Lyndsay Faye. Photo by Gabriel Lehner.
Lyndsay Faye is the author of three inventive, intriguing, and carefully researched novels that interweave fiction, the historical record, and popular culture. Her debut novel Dust and Shadow: an Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H Watson is a tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s archetypal detective hero, Sherlock Holmes, and follows his attempt to solve the real-life killings of Jack the Ripper. In The Gods of Gotham and its sequel Seven for a Secret, Faye tracks the development of the New York City Police Department in the 1840s through the eyes of bartender-turned-lawman Timothy Wilde.
This interview with KWLS board member Nancy Klingener took place over email during the past few months. In it, Faye and Klingener discuss the parallels between acting and writing, the joys and sufferings of historical research, and the appeal of characters both fictional and real. Along the way they rank love over crime, adventure over mystery, and we learn a few secrets of Faye’s forthcoming novel, the third and—spoiler alert—final installment of the Timothy Wilde series. (Editor)
Nancy Klingener: I guess I’ll start out by asking how you came to writing, generally, and writing crime fiction specifically. You started out as an actress, right? There are obvious similarities in the work—you’re dealing with words and portraying characters, many of them fictional. Do you find them to be similar jobs? How do they differ?
Lyndsay Faye: Interesting question. Well, as is the case universally, I came to reading before anything else. It’s impossible to come to writing without owning a deep admiration for some story or other, and I was bullying my little brother into staged plays I’d written when we were quite young—dressing him in khakis and gluing cotton balls to his chest and declaring him Mr. Tumnus from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, that sort of thing. My parents were big into reading to us, big into storytelling. I’m very lucky I grew up in that environment. I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t around tales of high adventure.
Being trained as an actress was extremely useful to me as a novelist, and on a macroscopic level they’re exceedingly similar while on the microscopic level they’re as different as creatively possible. In the broad scope, skills I learned—mimicry, attention to detail, a feel for dialogue, sense of dramatic tension, importance of mood, the value of making specific and detailed choices, how crucial it is to create the strongest emotional dilemmas possible for your characters, I could go on all day really, all that’s quite similar. Conversely, on a small scale, theater is a collaborative process. It’s all about interaction. When I’m sitting at my laptop, it’s just me and the nutters in my head. Not to de-emphasize the roles of my agent or editor at all, but the manuscript, that’s all on me, baby. It’s extremely solitary, especially by comparison.
NK: How did you move from acting to writing? Had you been writing all along or did you make a decision to focus on writing instead of performance?
LF: None of this was planned. My career is perennially a surprise when I wake up in the morning. I hadn’t been writing at all—auditioning in New York City is simply very, very difficult. I wasn’t smart enough to create my own work, to do showcases or write cabaret acts for myself. I just kept marching into hallways where there were dozens of me. After a while, I felt as if I lacked autonomy over my career entirely. Of course, I’m still proud of how far I made it, still pay my Actor’s Equity dues every six months. But I didn’t have the drive—I can still be happy without being on stage, telling tales in another way, and some folks can’t.
There wasn’t any conscious decision to focus on writing either, certainly never ever ever as a career. My first novel is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and it was an unabashedly dark rip-roaring fanfiction pitting him against Jack the Ripper with scads of the true-crime elements incorporated. I thought maybe a Sherlockian small press might pick it up, or lacking that avenue I could publish it as an e-book for my own gratification. No one was more shocked than myself when I found a talented agent and was published by Simon and Schuster. And I mean no one.
NK: I want to get back to Sherlock and Dust & Shadow but first I’d like to ask about your own creation, Timothy Wilde, the protagonist in your most recent two books The Gods of Gotham and Seven For A Secret—and I hope many more in the future. Where did Timothy come from, and did you start with him, or the setting, or perhaps with George Washington Matsell, who really was New York’s first police commissioner and who appears as a character in those two novels?
LF: Thank you! Timothy came from an abstract concept, which was day one, cop one of the New York Police Department. It’s such an infamous law enforcement body, known the world over, and I simply wanted to see what this group of ragtag men looked like who were meant to defend the populace, but before they had any notion of what they were doing. I wanted the first day of school, not Civil War-Era or Roosevelt reform. Michael Chabon says we write fiction to fill in the gaps in the map a la Heart of Darkness, and I think that’s entirely true—I’d read fantastic books about the NYPD during other time periods, but never about their mythical beginnings. Beginnings are powerful stuff. So research into the world of 1845 New York all began with my wanting to know the NYPD’s origins. If the force had been founded in 1826 or in 1852, The Gods of Gotham would have had a different plot line, and it would have taken place in 1826 or 1852.
The rest of Tim came out of a combination of research and personal experience, as I think any historical character does. I write fairly unabashed hero stories, so I needed Timothy to be his own moral compass—that meant he wasn’t a Tammany insider, and thus needed an older sibling to get him on the copper-star force, who were entirely complicit with the Democratic Party’s agenda. That also meant he resembled some of the contemporary radical abolitionists I researched. Every investigator is indebted to Sherlock Holmes, so to draw a strong line between them, Tim wears his heart on his sleeve and finds his own police work much less competent than it actually is. He’s sympathetic and self-deprecating. I needed him to be observant, and I worked in restaurants for years, so he’s a former bartender. I borrowed his face from a musical theatre friend. He hates city fountains that don’t work because I hate fountains that don’t work. He’s passionately verbose because he’s a 19th-century diarist and I’ll never be able to get away with this sort of language again, so I’m wallowing in it.
You mention Matsell, whom I adore, and who really was a fascinating human. During his time, he was thought everything from a Tammany bully to a liberal reformer. He was both, of course, but he did the unthinkable—he actually created a competent standing police force. It was unprecedented. Every other effort had failed miserably.
NK: When you researched that time period, was that when you learned about the stresses that Irish immigration was placing on America in general and New York City in particular? How did that issue come to drive the plot of The Gods of Gotham? Also, how did you conduct the research—was it going to the library and looking at microfilms of old newspapers? Reading books? Digging up other kinds of primary sources? Did you read novels and plays of that period? Or listen to music? And how did you resist going down the research rabbit hole? It can be so seductive, to just follow one more thread, check on one more connection or look for one more account of a person, event, place, or time.
LF: Yes, when I discovered that the Great Irish Famine landed the same year the NYPD was founded, my mind was blown. Here was a cataclysm begging to be novelized, and one I’d not seen approached from the police department’s perspective before. The Gods of Gotham quickly became a book that encompassed Catholic persecution, civil unrest and economic disparity, fighting for religious freedom in the land of the free. Unfortunately, the topic is still quite relevant—most of the truly hostile arguments against Mexican and Muslim Americans are couched in perfectly interchangeable phrases to those lobbed at the Papists. Modern day scrapping and partisan politics lend my books some immediacy, I hope, because we have a lot to learn from past mistakes.
My research period lasts for six months and is altogether omnivorous, though I vastly prefer primary sources once I have a grasp of the general situation. Old police documents, diaries, plays, travel guides, menus, housekeeping tomes, obviously Matsell’s slang dictionary Vocabulum, Or the Rogue’s Lexicon. I read the Herald newspaper on microfilm pretty much back to front for whatever year I’m covering, which gives me current events, editorials, economics, anecdotes, politics, satire, and advertisements all at once. I probably wouldn’t be writing about New York if I didn’t live here, but the richness of resources I have at my disposal between the Bryant Park Research Library, the New York Historical Society, the smaller museums—I’m like Scrooge McDuck in a swimming pool full of gold.
That being said, falling down the research rabbit hole isn’t an issue for me at all. I have plenty of other issues, but after six months in a microfilm department, I’m desperately tired of it and my fingers are itchy to tell stories. Besides that, I have a hard-and-fast historical fiction rule: if your protagonist doesn’t care, leave the fact out. I don’t care how nifty the fact is. That comes of being an actor, actually. It’s about character specificity. Tim Wilde does not go on and on about architecture, popular music, advances in the sciences (unless they’re directly relevant), how much silverware is set for a proper tea, who his favorite actors are, what the Astors are up to. A fact needs to make it into your narrator’s consciousness before it makes it onto your page. He’s interested in the street life of New Yorkers and how they treat each other and manage to survive. So that’s what he sees.
NK: When I read “The Gods of Gotham,” I was so struck by the epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter—quotations from various publications of Protestants deploring the Irish Catholic immigration in shockingly blunt language. I suspected they were authentic but they sounded almost too emblematic to be real. How did you decide to start using those and did you collect them along the way or go back and hunt them down when you were writing the novel?
LF: Yes, those are all absolutely word-for-word real. I actually recorded them as I discovered them because I couldn’t believe the contents myself. I don’t want to convey the impression that I write social justice novels, I don’t even really write crime novels exactly, I write novels about love and heroism and revenge and self-sacrifice, but certainly politics and prejudice play major roles, and those quotes under each chapter title seemed essential to me.
See, I can easily do the research and write a semi-fictional character who says, for example, “All the persecutions which the true church has suffered from Pagans, Jews, and all the world beside are nothing compared with what it has endured from that unrelenting murderer of men, the Pope.” And people will read that and say, all right, that’s certainly a narrow view, but the author is surely exaggerating for dramatic effect. But if I quote that passage from a speech made by the Orange Country Reformation Society in 1843, and they actually did say that—which they did—the reader automatically understands that these opinions, while grotesquely extreme, did exist. And what’s nuts is I have buckets of these quotes in reserve. Narrowing down the pithiest is much harder than finding them.
NK: What do you mean you don’t write crime novels? Or social justice novels, since issues of social justice figure so largely in the plots of the Timothy Wilde stories? Do you see yourself as fitting within a tradition/genre, or blending such, or doing your own thing entirely?
LF: What I mean is that there are some crime novels—brilliant ones, ones I devour like Thai spiced potato chips—in which the crime is the star of the show. These books, I can’t help but surmise, are written by people who are far cleverer than I am. Take for example Agatha Christie’s tour-de-force The. A. B. C. Murders. Now, when I picked that book up as a teen, it mesmerized me. I could never have written it myself. A serial killer by all appearances is offing people whose first and last names each begin with the same letter as the name of the town they live in, as I recall. Simple enough premise, but my god. The points of view shift enough to keep T. S. Eliot happy, the writing is sublime, the characterization pinpoint-exact. When I reached the solution after practically snapping the book’s spine, I was blown away by the ingenuity of the clues and of the plotting. (more…)