Room for magic: A conversation with Lyndsay Faye

Scientific American - June 28, 2012|

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.
Full interview at Scientific American