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Interview: June 22, 2007

June 22, 2007

In this interview with's Tom Callahan, author, essayist and journalist Pete Hamill discusses the lost New York of the 1930s that he captures in his latest novel, NORTH RIVER, and describes the extensive research he performed --- as well as his reliance on memories and family stories --- to bring that period to life.

He also comments on some of the social and political parallels that are present between the Depression era and today, and explains how this "love story for grownups" differs from typical sentimental romances. NORTH RIVER has been called a “love story for grownups” though it is a lot tougher than your typical sentimental love story. Did you set out to write a love story?

Pete Hamill: Yes. As a man or woman grows older (I’ll be 72 in a matter of days), each thinks about the things that truly mattered. Perhaps the most important of those things is love. And among grownups, love does not arrive like a bolt of summer lightning. It’s an accretion of small moments, desires, needs, connections, understandings. I’ve tried to follow that process in this novel.

BRC: The two main characters in the book, Jim Delaney and Rose Verga, symbolize making “lost into triumph, sorrow into life.” But they play the cards that life deals them without pity and with an almost stoic fatalism. Are they like many of their generation, or is their spirit more indigenous to that of New Yorkers, even today?

PH: Jim and Rose are very much like the people of their generation. Those people were immigrants, or the children and grandchildren of immigrants, and they shared the code that insisted that the only unforgivable sin (after cruelty) was self-pity. They faced the great calamity of the Depression in an almost communal way. I was raised by such people, not simply in my family, but in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. Everybody had been touched by the Depression, some mauled by it. But they were the toughest people I’ve ever known, and I like to think that their equivalents exist among today’s new immigrants.

BRC: Jim Delaney is not old, but given his experiences, he is an old 48. The arrival of his grandson, Carlito, ultimately will save him. Jim sees the world anew through the child’s eyes. In their trips around the city, you had a wonderful opportunity to show what New York was like in 1934. Was this a deliberate choice on your part using these travels as a literary device?

PH: Yes. I wanted to put the modern reader into that time and place, so that the simple act of walking through New York can be deepened by layers of the past. I’m sure that most American cities have similar layers within their narratives, and I hope I’ve helped people to see and feel them.

BRC: No writer is more closely associated with New York City than you. The New York you write about here is the New York during the Great Depression. Once again, you capture the feel of the city streets and the language of its citizens. Talk about the North River neighborhood. Did people as late as the 1930s still refer to the Hudson as the North River?

PH: They were still calling it the North River in the early 1960s. I went to work at the New York Post (my first newspaper job) in the summer of 1960. Old editors would shout, “Hey, Hamill, get your ass over to pier 41, North River . There’s a fire there…” The name goes all the way back to the Dutch who founded New Amsterdam. They also had a settlement in Delaware, and so they called the Hudson the North River and the Delaware the South River. It was even on the maps until the 1970s, and the name describes that part of the Hudson that flows (roughly) from the Tappan Zee Bridge to the great harbor.

BRC: You bring out the small-town, community feel of the North River neighborhood. People know each other, and the doctor has a real support system around him when the child arrived. One of the bad raps that the city gets historically is that it is a cold, impersonal place. Can you comment on this? Do you see these neighborhoods existing even today?

PH: One of the best ways to understand New York is to think of it as a collage of hamlets. This is more true outside Manhattan, in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx, but even Manhattan has its hamlets. They are changing rapidly as more people choose to live in areas that were once viewed with unease. The three Harlems (West, Central, East) are a good example, but there’s now a living neighborhood in the Financial District too, and the area where Jim Delaney lived is right up against the Meat Packing District, a place where Delaney could no longer afford to live. As always, the velocity of change remains a New York constant.

BRC: This story is set in the city just prior to the time of your birth. How did you research this book?

PH: I read (or re-read) some of the basic histories, along with the oral history by Studs Terkel, some James T. Farrell, Michael Gold, and other standard works of the era. I checked medical histories too and looked at many photographs, and some bound volumes of The Daily News. But I also drew on memory: listening again to people from my Brooklyn neighborhood talking about the Depression and its fearsome presence in their lives. My mother and father are also in the book, along with some doctors from Brooklyn, who --- Yes! --- did house calls. Research for a novel is not the same as research for a history or a biography. You must allow time for the raw material to marinate. That is to become memory. And not your memory, but the character’s memory. Research provokes the imagination, or diverts it.

BRC: If there are any overarching evil characters in this book, they are poverty and war. World War I had ended not even two decades before this book opens; the Depression started in 1929. It is almost impossible now to understand what the impacts of that war and the Great Depression did to the psyche of people alive then. They carried those scars of poverty for the rest of their lives. Can you talk a bit about the Depression mentality?

PH: The historian Caroline Bird, in fact, wrote a book about the effects of the Depression called THE INVISIBLE SCAR. I read it years ago, and it helped me understand my own people better. One effect: young people limited their visions, ambitions, dreams. If you said you wanted to be a writer, a painter, an actor, even a shortstop, you would be looked at in an odd way and sometimes dismissed with a line like “Who do you think you are?” (This was not true in my family, but it happened to some of my friends). I once called it in an essay “The Green Ceiling.” It wasn’t that the older people were mean or contemptuous. They just didn’t want their kids to go after something they couldn’t get, because the deck was stacked against them. All that changed when the educational benefits of the GI Bill kicked in around 1950, but for some, that was too late.

BRC: Readers may be shocked by the primitive state of medical care during this time. A neighborhood doctor like Delaney did the best he could for his patients, but in a lot of cases, that was not very much back then. When you went into a hospital like St. Vincent’s, there was a real fear that you weren’t coming out. What were some of the problems that doctors faced back then?

PH: The basic problem for doctors was that they were ahead of the scientists. That is, they could diagnose tuberculosis or gonorrhea or other ailments, but they could not cure them. Penicillin and sulfa drugs were five years or more in the future (my father almost surely would not have lost his leg in 1927 if penicillin had been available). So the doctors were like Sisyphus: rolling that darn boulder up the mountain while knowing it would roll back down. That was heroic, valiant work. And the famous “bedside manner” evolved from it. The doctors might not be able to cure the patients, but they could try to console them, helping them to live another day, or month, or year.

BRC: You also bring a reporter’s eye here to incredible scenes of domestic violence, another by-product of rage, poverty and alcohol abuse. Why was this problem largely ignored back then?

PH: I think the reason was simple: wife-beating was actually normal, or routine, for some people (definitely not all). And, during the Depression, women didn’t have the option to just leave. They couldn’t afford to live on their own. But the attitudes stayed around for a long time. When I was in my teens, one older neighborhood guy said to me: “Never marry a girl you can’t knock out with one punch.” I laughed, because it was a comical exaggeration, but I soon learned that there was much dark truth behind it.

BRC: There are scenes of the Lost World of New York that echo down to the present. The doctor puts up fliers on lampposts when his wife disappears, as people did after 9/11. The wealthy on Fifth Avenue board up their windows in anticipation of St. Patrick’s Day, something that was done several years back in anticipation of the Puerto Rican Day Parade. Do you see these as parallels to the past?

PH: The fliers, yes. In fact, in those days after September 11th, I often flashed on the leaflets we would see in the neighborhood from time to time. Runaways, mostly. Missing wives or husbands. But I wasn’t thinking of parallels in the parades. Thanks for pointing them out.

BRC: In their desire to catch Communists, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI seemed to be using the powers of the Patriot Act a half century before that act even existed. Do you agree?

PH: Yes. The sad thing was that while the FBI was growing more obsessed with Communists, the post-Prohibition Mob was being perfected. Eventually, the G-men tracked down Dillinger and killed him, but he was a free-lancer, not a member of the much more dangerous and enduring Mob.

BRC: The night of dancing that Jim and Rose share at Roseland is one of the most romantic scenes in recent literature. Music was also an important part of your novel, FOREVER, but the music created during the Great Depression was incredible. Wasn’t that the young Sinatra singing “Melancholy Baby” (although historically this would have been right before the Hoboken Four)? A little literary license, perhaps?

PH: Yes, it’s Sinatra. Or my imagined Sinatra, his name not yet known to most people, including Delaney and Rose. He would have been 19 in 1934, and was already moving around in Manhattan. In a novel, the imagination rules!

BRC: Some of the Irish women in the neighborhood give the doctor a hard time about his relationship with a “woman without papers” from Sicily. Back then in some neighborhoods, wouldn’t there have been a good deal of antipathy towards a “mixed” relationship between, for example, the Irish and Italians? Though everybody is poor, Jim and Rose also come from different classes. Wouldn’t there have been problems for this relationship in 1934?

PH: Of course there would have been problems, which is the reason they are so discreet. There were already “mixed” marriages of Irish and Jews, Irish and Italians, and even, in the 19th century, Irish and blacks. But the problem here, as you point out, would have been about class, before ethnicity. None of that would happen until later, beyond the time frame of this novel. The shawlies would root for a failed marriage. Some of the men would make bets on how long it would last. I like to think it would last as long as both of them are alive.

BRC: What were the challenges in writing this book compared to your others?

PH: The basic challenge in any love story is this: to make it real, and avoid sentimentality. That was one reason for the use of popular music and the movies, which draw so heavily on an unreal sentimentality. Those popular arts move through the novel like streams (I hope), and their great attraction is that they promise --- even in the depths of the Depression --- the possibility of a happy ending.

BRC: Is there anything you are particularly enjoying reading now?

PH: My reading, as always, is eclectic. At the moment: Steve Martin’s memoir, BORN STANDING UP. Kurt Anderson’s HEYDAY. James McBride’s THE COLOR OF WATER. Faulkner’s LIGHT IN AUGUST.

BRC: What are you working on now?

PH: Another novel.