Saturday, December 19, 2015

Boston v. NY, Literary Edition with Connie Mayo #Bookgiveaway

HALLIE EPHRON: Today we're thrilled to host Connie Hertzberg Mayo, author of ISLAND OF WORTHY BOYS which is a finalist for the USA Best Book Awards (Historical Fiction category.) It's set in 19th Century Boston, and tells the story of two boys fleeing a robbery gone horribly wrong.

How did you decide to set your book in Boston?
CONNIE MAYO: Some authors think of their story first and then
find a good setting. For me, it was the opposite - I knew I wanted to write about The Boston Farm School on Thompson Island before I knew anything about the story.

I was fascinated with the idea of 100 boys ages 8 to 14 living on an island at the turn of the century, in the same building with their (female) teachers and all the staff. When I finally worked out the details, I decided that my protagonists start the story in Boston and end up conning their way into this school in the middle of the book. So I ended up needing to do a lot of research on turn-of-the-century Boston.

But a weird thing happened with all that Googling - occasionally, I would turn up things about New York City. No other city, just New York. And soon it became clear that for many years, these two cities had a fierce rivalry going on, starting way before there was baseball.

HALLIE: Why those two cities?

CONNIE: They have had polar-opposite personalities. Think of Boston, founded by Puritans, as the pious aunt who's saying things like "cleanliness is next to godliness", and New York, established by Dutch traders, as the fun uncle who passes you a beer at family dinners.

And yet with these wildly different cultures, they were both port cities at similar stages of development. New York commerce leaps ahead with the opening of the Erie Canal! But wait, Boston forges ahead as a leader in rail transportation! Always trying to best each other. Ultimately, New York - second largest city in the world in 1900, behind London - had the undeniable advantage of just being much bigger than Boston.

But what I found fascinating was that both cities had these
royalty-like families that ruled the roost - the Brahmins in Boston and the Knickerbockers in New York. And this is what I believe makes both cities such great backdrops for novels set at the turn of the century.

You had these hideously rich and snobby elitists in neighborhoods not too far away from just the rankest, most impoverished areas. The most infamous was Five Points in New York, at the tip of Manhattan. For crime, disease and debauchery, it just couldn't be beat - and less than four miles away, you had the residences of the Astors and the Vanderbilts. The contrasts in New York were inspirational for books such as Caleb Carr's The Alienist, Lindsey Faye's The Gods of Gotham and Charles Belfoure's House of Thieves, to name a few.

For Boston, it was the Brahmins of Beacon Hill and Back Bay, who counted among them selves families of U.S. Presidents (Adams, Coolidge, Delano), current politicians (John Kerry, Bill Weld, Lincoln Chafee) and educational institutions (Choate, Emerson). They even inspired their own poem, "Boston Toast":

And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots,
And the Cabots talk only to God.
These families lived just a few miles from the brothels and saloons of Scollay Square and the Waterfront district. All that contrast gave us Boston-based books like Dennis Lehane's The Given Day, Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club, and Katherine Howe's The House of Velvet and Glass.

And yet, I didn't choose to depict the Boston upper classes in your novel. There came a point at which I just became oversaturated with the descriptions of opulence - it started to seem like wealth porn. I remember reading a book a few years ago where there were all these New York debutante balls with abundant descriptions of tiaras and gowns, and when there came a line describing the 18 buttons on the girl's gloves, I just closed the book. It seemed so vacuous when I knew that only miles away, there were people with real problems - hunger, bad sanitation, basic needs not being met.

This huge disparity of wealth in both these cities at the turn of the century is relevant in today's world.After all, it was in 2011 that the phrase "We Are the 99%" was coined. Seems like they could have used that more than a century ago.

So who wins the literary setting smackdown between Boston and New York? I think art imitates life. New York won the commerce rivalry, in part due to the super-sized wealth of the Knickerbockers. An afternoon of mansion tours in Newport will attest to that. And I think that ultimately attracts more authors to write about the outsized lives that these families lived - and the infamy of Five Points, which was just legendary. That's fine with me, because I felt like it gave me more space to write something original about Boston.

HALLIE: So to me as a former New Yorker living near Boston, the "rivalry" between the cities (except for baseball) has always seemed silly. Now I appreciate its roots. 

So Reds, weigh in! Is it the wealthy or the commoners who fascinate you? New York or Boston? Connie is giving away a copy of THE ISLAND OF WORTHY BOYS to one lucky commenter.

Orphaned in 1889 Boston at age ten, Charles has survived alone on the streets for years, rolling drunks and sleeping in alleys. He's convinced himself he doesn't need anyone. But when his old schoolmate Aidan shows up asking to be cut in, they team up to rob drunken sailors whenever the whores don't get there first. Life is pretty grand, until a routine robbery takes a murderous turn, and they have to skip town before they're cuffed and thrown in the back of the paddy wagon.

With the help of a prostitute that owes Charles a favor, the boys pose as virtuous Protestant brothers and con their way into an island school in Boston Harbor that only admits the "worthy poor". Superintendent Bradley is obsessed with keeping the bad element out of his school, so the boys need to keep their story straight. But their friendship splinters when Aidan's assimilation with the other boys leaves Charles out in the cold. When another boy sniffs out the Irish Catholic in Aidan, and Boston's Finest arrive on the island, the boys must decide: do they face the threat of jail together, or risk being split up forever?


  1. There are things about both the historical wealthy and commoners that are interesting, but sometimes it seems shallow to be focused on fancy balls and dinner parties when so many didn't even have the basic necessities . . . .
    As for the cities, both are fascinating, but I find I tend to gravitate toward historical Boston stories.

    This island of young boys is something I'd never heard about; a must-add book for my teetering to-be-read pile.

  2. such a fascinating story Connie! I know New York better than Boston, which always seems mysterious to me. So I'm very interested in this island of boys.

    Had to laugh out loud at you closing the book after the buttons were described. This reminds me a little of Downton Abby--maybe what's really interesting about that show is the downstairs folk...

  3. My heart's in Boston, but my favorite New York stories focus on the neighborhoods of real people--the ones I can relate to. As for Boston, I love it when some new aspect of my favorite city is revealed. Another book for my pile!

  4. agreed FChurch - NY is so many different neighborhoods and if you live there you avoid Times Square which is what most tourists see. My kids live in Brooklyn in Sunset Park, the highest part of Brooklyn with spectacular views of Manhattan, in a pulsing mostly Mexican neighborhood. Ten blocks away it's mostly Asian. My sister lives in a quiet (yes, there is one) neighborhood in Manhattan that feels like it got frozen in 1950. What I think makes both Boston and NYC great is the mass transit. I don't think I could live somewhere where I couldn't get around without a car. (though it's nice to be somewhere where you can park it when you get there)

  5. The line "An afternoon of mansion tours in Newport will attest to that," sang to me. It seems that even these mansions were another result of the rivalry. Wasn't there often a perception on the part of the Boston upper class to see their NY counterparts as merchants? Perhaps the Newport mansions were a way for the New Yorkers to make their grab at New England and its more aristocratic connections. I've always been fascinated by the intersection of wealth and poverty and how that changed both classes.

  6. What fascinates me is imagining the daily lives of lots of different people, including those who struggle daily. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a perennial favorite, as much for the descriptions of life in a tenement as for the coming of age story. It's meaningful, in a way that descriptions of lavish gowns and balls can never be, unless they're part of a huge sea change in a character's life. I also think such contrasts are one of the big appeals of the Australian TV show based on Kerry Greenwood's Miss Fisher books, as well. Phrynie has the clothes and the lifestyle, but the other characters are mostly working class.

    Recently, a (male) friend and I had a sort of debate about whether or not fiction was worth reading (he doesn't concede that I won, but he is urging me to read Go Set a Watchman so we can discuss it). My contention about the worthiness of fiction is that we learn much more about the times, historic or current events, or historic figures, if we can place ourselves in the situation via a fictional exchange or event. I know my understanding of the events around WWI and WWII were greatly enhanced by reading novels about that time. Knowing as many fiction authors as I do, and knowing how much research goes into many of your books, I'm always willing to dive into the "life and times", and open to benefit from all your hard work.

  7. Oh, the is completely wonderful..thank you!

    I have had a tiny peek into the lives of the Boston Brahmins--and I can say--they ARE different from the rest of us. My husband is from New York--though he calls it "the city."

  8. I like reading about the lives of ordinary people - in any age the way the rich live is so divorced from the way the majority of the world gets on. I suspect you see the rich in historical fiction because that's how most of us like to imagine ourselves living in the past - everyone wants to be a lady and no one wants to be the laundress!

  9. Karen, I agree absolutely. Reading fiction has sparked my interest in so many times and places, as far back as elementary school. (When I drove with a friend along the road from Lexington to Concord for the first time, I had chills and all I could think about was Johnny Tremain. How many of you read that book in school??)

    Connie, your book sounds fascinating! I'd like to know more about Boston. Although I don't have strong ties to either city, I've leaned towards the NY side on stories. I love all the different neighborhoods in New York, with their different cultures and histories. In that sense it reminds me of London.

  10. What I love most about historical fiction is that it contains and explores the lesser-known aspects of the bigger picture, back stories running rampant that tie to and enhance the well-known events. I probably gravitate towards the more common folk in my reading, but I have to admit a fascination with the grand lifestyles of that other world, the untouchable wealthy. Connie, your book is my favorite kind of historical fiction due to its completely unknown to me setting. An island for boys. Fascinating! I can't wait to read this one, and it's going on my Christmas list.

  11. I'd prefer a balance--a bit of each. Exclusively dealing with the rich can get cloying. Only the abject poverty can get depressing.

  12. Hi all! So happy to be a part of Jungle Red Writers!

  13. Kait Carson, my favorite story about Newport Mansions that I heard during a tour was when one of these insanely rich families threw a party, and of course they all had to be themed in some way - this one had a beach theme and the dinner table was covered with sand, and everyone had little shovels and the guests were supposed to dig around for jewels, and you could keep whatever you found. I find that sort of stuff fascinating and nauseating at the same time!

  14. Lucy Burdette, speaking of the "downstairs" folk, I am also fascinated by the smallpox hospital on Roosevelt island in the mid 1900s, because all people diagnosed with smallpox during a certain era were required by law to be quarantined there - rich and poor alike. So naturally, there were the upper floors for the rich that contributed financially to their stay, and those quarter were pretty swank, and then there were the downstairs floors for the poor that were horrible. That setting is one of several I am toying with for my next novel.

  15. New York and Boston are both pretty much foreign countries to me. I enjoy historical fiction set anywhere if it's a good story. It's a bonus to get an engaging history lesson at the same time. Shout out here to Susan: just finished Mrs Roosevelt's Confidante and enjoyed it so much. Gimme.

  16. Karen in Ohio: I love that you mention both A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and To Kill A Mockinbird (by way of Go Set a Watchman) in your comment - two of my three favorite books as a teen. (The other was Gone With The Wind.) If anyone ever asked me what was the one book that most influenced The Island of Worthy Boys, it would be A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, hands down.

  17. Connie, I'm so late and very sorry.

    I moved to Boston from Marblehead when I was a teenager. Truly a North Shore girl I found the things I needed to grow up and start my adult life there in Boston. My family there made a good home for me when I needed it, and the city came through for me, too. I have never been able to imagine that happening in NYC... no never. We went there for excitement then back home.

    Thompson's Island, though? Scary place. No Boston kid ever wanted to go there.

    I will read your book. Wish I could have won it but missed reading the blog for this, of all days!

    Terrific post and interview, Hallie.