Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s new book, The Watch, is a novel of war set against the backdrop of the American military intervention in Afghanistan. We are pleased to present this interview with Roy-Bhattacharya.
Q. What drew you to Afghanistan?
Joydeep Roy Bhattacharya (JDR): I’ll paraphrase something by the poet Iqbal by way of an answer: Afghanistan is the heart of Asia, and when Afghanistan suffers, Asia bleeds.
It’s a wildly beautiful country, with a wildly beautiful people, and one of the last places in the world that appears to have successfully held its own against misguided outside influences. What’s not to love?
Look, I live in the countryside because my soul needs it. And I wrote about Afghanistan because I needed to dwell, if only for a while, in one of the world’s last truly remote places.
Q: Western readers are going to be especially interested in your relationship with the US Army officers who helped you write the book.
JDR: They didn’t help me write the book. I wrote the entire draft without recourse to experts, and I believe that anyone who’s followed the wars of the last three decades will have gained a relative degree of expertise about these things. But the officers fine-tuned the manuscript and corrected my many bloopers, without a doubt.
Q: Is that what made you decide to buttress your novel with an ancient Greek tragedy?
JDR: Not just any Greek tragedy, but Antigone, who, for me, transcends time and place, quite literally.
Q: Why a Pashtun Antigone? Why Afghanistan?
JDR: I needed a protagonist who could serve as a moral yardstick of the degree of injury done to the Afghans by outside powers. A woman who simply has no interest in compromising with the folks who’ve slaughtered her family and devastated her country. She rejects their overtures in their entirety, and, in that, becomes a microcosm of the rejection by the Pashtuns, especially, of all the material temptations offered by Western civilization – in her specific case, both physiological and therapeutic rehabilitation; and, in the case of her people, all the material detritus that will be left behind by the Americans following their inevitable (and increasingly precipitate) withdrawal.
Q. Those are strong words. It would imply a taking of sides. And yet, in the novel, you are remarkably even-handed in your depiction of the viewpoints of both the Afghan and the American characters.
JDR: I’m a novelist and I don’t believe in taking sides as I write: that’s the task of the propagandist. My personal beliefs and private opinions do not matter within the covers of the book. I’ve no interest in either betraying my characters or holding the reader’s hand and telling her how to think, even as I realize the latter will not make me popular with a readership increasingly accustomed to being thereby directed. What can I say? I’m old-fashioned.
Q. What made you decide to write The Watch through the first person viewpoints of seven different characters?
JDR: First of all, I needed to get myself out of the picture altogether and I realized that a good way to do this would be to let each character speak in order to enable the reader to see through their eyes, as it were. It gave the characters their necessary autonomy and made my own work easier. That’s the terrific thing about writing fiction, it allows me the freedom to do this. It’s entirely subjective, it engages the heart of the reader as much as the head, and for my own intents and purposes it’s more effective than journalism’s ostensible objectivity.
Q. You don’t think journalism can be objective?
JDR: The moment anyone puts a pen to paper it becomes a subjective exercise. That’s why I like the phrase creative non-fiction: it’s accurate.
Q. Can you tell us about your research – how long did it take? How many soldiers did you speak to in the course of your research?
JDR: It would be difficult to give you an exact time span, given that I’ve been following these wars ever since they began years ago. I suppose I’ve always been fascinated by military culture. But I wrote the first draft in ten weeks, sending each completed chapter to my friend and agent, Nicole Aragi, who is also my first reader. As for my conversations with the army officers, that commenced after the book was complete, and it helped that I knew exactly what I wanted from them so as not to waste their time.
Q. Are any of the characters based on real people?
JDR: Nick Frobenius is a composite of a Marine Captain and an Army Captain, both of whom are fabulous writers – and intensely intellectual. The rest are invented out of whole cloth.
Q. Did anything in your research overturn your expectations or force you to reassess what you thought you knew? Did anything you discovered shock you?
JDR: I’d had an idea about the degradation of women in Pashtun culture, but the magnitude and degree shocked me. I must say that this, more than anything else, influenced my decision to have a strong Pashtun woman as the protagonist – both as a standing rebuke and as an aspirational ideal.
Q. Finally, what do you hope readers will take from the book?
JDR: Greater empathy and comprehension – for both those who fight these endless wars and for their victims – than when they began the book.
Thanks to Random House of Canada for their assistance with this interview.
New in paperback, Grace O’Connell’s debut novel, Magnified World, is from a gifted young novelist about what it means to be a daughter, a patient, a lover, and a human being who can carry on after a massive loss. We’re pleased to share a short blog post by O'Connell, as well as an interview we recently conducted with her.
Five years ago, if you had said "chrysoprase" to me, I probably would have responded with "bless you". I didn't know the difference between sunstone and sodalite, let alone which one I could use to calm a racing pulse (sodalite, for the record).
Then I met Maggie Pierce and her mother Carol, and began to spend time in their store, Pierce Gifts & Oddities. And by time, I mean hundreds and hundreds of hours – I knew every shelf and table, containing healing crystals like the ones mentioned above, plus organic cleaners and beauty products, tarot cards, handmade paper goods and more. The store was in my head and slowly, I siphoned it into my book, Magnified World. I hadn't known anything about healing crystals, or any New Age products, when I started writing, but Maggie did, and by researching and reading about the things she knew, she unfolded in front of me.
Snow quartz should be washed in melted ice. Brown zircon can be used for safe travel as well as staunching blood. Citrine will absorb the morning sun. In the book, it's part of the background – taken for granted, used to give context to Maggie's turbulent and sometimes bizarre experiences. But that research, and the reading I did on tarot cards and auric fields, turned out to be key to the writing. You never know what pivot a character will turn on, but often something small and seemingly incidental unlocks a full person; their music or their cooking, or even the way they can't leave the house without checking that they've turned off all the burners on the stove. For Maggie, it was the crystals, and I'll never look at stones the same way again.
-Grace O’Connell, May 2012
Indigo Fiction Blog (IFB): Hi Grace, thank you so much for speaking about Magnified World with me! I must admit, I read with a pencil in hand, underlining sentences and paragraphs every few pages because the lines were so raw and beautiful. Congratulations on such a magical first novel!
Ami McKay was quoted saying that Magnified World “is a powerful debut that fearlessly tackles the fears and joys of the heart.” I couldn’t agree more. How does it feel to be receiving such stunning praise from fellow Canadian writers?
Grace O’Connell (GO): It's surreal, really. Reading is so personal and intimate, and these are writers whose books I've cried into, read one-handed in the bath, read in bed in the wee hours. And now their names are on my book... it makes me feel quite shy, really, but also immensely proud.
IFB: In the novel, you create such an intricate and delicate relationship between Carol and Maggie. When asked by Dr. Malik to speak a bit about her mother, Maggie is disappointed when the first thing out of her mouth is “She knew a lot of things, how to help people.” She then thinks to herself, “I suddenly felt I didn’t know enough about her, not nearly enough.” How was the process of constructing such a complex mother/daughter relationship?
GO: Carol is very, very different from my own (amazing!) mother, but the one thing they have in common is their penchant for using outdated idioms. Those kind of anchors helped bring Carol to life for me. I'm really interested in the ways we know and don't know the people we love – the ways in which we can't know everything about another person but we can feel such a deep connection anyway.
IFB: I loved all the small details that made up Maggie’s family’s store, Pierce Gifts & Oddities. Where did the inspiration for this store come from?
GO: The store itself popped into my head almost fully formed; I love all those beautiful independent stores you can find in every city but which are always perfectly unique, the little details like the pressed tin ceilings. I was working at Type Books for part of the time I was writing, and I loved it there – there's definitely some of Type in the Pierce Gifts & Oddities. Figuring out the store's stock took quite a bit of research, since I had no prior knowledge of New Age practices, but it was fun research.
IFB: Magnified World takes place in Toronto, but more specifically, on Queen Street - it almost felt like it was a character in the novel. What about Queen Street made you want it to be so central to the book?
GO: Queen Street is its own little microcosm, which was perfect for Maggie. Her world is small, by choice – small for her means stability and safety. The city becomes a sort of surrogate parent and she tries to know her corner of Toronto the way she tries to know her mother. Knowledge and boundaries are what make Maggie feel safe, but that's part of the reason she has so much trouble coping with loss, which is by its nature unknowable and unbounded.
IFB: Thanks again for speaking with me, Grace! Lastly, I have to ask, is there anything else in the works for the future?
GO: I'm in the very (verrrry) early stages of a second novel right now. It's sort of a bizarre re-working of the Sleeping Beauty myth. I'm excited to see where it takes me.
Grace O'Connell holds an MFA in Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in various publications including The Walrus, Taddle Creek, Quill & Quire and EYE Weekly. She has taught creative writing at George Brown College and now works as a freelance writer and editor in Toronto. Her novel Magnified World is available May 29, 2012.
Thanks to Indigo Bookseller, Chelsey Catterall, for her review and her interview, to Random House for facilitating, and to Grace O'Connell for participating – we wish her luck with her debut novel.
“A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.” –The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams.
May 25th is Towel Day, a day of celebrating the life and work of British science fiction author Douglas Adams. He’s possibly best known here across the pond for writing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which some of us younger folks only know as the source material for that movie where Martin Freeman (BBC Watson) plays Arthur Dent.
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is technically an adult book. Well, technically, it was a radio play and then it was a book and then a television series and then another radio play and then a movie with Martin Freeman. THGTTG has adults in it, and they travel in space and time and have adventures and face mortal peril. If you like Doctor Who, especially the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, then you should read Adams’ trilogy in five parts. (There's also a sixth part by Eoin Colfer, who wrote the Artemis Fowls books.)
I read The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy at the very end of my teen years— and I was late getting to it. It’s the kind of book that the world needs more of, really, because it was smart and funny and it didn’t care that it was also remarkably silly. It’s about a dude who just wants a good cup of tea, whose best friend is actually an alien, and who falls in love with a girl who is too busy being in love with a two-headed intergalactic playboy. (The intergalactic playboy is a different alien from the best friend. The book has several different aliens and a depressed robot in it.)
Adams is a walkthrough for popular science fiction. Reading THGTTG is like learning a new language. You’re able to participate in a conversation that started a long time ago and is still happening in TV, books, and movies. That’s why it’s important to read older books, to understand what has come before the books that are being published now.
Also, Adams is really good. He blends being silly with being smart, and he does it in that delightfully British way that translates well to Canadians. Read it so you can learn the importance of having a towel with you and how a good cup of tea doesn’t solve most problems but it’ll make you feel like you can. Most of all, you learn the best piece of life advice anyone can give: DON’T PANIC.
A small, perfect gem. Short, not sweet but bittersweet – and best experienced in one sitting, ideally on a country porch. If that is not possible, turn off your phone, and find a dark, quiet room. Once you begin, you may well see it through straight through to the end. If you’re like me, when you’re done, it will stay with you for days, and you will know that you will return to it again and again.
Train Dreams has long been kind of a holy grail for Denis Johnson fans. Originally published in the Paris Review in 2002 and awarded the honour of being the best story they published that year, it was released in hardcover in 2011. Being a Johnson fan for a while, I was elated when it arrived in hardcover, and its writing completely fulfilled my years of anticipation. Now, it’s here in paperback (thankfully, with the original cover art intact), after numerous awards and commendations-most notably being shortlisted for the Pulitzer-which ended up going to nobody. But that’s another story.
This slim, meditative novella opens in 1917 with labourer Robert Grainier joining a group of fellow railroad workers in an attempt to toss a Chinese labourer over a trestle. Their effort is unsuccessful, and Grainier is certain that they all have been cursed – and some of what befalls him in the future indicates that this indeed may be so.
After a tragedy that I will not reveal here, Grainier retreats to the wilderness for a solitary life with nature as his only companion, and the America that Grainier inhabits is a changing one. The automobile is coming, symbolizing industrialization, and a new, modern, and urban way of life.
Readers who enjoy John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, or Annie Proulx will find much to enjoy here. Johnson has composed an existential western, if such a thing is possible. While some readers will want more, sometimes the novella is like a short story – harder to execute – but this time, less truly is more. It’s rare for me that a novel affects me enough that a passage, or a sentence, can make me stop, put the book down for a moment, and consider what I’ve just read. Johnson can do that for me. And before Train Dreams, I would have never have thought to call a work of fiction this short an epic.
The publisher has been kind enough to share a short excerpt from the opening chapter; one that introduces the reader to Robert and his family – and the lonesome train whistle that haunts this work.
Many nights they heard the northbound Spokane International train as it passed through Meadow Creek, two miles down the valley. Tonight the distant whistle woke him, and he found himself alone in the straw bed.
Gladys was up with Kate, sitting on the bench by the stove, scraping cold boiled oats off the sides of the pot and letting the baby suckle this porridge from the end of her finger.
"How much does she know, do you suppose, Gladys? As much as a dog-pup, do you suppose?"
"A dog-pup can live by its own after the bitch weans it away," Gladys said.
He waited for her to explain what this meant. She often thought ahead of him.
"A man-child couldn't do that way," she said, "just go off and live after it was weaned. A dog knows more than a babe until the babe knows its words. But not just a few words. A dog raised around the house knows some words, too--as many as a baby."
"How many words, Gladys?"
"You know," she said, "the words for its tricks and the things you tell it to do."
"Just say some of the words, Glad." It was dark and he wanted to keep hearing her voice.
"Well, fetch, and come, and sit, and lay, and roll over. Whatever it knows to do, it knows the words."
In the dark he felt his daughter's eyes turned on him like a cornered brute's. It was only his thoughts tricking him, but it poured something cold down his spine. He shuddered and pulled the quilt up to his neck.
All of his life Robert Grainier was able to recall this very moment on this very night.
Excerpted from Train Dreams by DENIS JOHNSON. Published in 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2002 by DENIS JOHNSON. All rights reserved.
Whether it’s a Jonathan Franzen novel or an AMC TV show we won’t know how good Freedom or Mad Men truly are for some years to come. Only with the test of time can we tell if a work of art is still remembered, enjoyed, talked about. In lieu of the recent Pulitzer debacle, it seems reasonable to ask how many literary prize winners are remembered ten years down the road, never mind fifty.
If just a few years seems old in the book world (try naming that Giller winner from 2007), consider what a feat it is for On the Road to turn fifty-five this year. And how sprightly and agile it looks for its age! Here’s a book being put up on the big screen at Cannes this week by Francis Ford Coppola’s production company, a book that still finds its way onto Staff Pick’s tables in bookstores across the country, a book that both Time Magazine and the Modern Library included in their best novels of the twentieth century lists a few years ago.
How does Jack Kerouac’s most famous novel do it? There are the academic reasons, of course. On the Road put a name and a stamp on the generation he called Beat. It can serve as an historical/gossipy document of poets and writers disguised in name only, and barely, with Allen Ginsberg (Howl) as Carlo Marx and William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch) as Old Bull Lee. Kerouac himself stands in as the tale’s narrator, Sal Paradise, while Neal Cassady, a kind of living legend we would likely have never known if Kerouac hadn’t immortalized him in the wild and dizzying character so much at the centre of On the Road, Dean Moriarty.
Then there is the mythic legend of the book’s creation: that Kerouac spun the whole thing out in a drug-fuelled writing binge that spanned but three weeks. It was to that myth – as more than one Kerouac biography has discovered – that Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) famously rejoined, “That’s not writing, it’s typing.” The reality is that while Kerouac did indeed produce one famously long scroll of a draft written in three weeks, he had been writing early drafts of the novel from three years prior.
On the Road’s ongoing popularity must also come down to its being a wild and wonderful account of true rebels, meaning characters who were rebels at a time when rebellion actually meant something. A time when J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was still a shock for its teen angst. A time when Rebel Without a Cause was a marvel to a culture still working hard to keep up the veneer of gentility so faithfully recreated in nostalgic shows like TV’s Mad Men. It explains, by the way, at least one reason for that show’s success. Style aside, when you faithfully recreate a society so bound up by Communist paranoia and racial prejudice and just general xenophobia of one kind or another, you give your characters a whole world to rise up against. I would doubt if Dean and Sal’s road trip adventures and less than sober sexual escapades would ring nearly as exciting or subversive today.
FREE FORM, FREE STYLE
The context here is as critical as the newness of the form Kerouac was creating.. To write this piece I re-read the book, one I had loved like so many in their twenties. What struck me this time round was the sheer musicality of the language, the free-flowing wonder of it, the jazzyness (pun intended) of it. Most captivating of all is how the autobiographical stream-of-consciousness and fluidity of the writing perfectly captures the spontaneity and energy of the adventures and spiritual journeys of the people Kerouac brought so vividly to life.
… then they danced down the streets … and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are made to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
In a meandering story that is, as the title suggests, mainly concerned with Sal and Dean’s adventures driving back and forth across the United States, the story here is not the thing. In his book Why Kerouac Matters John Leland reveals a letter Kerouac wrote to a student in 1961. “Dean and I were embarked on a journey through post-Whitman America to FIND that America and to FIND the inherent goodness in American man. It was really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him.”
Critics have written that the real heart of On the Road and its ongoing attraction, particularly to young people, is that it’s a book about longing for belief and people searching out the meaning of life. In a modern world that often feels empty with the busyness of screaming advertisements and the streamingness of endless tweets, the honesty and innocence of a book so much about the quest for meaning is a welcome respite.
BOOK BEFORE MOVIE
Before the movie comes out, if you’ve never read it before, or even if like me you have and would consider revisiting, here’s your last chance to (re-)discover for yourself what Dean Moriarty looks like. A chance to picture the places between Mexico and New York that he, Sal Paradise and all of the boys and gals they meet go, and where they dance and yell and philosophize and screw. To see it all for yourself, in your mind’s eye, before actors too pretty, too skinny, too breadlessly chinless (the girls) and two six-pack gymful (the boys) try to portray characters who never would have looked like that, not back in the 50s when the story takes place.
I’m not saying I won’t see the movie. In fairness, Coppola’s production of On the Road is being directed by Walter Salles, and he helmed what to my mind is the best road movie made in the last couple decades, The Motorcycle Diaries, based on the book of the same name. How true to the book the movie can remain is of course the big question.
As for the novel, On the Road stand up as a legendary book by a romantic for romantics, for all those “confused and hung-up” as Sal puts it of himself, “running from one falling star to another till I drop.” Before you do …
Oh, literary awards, always bringing the drama. I read a pretty funny tweet last night – "The 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama goes to the Pulitzer Committee." And that’s not the only bitter, sarcastic and confused tweet or article I've seen. I follow a lot of book people on Twitter; book lovers, people in publishing and in retail – and nobody is happy about this.
When word first started spreading around Indigo’s offices yesterday, the reaction wasn’t shock, but confusion – my first (sarcastic) response to a co-worker was, “Oh, of course – there were really no good works of fiction published in America last year.” To put it in perspective, though the Canadian award landscape has not been free of drama in the past, failing to award a winner is pretty much unthinkable – and disastrous for potential winners, publishers, and booksellers.
To give credit where it’s due (for failure, anyway) – this isn’t the fault of the jurors; apparently the board failed to pick a winner and failed to comment on why. By all accounts, the jury read 300 books and whittled it down to three.
David Foster Wallace's Kafka-esque, ambitious, epic/opus and posthumours IRS novel, The Pale King:
Young wunderkind Karen Russell’s odd and divisive (people either love or hate this book, there was no middle) Swamplandia! … which did sell a boatload, and like The Pale King, was on numerous "Best of the Year" lists.
Denis Johnson’s slim and brilliant meditative existential novella, Train Dreams. Long recognized as a quality writer, widely praised but not widely purchased, I can’t imagine what a win would have done for Johnson’s prestige, his backlist, and his bank account.
Any predictions for why this happened is strictly conjecture at this point, as the board is keeping mum. But perhaps it’s the Franzen-Freedom situation again – there was widespread consternation when Franzen’s latest novel wasn’t shortlisted for the National Book Award, and it was widely thought that he had friends on the jury who had to in good conscience not consider it.
My opinion? My vote would have gone to Johnson were I on the committee (I’ve been a Johnson fan for years, and this beautiful little work of genius that stayed with me for days), but perhaps you should vote for your own. Which of these three novels strike you as the deserving winner, or what is the best book that did not even make the shortlist?
Lots of people around here felt the biggest snub and deserving winner was Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. What do you think?
The latest dystopian novel that demands your attention releases on April 17, 2012. Alex Adams’ debut novel, White Horse, is the first in a trilogy that explores the end of the world.
White Horse's protagonist, Zoe Marshall, is seeking the father of her unborn child in a post-apocalyptic landscape that will be familiar to lovers of The Road, Oryx and Crake, Blood Red Road, and The Hunger Games – though make no mistake, despite the low price, White Horse is not a YA novel.
Zoe’s story unfolds through a series of expositions that alternate between flashbacks of her past and her current reality. This structure makes Adams story more special because it highlights tension, as well as works in terms of highlighting character growth.
We’re pleased to share an excerpt of this novel that will give prospective readers a teaser; one long enough to show the structure of the storytelling. What you’re about to read comes from Part One of the novel, and gives us a hint of Zoe’s new world.
When I wake, the world is still gone. Only fragments remain. Pieces of places and people who were once whole. On the other side of the window, the landscape is a violent green, the kind you used to see on a flat-screen television in a watering hole disguised as a restaurant. Too green. Dense gray clouds banished the sun weeks ago, forcing her to watch us die through a warped, wet lens.
There are stories told among pockets of survivors that rains have come to the Sahara, that green now sprinkles the endless brown, that the British Isles are drowning. Nature is rebuilding with her own set of plans. Man has no say.
It’s a month until my thirty-first birthday. I am eighteen months older than I was when the disease struck. Twelve months older than when war first pummeled the globe. Somewhere in between then and now, geology went crazy and drove the weather to schizophrenia. No surprise when you look at why we were fighting. Nineteen months have passed since I first saw the jar.
I’m in a farmhouse on what used to be a farm somewhere in what used to be Italy. This is not the country where gleeful tourists toss coins into the Trevi Fountain, nor do people flock to the Holy See anymore. Oh, at first they rushed in like sickle cells forced through a vein, thick, clotted masses aboard trains and planes, toting their life savings, willing to give it all to the church for a shot at salvation. Now their corpses litter the streets of Vatican City and spill into Rome. They no longer ease their hands into La Bocca della Verità and hold their breath while they whisper a pretty lie they’ve convinced themselves is real: that a cure-all is coming any day now; that a band of scientists hidden away in some mountaintop have a vaccine that can rebuild us; that God is moments away from sending in His troops on some holy lifesaving mission; that we will be saved.
Raised voices trickle through the walls, reminding me that while I’m alone in the world, I’m not alone here.
“It’s the salt.”
“It’s not the f***ing salt.”
There’s the dull thud of a fist striking wood.
“I’m telling you, it’s the salt.”
I do a mental tally of my belongings as the voices battle: backpack, boots, waterproof coat, a toy monkey, and inside a plastic sleeve: a useless passport and a letter I’m too chicken to read. This is all I have here in this ramshackle room. Its squalor is from before the end, I’ve decided. Poor housekeeping; not enough money for maintenance. “If it’s not the salt, what is it?”
“High-fructose corn syrup,” the other voice says, with the superior tone of one convinced he’s right. Maybe he is. Who knows anymore?
“Ha. That doesn’t explain Africa. They don’t eat sweets in Timbuktu. That’s why they’re all potbelly skinny.”
“Salt, corn syrup, what does it matter?” I ask the walls, but they’re short on answers.
There’s movement behind me. I turn to see Lisa No‑last-name filling the doorway, although there is less of her to fill it than there was a week ago when I arrived. She’s younger than me by ten years. English, from one of those towns that ends in -shire. The daughter of one of the men in the next room, the niece of the other.
“It doesn’t matter what caused the disease. Not now.” She looks at me through feverish eyes; it’s a trick: Lisa has been blind since birth. “Does it?”
My time is running out; I have a ferry to catch if I’m to make it to Greece.
I crouch, hoist my backpack onto my shoulders. They’re thinner now, too. In the dusty mirror on the wall, the bones slice through my thin T‑shirt.
“Not really,” I tell her. When the first tear rolls down her cheek, I give her what I have left, which amounts to a hug and a gentle stroke of her brittle hair.
I never knew my steel bones until the jar.
The godforsaken jar.
My apartment is a modern-day fortress. Locks, chains, and inside a code I have three chances to get right, otherwise the cavalry charges in, demanding to know if I am who I say I am. All of this is set into a flimsy wooden frame.
Eleven hours cleaning floors and toilets and emptying trash in hermetic space. Eleven hours exchanging one-sided small talk with mice. Now my eyes burn from the day, and I long to pluck them from their sockets and rinse them clean.
When the door swings open, I know. At first I think it’s the red answering machine light winking at me from the kitchen. But no, it’s more. The air is alien like something wandered freely in this space during my absence, touching what’s mine without leaving a mark.
Golden light floods the living room almost as soon as my fingers touch the switch. My eyes blink until they summon ample lubricative tears to provide a buffer. My pupils contract just like they’re supposed to, and finally I can walk into the light without tripping.
They say it’s not paranoia if someone is really out to get you. There is no prickle on the back of my neck telling me to watch out behind me, but I’m right about the air: it has been parted in my absence and something placed inside.
Not the kind that holds sour dill pickles that crunch between your teeth and fill your head with echoes. This looks like a museum piece, pottery, older than this city—so says the grime ground into its pores. And that ancient thing fills my apartment with the feel of things long buried.
I could examine the jar, lift it from the floor and move it away from here. But some things, once touched, can never be untouched. I am a product of every B movie I’ve ever seen, every superstition I’ve ever heard, every tale old wives have told.
I should examine the jar, but my fingers refuse to move, protecting me from the what-if. They reach for the phone instead.
The super picks up on the eighth ring. When I ask if he let someone into my place, his mind goes on walkabout. An eternity passes. During that time I imagine him clawing at his balls, out of habit more than anything else, while he performs a mental tally of the beer still left in the fridge.
“No,” he says, eventually. “Something get stolen?”
“What’s the problem, then?”
I hang up. Count to ten. When I turn the jar is still there, centered perfectly in my living room between the couch and television.
The security company is next on my list. No, they tell me. We’ve got no record of anyone entering apartment thirteen-oh-four.
“What about five minutes ago?”
Silence. Then: “We’ve got that. Do you need us to send someone out?”
The police give me more of the same. Nobody breaks in and leaves things. It must be a gift from a secret admirer. Or maybe I’m crazy; they’re not above suggesting that, but they use polite, hollow words designed to make me feel okay about hanging up the phone.
Then I remember the answering machine’s blinking light. When I press Playback, my mother’s voice booms from the speaker.
“Zoe? Zoe? Are you there?” There’s a pause; then: “No, honey, it’s the machine.” Another pause. “What—I am leaving a message. What do you mean, ‘Talk louder’?” There’s playful slapping in the background as she shoos my father away. “Your sister called. She said there’s someone she wants you to meet.” Her voice drops to a whisper that’s anything but discreet. “I think it’s a man. Anyway, I just thought you could call her. Come over for dinner Saturday and you can tell me all about him. Just us girls.” Another pause. “Oh, and you of course. You’re almost a girl,” she tells Dad. I can picture him laughing good-naturedly in the background. “Sweetie, call me. I’d try your cell phone, but you know me: ever hopeful that you’re on a date.”
Normally, I feel a small flash of anger in my chest when she calls to match make. But today . . .
I wish my mom were here. Because that jar isn’t mine.
Someone has been in my space.
Special thanks to Simon and Schuster Canada for sharing this excerpt.
Fans of The Alienist or The Given Day, take note. Today, the Indigo Fiction Blog shares a review by Fiction Buyer, Dave Harrison, on the latest Indigo Recommends title: Lyndsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham.
In 1845, Ireland’s Great Potato Famine forced a mass exodus of men, women, and children who all left their ancestral homeland behind in search of a better life. Hundreds of thousands made their way to New York City.
In the same city, also in 1845, the “nightwatch” system of policing was discarded and replaced with the newly-created New York City Police Department.
Lyndsay Faye, the author of 2009’s Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr John H Watson, uses these two pivotal events as a backdrop for her masterful new historical crime thriller, The Gods Of Gotham.
Her story stars reluctant hero, Timothy Wilde, an ex-bartender who is forced to seek other employment after being injured in the great fire of 1845 which sweeps through the city, causing 7 million dollars in damages and destroying both his life savings and his dreams of marrying Mercy Underhill, the local reverend’s daughter. His fireman brother, Valentine, a player in the Democratic Party, sets Timothy up with a job as an officer on the freshly-minted police force. Timothy wants no part of it (nor his brother, who he has fought with on and off since the two of them were orphaned in childhood), but thanks to the fire, there are thousands of New Yorkers that are suddenly out of work. Having no other prospects, he grudgingly agrees.
His attitude towards his new profession is lowered by two factors: the first, that many New Yorkers deride the idea of a “standing army” policing their streets, and the second is that his beat will be the Sixth Ward, including Five Points, which is considered the most notorious slum in the city. Timothy settles into his new routine, but that routine is quickly torn from him when he stumbles across a ten-year-old girl fleeing down the street wearing nothing but a nightshift, and covered head to toe in blood.
This is where the story begins to speed up. Until this point you are hardly aware that you are reading a crime novel – Faye’s restoration of the period blazes in your mind with the smells of the streets, the accents of the immigrants, and the rampant prejudice of the “Natives” against the Irish. It becomes clear that New York City’s first serial killer may be on the loose, and whoever they are, they are targeting Irish children. Soon Timothy is following a trail that leads from brothels to churches to mass graves – and the future of the police department’s survival may depend on the success or failure of his finding the murderer and putting an end to the grisly crimes.
The Gods of Gotham is for anyone who enjoys well-researched historical fiction. Faye has clearly done her homework, and weaves many actual people and events into the fabric of her tale. The setting of the book strongly brings to mind Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York (or the book on which it was based), and any fans of the movie will feel right at home in Faye’s New York. But enthusiasts of great crime thrillers will also find this book inescapable once they immerse themselves in Timothy’s feverish quest for a killer who preys only on the innocent.
Still curious? Interested readers can find much more on The Gods of Gotham on the Indigo Blog.
For a sample, a teaser from Chapter One can be found in an earlier installment of the Indigo Blog, here.
A guest blog from Lyndsay herself can be found here.
An interview between Michael Connelly and Lyndsay can be found here.
All right, now we know! J. K. Rowling’s first post-Potter book, her first ‘for adults,’ now has a title, a description, and a release date. We’re happy to share them with you – and no, it is not Harry as an adult, and there appears to be no wizards in sight.
The Casual Vacancy is releasing September 27th, and here’s what we’ve heard in the way of description:
When Barry Fairweather dies unexpectedly in his early forties, the little town of Pagford is left in shock.
Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war.
Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…Pagford is not what it first seems.
And the empty seat left by Barry on the town’s council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?
Blackly comic, thought-provoking and constantly surprising, The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults.
What do you think? No cover art exists yet, but we'll be sharing that as soon as we see it. No doubt this will be a huge phenomenon … will you be lining up on September 27th to get your copy?
© Wall to Wall Media Ltd. Photographer: Andrew Montgomery.
Available now, from the author of Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr John H Watson, Lyndsay Faye, comes the latest Indigo Recommends title, The Gods of Gotham.
Faye has written a masterpiece of historical fiction that outlines the rise of New York City as a great metropolis and the origins of its police department - woven seamlessly into a fascinating mystery.
We’re pleased to share this interview, in which a writer who specializes in the modern mystery poses some questions for an emerging new specialist in the historical mystery. A big fan of this novel is Michael Connelly, who has some good questions for Lyndsay about her book, and what’s next for her characters.
Michael Connelly (MC): 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 (LF): 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: 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 The Gods of 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.
Our thanks to our friends at Penguin Canada for sharing this blog.
This is a novel we’re proud to stand behind, and we wish Faye much success.