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Room for magic: A conversation with Lyndsay Faye

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The Gods of Gotham, Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 2012

In 1845, New York City saw the establishment of its first ever police department. It’s hard to imagine how the city had managed to survive—and thrive—without one – and harder still to think how it would have continued to do so after the influx of Irish immigrants from the Great Famine. But despite the need that seems so apparent in retrospect, the department’s early days were decidedly rocky. Come to think of it, it’s a miracle it managed to survive at all.

Policeman one, day one: that’s the starting premise of Lyndsay Faye’s new novel, The Gods of Gotham. From there, Faye weaves a masterful tale of mystery, science, and history that would make Arthur Conan Doyle proud. I don’t make the comparison lightly: Faye, an avid Sherlockian, modeled her first novel, Dust and Shadow, on the master himself, tracing Sherlock Holmes’s hunt for none other than Jack the Ripper. And though Holmes is markedly absent from Gotham, his influence remains.

For, just as a Conan Doyle offers far more than your standard detective story, infusing the Holmes canon with a wit and psychological depth far beyond the confines of genre, so, too, does Faye create something that is difficult to classify into a single category. The Gods of Gotham is as much mystery and historical fiction as it is a reflection on politics and morality, language and identity, science and its role in society.

Here, Faye and I talk about the myriad facets of her prose—from the evolution of language to criminal jargon, internet slang, and some “dirty linguistic secrets”; from Shakespeare (“that quintessentially brilliant genre hack”) to Conan Doyle (“You can’t escape Sherlock Holmes as a mystery writer. You simply cannot. It would be like trying to deal with astrophysics without Newton or modern art without Picasso.”) to Neil Gaiman (“there’s a reason Gaiman has collected almost every literary award known to man”); from the role of chance and luck in the creative process (which often leaves Faye “gobsmacked and dazzled”) to the uncanny nature of historical synchronicity and why “genre” fiction can be such a misnomer. In the end, it all comes down to one thing: that no matter what, “we’ve still room for magic in the world.”

MK: The Gods of Gotham paints a historical picture of New York’s cultural heritage that, as one Irish journalist suggested, would be good reading for presidential candidates (or what were then presidential candidates, since dropped out of the race). Were you looking to make a political statement (and do you think you were making one)?

LF: I don’t know that I was looking to make a specific political statement.  Or rather, I didn’t intend to write a direct allegory in any way—I don’t find it artful when theme drives a book rather than character—but I’m a very political person, so it would be impossible for me to write a book that ignored that aspect entirely.  Fiction is a fantastic vehicle for an author to talk about important issues without presenting cut and dried answers, as we all know.  The Lord of the Rings is a book about Good vs. Evil on the grand Wagnerian scale, yes, but people still read it because it’s about beautifully drawn characters making very specific choices that draw them further and further into the fray.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the most political novels ever written, but it’s universally resonant because its characters are so deeply and wonderfully particular.

1851 map of New York's infamous Five Points. Image credit: Chris Robinson, Wikimedia Commons.

So yes, The Gods of Gotham is a political book, because my characters were simmering in a vat of nasty politics.  And nasty politics still exist today.  The most direct corollary I can mention is that I wrote the manuscript during the time when partisan news groups were slugging it out over the proposed Muslim community center down near Ground Zero, simply because it was elections season.  I couldn’t help but see absurdist parallels in the hyperbole of their language, and yes, I think I highlighted some similarities.

But I wasn’t making a political statement in the sense that I proposed any answer or solution to the issue of immigration.  I don’t know that there is one.  Or there won’t be until we quit forgetting after every subsequent wave of strangers is assimilated that we’ve done all this before dozens of times.  There are a few people who would love to erect a giant glass dome over this country with a single guarded door IN or OUT, and that isn’t how it’s going to work.  That isn’t even our ethos.  We’re wilder than that, not to mention more generous.

MK: I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of language: how language evolves, how patois and slang and group-specific expressions unfold and change throughout history. One of the striking things about The Gods of Gotham, in my mind, is its use of flash, or the slang of the city’s criminal element. Can you talk about your research into that world and how you made the language your own? Has the experience changed your approach toward (or appreciation of) language more broadly? Toward language as an element of identity? How does it translate to the modern world? Four questions in one, I know.

LF: Well, obviously I’m in your boat when it comes to that fascination.  To take the first question first, George W. Matsell, who was the first NYPD chief, wrote a dictionary in order to help his less streetwise recruits parse the local tongue.  Eavesdropping on criminal types wasn’t much good, to his mind, if you couldn’t comprehend their slang.  I pored over that dictionary, and it provided colorful definitions of astoundingly vibrant turns of phrase.  But the dirty linguistic secret here is that Matsell’s definitions don’t always provide context, and so I invented the syntax on many occasions.  This enabled me to make the tongue my own to some extent, but better still, it often allowed my placement of the word to provide direct clues as to the meaning of obscure verbiage.  My hope is that syntactical context will provide the reader with the term’s definition 90% of the time.

As to broadening my appreciation, yes, finding flash patter was like a collector finding a rare artifact.  I’ve always been preoccupied by dialects.  I think that’s partly due to my acting background, being trained as a mimic and so forth, but I can really trace it back to an early exposure to Shakespeare and the realization that the more I read his plays, the better able I was to deduce meaning without stopping to look up archaic phrases.

Language as an element of identity is of particular interest to me as a storyteller because many of the characters in my novels speak in regional dialects.  There is as much difference between Sherlock Holmes’s vocabulary and his Cockney associate Mary Ann Monk’s as there is between Reverend Underhill’s upper middle class tongue and Ninepin the flash-palavering newsboy’s.  We are to a great extent defined by how we speak.  Our individual language is a product of our environment, our family, our chosen associates, our culture, our personality, and it’s through our language that we interpret the world in which we live.  So I loved writing Timothy Wilde as a character who is conflicted by his own ability to speak flash.  It’s an asset, and yet he considers the dialect no better than the jargon of street thugs, which he speaks because his brother (whom he both adores and loathes) is a street thug, which is emotionally taxing, and thus language is tied back to identity and self-image once more.

As far as modern language is concerned, I now have a tendency to smile when people rail against trends like text-speak or acronyms or simplified spellings.  English is organic.  You can no better control it through single-handed willpower than you can control an ecosystem.

MK: Some of my favorites: mazzard for “face.” Stow your wid for “be silent.” And of course, there are some flash expressions that have held over—and evolved into mainstream speech—like sans and uppish. Any theories as to why some survive and others die? Why some become more broadly accepted and others remain class-specific?

LF: That’s a great question, and I think it comes down to efficiency and empty space.  If English finds a more efficient way of expressing something, or it finds a word that fits where no other has before, the slang will catch.  Take two acronyms as an example.  “LOL” doesn’t literally mean “laughing out loud,” but it is more efficient than saying “Your remark has amused me,” and thus is in wide use.  As to the second case, the people who shortened “oll correct” to “OK” in 1838 were doing so as a joke; and yet, because no other single word had ever quite expressed “I assent and agree” so well, it not only stuck but spread worldwide.

As to class, that depends somewhat on the meaning of the word you’re using.  If you need a term for a handkerchief thief, that’s going to remain lower class.  But this is an important topic, class and language, because some people who speak “lower” forms of English do so not due to criminality but to the imposed geography of their economic situation.

How (and why) does language evolve? Photo credit: Quinn Dombrowski, Creative Commons.

MK: The story unfolds from the point of view of Timothy Wilde. What are the choices you make when you write from a first-person point of view? How does the choice of narrator affect the telling? Since I know you’re an avid Sherlockian, I can’t help but invoke here the debate over the stories told from Watson’s versus Holmes’s point of view.

LF: I could tackle this query from any number of angles, but first I’d like to admit that the mystery element in The Gods of Gotham is a shell game not based on forensic evidence like matching DNA types or finding that essential CCTV footage or tapping the right phone line, but on character motivation.  You have to find a way to fool your reader, at least at the start.  You have to have doves to whip out of your hat, if you’re writing a thriller.  So the choices I am able to make writing from a first-person point of view are in some ways enormously freeing, because my narrator can be dead wrong.

The way this affects telling the tale is profound in the case of Tim Wilde because he’s a ridiculously unreliable narrator.  He’s observant, affable, precise, and well-meaning, so readers don’t notice that at first.  But in fact, Tim is so profoundly ignorant regarding the people he loves most that a second perusal of The Gods of Gotham will prove an entirely separate experience for the reader, who now knows more than his or her guide.

In a sense, I think that’s the main difference between Timothy Wilde and John Watson as first-person narrators; Watson is often kept in the dark by Holmes, but he’s generally trustworthy as far as storytelling is concerned.  There are aspects of every case and aspects of Holmes’s thought processes that Watson longs to know, but the doctor reports impressions of clients and villains and the aloof heroism of his friend quite aptly.  Discerningly.  Tim, conversely, hasn’t a clue who Mercy Underhill or Valentine Wilde really are.  Some readers have actively disliked Mercy as a character, and I believe that’s because she isn’t a real character for three quarters of the novel—she’s Tim idea of the woman he loves.  She isn’t flesh and blood at all.  How can one be fond of an illusion, a cipher?

MK: It’s often said that real life comes up with more fantastic material than fiction ever could. Your book is set in 1845: a year that strikes me as uncannily symbolic. It marks both the foundation of the New York City police force and the failure of Ireland’s potato crop, which precipitated the Great Famine—and the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Irish to the city. Is that coincidence one of the reasons you chose the setting you did, or was it more of a fortuitous chance?

LF: I chose the year 1845 because I wanted to write about the very first cop on the NYPD, cop one on his first day at work.  When my research into the period revealed that the Great Famine landed the same year, I was gobsmacked and dazzled.  But I also was handed a plot on a silver platter through, as you say, uncanny historical synchronicity.  Once I knew what had happened in that year, the novel couldn’t be about anything else.

MK: In my writing, I often explore the connection between fiction and psychology. In historical fiction, it’s almost like you need to bridge three disciplines. In your case, the novel is also a historical mystery—with a very literary flair. How did you come to the genre—or the blending of genres, as the case may be? How do you balance fact and fiction in the telling? How do you create the most believable landscape while still maintaining freedom and engagement? Are the choices conscious ones?

LF: Thank you.  I think it’s important for me to remember that the history is always at the service of character development in my body of work and not the other way around.  You could say that Dust and Shadow is “about” Sherlock Holmes solving the Ripper murders, but you could also say it’s about unwavering friendship and its power to bring one out of life’s darkest trials.  The Ripper was only a tool to crack Holmes open and reveal his human side.  You could say that The Gods of Gotham is “about” the first copper star pursuing an anti-Catholic serial killer, but I happen to think it’s about the incredible choices people are capable of making after they’ve lost everything that matters most to them.

Faye's first novel, Dust and Shadow (Simon & Schuster, 2009) was a Holmes pastiche.

If the individual facts don’t serve those story arcs, then I leave them out—it’s that simple.  My selective process has everything to do with what my narrators care about on an emotional level, and yes, that’s a conscious process.  Tim doesn’t care much about the history of Manhattan firefighting, for instance, nor for the topic of firefighting in general, so you’re not going to find him spending much time on the subject even though it’s fascinating to me personally.  I’ve a strong aversion to historical fiction that treats all pieces of data as equals.

I spend a lot of time thinking about genre fiction and the pervasive attitude that it isn’t expected to be literary, and find myself often baffled by that fact.  As you say, it’s possible to blend literary sensibilities with genre fiction.  You want an easy beach read with zero cultural or intellectual value, fine, that’s lovely, I often do myself.  But if you want a “literary” work, why does it have to be a navel-gazing drama of deep interior reflection?  Rather than, say, Ada or Ardor, which is that but also a sci-fi novel?  Personally, I would ten thousand times rather read a book written by Vladimir Nabokov than by a vapid genre hack.  But I would also ten thousand times rather read a book by Neil Gaiman than by Marcel Proust, all respects to Mr. Proust and his oeuvre, but what I’m talking about is what I want to read. There’s a reason Gaiman has collected almost every literary award known to man, and his work is undeniably genre fiction.  In the books I want to read, exciting, desperate, marvelous things happen.  And I strive to write the sort of books I want to read, always.  William Shakespeare (that quintessentially brilliant genre hack) is a greater influence on my tastes than is J.K. Rowling, but Rowling is a greater influence than Virginia Woolf.  I can’t apologize for that fact.

MK: Your first book, Dust and Shadow, was a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and in The Gods of Gotham, you use many Sherlockian elements in your descriptions – and flip some of them on their head. Was Holmes a conscious model for you as you wrote, or is his influence more sneaky and stealthy? Do you see him as an (or the) archetypal detective?

LF: He’s absolutely the archetypal detective.  You can’t escape Sherlock Holmes as a mystery writer.  You simply cannot.  It would be like trying to deal with astrophysics without Newton or modern art without Picasso.  Sherlock Holmes happened, and there is no getting away from him, and fortunately I adore the fellow, so that’s not a problem as far as I’m concerned.  As no less a writer than Michael Chabon has said, after admitting that his first childhood short story effort was a Sherlock Holmes pastiche that set him aboard the Nautilus with Captain Nemo, “all novels are sequels.”

Sherlock Holmes, the archetypal detective. Image credit: Sidney Paget (1860-1908), Wikimedia Commons

Where Holmes could become a problem, of course, is in the realm of authorial originality.  If you are writing about a naturally observant amateur, then you will inevitably suffer your protagonist to be compared to Holmes.  Unfortunately, since copper stars weren’t formally trained and forensics didn’t exist, no one excepting naturally observant amateurs would have proven effective policemen.

So yes, I consciously turned a number of Holmesian tropes upside-down.  Timothy is passionately in love, for instance.  He’s an incurable romantic (so is Holmes in some ways, but seldom overtly).  He’s an expert observer who is in no way smug or aloof—in fact, he considers himself less apt than others believe him to be.  He’s a tiny scrapper.  He’s darkly amusing but never once laughs.  He’s a mass of contradictions, just as we all are, and he’s a very different man from Holmes—less sure of himself, less sure of his world, less at ease in his own skin.  But the fact remains: if not for Sherlock Holmes, Tim wouldn’t exist.

MK: Not to dwell too long on Holmes here—though it’s hard not to—but your writing shows how Holmesian thinking can be applied to great effect in other areas. For instance, Timothy Wilde puts the best Holmesian observational techniques to good use in his pre-policeman job as a bartender. Is this part of a broader attitude toward the usefulness of Holmes’s approach in everyday life?

LF: To some extent, yes.  I think Holmes’s magic power lies in his ability to remain switched on at all times, during periods that for most of us would be spells of detached daydreaming.  Now, whether his capacity to take in all the information surrounding him and draw conclusions from that data was a blessing or a curse is rather ambiguous, to my mind, and part of the allure of the character.  Holmes isn’t the happiest sleuth on earth by any stretch of imagination.  There’s a single brilliant scene in the first Warner Brothers Sherlock Holmes film in which Robert Downey Junior is sitting in a restaurant being drowned in irrelevant trivia that he can’t shut off, and it looks excruciating.  So yes, Holmes’s sponge-like ability to soak up “trifles” can be admirably applied to situations in everyday life, and bartenders make deductions about their patrons almost constantly, often without realizing that’s what they’re doing.  But if you couldn’t stem the flow?  In the subway, say, or at the bus stop, or in line at the post office?  It would be maddening.

MK: Has your view of or relationship to New York changed at all as a result of your writing and research?

LF: The more I learn about this city, the more I love it.  It’s comforting, in a way, to learn about massive destruction to New York during other eras, destruction that we overcame and later forgot about.  I speak of the 1845 fire in The Gods of Gotham specifically, but there are many other examples.  It’s part of the mystique of this city—New York is relentless, unstoppable.  I’ve only grown closer to this place as a result.

MK: Your book touches on the tricky psychological relationship between religion and morality—one that is currently being explored in an experimental setting but that has been under investigation in a literary one for far longer. How have your views on the topic developed or changed, if at all, as a result of your writing?

LF: I don’t think my views have altered, but I do think that my innate opinions on the subject are obvious within my work.  Those opinions were best expressed by Charlotte Bronte in her introduction to the second edition of Jane Eyre, a direct response to criticism of that highly spiritual novel: “Conventionality is not morality.  Self-righteousness is not religion.”  Take the character of Valentine Wilde as the most obvious example—nothing about him is conventionally religious, but he’s arguably the character with the clearest, simplest, most honest moral code as regards his own belief system.  As Stephen Sondheim classically put it, nice is different than good.  Valentine Wilde is not nice, and neither is Sherlock Holmes, for that matter.  But both men possess an uncompromising attitude toward their individual ideas of justice, both know their own mind, and both would stop at nothing to protect what matters most to them.  They are self-sacrificing.  In my book, self-sacrifice is far more moral than is judgment or censure.

Historically, alchemy had close ties to medicine and science. Image credit: Alchemy, by James Gillray, Wikimedia Commons.

MK: Your writing touches on another fascinating connection in the history of science and medicine: its early close ties to alchemy. Do you think the relationship is a surprising one?

LF: I don’t, actually.  There are many aspects of modern technology that seem like science fiction to me because I don’t understand their inner workings.  I’m sure if I took a course on voice recognition software, people speaking texts into their car phones while driving wouldn’t appear so magical, but my ignorance renders what is explicable to be entirely mysterious.  And I think that’s been true of people throughout the ages.  Alchemy hadn’t yet been ruled out in 1845; it was still deliciously possible to blend mysticism and science and garner results.  They were in that sense tremendously optimistic about the future.  I recently read of a bionic eye granting limited sight to a blind person, and of a neural sensor that could reproduce the images inside people’s thoughts.  Those reports seem like alchemy to me; they seem like science to scientists.  I’m just delighted we’ve still room for magic in the world.

 

Maria Konnikova About the Author: Maria Konnikova is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the New York Times best-seller MASTERMIND (Viking, 2013) and received her PhD in Psychology from Columbia University. Follow on Twitter @mkonnikova.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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