New York, 1895. A night soiler finds a baby in a privy. A circus burns to the ground. A sword-swallower disappears. A wife who is not all she pretends to be is put in a lunatic asylum. A twin searches for her sister. Dramatic scenes and events conspire to bring the spiralling plots closer and closer…
This was a marvellous cacophony of dramatic, interweaving and deeply personal stories of people on the edges of or hiding behind society; tied together by human longing for love, family and for home. It explores so many identities, settings, twists and ideas that I’m struggling to find any meaningful way to depict it quickly. I did very much enjoy it! I’ll be reviewing it soon, but after reading I got the chance to ask author Leslie Parry some questions!
Here they are:
1. The plot and characters have so many different aspects, journeys, twists and turns. Is there one particular thing that was the germinating idea for the story and what was it?
The book is the result of various imaginative threads that twined together as I was writing. But if I had to pinpoint one moment, one image that really precipitated everything, it was when I learned the term night soiler. It was a summer afternoon ten years ago, when I was gadding about Manhattan, exploring old neighborhoods, in search of spicy pickles and gelato. On a lark, I took a short tour of the Tenement Museum – I think it was the first time I’d ever been – and the phrase was mentioned by a guide in passing.
For the whole afternoon (and the whole week following) I wondered about the kind of man who would work this job – and what kind of strange, secretive, intimate things he would uncover. Then I thought: what if he found something really shocking, something dangerous or criminal? Something that would implicate him in a larger tale? What if he found a baby? And that image – so mysterious and shocking to me when I first pictured it that long-ago afternoon – became the image that opened the novel.
2.You took me into a brand new world that I’d never explored before this – the circus, Coney Island etc. What made you decide to use this setting?
I think it was a combination of things – the memory of my own childhood spent by the sea (although on the California coast), growing up around a lot of working actors and show-people, and the disorientation of moving away from all that familiarity and entering the topsy-turvy world of Manhattan. Coney Island itself has a rich and fascinating history – much like Hollywood, my old hometown, which plays a very particular role in popular culture, and yet is quite a different place than its reputation suggests. I suppose I was less interested in an outsider’s perspective – all the spectacle and gobsmackery and seedy glamor – and more interested in exploring the normalcy of that life, the humble and workaday routine of illusion.
3. One of the things I noticed particularly was how you often used the objects around people or that they own to create stories, pictures and context for them. Was this a conscious decision, and why?
It wasn’t a conscious decision – in fact, I hadn’t really thought about it until you mentioned it. Perhaps for these characters – who often feel invisible or superfluous, who struggle to define themselves in a world that doesn’t see always see them as significant or worthy, and who might not have many possessions of their own (or at least not any that confer a sense of pride or personhood) – these objects take on a kind of talismanic or superstitious power. They are reminders – physical, tactile reminders – that the characters have agency in the world, even if they’ve been told otherwise. However unmoored the characters might feel – however confused or powerless – these objects have the ability to tether them and give them a sense of meaning.
4. Did you have a particular idea when writing about how you would like people to react emotionally and mentally when reading your novel?
I tried not to think of this book – or any book – as a permanent, definable object, something intrinsically worthy or flawed. The reading experience is so subjective; every reader will bring something different to it. For a writer with a book to peddle, that can be a little nerve-wracking, but it’s also what makes literature so surprising, so wondrous and indelible.
In the end, I could only be guided by my own sensibilities: what kind of story would I be drawn to? What would I find exciting, suspenseful, puzzling, moving? I harkened back to my girlhood love of detective novels, ghost stories, melodramas and swashbucklers. As an adult, I also wanted to follow characters who were conflicted, who were experienced – and because of that, disillusioned – but who still hadn’t lost all of their innocence or curiosity. It was impossible to know how other readers would react – so I tried not to dwell on it too much. Ultimately I could only write a book that I myself wanted to read.
5. What is your top tip for aspiring writers?
Try to maintain a balance of dogged persistence and healthy vulnerability – the tenacity required to realize your ambition, and the humility it takes to get better. Most of all, stay curious. Stay curious. Stay curious.
Thanks so much Leslie for answering my questions, and Two Roads Books for the opportunity and the book! I loved reading these answers – and they’ll give you an idea of what to expect from the book. I’m excited to see what happens with this one!