Amazon Exclusive: Michael Connelly Interviews Lyndsay Faye
Michael Connelly: I think the first question is about the challenge you gave yourself with this book. 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!
Lyndsay Faye: 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.
MC: 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?
LF: 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.
MC: 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?
LF: 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.
MC: 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?
LF: 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.
MC: 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?
LF: 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.
MC: Here’s one I bet you never saw coming. (Not really.) What is next for you? Will you stay with a historical project?
LF: 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.
“Lyndsay Faye is a superstar-caliber writer. She confidently and exquisitely re-creates the past while her characters live on with you in the present, the elusive gold standard for a historical novel. The Gods of Gotham is a gift to the genre that readers will surely relish while we wait for Faye’s next one.” —Matthew Pearl, bestselling author of The Dante Club
“Intriguingly complex yet deliciously smooth, The Gods of Gotham is, in a word, stunning. The vivid characters and deft use of the historical setting read like the work of an established writer at the top of her (or indeed, his) career—that Faye is a newcomer is cause for an exuberance of fireworks, at the mere thought of so many superb novels yet to come.” —Laurie R. King, New York Times–bestselling author of The God of the Hive and The Beekeeper’s Apprentice
“The Gods of Gotham is a revelation. Lyndsay Faye puts the drive and passion of a modern thriller onto the mean streets of 1840s New York. She brings a fascinating page of history to life with a gripping, twisty plot, vivid characters, and seamless research. This is historical fiction at its best.” —Daniel Stashower, two-time Edgar-winning author of Teller of Tales and The Beautiful Cigar Girl
“Lyndsay Faye’s exquisite new novel, The Gods of Gotham, plunges us into the teeming, sordid streets of old New York. But this is no Whartonian idyll—Faye’s Manhattan is a raucous underworld of criminals and chiselers, the infamous Five Points, where thieves speak their own argot, the sanitation department consists of free-running pigs, and Tammany-backed ‘dead rabbits’ rule with an iron fist. In this vivid and impeccably crafted adventure, newly minted ‘copper star’ Timothy Wilde is the only man who can solve a series of gruesome murders plaguing Gotham. Faye’s prose crackles with historical authenticity so cunningly rendered that readers will lose themselves from the very first turn of the page.” —Katherine Howe, bestselling author of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
“Penetrating psychological study, flawless social history, beautifully crafted thriller . . . The Gods of Gotham is all these things, and a crackling great yarn to boot. Old New York has never been so blazingly alive. Lyndsay Faye is a writer to watch—and keep watching.” —Louis Bayard, author of The School of Night
“The Gods of Gotham is an enthralling novel that immediately pulls readers into its twisting tale of murder, conspiracy, and socio-religious turmoil. With an engaging narrator, smart rendering of time and place, and gripping suspense, this superb story is virtually impossible to put down.” —Stefanie Pintoff, Edgar–winning author of In the Shadow of Gotham
“With crisp prose, memorable characters, and an impressive respect for its historic setting, The Gods of Gotham pulls you into old New York’s days of the Five Points. Lyndsay Faye is a writer to watch.” —Alafair Burke, author of Long Gone
“Reading The Gods of Gotham is like being magically transported to another time. You’ll be overwhelmed with the sights, sounds, smells, and chaos of New York in the 1840s, while never losing sight of the fact that this is a first-rate crime novel for any era. I can’t wait to see what Lyndsay Faye will conjure next.” —Otto Penzler, The Mysterious Bookshop
“Lyndsay Faye makes it look easy to write a great historical mystery: First, research the hell out of a remote time period, painstakingly paint a picture of that alien world (in this case, mid-nineteenth-century New York), and then craft a story so compelling that the reader forgets that it’s alien! Her masterful Dust and Shadow reinvigorated Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper, but this wholly different tale confirms a talent far beyond her (damn her) thirty-year-old age.” —Leslie S. Klinger, author of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes
“The Gods of Gotham blew me away. Unflinching and bold, creative and dazzling, cinematic: nineteenth-century New York is alive.” —Laura Caldwell, author of Long Way Home and Claim of Innocence
“The Gods of Gotham is a detective tale set in an era before the invention of the detective. Fully captured are the vibrant scenes and vivid characters of 1840s New York: cavernous oyster saloons, gutter rats feasting on oxtail, righteous abolitionists haranguing skeptics, opulent Greene Street brothels, and much more. Lyndsay Faye captures antebellum New York in all its warped beauty and pornographic decadence.” —Timothy J. Gilfoyle, professor and chair of history, Loyola University Chicago
“It’s been almost twenty years since Caleb Carr’s bestselling Olde New York crime novel, The Alienist, was published, and I can’t count the number of times since then that someone has asked me if I can recommend a suspense story anything ‘like it.’ Well, New York has inspired lots of terrific thrillers, but I’ve just stumbled on one of the worthiest successors yet. Lyndsay Faye’s novel, The Gods of Gotham.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s Fresh Air
“Put Lyndsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham on your to-buy list. . . . A treat for readers.” —USA Today
“[A] rollicking historical novel . . . sensational account . . ." —Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review
“Vivid period details, fully formed characters, and a blockbuster of twisty plot put Faye in a class with Caleb Carr.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“[A] top-notch historical thriller . . . Faye’s richly imagined, superbly plotted narrative . . . delivers not one, not two, but three bravura twists.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Faye’s new novel . . . dramatically light[s] up this turbulent era. [Her] use of flash, an underground language akin to thieves’ cant (British criminal jargon), further enriches this engrossing historical thriller.” —Library Journal (starred review)
One of Kirkus Review’s Top 10 Best Crime Novels of 2012