|Elizabeth Gaffney, photo by Daphne Klein|
Elizabeth Gaffney is the author of the new novel When the World Was Young. She also has written the novel Metropolis, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Virginia Quarterly Review and the North American Review. She teaches fiction at The New School and is editor at large of the magazine A Public Space. She lives in Brooklyn.
Q: How did you come up with your main character, Wally Baker, and why did you set the novel in the 1940s and ‘50s?
A: Those two questions fit together in an answer. She is in some ways based on a version of my mother. My mother’s grandmother committed suicide on V-J Day.
When I learned about that story, I was really disturbed by it—not just because it’s a sad story, but because I have depression and so does my mother, and nobody talked about it, or sent me to a psychiatrist when I was depressed as a teenager [knowing that the consequences could be so serious]. There was some desire to [vindicate] my great-grandmother by telling her story, and the impact on the family.
I was interested in the contrast of the tragedy happening on a day of national celebration, so I decided to [keep the occurrence] on V-J Day…The relationship [to a] grandmother was more detached, so I made it her mother rather than her grandmother, and [told] the story from the point of view of the daughter. It was partly inspired by the age my mother was when this happened to my great-grandmother.
Q: At what point did you learn the story of your great-grandmother?
A: I didn’t learn about it until I was in my early 30s. I was having coffee with my mother and a cousin, and it came up. I was shocked. My brother made light of it and called it a baking accident…I was appalled by the way my family [handled] it, either making light of it or secrecy. I wanted to give it another treatment…
Q: Why did you decide to make entomology Wally’s passion?
A: In my first book I got very into following the sewer system of the city of New York. There’s always some non-fictional obsession I get onto when I’m writing.
With this book, I originally had [the character] Mr. Niederman as possibly a scientist—he is a mathematician, and he works on the Manhattan Project—but I had an idea of Wally and [Mr. Niederman] having a relationship, and her becoming interested in science….it became more of a big thing as it went. I got interested in it, and built it out into more of a theme throughout.
Q: Do you usually know how your novels will end? It sounds as if you make some changes along the way.
A: I know what the [story] is going to be, but maybe not the ending. I thought it possibly would end in a dark way, and I hadn’t figured out who was going to live and die. I did have an idea that Wally was going to grow up and be changed by this event. Where she would go in the latter part of her life and the relationship with Ham emerged for me as I was telling the story.
Q: Wally’s mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother are all doctors. What does your book say about the role of women during the time period you write about?
A: It’s kind of an odd thing, I know--it’s not representative; it was not a common profession for women at that time. I’m obsessed with women in medicine.
I had, on the other side of my family, a grandmother who was a doctor. She gave up her practice when she was married, and she had 12 children. I never knew she had been a doctor. It was another example of how I was annoyed with the way my family handled information. I was never good at math, but I could have seen a possible place to have gone if I had known…
In my first book, as well, there are women doctors. I want to make a point that women can do that, and are able to break barriers at a time of difficulty. It’s not to show the average…but to show what’s possible.
Q: Race is also a major theme in the book. What message do you hope readers will take away from the novel?
A: I think there’s a complicated set of racial relationships in the book. There’s the noblesse oblige the older generation has to Loretta and Ham, and the ways in which Ham wasn’t given the same status as Wally in the household, yet the Wallace family pays for his education and want to support him.
I wanted to examine that, and take it through the possibility of working out, in which the next generation makes progress. In an earlier generation, it was a servant/master relationship. In Ham and Wally’s generation, they are equals—but society doesn’t completely accept that. I would like people to be more tolerant than they are…
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a book that’s going to be a prequel to When the World Was Young. I’m going to fill in the gap between Metropolis and this one, linking them. The characters of Metropolis are really Wally’s great-grandparents.
The new book is going to have Stella as the [central] character—it will show her childhood, and Gigi [Wally’s grandmother] is the mother, and her father, the grandfather of Stella, is the protagonist of Metropolis.
I continued to explore this world, and I realized the characters have similarities—medicine, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, where I happen to live—I thought, Let’s follow this family through. The book is set in Brooklyn around the World War I period, including the influenza [following the war].
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: One of the other themes I’m interested in relates to depression. I’m quite interested in people who have post-traumatic stress disorder…not just from war but people on the home front. People are recovering from trauma in my books. …that continues with the next book. I’m interested in setting up Stella as a character who has trauma in her background, and is not well suited to the traumas in her adulthood.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb