NEW YORK CITY, 1895. This is the backdrop to Leslie Parry’s debut novel, Church of Marvels, now out from Ecco. The novel follows four characters, each young and wounded, marked by the aberrant circumstances of their birth. Each is a performer, either on stage, as in the case of the Church sisters and the titular Coney Island sideshow, in boxing rings, or in life. Each finds solace in the empathy of others like themselves. Parry is able not only to fill Church of Marvels with impressive details of time and place, but also a unique set of marginalized experiences — lives very much of the era and yet all too familiar even today.
The following interview took place over email.
ZACH MANN: The protagonists in Church of Marvels are outsiders. Each is misshapen or nonconforming, living at the margins of society. Their New York City is hidden from normal life, in opium dens, backroom abortion clinics, secret brothels, makeshift boxing rings, and asylums for troubled women. What led you to write about New York in the 1890s, and this sort of milieu in particular?
LESLIE PARRY: It began pretty simply, with an interest in my own history. Like many Americans, the Parrys immigrated to New York City in the 19th century. They settled in Manhattan, speaking little or no English, finding work as elevator operators, dressmakers, launderers, errand boys. My great-grandfather grew up in the 1890s in Greenwich Village — he lived on Thirteenth Street, in the same building that’s mentioned in the book. But he died very young, at age 33, so I never knew much about him. That’s something I thought about quite often during the years I lived in New York: the bloom and decay of the city, what’s remembered and what’s forgotten. I became rather obsessed with its ghosts. What about people like this Mr. Parry, I wondered — a man with the same face and name as my own father — whose stories are lost forever? So I began writing sketches about other characters who might have slipped away from history. And as I wrote more, as the sketches became stories and the stories became a novel, I wove in other influences. Some decisions were conscious, some not. For instance, I drew on stories I’d heard about growing up (an uncle was a Golden Glove boxer, for instance, and my family is full of actors and other theatricals). My dad said it best, I think: in the end, our stories write us.
Writing about a character that has slipped away from history, and incorporating family stories, makes me think of Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex. The time, place, and juxtaposition of tragedy with American optimism might be closer to Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City or E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. Historical fiction is a big category; do you consider yourself writing more specifically in the traditions of Eugenides, Larson, and Doctorow?
Candidly, I love all three of those books. Each manages to be both sprawling and intimate, muscular and elegant — and I’m sure this novel wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t seen just how imaginative, baroque, and multifaceted a historical narrative can be. I never thought of myself as writing in a particular tradition, although I haven’t purposefully eschewed tradition either. I suppose I’m still finding my way. I always loved reading books by women who wrote about difficult or obscure historical subjects, who moved their protagonists out of the parlor and into the street. Gil Adamson’s The Outlander, Lauren Belfer’s A Fierce Radiance, Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures, Toni Morrison’s Sula, Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch, just to name a few. Books about independent, complex, sometimes violent or duplicitous women — women in milieus that we historically associate with masculinity: science, war, the West. History is the raveling of infinite threads; you only have to train your light in a different way, and something begins to glisten from the shadows.
Odile Church only has a letter when she goes looking for her sister in Manhattan, a place she knows nothing about. Meanwhile, Alphie Rembrandt wants desperately to get a message to her husband, something that, in this novel, feels insurmountable. And Orchard Broome can’t even speak. Is it fair to say that you’re playing with the way information travels beyond mere historical accuracy?
Yes, I think so. In many ways, information is the most valuable currency there is — in the novel and in life. The lack of information — or even a straightforward way to obtain it, relay it — determines the trajectory of the story, and it also brings out some savviness and intelligence in the characters (as well as their impulses and fears). I’m interested in characters who have to react, who have to use their wits, who are forced to be braver or more inventive than they would be in the patterns of their everyday lives. We so often equate information with data, but I think of it more as a lifeline.
The Gilded Age was a time of extremes, especially in New York: unprecedented wealth and unfathomable deprivation, plutocrats, and immigrants living cheek by jowl in the span of a few square miles. At the time this book takes place, the transcontinental railroad had been built, the first moving images had just been committed to celluloid, the telephone and the light bulb were in use. The characters are just a few years away from transatlantic radio transmissions, big-screen movies, the first airplane, the Brownie camera, the popular motorcar. So the way information travels — not to mention the average American’s sense of the world and her own place in it — will change rapidly in the next decade or so. The country and city are teetering on the cusp, not unlike Sylvan, Alphie, and Odile — still young, still teenagers. They’re still learning to deal with their desires and their grief, their own burgeoning identities, the people they’ll become as they make their way in the world.
Your short story “The Vanishing American,” published in 2011’s The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, features a protagonist similar to the characters in Church. Indian #9 is a mute man also living in a time when malformations surely made you freakish: in this case, on Catalina Island in the 1910s. What draws you to these types of characters?
I think everyone feels like an outsider in some way. I mean, I certainly do, but to the world I look about as blithe and harmless as Maria von Trapp. On some level — no matter how well we conform, no matter the successes we achieve, no matter the validation we receive from others — we’re afraid of not belonging, of not being loved. Most of us are worried that if we reveal our true nature — the full range of our emotions, our extraordinary complexity, our real fears and desires — we’ll be rejected, laughed at, shunned. (Or worse, harmed.) It’s a question I’m always returning to as a writer, as a person: how do you take what makes you different (what others may perceive as a weakness, or a limitation) and turn it into the strongest, most necessary part of you? How do you use exactly what you’ve been given, to the very best of your ability? To me, this goes beyond just being a freak or an outsider; it’s the fundamental quest of creativity.
In “The Vanishing American,” Indian #9 has lost his voice, but he finds work as an actor in silent movies. In Church of Marvels, Sylvan uses his unusual appearance (heterochromia), as well as his lack of allegiance to any known circle, to intimidate and confuse his opponents. Alphie uses her unique position as Anthony’s lover to leave the streets behind and settle into a domestic, middle-class life — the kind of sanctuary she’s always longed for. Sometimes such opportunities are obvious, if crude or exploitative: the sideshow performers earn a living off their abnormalities. Other times, those same differences — usually so conspicuous — can be employed in craftier, more strategic ways: to mislead, conceal, protect. I can’t always explain why I write what I do, or why certain characters speak to me more urgently than others, but the fact that Indian #9 and Orchard Broome cannot speak, quite literally, is perhaps the manifestation of a larger concern: how many people in this world, even those with full voices, have stories that still go unbidden, unheard?
One way you’ve succeeded in giving more characters full, heard voices is by giving Sylvan and Alphie their own chapters — in a story that, considering the prologue, epilogue, and title, is centrally about the Church sisters. When you first started writing Church of Marvels, did you know the novel would use many points of view?
Yes. And in very early drafts, there were even more. Once the plot began to gain clarity and momentum, I had to cut storylines that felt unwieldy or superfluous — perspectives that might have been important for me as a writer (especially as I was constructing and inhabiting a new, fictional landscape) but didn’t remain relevant to the book. But the kaleidoscopic quality — and my desire for it — was there from the beginning.
In many ways, Church of Marvels is a detective novel. The plot bobs and weaves through different sections and strata of the city as Odile Church moves from clue to clue, looking for her sister. Sylvan, the boxer with a soft side, might even be comfortable in a pulp novel. Is this genre fiction at heart, underneath all that elegant prose?
To me it is, yes — without question. I set out to write a book that I wanted to read. And what I grew up reading were ghost stories, detective novels, swashbucklers, and mysteries. So the potboiler aspect of this book, the nod towards the Gothic, the use of masks and doubling and false identities — this comes from a lifetime of reading books rich with intrigue and suspense, of listening to radio plays and watching noir movies. I wanted — despite the darker aspects of this book — to remember that sense of imaginative play. It’s a novel, after all. And I think what genre fiction does so well is embrace, with gusto, the genuine weirdness and enchantment of the world around us. Which is what made me want to be a writer in the first place.
Your novella Kiddo was recently chosen by Jac Jemc to win the Heavy Feather Review fiction chapbook contest. Jemc describes the story as “a mystery full to the brim. Family, friendship, mistaken identity, poverty and the allure of Old Hollywood combine to ensure that every sentence is packed with intrigue and heart.” Should we expect something similar to Church of Marvels — but in Los Angeles?
I’m excited for Kiddo, which is kind of a ragtag valentine to Los Angeles. And I’m extremely grateful to Jac and Heavy Feather Review for publishing it. It isn’t nearly as tentacled or plot-driven as Church of Marvels, though it shares some similar qualities. It focuses on one character, a young woman who’s run away from home and assumed another identity. I think of it more as a combustible interior poem, whereas Church is a long, slow simmer, one in which the external pressure builds and builds. But there are things I always end up writing about, whether I intend to or not: the legacy of one’s birth, the sensation of being alone and anonymous in the city, the struggle to get by while still maintaining a sense of integrity and personhood. The burden and the beauty of loneliness. The impulse of flight.