Journalist/radio personality Kurt Andersen takes on the 19th century in an old-fashioned historical novel, Heyday.
You're known for your contemporaneousness. What made you write a book about America in the 1840s?
The first germ of the idea was two amazing events that happened in 1848: the revolution in Paris on February 27 and the discovery of gold in California on January 24. The proximity of these events struck me as an interesting coincidence and the more I read about the era, the more obsessed I became. So much seemed resonant: the commune stuff reminded me of the late '60s, and our first elective foreign war with Mexico made me think, here we are in Iraq, another elective war 160 years later. It all seemed so connected to the way we live now.
How did you research the everyday details of the time period?
I used a lot of diaries. I found them useful to get a sense of the language that was spoken. Books of the time, Dickens, Hawthorne, are written with a stylized literary formality, but reading diaries you get a sense of the vernacular in addition to learning what people ate and how they went to the bathroom
Why did you choose to incorporate famous figures like Darwin?
It was irresistible. I told Anne Godoff, who commissioned the book, that I was tempted to have real people walk on but it seems cheesy, and she said, go ahead, and I realized I loved that as a reader so I indulged myself.
How is writing fiction different for you than journalism?
Totally different. Putting sentences together is putting sentences together, but making up this universe that you're lord of is nothing like explaining what you think of intelligent design in 1,400 words. If I could only do one thing, it would be fiction. I can write journalism in the afternoon whereas I'm useless for fiction after lunch. I write fiction and then go off and do the radio stuff and/or work on a column. For me, to be all alone in my head all morning, and then have a place to go to, a water cooler, essentially, where I can hang and talk, it's a very nice balance.
Did you have one book in mind when you set out to write Heyday?
I didn't, although even though it's nothing like this one, if I had to point to one book that was tremendously influential for my sense of what historical fiction could be, it's Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale. That book did sort of change my life.