The formation of an alloy:
an interview with Pete Hamill
For decades, Pete Hamill has been the one of the public faces of New York City in his writings. In his journalistic career, he has edited both the New York Post and the New York Daily News, as well as writing for almost every other paper. He is a long-time novelist and essayist, as well as the author of the memoir A Drinking Life. His latest novel, Forever, deals with the history of New York City as seen through the eyes of an immortal Irishman in Manhattan. Mr. Hamill spoke to Bookslut from his home in Manhattan.
You've joined an interesting community: journalists who became novelists. How does it feel to join a club that has Mark Twain and Neil Gaiman as members?
Why the theme of an immortal rather than series of protagonists?
I didn't want to do that sort of novel - not a multigenerational piece that has been done very well. I thought it would be interesting to see one person experience sweep of history and the development if the character of New York City; a port city, open to the world, and far more an immigrant story than the other great port cities of the world. The European wave, and now the new sweep of immigrants have created this character - tolerance, respect for work and generous to strangers in a way never seen before. It is the formation of an alloy in the New York character. Take these various immigrants, different languages, different foods and different myths - it made for a more tenacious and tough people than anything seen before
Take Cormac's father for instance - I deliberately made him a smith for the analogy of forging beautiful things from all sorts of combined materials; I wanted to show Manhattan as a forge, with the New York character being an alloy of pressure and time and different characters.
This is your second novel [after Snows of August] that's had both Irish and Jewish themes to it, especially as Cormac discovers his true ancestry. Can you speak a little about your returning to those?
It's part of fundamental alloy of city and country - try to imagine the United States and Western civilization without all of these mythologies. For instance, that there was a pre-Christian Ireland, with myths parallel these other religions.
African mythology, Aztec mythology, they all have common themes - that virtue is rewarded, honor is rewarded - lousiness will be punished. All these common strands of mythologies that were combined from immigration.
Your revisionist look, for lack of a better word, of Boss Tweed was fascinating, especially in his working for the little guy. Do you think historians might start taking another look at Tweed, reviled as he still is?
What I wanted to do in writing about Tweed was save him from the Thomas Nash cartoons. Tweed was an immense figure in 19th century history and a much more complicated person than cartoons indicate. He walked into a system that was there for much longer than he had been around, and he basically had to pay off upstate Republicans. I think it's always healthy to look at these villains. Remember - of the people involved in those scandals, he was the only one who paid a price. Tweed stayed while the others fled.
He reminds me somewhat of our Mayor Daley, the first one, and how he's both reviled and revered here in Chicago.
I found myself looking at parts of the book as an alternate your guide to Manhattan, especially since my wife and I are planning to visit in the summer. In particular, I had never heard the history of Washington Park.
Washington Square was a former potters field, where the homeless were thrown in there, as well as being used for executions. After the fire [a central part of Forever], north began with omnibuses. The rich used Washington Square, the "knickerbocker elite." They apparently removed as many graves as they could find and then paved over and planted grass. [The park is] still rumored to be haunted late at night.
Did you find yourself with any material that you had to leave out, especially since the book skips from the death of Boss Tweed to the 21st Century?
I Just couldn't have enough space. I wanted to get to the 20th century, but still had some things, but decided to use memory triggered by various events, like rain falling on a marquee. This came from my belief that memory is like a highlight film. I was influenced by a Diego Rivera mural, that I saw when I was an art student in Mexico on the GI Bill, "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park." I wanted to show that you could go from the Inquisition to the modern era and treat anyone, even the villains, with humanity; that their story could be arranged as a mural rather than as a detective story or as a tightly plotted book.
Did you feel any trepidation about being the first novelist to tackle September 11th?
Well, I did. I took a year to work on it. I didn't want a journalistic tackle; I wanted an organic feeling of the experience of the characters, not Hamill's experience of the characters. I didn't want Pete Hamill's September 11th and that meant using it in an imaginative way. I felt I had no option to do a novel 1740-2001 and not address September 11th would be like writing a novel about Honolulu and ending on December 6th, 1941. A novel about New York had to have greatest calamity.
I just wanted to make sure that this would not be an act of exploitation. Could I do this as an act of human compassion? It had to be there, as part of the New York character. After all September 11th wasn't the test; September 12th was the true test of New York character.