City of Women: Elizabeth Gaffney
It’s easy to see why 38-year-old writer Elizabeth Gaffney calls herself “a Brooklyn devotee.” She still lives in the Brooklyn Heights brownstone in which she was born and loves to rifle urban archives for overlooked nuggets of borough lore.
Many of these nuggets have found their way into Gaffney’s first novel. Due out in March from Random House, Metropolis is set in post–Civil War New York City. The book vividly renders Manhattan and Brooklyn, as protagonist Johannes, a German immigrant, attempts to make his way on foreign soil.
As the story unfolds, well-drawn characters seamlessly introduce themes ranging from the lure of gangs to the dangers facing those constructing the Brooklyn Bridge and the city sewer system. Incidents from history—a fire at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum and an explosion aboard a Manhattan-to-Staten-Island ferry, among them—mingle with events conjured by Gaffney’s imagination. Race and gender relations also figure prominently, and there is an understated feminist slant to the romance threaded throughout the text. Engaging and suspenseful, this fact-driven story assesses the price of development and spotlights the unchanging emotional complexity of human life.
Gaffney recently discussed the book, the city, and the political climate with Eleanor Bader.
Eleanor Bader (Rail): Where did the idea for Metropolis come from?
Elizabeth Gaffney: I have always been interested in the underbelly of cities. I wanted to create something with individual characters but in a bigger way; I wanted the city to be a character, maybe the main one. The actual idea for Metropolis came from a short story about city infrastructure I was trying to write. I started getting interested in this after a friend got sick. I would take the bus from my job at The Paris Review to Bellevue. They were doing all this street construction, and when I went into the hospital I’d see all this equipment. It was like seeing a body with disparate parts, and it gave me a sense of the city, not as a living entity but as a living structure.
I worked on this story for a long time and then chucked it. It seemed too overburdened with themes. At the same time, I had started reading about sewers in relation to the water system and got this idea for a character who worked underground. The plot and character unfolded slowly and were driven by my research. I spent months reading old newspapers on microfiche. It was fun to read about an urban community but still see ads for lost livestock. I was captivated by that. I invented a lost cow as a device to get Harris [one of the novel’s central characters] from Manhattan to Brooklyn. It was just the thing to take Harris across the river.
Similarly, when I read about a fire at Barnum’s Museum in winter 1868, the report touched something in me. The water the firefighters used froze on the buildings. I knew I had to steal that scene and put it in the book.
Rail: Besides providing readers with an understanding of New York City history, did you want to impart specific messages about race, class, or gender?
Gaffney: I did not have an agenda, like read this and then sign up for Move On or go door-to-door to get someone elected. It was not so clear cut. I wanted to strike a balance. I wanted to capture the world like it was and also talk about what it should be like. Overall, I wanted Metropolis to be entertaining enough to be read but political enough to be challenging.
I wanted to illuminate awful things as well as highlight the fact that just after the Civil War there were women doctors, black and white, who practiced together. I don’t mean to suggest that New York was a utopian, happy village, but I wanted to promote the idea of tolerance. I wanted to show that even in repressive periods women can have power and the races can get along. I also wanted there to be some class stuff and tried to imagine how certain dramas could be worked out by different people. I wanted to show that everything people do is partly explained by circumstances and partly by them taking responsibility for what they become.
As for women, there is nothing I like less than saccharine heroines. I don’t like girly-girls. Mother Dolan and Beatrice run the Whyo Gang, even though Johnny is the presumed leader. The group operated in a culture in which gender stereotypes prevailed. I know that the woman behind the man is a cliché, and I wanted the novel to be more complex than that. But if I’d let women openly run the gang, the story would have been unbelievable. I felt they needed a male front man.
Rail: Your descriptions of the dangers facing Brooklyn Bridge construction workers are powerful. Were you suggesting that the risks outweighed the benefits?
Gaffney: Whole communities were destroyed, and the borough’s character changed with the construction of the bridge. Today we’d protest this. The book gives no sense of people opposing the construction or fighting the destruction of their way of life. Partly this is because people being displaced had fewer rights, and partly it’s that they could not imagine how their lives would change. Brooklyn was bucolic and quieter in the 1870s, but it was still complicated. I tend to be a preservationist type and believe that construction should serve the larger community if people are to be displaced. In the 19th century, aristocrats decided things without community participation. I wanted to show that. I also wanted to tell the story of the Brooklyn Bridge from the workers’ point of view. Building engineer John Roebling was considered a fairly benevolent boss, but he nonetheless suppressed news about accidents or deaths.
When I was doing my research, I read about a guy who fell off the bridge and survived. This is his story. I also knew that bridge workers were Irish, so I had to have Johannes reinvent himself to work there. This gave me a way to look at the theme of personal reinvention, the way the world allows you to choose your own identity.
Rail: Do you see any parallels between the development of 19th century New York and current development issues?
Gaffney: I am against the Atlantic Avenue stadium. It sounds like a nightmare. I believe that eminent domain should be used only for things that benefit the entire community.
I wanted Metropolis to talk about issues in a way that was not didactic. Every period reinvents the features of reality. Today we have technology, but in fact things have changed very little. We still face the same problems—how to help the indigent, the alcoholic, the sick.
Rail: What’s next for you?
Gaffney: My second book will run from World War II to Vietnam and will be about family politics and secrets. It will explore the paradigm of the good war and the nightmare of Vietnam. It will also touch on race and the bridge between global and personal politics.
Gaffney will read from Metropolis at the New York Historical Society, 2 West 77 Street at Central Park West, on Tuesday, March 8, at 7:30 p.m. She will also read at Book Court, 163 Court Street in Brooklyn, on Tuesday, March 15, at 7:00 p.m.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader