy Wall Street protestor, you might get a different answer.

JKP: If I’m not mistaken, only one real-life personage figures large in this new novel: George Washington Matsell. Who was he, and how did The Gods of Gotham benefit from your including him in its plot line?

LF: Justice Matsell was the first chief of police, and he was a remarkably modern figure--he studied gang violence, family planning, tenement life, very unsavory topics at the time. The dictionary he wrote in order to teach his copper stars criminal argot is a remarkable cultural record, and one that enormously influenced the writing of Gotham. I don’t care to solve the problem of anachronism in historical fiction by using safe, bland words--thanks to Matsell, I didn’t have to.

The only other historical figure in the novel is young Bill Poole, to whom Timothy takes considerable objection. He would grow up to be better known as Bill the Butcher.

JKP: Your books so far have been notable for their rich atmospherics. How do you get the balance right between larding on period details and moving the story forward at a captivating clip?

LF: It’s important as an author of historical fiction to include only--and I mean only in a ruthless, hardline sense--those period details that your narrator actually cares about. Too often you come across fictional scenes in which protagonists are hurtling across bridges in hot pursuit and then pausing to tell you the history of the architecture.

This is another aspect of storytelling in which actor training in incredibly helpful--if it isn’t in character for my narrator to notice something, I don’t note it. Atmospherics are all well and good, but they have to mean something. There is nothing more irritating than reading a factoid the author included simply so that you’d be aware he or she conducted extensive research. If you can confine the details to those your protagonists care about, issues of pacing won’t plague you nearly as much. Timothy is a close observer who takes considerable ironic pleasure from noting what’s screwed up about his city, like many New Yorkers, so with him I’m able to incorporate a wealth of detail because he’s quite civic-minded.

JKP: Finally, I understand that you’re a serious fan of microbrew beers. You and your husband, Gabriel Lehner, even write a blog--Beer Meets Food--about cuisine and drink combinations. How did this interest come about, and how big a part does it play in your life? Do you have any favorite beers that you think the rest of us should sample?

LF: Yes, by all means, let’s talk about beer! You can’t grow up in the Pacific Northwest and not develop a serious crush on that beverage--my husband’s family even brew their own. It’s the geekiest beer culture outside of Belgium.

Everything from Lagunitas Brewing Company is delicious, but one of my favorites is their New Dogtown Pale; it’s based on a recipe they did for a Frank Zappa-themed series of 22-ouncers that was called Kill Ugly Radio, and they ended up turning it into their standard 12-ounce pale ale. Fantastic. If you’ve never had Pliny the Elder, which is an imperial IPA from Russian River Brewing Company, I’m deeply sorry. And if you’re into stouts, you desperately need The Abyss, an imperial from Deschutes Brewery. It’s out of this world.


J F Norris said...

That was a FUN interview, I bet. It sure was fun to read. Thanks, Jeff.

Anonymous said...

Great interview. Reading The Gods of Gotham now. Appreciate the background information.