Thursday, October 17, 2013

Slave Catchers vs. Copper Stars - An Interview with Author Lyndsay Faye!

When you are an avid reader, as I am, it’s always exciting when you discover a new author whose writing you admire and that you can count on to consistently edify and entertain and inspire.

So it was that I was introduced to the books of Lyndsay Faye and she has quickly, happily, and justly joined the “team picture” of my favorite writers, including Louis Bayard, Matthew Pearl (see my interview with him here), David Liss, Stephen Gallagher, and others.

The first book of hers I read was Dust and Shadow, a Jack the Ripper-inspired Sherlock Holmes pastiche. In May 2012 I had the great pleasure of seeing and hearing her launch her second book, Gods of Gotham, at my favorite bookshop here in the Houston area: Murder by the Book.

Gods of Gotham takes place in 1846 and tells the story of what she calls “day one, cop one, of the NYPD.” It introduced the lead character of Timothy Wilde, one of NYCs first “Copper Stars,” who also makes the transition from “beat cop” to detective (though they wouldn’t actually be called that for years to come).

I really enjoyed Gods of Gotham and I had been looking forward to the next installment ever since. I again had the pleasure of seeing Lyndsay Faye a few weeks ago when she was in Houston to launch Seven for a Secret, the second installment in the Timothy Wilde chronicles.  I finished it a couple weeks ago and LOVED it.

The subject matter - the abduction of free African-Americans in the north to be sold into slavery in the south – should appeal to anyone interested in slavery, abolition, the Underground railroad, New York and national politics in the mid-1800s, and – of course – the Civil War, the prospect of which is also discussed in the novel. As you’ll see below, it makes great companion reading for the movie now in theaters – 12 Years a Slave. It's a superb historical mystery/thriller

I wrote Ms. Faye a note earlier this week to let her know much I enjoyed Seven for a Secret and she kindly agreed to answer some questions about the history behind the book, what she is reading herself these days, and advice she has for aspiring writers and novelists.

It is my great pleasure and privilege, then, to introduce Lyndsay Faye - a smart, funny, gracious, and an incredibly talented writer - offer a brief review of Seven for a Secret, and - especially - feature her thoughtful answers to my questions!

First - about Lyndsay Faye, adapted from her website:

Lyndsay Faye moved to Manhattan in 2005 to audition for work as a professional actress; she found her days more open when the powers that be elected to knock her day-job restaurant down with bulldozers. Her first novel Dust and Shadow: an Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H Watson is a tribute to the aloof genius and his good-hearted friend whose exploits she has loved since childhood.

Faye's love of her adopted city led her to research the origins of the New York City Police Department, the inception of which exactly coincided with the start of the Irish Potato Famine. Her second and third novels, The Gods of Gotham and its sequel, follow ex-bartender Timothy Wilde as he navigates the rapids of his violently turbulent city, his no less chaotic elder brother Valentine Wilde, and the perils of learning police work in a riotous and racially divided political landscape.

After growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Lyndsay migrated to Belmont, California and graduated from Notre Dame de Namur University with a dual degree in English and Performance. She worked as a professional actress throughout the Bay Area for several years, nearly always in a corset, and if not a corset then at the very least heels and lined stockings. As her roles ranged from Scrooge's lost fiancée in A Christmas Carol to Lavinia DuPlessy in Andrew Lippa's world premiere of A Little Princess, whalebone prevented her from drawing a natural breath for a number of years. She is a soprano with a high pop belt, if it interests you. Her performances were generally reviewed well, with adjectives ranging from "soaring" and "delightful" to "sausage-curled."

Lyndsay and her husband Gabriel Lehner live just north of Harlem with their cats, Grendel and Prufrock. During the few hours a day Lyndsay isn't writing or editing, she is most often cooking, or sampling new kinds of microbrew, or thinking of ways to creatively mismatch her clothing. She is a very proud member of AEA, MWA, ASH, and BSI (Actor's Equity Association, Mystery Writers of America, the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes, and the Baker Street Irregulars, respectively). She is hard at work on the sequel to Seven for a Secret.

Next - the publisher's description of Seven for a Secret:

Six months after the formation of the NYPD, its most reluctant and talented officer, Timothy Wilde, thinks himself well versed in his city’s dark practices—until he learns of the gruesome underworld of lies and corruption ruled by the “blackbirders,” who snatch free Northerners of color from their homes, masquerade them as slaves, and sell them South to toil as plantation property. The abolitionist Timothy is horrified by these traders in human flesh. But in 1846, slave catching isn’t just legal—it’s law enforcement. When the beautiful and terrified Lucy Adams staggers into Timothy’s office to report a robbery and is asked what was stolen, her reply is, “My family.” Their search for her mixed-race sister and son will plunge Timothy and his feral brother, Valentine, into a world where police are complicit and politics savage, and corpses appear in the most shocking of places. Timothy finds himself caught between power and principles, desperate to protect his only brother and to unravel the puzzle before all he cares for is lost.

My review of Seven for a Secret:

Between work, family, reading, reviewing, and my own writing, I'm usually reading several books at once and try and pace myself to finish 3 or so books a month...every now and then, though, a book comes along that makes me drop everything else...this is one of those books...this is what "un-put-down-able" means...the last time that happened was with Louis Bayard's "School of Night" a couple years ago.

I've been looking forward to Seven/Secret ever since finishing Gods/Gotham (Timothy Wilde #1) last year...I had the great pleasure of seeing and hearing the author, Lyndsay Faye, at my favorite bookshop - Murder by the Book - here in Houston a couple weeks ago to get my signed copy of #2. There is enough backstory in the book that t can be read on its own but I highly encourage you to read #1 first so that you can be *properly* introduced to Faye's universe of recurring characters.

The story centers around free and enslaved African-Americans, slave catchers enforcing the (1793) Fugitive Slave Act, dirty cops, powerful politicians, winsome widows, malevolent brothel madams, skinny chimney sweeps, and - at the heart of it all - an imperfect but intrepid "copper star" detective with a powerful sense of justice and an aversion to injustice and his equally flawed but fascinating brother, a captain of an NYC ward. Our hero, Timothy Wilde, is brave and has a keen mind, but is still learning his way...a scene in which hos elder brother Valentine shows him the ropes of tailing a suspect is witty and interesting.

It has the best first 5o pages that I have read in a long time...a charming mystery-within-a-mystery with a character that becomes an essential hero towards the end of the book.

The fear of free African Americans being taken away from their homes in the northeast and sold into slavery in the south is palpable in her telling and is infuriating in its injustice...the specter of a civil war to solve the problem of slavery is also discussed...the tragedies of unrequited love and willing sacrifice are very emotional.

I learn more about writing by reading the likes of Lyndsay Faye and other favorites (Bayard, Matthew Pearl, David Liss, etc.) than I ever could by reading books about writing.

The book has all I loved about #1 with a bit less of what I thought was overdone in #1 as well. A nearly perfect book and an easy 5 stars. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!

And now - the best part - a Q&A with the generous and talented Lyndsay Faye!

"We do what we can to keep free blacks alive and well and in the North, where they belong," Julius explained. "People of color run the risk of capture every time they step outside. We do what we can to reduce the danger." - Seven for a Secret (p. 54)

Jim Schmidt (JS): The New York Commitee of Vigilance - an organization to protect free blacks who were being threatened by slave catchers in the NYC area - plays a very important part in the book. Although you fictionalized some of the members for the purposes of the novel, in your Historical Afterword you mention David Ruggles. Can you tell us who he is and why we should know more about him?

Lyndsay Faye (LF): David Ruggles is one of the greatest unsung heroes of the black abolitionist movement. He was a brilliant child, raised Methodist by a free family of color, and was so bright they paid a tutor from Yale to help him excel at Latin. This is the man who, after moving to New York, opened the first African-American bookstore in the US, and it baffles me that no one on my tour had ever heard of him. He helped over 600 blacks reach freedom (including sheltering Frederick Douglass when he was attempting to elude his would-be captors) and founded the New York Committee of Vigilance to confront the problem of kidnapping head-on. Many people of color at the time advocated passive resistance to abuse as well as non-violence, to help "prove" that blacks were not savage by nature and elevate their status as respectable citizens no matter what atrocities they were subjected to. Ruggles stubbornly advocated civil disobedience and made himself such a nuisance that he was directly targeting for kidnapping in order to shut him up.

"In 1840, a shockingly moral Albany law granted alleged fugitives in New York State the right to a jury trial. And in 1842, Prigg vs. Pennsylvania nationally revoked the right of any colored fugitive to a jury trial. Thus, in 1846, up is down and straight is crooked and black is blacker than black has ever been.  Right and wrong are left suffocating, beached fish in a barren legislative no-man's land." - Timothy Wilde, Seven for a Secret (p. 55)

JS: A few times in the book the court casesometimes  is mentioned; indeed, mentioned so that little more need be said about its implications. Can you briefly describe the case and why it's central to your novel and to life in the 1840s?

LF: In both 1788 and 1826, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania passed abolitionist laws to prevent the forcible capture of any person of color within state lines, should the captor intend to enslave their prisoner. These laws essentially made Pennsylvania a potential sanctuary--whether born slave or free, once within the state, you weren't meant to be taken out of it again. When a woman named Margaret Morgan (who had been freed by her master, though never formally, and allowed to move to Pennsylvania from Maryland) was attacked, abducted, and returned to Maryland, her kidnapper Edward Prigg pleaded before the Supreme Court that he was not guilty because the Pennsylvania law was unconstitutional--the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 rendered it void. The Supreme Court agreed, but suggested that only federal agents could uphold the Fugitive Slave Law in practice, which only served to further muddy the legislative waters as regards autonomy for free blacks.

JS: To be honest, after reading Gods of Gotham, I was a little hesitant to "buy in" to Timothy Wilde's abolitionist tendencies...although I admire him greatly for it, in my gut, it seemed a little ahistorical owing to his occupation, heritage, and locale. Two things changed my mind: first, a beautiful answer you gave in another interview in which you explain that we have a modern conceit that we have a monopoly on virtue; second, that the outsider status of Timothy as an abolitionist relative to his fellow Copper stars and Party faithful is so clear in Seven for a Secret. Can you comment a little on both?

LF: I'd be happy to, what a brilliant question. First of all, the modern world, in America in particular, is a very peculiar place. Humans still act cruelly toward each other in myriad locales and in myriad ways--planes fly into skyscrapers, children are abducted and kept captive for decades, wage slavery is rampant, gun violence egregious. According to a New York Times survey, one in five women are sexually assaulted. And yet, our savagery is so sanitized. When we're made aware of such atrocities, if we bother over awareness at all, we shake our heads and think nothing like that could ever happen to us. Thus we have a tendency to look at the past and imagine it a terrible foreign land full of brutality when we are in fact still quite brutal. We distance ourselves from those accounts because we don't want to imagine ourselves capable of similar actions or imagine ourselves as their victims. There's half of the problem.

Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879)
The other half of the problem is that it's much easier for us to pat ourselves on the back when we suppose we have a monopoly on independent-minded morals. We don't. That is simply flatly, factually untrue. There have always been people on earth who stand up to tyranny, and there always will be. I've read countless diaries and accounts by rabid abolitionists, feminists, and free thinkers, and refuse to back down from saying that Tim Wilde has every right to be a crusader. When people (very occasionally) say he's ahistorical, I wonder just where folks think the white men and women who participated in the Underground Railroad came from. I would never compare their risks to the risks people of color were taking, that would be obscene, but some of these people had their houses burned down, were drummed out of town and out of business, assaulted, you name it, for daring to fight for liberty. Failure to be bigoted is not an anachronism--it's an aberration, and one that got people killed.

So, regarding Tim specifically--what makes him a rare creature isn't that he's an abolitionist. There were plenty of those. What makes him unique is that he isn't religious. Typically, your rabid abolitionist would have belonged to a corresponding church organization, and Tim doesn't. But he was practically raised by the Reverend Underhill from The Gods of Gotham, who was an extreme social radical, and as Tim often says, he didn't have the money to be snobbish, growing up on the streets in a mixed race setting as he did. There are people--take Virginia Wollstonecraft or Frederick Douglass, for instance--who despite their environments are born with tremendous clarity of thought. Tim Wilde doesn't fit within the confines of the Democratic engine in Seven for a Secret, and it forces him to tread a fine line.

JS: What are you reading these days?

LF: Um, let's see, Sutton by J. R. Moehringer, which is a fictionalization of the infamous Robin Hood-esque bank robber's last days and is completely outstanding. Also The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor, set in the days of occupied New York during the Revolution. I was on a panel with him at Theakston Old Peculier Crime Fest this summer and he was phenomenal on the subject of historical crime writing.

JS: I've heard you mention your practice of ~6 months of research to immerse yourself in the period followed by ~6 months of writing...can you explain where in that process you actually begin to develop your story and characters? Are you a "plotter" or a "pantser"?

LF: I'm both. For instance, if you've read The Gods of Gotham, this will be a familiar reference to you--I wrote the scene after the riot in which Valentine explains to Timothy what really happened to their family on the first day I sat down to begin the novel. I knew just where that was going, so I wrote it first. I also generally know whodunnit to a certain extent, what the magic trick is going to be, but that isn't always the case. I was 60K words into Dust and Shadow before I knew who Jack the Ripper was. I'm no brilliant one-draft Lee Child type, let's put it that way. Thankfully no one is looking over my shoulder at the chaos of my process.

JS: Any advice for anyone who aspires to write historical fiction (like myself!)?

LF: Oh, how lovely! Yes, read. Read, read read. Read all your favorites and watch when they're doing. Ask yourself why they're your favorites. What's different about those narratives? What grabs you by the eyeballs and refuses to let go? Additionally: care passionately about a period or a character or a social phenomenon before writing about it. If you pick something because you think this is the book that will sell, that won't work. Good historical fiction isn't a vivid parade of facts and details about history. Good historical fiction is a story about human emotions, our trials and tribulations, about first loves and heartbreaks and betrayals and self-sacrifice, all the beautiful ugly things that make us human, with proper historical trimmings. Do you need to get the research right? Yes, of course you do. But if you don't get the heart right, no one will give a damn.

JS: Thank you so much Lyndsay! Best Wishes for Continued Success and Inspiration!

LF: My pleasure, thanks for asking me!

In addition to Samuel Northrop's memoir, 12 Years a Slave - which is quoted in some of the epigraphs throughout Seven for a Secret - Lyndsay was kind enough to provide a list of other suggested reading from her background research on slave catching, the Underground Railroad, abolition, etc., in NY:

The topic is admittedly a grim one, so I'll try to give a range of choices. If you want a very readable compilation written by intrepid journalists with an eye for storytelling and a passion for their subject, then pick up Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery by Anne Farrow, Joel Lang, and Jenifer Frank. It features myriad information regarding Northern profits reaped from the slave trade, with an entire chapter devoted to the systematic kidnapping of free blacks. It's littered with contemporary newspaper illustrations and paintings done of its subjects, and gives an extremely thorough introduction to a broad issue. For original sources other than Mr. Northrup's incredible autobiography, I'd suggest both finding the reports of the New York Committee of Vigilance and exploring Theodore Dwight Weld's opus American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. I always spend the majority of my time with original documents rather than scholarly works exploring the past, since historical authenticity is so important to me. Finally, for an in-depth and erudite study of the kidnapping phenomenon and other trials just as deadly, pick up In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863, by Leslie M. Harris. It's just as detailed and orderly as it is comprehensive, and proved a major source for me, as I poached this intrepid woman's index like a fiend.

You can read more about slavery and abolition in my previou blog posts below:

PBS American Experience - "The Abolitionists" - here and here

Interview with author of  The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform - here

Slavery and Abolition in Galveston - here, here, and here


Anonymous said...

Well done! Thanks for sharing. Looks like a must read series!

Carol N Wong said...

Thank for the great post, I have added all of them to my wish list,will save this e-mail to read again and forward it to my friend!

Wonderful post.

Mark said...

Fascinating time period...and great timing with this post as the movie on 12 yerars a slave comes out:)