Tuesday, March 25, 2014

But is it History? Triss Stein and the Crossroads of Facts and Nostaligia

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Triss Stein and I met at Bouchercon in Albany last year, but were deep in conversation before we realized we're neighbors — both residing in Brooklyn's historic Park Slope neighborhood.

I love Triss's Erica Donato series because it's set in "the Slope" — but Triss invokes Brooklyn both past and present so wonderfully that, regardless of where you live, you'll find yourself among the brownstones with gas lamps set on shady tree-lined streets as well. And it's not just me — Publishers Weekly says Triss gives " ... a vivid sense of Erica’s Brooklyn neighborhood, and the characterization is wonderful."

Here's a brief description of Triss's newest Erica Donato novel, Brooklyn Graves

A brutally murdered friend who was a family man with not an enemy in the world. A box full of charming letters home, written a century ago by an unknown young woman working at the famed Tiffany studios. Historic Green-Wood cemetery, where a decrepit mausoleum with stunning stained glass windows is now off limits, even to a famed art historian.

Suddenly, all of this, from the tragic to the merely eccentric, becomes part of Erica Donato’s life. As if her life is not full enough.  She is a youngish single mother of a teen, an oldish history grad student, lowest person on the museum’s totem pole. She doesn’t need more responsibility, but she gets it anyway as secrets start emerging in the most unexpected places. 

In Brooklyn Graves a story of old families, old loves and hidden ties merges with new crimes and the true value of art, against the background of the splendid old cemetery and the life of modern Brooklyn.

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Please welcome Triss as she joins us to talk about the crossroads of history, nostalgia, and the subjectivity of memory.

TRISS STEIN: If you're interested in history, a fascination I share with some Jungle Red writers, sooner or later you run into someone, in print or in person, whose memories  are in direct contradiction to everything you know.  I'm not talking about historians disagreeing. I'm talking about the elderly person who says it was so much better in the good old days. And those days happen to be the period otherwise know as the Great Depression. (I'm not making this up. That person is someone I know very well.)

Some other examples:

If you say "tenement" most people correctly picture horrifyingly overcrowded, unsanitary, epidemic-breeding housing, long outlawed. However, when the wonderful tenement history museum was being created on New York's Lower East Side, two elderly women were deeply interested in the project. Turned out they had been, as  children some of the last residents of that building before it was closed for good. There are taped interviews of them ... and their cheerful, touching and fond memories.

The co-worker, my contemporary, who collected '50's television memorabilia, is holding onto something I can't fathom. The good old days of Hopalong Cassidy and the first TV Superman?  Really? This is about his childhood, not about  the television quality. It's not so different from the book reviewer who condemned Little Women (!)  and lamented the superior books of his youth. [It's a real review, anonymous but thought to be by Henry James (!!) ]

I like Jack Finney's writing a lot, from stories I  remember reading as a teen, to his hugely successful Time and Again, but sometimes I find them irritating too. They are so sentimental about - here it is again -  the good old days, when everything was better. I used to love that romantic point of view. Now, I know better. In the photos of  How the Other Half Lives, taken just a few miles away from Finney's Gramercy Park, we see the rest of the story.

For a writer writing about the past, it's a dilemma. Unlike Rhys Bowen or Susan Elia MacNeal, I am not writing historicals but I am writing a series about a Brooklyn historian whose research into Brooklyn's very diverse neighborhoods brings her up against crimes both old and current. It gives me a chance to play historian.  For all of us, writing history,  the personal memories provide the vivid, particular details that create immediacy for our stories. At the same time, we can't trust anyone's memories to be anything more than just that - their own memories, filtered through their own experiences. Fascinating, often. Accurate? Ahh, not necessarily.

There is nostalgia. And there is history. In this time, we can't ( or shouldn't, anyway) take as fully reliable, memories of the wonderful days of the ante-bellum South, or, for that matter, the British empire, pre-World War 1. Yet it remains interesting  - and useful to know- that many people saw it all that way.

Right there, in that gap between the proud soldiers of World War
11 and the Negro troops riding in the back of the trains, the glamorous Hollywood of the studios and the novel Miss Lonelyhearts, the legendary Age of Aquarius  and the lives lost to drugs (I wrote that in Brooklyn Bones),  the  British life Upstairs and the life Downstairs, is a great place to find a story.

What do you think, you history fans out there?  Were you ever on the losing side of the argument that begins with "the old neighborhood was so wonderful until  'they' moved in" ? (It's always the losing side, because you can't argue with people's memories)   My new book, Brooklyn Graves, is about Tiffany, Gilded Age New York , a grand cemetary and -ah-ha - new people moving into an old neighborhood. With a twist or two. 

Reds and lovely readers: What’s your favorite history/nostalgia contradiction? 

And where do you stand in that particular argument? 

Triss Stein is a small–town girl from New York state’s dairy country  who has spent most of her adult life living and working in New York  city. This gives her the useful double vision of a stranger and a  resident for writing mysteries about Brooklyn, her ever-fascinating,  ever-changing, ever-challenging adopted home. Brooklyn Graves will  be out from Poisoned Pen Press in March and  is second in the series,  after Brooklyn Bones. Triss is active in both Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America and is on the board of the  MWA NY chapter.


  1. Aahh . . . history and nostalgia never really walk hand in hand, do they? I remember the days of Hopalong Cassidy and George Reeves as Superman that Triss mentions . . . and they’re definitely smile-worthy.
    I think it’s the nostalgia and the rose-colored memories that give the nuances and the depth to the stories built around history.
    “Brooklyn Graves” sounds quite fascinating and I’m looking forward to reading it . . . .

  2. Waving "hi!" to Triss - we also met at Bouchercon. This discussion reminds me of the different memories my sisters and I have of growing up, even though we're all less than two years apart. I'll remember something they don't, or have a very different take on a shared experience. Can't wait to read the book, Triss.

  3. Wish I could post the family shot from 1955 when I'm wearing my Hopalong Cassidy T-shirt. Oscar Meyer in his Weinermobile would visit the local Crawford's market. Johnny Cash stopped by to sign autographs at the record store. And I bought my first baseball mitt from Ralph Kiner's new sporting goods store in Alhambra. Exciting to be a kid back then in LA, especially if you were middle class and white. Butch wax and ducktails and rolled up sleeves on my T-shirt. Ha.

  4. The book sounds wonderful Triss, and the cover is gorgeous!

    My father was quite nostalgic all his life about his experience in World War 2. He stayed in touch with the men in his company up until the year he died. And when he was noodling around with his memoir, it was all WWII...

  5. Welcome, Triss! I find this topic so fascinating, especially writing about World War II....

  6. I watched those 50s programs when they were new, and although it's enjoyable to occasionally watch one when I'm visiting someone who has cable TV, I would never think of purchasing memorabilia of that TV era. As an 8 or 9 year old, I went to see Clarabelle (sp?)from the Howdy Doody show, when the father of one of my playmates rounded up 9 of us and drove us in his station wagon to a personal appearance the clown was doing at a nearby shopping center - that's right: NINE kids, UNseatbelted - remember THOSE days? It was one of my scarier childhood memories! Clarabelle seemed to me to be quite intimidating! I now wonder what the other kids thought. I don't remember if we talked about it on the way home.

    My four younger siblings and I have totally different memories of growing up. Anybody who does not know us would believe that the youngest grew up in an entirely different household!

  7. Good morning, everyone. Thank you for your comments. I will be in and out all day,joining the conversation.

    Those wartime bonds seem to have been very strong- the most intense moments of their lives, maybe - but don't you suspect they never told about the horrors? I had an uncle who went to his Army reunion every year but didn't ever talk about his experiences. I asked him about the bloody beginning of Saving Private Ryan and he said yes, that captured what it was really like. ( My dad spent the war fixing Army planes in Florida - he wasn't a useful source!)

  8. Triss, this is fascinating! And I've never thought about it quite that way.

    My father won't talk about he war--there's another perspective for you!

    I once made a game for my family--called Familial Pursuits. The questions were all about events we'd shared: Who made sandwiches when the barn caught on fire? WHose luggage got lost on our trip to the Grand Canyon, and why?

    EVERYONE had difference memories. And we all believed ours were the true ones.

  9. Triss, my dad was in the Navy during WW II. He often told us about funny things that happened, and he remained friends with 2 people who served with him. When I was in high school in the 60s I asked him some specific questions about his actual service in the Pacific. We were studying WW II in school. He started to say something, began to cry, and left the room. I'll never know what happened. I have some photos taken of him overseas. In many, he has a scared look on his face. He was barely 20 years old.

    I have been meaning to get your first book, Triss, and now I'll need to read fast, because I definitely want to read BOTH of your books! I love history, which is one reason I enjoy the books by Susan and Rhys.

  10. Excellent conversation! The tension between memory and history is very real and very powerful, as is the tension between memory and nostalgia, the implication being that memory would be (somewhat) more accurate. The root of it all is the subjectivity of historical experience--people in the past lived among the trees, while historians already know how big the forest is. But the best way to handle the tension is not to assume we can ever resolve it, but to embrace the ongoing dialogue between them. That means novelists need to be honest about their occasional massaging of facts, and historians need to remove at least part of the broomstick up their behinds. We both have lots to learn from each other.

  11. Well, Hank, we are truly kindred spirits. The first year we were married (and young and broke) my husband and I created a game called Family Pursuit, and gave it as Christmas gifts. We even did colored dots as categories. I have the master copy with questions like "How old was Cisco when he finally died?"

    I think we whitewash history and our own memories to keep from being bitter, or because we don't want to relive pain from the past. I also think it's why we continue to repeat mistakes. We don't remember accurately, so we can't learn as much as we should from these lessons.

    Your book is set in a fascinating time, full of changes that were both scary and exciting, Triss. I look forward to reading it.

    (Cisco was a horse, BTW, and lived to be 37.)

  12. I am loving all these interesting comments...and I haven't even had my morning tea yet. Deb, such an interesting and poignant story. My mom had a cousin she was close to he was a pilot in the Canadian Air Force. He only told funny stories about getting lost in London. It was his wife who told my mother about the nightmares.

    All the stories about family memories are hilarious. And so very true for all families.I figure if at least 2 of us remember it the same way, that's probably pretty accurate

  13. There's also the influence of propaganda, especially wartime propaganda, on memory. I'm dealing with that in my research now as I'm researching what the outbreak of WWII, Fascism, and segregation meant for U.S. Blacks.

  14. Dear Triss,

    First of all, I'm so grateful to Susan for introducing you - your series sounds terrific.

    I write historical fiction and my focus is Vietnam. I am writing a new novel that takes place in Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s. It's fascinating, how many different perspectives there are on that time period which is mainly associated with war. I have close Vietnamese friends with beautiful memories - as children living in Saigon, the war scarcely touched their lives. I'm working with Vietnam vets whose memories of the country are filled with kindness, love and small magic moments. And then of course is the other side. The side where bombs were dropping and people were dying and politicians were lying.

    Your essay has given me much food for thought as I continue on, trying to capture the contradictions, and honor both the beauty and horrors of the country at that time period.


  15. I think we filter our memories through experience, to protect ourselves and our loved ones. And it's fascinating how two people can have such different memories of the same event. Both sets of my grandparents lived through the Great Depression. My mother's mother fondly remembered living on the family farm, working alongside her brother and sister, not having much money, but it didn't matter. My dad's parents, well, his mother refused to buy Caro corn syrup because that and spaghetti were dinner-time staples because it was cheap. My grandfather bought things "just because he wanted them" because he'd grown up not being able to buy anything. He hoarded money in the house, never fully trusting banks.

    And I think we romanticize the past. There's a song out now on the country station called "Automatic" that's all about the wonderful days when you had to use coins in pay phones, and use maps, it was a 3-hour drive into the city to buy a new dress, and you wrung out clothes by hand and hung them in the backyard to dry. I suspect that if most of the folks who long for "the good old days" actually had to go back and live that way, they wouldn't be the "good old days" for long.

    Which reminds me of another song lyric from Billy Joel: The good old days weren't always good, and tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems.

    Book sounds fabulous Triss - best of luck!

  16. Huge fan of Brooklyn, here - welcome Triss! (My husband grew up in Flatbush; both daughters live there now (on adjacent floors of a brownstone in Sunset Park, and my mother grew up there.)

    Yeah, when I get together with my sisters and I mention something that happened when we were kids, they'll say, "It wasn't like that," and "You weren't there."

  17. Triss, what a great blog post. I can't wait to pick up a copy of your books. As a native New Yorker, I love reading mysteries set in New York, no matter what period.

    My dad was drafted 2 months before Pearl Harbor, and my uncle served in the navy during WWII. Neither one of them talked about their experiences except lightly. My father served in both Europe and Asia during the war. I had no idea that my father was in the Battle of the Bulge until after he died. It turned out that he had no problem talking about the war with my boyfriend and his male friends, but he felt uncomfortable sharing the more brutual elements with his daughter. Especially his basic training down south, and dealing with white officers. He even turned down the opportunity train as an officer because he didn't want to make the army a career.

    I do have some wonderful pictures of him from the war, as well as photos that he took in Avignon and Paris (he was in the invasion of Southern France in August of 1944). I asked my father the same thing you did Deb, about Saving Private Ryan, and he confirmed that it was accurate to what he experienced.

    I do remember him waxing nostalgic about the subway only costing a nickel and playing stickball in the street in Chelsea where he grew up.

    Now that I'm older, I wish I had asked more questions of him as well as my grandmother who came to this country as a young woman from Barbados.

  18. PS - The best novel I had ever read on this subject is Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger. I read it often to understand how she used subtle techniques to explore the fact of history versus the memory of the past.

  19. PS - The best novel I had ever read on this subject is Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger. I read it often to understand how she used subtle techniques to explore the fact of history versus the memory of the past.

  20. Deeply rooted in Brooklyn -- then and now (my father was born there; my mother went to high school there; my aunt was a nun in a cloistered convent there; and my youngest daughter lives there -- Carroll Gardens-- and teaches there -- Bay Ridge --now). Another daughter volunteered at the Tenement Museum about 15 years ago -- what a great place.

    Definitely one person's glory is often another's misery. I love "Gone With the Wind," yet know that the plantation life was a stark two-sided contrast.

    All we can do it try to understand, through a combination of "fact" and "memory" what has come before us.

    I remember a discussion about teaching history -- were we too "Eurocentric" and should we be more "Afrocentric"? And I thought of my own education was 100% Catholic-centric. We all have our points of view. Just listen and read.

  21. I think that's yet another reason why reading fiction is so wonderful — not only can we learn about history in terms of objecting facts, but we can learn history also in terms of a fictional character's subjective experience. To enter into someone else's mindset, particularly if it challenged your own view of history, may be the way we continue to develop empathy, both for characters and real people.

  22. Fascinating topic, Triss! I must get your books. They sound great.

    As far as the "good old days" go, people might think I would sit on the side of nostalgia since I spin, weave, and quilt, plus other old-time tasks like make soap. But I'm solidly in the camp of progress is better. I suspect the "good old days" folks have never had to scour a fleece or kill and clean a chicken or make every stitch of their clothes and their kids' by hand or use an outhouse, etc., etc. The good old days were full of dirt, germs, nastiness of all sorts, meanness, bigotry, and such hard work that only the profound fatigue could allow sleep to overcome the terrible aches and pains. People starved. People died young.

    I have lupus and just a few decades ago that diagnosis meant a maximum of five years to live, most of that in pain, increasingly disabled, and incapable of doing the simplest things for yourself. Think Flannery O'Connor. I'll take modern medicine and all the other modern aspects of society, such as laws protecting civil and human rights.

  23. Linda — Amen! Poeple always ask me if I'd like to go back and live in the 1940s, and I always say, "UM, NO WAY. I'd like to live in an era with the Polio vaccine, thanks!"

  24. I am with LInda and Susan on living in the good old days. When I was a young woman, in certain circles that was a popular idea, a more "authentic" life. And even then I looked at couples who had been together a few years without children (birth control!)and gone to college (not into a factory at 12), and thought, "Take a history class." Ex: President Coolidge's (the president!) son died at about age 12 from what started as an infected blister.I'll take penicillin, thank you.

  25. Kim, I love Penelope Lively. She is amazing. I read her books and don't think, "I wish I could write a book that good."I think, "I wish I could write THAT book."

  26. I've noticed war veterans open up only with each other, if at all. My son served in the Iraqi war, my husband in Vietnam. I learn more stuff if I can be a fly on the wall when they're talking with peers. Oh, they share funny stories and all, but the serious and scary stories are harder to squeeze out of them

  27. "History" and "memories" are interesting. I swear I could walk down a street with my mother and immediately afterwards we would tell two completely different stories of what happened in those 10 minutes!

    "The good old days are good and gone. That's why they're good, because they're gone." (Loudon Wainwright III, Old Friend)

  28. So so so true, Tess. With every new Lively book, I think, that's the book I want to write.

    I'm looking forward to reading your books, and I hope you'll be at Bouchercon this fall so we can meet up!

  29. Susan, thank you for introducing us to another mystery series. I look forward to reading Triss Stein's novel.

    Interesting about history and nostaglia. it's been said that "history" is another way of saying his story. It has been said that history is written by the victors or winners.

    Loved your Maggie Hope novels. Funny story ~ I already bought your books then a few months later, I received your books as Christmas gifts. I thought it was cool.

    Look forward to the new Maggie Hope novel this year and to reading the new Brooklyn book by Triss Stein.


  30. Whenever people start to romanticize olden times, I think of two words: sod house. That represents all the historic discomfort I'd like to leave in the past.

  31. Hi everyone, just loved reading all your wonderful comments! Triss certainly has a gift at bringing people together!!!!!!! Rarely have I seen to many lively comments !!!! She'll be our guest on Crime Writer's Chronicle Sunday, April6. Hope to see each of you visiting her there at www.crimewriters.blogspot.com --- just next door in Manhattan. BTW, so many of your comments make me recall my memories of WW 2, on the beach at Norfolk, VA, where we kids daily hunted on the beach for washed-up German trophies - food rations, weapons, pieces of submarines and, yes, dead body parts. Doubt if most folks in Norfolk recall that memory of WW 2, as this was was out on the edge of the bay, but still part of the city of Norfolk! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

  32. From Kim <>

    Yes, I will be at B'con in November! Looking forward to meeting people from today in person, like Kim, and re-meeting Edith M. and others. I'll be at Malice too - a short hop from here- come say hello.

    I am SO enjoying this conversation - writing, history and mysteries. What more could anyone want?

  33. Fascinating subject, Triss, and your book sounds wonderful. I don't know Brooklyn at all, but have many friends who live there. And books are always the best introduction to an unfamiliar place, aren't they?

    I remember reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, so I suspect my idea of Brooklyn is quite a few years out of date...

    And interesting the emotional context we give to words. I lived in a "tenement" flat in Edinburgh, which immediately conjures ups something decrepit and bug-infested. It was, however, a beautiful Georgian building. The only things wrong with it were that it was cold (!) and it was a fourth-floor walk up. Unless my memory has romanticized it:-)

  34. Thanks, Triss. You sure know how to start a dialog. I write mysteries set in Hollywood just after WWII. Often when I talk to readers, the conversation turns to film, and they’ll say, “They just don’t make movies like they used to.” By which of course they mean the films were better. I’m a great fan of period film, but I’m still surprised at the intensity of their conviction about films that – while I might love them – are not perfect by any means. They were however simpler, in that truly distressing subjects were rarely tackled. Morality was dependable back then. Justice and virtue would triumph. The Production Code wouldn’t have it any other way.

  35. Thank you -hmdt (although I'm sorry you ended up with two copies of the books. Maybe turn second set into doorstops or leave on a park bench?)

    Bouchercon '14! Who's in and wants to go margarita-drinking with Kim Fay and me?

  36. I'm always fascinated by people who remember details from their past. My mother used to get so upset with me because I didn't remember so many things she did for me as a child. My old neighborhoods are very, very vague indeed.

  37. Everything is time, space, and culture bound. POV rules truth, and out of place Familiarity kills understanding. When you insert yourself into the past you carry all of your ever changing POV with you. You can't do more than work hard at seeing and feeling what it might have been like. It is a worthwhile trip to take, because how else can you understand?

  38. POV definitely, Reine! There's a Facebook page for people who grew up in the neighborhood where I grew up. One of my sisters told me about it. I don't check it out very often. My sister and I joke that the people who have the most glowing memories of growing up there were the bullies! Those of us who were The Bullied have a whole different set of memories.

  39. Susan, count on me for B'con drinks.

  40. I had a funny phone call today that relates to this topic -- a friend called and I asked her a question about a Shinto shrine we had visited together in Kyoto several years ago. She asked a lot of questions to jog her memory.
    And then she said, "Oh. I remember we were in the cable car going up the mountain and you talked with a woman who had a baby, and she gave you the baby to hold."
    I have NO MEMORY of that baby!!

  41. Ooh, yes, B'con, margaritas, Susan, Triss and all others who want to join in! November is so far away :(

  42. Good night, all. It's been great visiting with you today, thanks to the Reds for inviting me, and I hope to see some of you at Malice (soon!) or Bouchercon. Triss

  43. Late posting because I spent the weekend rereading Time and Again. I'm a real sucker for accurate historicals. That said, as someone who is fast becoming a relic herself, I can tell you two things: history is personal (so your view of what happened is colored by your personal experience), and the magazines and history books often get it wrong because they generalize.

    There used to be an old vaudeville tagline, "Vas you dere, Chollie?" I WAS there, in a lot of instances. And missed others (Woodstock, for example) because I was somewhere else (Tuscany, as it happens, at that time). I think that the worst thing you can do is write historical fiction that takes place within living memory. If you have it rain on a certain morning in NYC, someone will say, "No, it didn't, because that was my wedding/graduation/moving day, and I remember." Few can challenge you if you make it rain on a day when Henry VIII rode through your village.

  44. I think it's tricky to write accurately about history in fiction, because readers have notions about past eras that are skewed by a kind of historical nostalgia. For instance, readers "know" that women drew lines up the back of their calves to simulate the seams in stockings. (Isn't that cute!) But that the same women took commando training at the YWCA in Brooklyn so they'd be prepared to deal with the enemy in case of invasion, now that's a bit unsettling (to say the least). And it's been conveniently forgotten. Nostalgia tends to embrace the comfortable, and many readers are more comfortable with what they already "know."