Pete Hamill’s new novel is North River, published by Little, Brown this week. Hamill spoke to PW about the book and his writing plans for the future.
In your new novel why did you decide to write about the Depression in Greenwich Village in 1934, the year before you were born?
There were several reasons. One is [my last novel] Forever. I had to trim out most of the Depression. After I finished the book on September 10, 2001 and the events of the next few days happened I knew I couldn’t have this long novel from the 1740s to the present and not have the most appalling calamity of our history. And I had to cut some space. I just glided over the Depression. I wanted to do the Depression because it had shaped my father’s generation in one way or the other—people were wounded by it permanently. They carried scars around from the Depression. They became cops and firemen because of the security offered by the civil service.
Your hero, James Finbar Delaney, is a medical doctor.
I wanted to write about a hero who was not obvious, who was not a cop or a fireman or an infantry man. To me doctors and nurses and teachers are heroes, doing often infinitely more difficult work than the more flamboyant kind of a hero. I wanted him to be a good man. I didn’t want to have a hero who was a prick and then was redeemed. He had been in the war, he knew what wars were like. These days we’re dealing with similar kinds of kids, who get benumbed by what the [Iraq] war did to them, who were cheated of the kind of lives they had imaged. [Delaney] wanted to be a surgeon, but was wounded in such a way he could not be a surgeon, but could be a GP. During World War II, there were doctors in our neighborhood who did house calls and if we didn’t have the money they put it on the bill, the way grocery stores did. And I wanted that sense of community, solidarity—I hate the word—but that’s what it was, our tribe against the world. So I wanted that sense of a place.
The big struggle, of course, was to make sure that I didn’t sentimentalize this. I always make a distinction between nostalgia and sentimentality. Nostalgia is genuine—you mourn things that actually happened. Ebbets Field got torn down. Penn Station is gone. Certain nightclubs and bars where you had laughter when you were a kid, gone. Whereas sentimentality is a lie. Sentimentality is having a scene where soldiers stand up and sing ‘God Bless America’ at Verdun in the Ardennes.
I wanted to fight all the way through and I wanted to write a love story for grown-ups. Not chick-lit or mick-lit or prick-lit, but a subject that’s in human literature since the beginning. The odyssey is not going out and seeing the world, it’s about trying to get home. It’s home to the woman you love. When you get to be my age—I’m 71—you think what were the important things in your life? And the important things in most every case were family, love, reading, helping somebody whenever you could.
New York—much of it in the distant past—is the focus of your novels like Forever and Snow in August. Why?
I think it goes back to the way I grew up. My father couldn’t move around New York because he only had one leg. So we knew New York—when I say New York I mean Manhattan because we were living in Brooklyn—we knew because our mother took us by the hand. When I say ‘we’ I mean me and my brother Tommy. She would take these two kids and show them and explain what Trinity Church was and that there were people called ‘Protestants.’ [Hamill laughs.] She never made comments making fun of anybody like that. So she would take us around to Chinatown and the west side piers because her father had worked for the Cunard Lines.
Once [my grandfather] had his second child, my mother and her brother, he decided he couldn’t live in Belfast as a Catholic. He had seen the world and he wanted to live—where else would you live?—in New York where nobody is going to say ‘what are you?’; ‘what church do you go to?’ So he came to New York when my mother was a little girl. She was five when he got killed in an accident falling off a ship in Brooklyn.
So your Belfast mother had a tremendous effect on you?
I remember once we went to Times Square from Brooklyn because my brother Tom and I loved going to visit the Normandie [sunk in the north river by fire in 1942], which was on its side. Each time we got there there was less of it because they were dismantling it. We were on our way there from Times Square and we passed what we called in those days a ‘bum’—he would now be called homeless—and he had a cup and he was begging and my brother Tommy and I made some remarks about a ‘bum.’ And I must have been nine and Tommy was 7 and she got furious and said, ‘don’t you ever look down on anybody unless you’re giving them a hand to get up.’ I don’t think she was a saint. I think it was that whole generation of Irishmen and Jews and Italians and everybody in this town who felt you don’t look down on people. Help them because if you don’t help them who the fuck is going to help them? And it stayed with me all my life.
What are you working on now?
The book I’m working on now takes place over a day-and-a-half in today’s New York. Basically it’s about time, which is such a vague thing to say. What time does to old people, and kids, and the urgencies of time in a city like New York. Where everybody is worried about it. They keep looking for clocks. They’re double-parked and hope the [meter] guy doesn’t come. I want to give the sense of time being a metronome, pushing you faster and faster. Particularly if you’re old, so there’s some older characters. There’s a newspaper that’s going to collapse because of the Internet. So there’re some themes that interest me. It’s about how time warps things and the way when you get older you regret you’ve not done this. You regret you never went to the Hermitage or you didn’t follow it up with that woman or that man. There’re all kinds of regret, which is not the same as remorse. You have these disappointments and these defeats, but you’ll also have some triumphs. I’m about 150 pages in.
And you’re thinking about writing one about your Belfast father?
The one after that I’m going to do a very tight small novel about my father and football. When I’m in Mexico I watch a lot of soccer and it chokes me up sometimes. I keep seeing my father. I see someone kicked and sprawled and I see him. And boom he didn’t have the American life he thought he was going to have. He couldn’t cash in because of his [amputated] leg. I want to go through the time he comes to America, how he loses his leg, and what that does to him. And how five years later he’s at Webster Hall and this woman [who would become Hamill’s mother] comes over and asks him to dance and he says, ‘I don’t dance.’ With one leg he gets up and dances. That’s the rough idea. It’s a sketch at the moment, but I’m accumulating stuff.
I remember asking Mailer once, ‘why would you write a book about Picasso?’ He says, ‘To get closer to him.’ Mailer was talking about someone he never knew, but to try and enter and understand it more is what the writing helps you do. I can get closer to Belfast. I can get closer to Brooklyn in 1927.
You’ve settled into novel writing. Do you think you ever want to write a column again or write "hard" journalism?
Only once a day.
You teach at NYU and you’ve donated your papers to the Fales Library at NYU. Why did you decide to do that at this time?
It’s manuscripts, tapes, galleys, marked page proofs. The reason I chose NYU was someone at the Morgan Library asked me, but they were basically interested in the fiction. I thought if there’s going to be a collection of my stuff it should be both. I couldn’t have been the novelist I was without being the journalist I was. Journalists might want to listen to my interview with somebody to see how I might have handled the interview, compared with other people. I wish we had that with Mencken or something. And the literary department might be interested in the whole process of the writing of the novel because there’s so many different stages that you go through, at least I go through. I don’t sit down and write the first sentence and sprint to the end.
You can’t just take the research and type it into the book. You have to let it marinate somehow, so that it becomes memory—and then not your memory as the writer, but the character’s memory and that’s an odd process. That’s why the history stuff takes longer. One of the things I try to do is to write books that only I can write. They either come out of my experience or my family or the neighborhood I came from, which doesn’t mean they’re better than anybody else’s, but you’d have to put a gun to my head to have me write a book about O.J. Simpson, you know what I mean?