Reinventing the Historical Novel: A Conversation with Jonathan Lee

August 17, 2021   •   By Zack Graham

WHAT IF I told you that Central Park was the brainchild of one man? What if I told you that the very same man had the idea to merge the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx into a single interconnected metropolis called New York City? What if I told you that man was also responsible for the creation of the Bronx Zoo? And the Met? And the Museum of Natural History? And the New York Public Library? Would you believe me? 

Believe me or not, it’s true. The man was named Andrew Haswell Green, and he’s known as the Father of Greater New York.

Green is the subject of Jonathan Lee’s fourth novel, The Great Mistake, which begins with Green’s murder in 1903 and explores his life leading up to that shocking event as well as the investigation of the murder and its fallout. Moving back and forth between Dickensian bildungsroman and Victorian murder mystery, The Great Mistake is alight with wisdom, charm, and grace.

Lee is no stranger to ambitious historical novels. His 2015 novel, High Dive, reimagines the IRA’s attempted assassination of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. Lee is as much at home with British historical fiction as he is with its American counterpart — weaving across decades, focusing on various historical figures and events, with ever-changing perspectives and deft research. Lee’s virtuosic talent is on prime display throughout The Great Mistake. In the end, the novel feels as ambitious as Green’s imagination, encompassing the entire history of a city and the life of the overlooked man who created it.

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ZACK GRAHAM: I found The Great Mistake fascinating from a structural perspective, in that there are two narrative modes: one is a scene-driven account of Andrew Haswell Green’s life, and the other is a historical retelling of the events following his murder. Can you talk a little bit about why you adopted such an approach? At certain moments, The Great Mistake feels like two novels woven into one.

JONATHAN LEE: I guess I see life and death as two different stories, albeit ones that ultimately coalesce. I wanted to write the story of Green’s rise, and also the story of his ending, and braid the two together in ways that hopefully speak to who he was. This novel started for me in 2012 when I was walking in Central Park, where I found a memorial bench dedicated to Green. The inscription called him “the Father of Greater New York” and “Creating Genius of Central Park.” I started to look into his life — but everything I found, at first, was about his death, and there seemed to be such a gap between the two. He was a quiet, private person — but also one who got murdered on Park Avenue in broad daylight on Friday, November 13, 1903, at the age of 83, after he’d created Central Park and the Met and the New York Public Library and much else besides.

A major public figure gunned down outside his home on Friday the 13th makes headline news. It was all over the front page of The New York Times. His actual existence was hidden, at first. I wanted to retell that detective story but also peer behind the headlines and find the life that lay behind his abrupt ending — the private, quiet, more artful moments that history doesn’t always set down, but which were there in Green’s diaries and letters when I went looking. There’s a Virginia Woolf line I like: “I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.” I started off thinking the detective story was the most fascinating part. But I switched allegiances many times over the years it took to write the book.

The portions of the novel about Green’s life felt comparable to a novel by Thackeray or Dickens — a biographical depiction of a dynamic figure from childhood onward. Can you speak a little bit about this aspect of the novel? Were you intentionally trying to draw from this tradition?

I find Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon interesting for the atmosphere it conjures. I watched that while I was writing this book. I think of Dickens often, but I don’t especially feel the urge to reread his books — I’d rather revisit Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which somehow still feels so contemporary and unconcerned with genre. When writing The Great Mistake, I did want to play with the old-time stories of young men wanting to become gentlemen — to test those narratives a bit and hopefully unsettle some of their assumptions. My favorite 19th-century novel is The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. I wish more people would read it.

And the other piece of this novel is the murder investigation by a character called Inspector McClusky. Are you a fan of the murder mystery genre? Were there any authors or novels that inspired this aspect of The Great Mistake? What are your favorite murder mysteries?

I think sometimes people see “historical novel” or “detective story” and assume a book can’t also be a great piece of art, one that blends the political and the personal into its ideas. But the best 19th-century suspense novels did all of that, and in really subtle ways, while also being unashamed of the satisfactions their stories could offer. I sometimes wonder if those suspense novels might offer a path forward for the contemporary novel. Wilkie Collins’s writing has so much joy in it while also being so socially engaged.

A. K. Blakemore’s recent historical novel The Manningtree Witches also has a lot of joy in it — the sentences, the characters, despite or because of the hurt underneath. Blakemore’s novel is anything but fusty. It blows the clichés of its genre away. I’m interested in future historical novels that might do that and engage with society, and space, and posterity, and the creation of place. Zadie Smith has a line in a New Yorker story: “Surely there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle. But how large should this circle be?” She wrote that pre-pandemic, but it seems to me like a key question for our time.

This is your second consecutive work of historical fiction — your last novel, High Dive, was set in Thatcherian England during The Troubles. Can you talk a little bit about what drew you to New York City in the late 1800s and early 1900s? Why this period in history?

I didn’t want to write about New York City in the 19th or early 20th century. I was undone by my obsession with park benches! I love to read their inscriptions and the graffiti, the curated plaques and memorial inscriptions but also just the “Sharon 4 Dave” stuff. I seek them out wherever I go. And one day in Central Park in the summer of 2012, I was sweating my way through Glen Span Arch and along Montayne’s Rivulet, one of New York’s original streams, when I came across that bench overlooking Fort Fish dedicated to Andrew Haswell Green. It just felt like one of those tiny little meandering epiphanies that Sebald or Robert Walser would have experienced. It seemed a bit unreal. And it felt — an illusion, obviously — like the bench had been put there just for me. I had no intention of writing a novel about the life and murder of a 19th-century civic leader who created modern New York — I hadn’t, until I found that bench, even known that he existed. But the bench came for me. It got me obsessed.

After High Dive, what I wanted was to write a contemporary novel that didn’t need many years of research. But you don’t always get to choose. When I moved toward a stage of acceptance, I thought: Well, maybe this can be a novel about me discovering Green. Those more autobiographical parts got pushed to the margin more and more as I wrote — there’s not really any “I” left in the novel now — but I still think that initial impulse toward some kind of hybrid text between reportage and suspense novel and autofiction accounts for some of the strangeness of The Great Mistake. I think it’s probably my most restless novel, and not only because Green was such a restless person. I was at a low ebb when I found that bench, I felt like my career was something of a failure, and Green was sort of there for me. So, I sat down.

The Great Mistake is also a New York novel — the novel of a city, which focuses on the man responsible for some of its greatest treasures. Did you set out to write a New York novel, or did your book just happen to become one in the process? Do you have any favorite New York novels, and did any of those novels influence The Great Mistake?

I like a lot of New York novels, but I’m a bigger fan of New York nonfiction — or work that is a blend of fiction and nonfiction. Books like E. B. White’s Here is New York or all the wandering bits of brilliance collected in Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel. Toni Morrison’s Jazz might be my favorite New York novel — that portrait of Harlem during the 1920s, but also the way the narrative extends back into the deeper past, the mid-19th-century American South. I like her repetitions, reversals, shifts in composition — the way her writing performs the jazz of the book’s title, but also the call and response of democracy in public spaces and all that stuff.

I was thinking a lot about public space when I wrote this book, partly because I used to work for a wonderful magazine called A Public Space. When the pandemic hit, I was revising my book with help from the wonderful Knopf copyeditors, and I noticed all sorts of things that Green had been ahead of the game on — even simple things like the mental and physical health benefits of a walk in the park. I think those things resonate now that the pandemic has made us reassess the value of green spaces, and public schools, and libraries — but that wasn’t deliberate.

The editors at Bookforum recently asked a number of writers about the novels they would want to read that they aren’t seeing published right now. I think that’s a nice question to end on. What novels would you want to read that you’re not seeing these days? More selfishly rephrased, what books should younger novelists look to write that you think would meaningfully move the form of the novel — and the publishing industry’s conception of the novel — forward?

I’d hate for anyone to take my advice. I’m sleepless and over-caffeinated the entire time. But I would love to see a bit more faith placed by the publishing industry in imagination, especially as it pertains to fiction. And I would love to see an end to the current predominant distrust of plot. Not every book has to be an autobiographical debut novel — maybe it can be a non-autobiographical, non-debut novel that is full of things the author never experienced. Maybe it’s not even a novel but a book of stories, or of poems. Maybe it doesn’t have to define itself at all.

I would also love to read more work that crackles with charisma or humor or strangeness while also being fun, taking more risks in the sentences but also in its storytelling — putting ambitious writing to the task of something greater than describing a sad scene glimpsed out of the window of a bus as the rain runs down the modern-day glass. Not that I don’t enjoy a good, sad bus scene. But I want to read books where I feel the authors are really stretching themselves, and also having a good time doing so.

Books are made of books, to some extent, but you can’t feign what moves you, what disturbs you, what enrages you, what makes you crumple. Those things have to be yours. Maybe not only yours, but yours. When I started writing, I spent a lot of time trying to write books that, in the end, were other people’s books. I fell in love with George Saunders and tried to write like George Saunders. I fell in love with Robert Musil or Amy Hempel or Grace Paley and tried to be the second-best Musil or Hempel or Paley. It’s taken me a while to just be myself, for better or worse, and not worry if a bunch of people hate my book. Writing isn’t about trying to please everyone — you end up pleasing no one.

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Zack Graham is a writer living in New York.