Work of Art: Love and Murder in 19th Century New York
by Ginger Myrick
Work of Art is set in the late 19th century in Five Points, New York City. How did you choose the era and setting for this novel?
I suppose I was drawn to this era because some of my favorite classic books are set during the late 19th century: Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Anna Karenina, The Age of Innocence … I knew I wanted to set the book on the east coast of the US, after the war and in a city with a large Irish community. I also have a slight obsession with Jack the Ripper, and I guess my subconscious mind chose a time period that would allow me to make the connection.
As Work of Art is a bit of a twist on the Cinderella/My Fair Lady theme, it was imperative that the main characters, Del and Killian, be from two disparate social classes, but their communities had to be located within walking distance of each other. The most notorious Irish neighborhoods in New York at the time were Hell’s Kitchen and Five Points. Of course, there are enough swanky areas in New York that would have suited my needs for either location, but the capper was the proximity to the museum, which was integral to a book titled Work of Art! Besides, I always like to have a visual of the setting I’m attempting to portray. The film versions of The Gangs of New York and The Age of Innocence were invaluable resources. Martin Scorsese is meticulous in his attention to detail, ESPECIALLY when it comes to his beloved New York.
Your stories often include mysticism in the form of subtle magic or dreams. Do you have any personal experience with such, or do you simply enjoy incorporating it into your fiction?
I’m sure that by now some people view me as a writer of supernatural love stories, but that is not entirely the case. As is typical of my creative process, the inspirations come fairly complete and the mystical elements are simply what the stories dictated. As for me, I do have insights from time to time. I don’t have full-on visions, but I do get little glimpses now and again. They can be very accurate, but they aren’t crystal clear the way Del experiences hers. However, the way she records what she sees parallels the way my writing takes over.
And I have a touch of healing. Nothing like Arlais in The Welsh Healer, but I can feel where the painful spots are in another person and am able to draw them out to a certain extent. I also have an instinctual knowledge of herbs. I think it must come from genetic memory. My great-grandmother on my father’s side was a curandera, sort of the Mexican equivalent of a shaman. As of this moment, I have no further working ideas that involve the supernatural.
Your other two books, El Rey and The Welsh Healer, are historical novels, but this one falls more under the mystery/thriller genre. When you set out to write this novel, did you know from the start that you were switching, and possibly with a new audience?
Again, the story dictated itself, and there was not much I could do to the contrary. As you know, I had concerns that my readers might not make the switch, but my worries turned out to be unfounded. The book hasn’t sold enough to garner very many reviews, but my handful of very loyal readers have loved it. I think that if you strike a chord with readers and they come to love your use of language, the way you portray your characters and tell your story, they are more willing to listen to what you have to say, even if it is a bit out of the norm for them. I am the same way. I will go along with just about anything as long as the storytelling and an enjoyable writing style are there. The real risk will come with the book I plan to write after my current WIP. If my readers will stick with me through a pre-zombie apocalypse love story, they’ll be loyal for life!
Can you give a brief account of the class structure for this era, and particularly in this setting?
Work of Art is set during a period toward the end of the Reconstruction Era and on the verge of the Gilded Age. The economy had finally recovered from the Civil War, and business was again booming due to an industrial and technological explosion. Old-moneyed families resided at the very top of the pyramid. New money—people who were entrepreneurial enough to invent something, devise a way to turn new developments to their advantage, or even to successfully invest in them—came next. A step down were the white-collar workers—professional, managerial, or administrative people. Blue collar workers ranked below that, and then service people with their own hierarchy: Companions at the top, housekeepers and butlers next, kitchen staff, maids, and groundsmen.
The lowest of the low were the servants of Irish origin. It is a long and complicated story, but because of the large influx of Irish during the 19th century, there was a very strong resentment toward them. Many advertisements for employment even specified ‘no Irish’. But their willingness to work cheaply—often at a fraction of the cost of other laborers—drove wages so low that eventually it became unwise not to hire them. Even so, employers’ attitudes toward them were often disdainful, treating them little better than the slaves they had been hired to replace.
Who was your favorite character to write in this novel?
This is a tough question. When you create a character it is very much like giving birth, and you become very attached to him/her regardless of virtues or faults. In fact, sometimes their faults make the characters even more engaging and more fun to write. Del and her mother were both very sweet and endearing, and Killian was so suave and such a gentleman, but I loved Mrs. Chester, Mrs. Arthur, Jimmy, and Deirdre for their forthright manner. I have a soft spot for an unabashed, uncensored personality (as evidenced by my choice of mate!) and these A-type personalities are a writer’s dream. Of course, I am writing for others to read, but I might as well have fun while I do it. Right? I even had a great time with the two bad guy boxers.
And regardless of the brief mention of him in the book, I really loved Del’s dad. In my mind he was a fully formed person who influenced Del’s character and in turn much of the story. There is something very honorable and valiant about the ideals he represents. A strong bond between father and daughter fascinates me, partly because it’s something I have never experienced myself. The chapter when the ladies were going through the remnants of their life in Ireland was one of my favorite to relate.
I know you have several ideas (if not works-in-progress)—which are you working on now, and when can your eager readers expect the next great novel?
Thank you for the inference that my books are great and the assumption that the next will measure up! I am currently working on a project for a very dear friend of mine. She is my dog walking companion and the basis for the main character in my Civil War novel. The project is actually one of the historical sections, so it is not an entirely separate endeavor. When it is finished, I will be ready to move on to the rest of the book, which was shelved in favor of The Welsh Healer and Work of Art. I thought putting out a couple of books that were shorter in length would help build a following before I returned to the type of sweeping saga of El Rey. This book will be a return to a simple, old-fashioned love story with extended historical backgrounds for the pertinent characters and no supernatural elements. I had already reached 32K words (about 100 pages) when I set it aside, so I have a running start. I don’t like to jinx myself, because things in our household never run according to plan, but it should be finished mid-autumn.
As ever, thank you so very much for your support, Arleigh. I can honestly say that I would not be here without it. I feel very blessed to have met you at the beginning of this venture, and you have played a large part in inspiring me to continue writing. Also, many thanks to you readers. You keep my stories alive.
Thank you, Ginger, for taking the time to write such detailed answers! Readers, if you missed my review of Work of Art, you can read it here: http://historical-fiction.com/review-work-of-art-by-ginger-myrick/