I spent six years as chief speechwriter for New York Governors Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo. The nature of the job was that everything I wrote was in someone else’s name. The anonymity weighed on me.
Late on winter nights in frozen Albany, I stalked the Capitol’s corridors as arctic winds echoed the haunted voices of predecessors who labored in service of celebrated chief executives like Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Nelson Rockefeller. Ghost writers are called ghosts for a reason. I knew my fate was the fate of all but a famous few. Ahead was entombment with the nighttime cleaning crew.
I sought refuge in the state library. I searched randomly through microfilms and card catalogues for something I couldn’t name. For some reason, maybe because they looked so imposing and would fill nights spent in solitary confinement in a hotel room, I took out a copy of Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution: A History.
Part James Joyce, part Thomas Babington Macaulay, it was a joy ride, the past presented with the verve of a novel, history that blazed with the present tense of fiction. It transformed my cinder-block cell into the streets of revolutionary Paris.
The sweep of Carlyle’s narrative–his depiction of the Revolution, his calling to life crowds of vengeful sans-culottes–started me thinking of the people on the periphery who suffered history rather than made it, the faceless, nameless mob, the universality and individuality of women and men gathered under the pronouns “they” and “them.”
Having studied for a Ph.D. history and possessed of only fragments of the story of my own family, I was aware that 99.9% of human beings leave barely a trace. Their inner lives, the dense and restless passion of what it means to be human–were utterly lost.
Historians have to stick to the Sgt. Joe Friday dictum, “Just the facts, ma’am.” But historical novelists have an open field of play. They can conjure moments of intense privacy, whispered intimacies, the unconfessed and the inconfessable.
It was Carlyle, an historian, who woke me to the vast riches of history’s untold stories, unrecorded lives, unremembered voices. I knew for the first time that I wanted to enter and explore the worlds where honest historians cannot go. I wanted to write novels. I didn’t know how, only that I had to.
I conceived of a novel set during the week-long New York City Draft Riots of 1863. Part race riot, part insurrection, it remains the country’s deadliest and most destructive urban upheaval. I wasn’t interested in social history or scholarly analysis. I wanted to know the people on the streets whose lives were changed by that week–maids and stockbrokers, the well-off, the brokenhearted and down-and-out. I wanted to live the Riots with them.
I read books on how to write a novel and took a course on fiction writing. I never got very far. I felt I was learning how somebody else wrote a novel. I decided if I was going to write my own, I had to teach myself. I studied novels I admired with an eye to understanding what made them work.
Instead of single tricks or universal methods, I discovered an endless variety of acrobatics, divinations, prestidigitations. The writer William Kennedy told me in an interview I did with him, “I don’t aspire to imitations.” Neither did I. Every writer does it his or her way, or they shouldn’t bother.
For me, the most difficult thing about being a novelist was to where to start. The second was time. My days as corporate editorial director at Time Warner were filled with deadlines. I did what I had to do to make the time. I got up at 5:30 a.m. and worked for two hours before turning to my pay-the-bills work.
I had neither an agent, nor a book contract, nor an outline. I began with a half-realized cast of characters, people thrown together in the seething cauldron of Civil War New York. I gathered them together under the title Banished Children of Eve, a line I borrowed from the Salve Regina, a prayer I learned as a child. I depended on them to carry the story forward.
The novel began as a daydream, the way all my novels have. I listened to a conversation between two men in a saloon on the lower East Side. It was a wet morning in April 1863. “A fine morning on the River Styx,” one said to the other.
I was in charge. Nobody would learn their story unless I told it. I had no way of knowing the text would take a decade to finish or that it would be republished three times–most recently by Fordham University Press–and stay in print for the next 25 years.
All the work is in the writing, and all the wonder too.
(c) Peter Quinn
About Banished Children of Eve: A Novel of Civil War New York
The Civil War has just entered its third bloody year, and the North is about to impose its first military draft, a decision that will spark the most devastating and destructive urban riot in American history. Banished Children of Eve traces that event as its tentacles grip New York City. The cast is drawn from every stratum: a likeable and laconic Irish-American hustler, an ambitious and larcenous Yankee stockbroker, an immigrant serving girl, a beautiful and mysterious mulatto actress and her white minstrel lover as well as a cluster of real-life characters, including scheming, ever-pompous General George McClellan; fiery, fierce Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes; and fast-declining musical genius Stephen Foster. The fates of these characters coalesce in the cataclysm of the Draft Riots, as a pivotal period in the history of New York and the nation is painfully, vividly, magically bought to life.
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