“I wanted to write a richly populated novel,” Brendan Mathews says of his debut, The World of Tomorrow (Little, Brown, Sept.), which includes many characters: three Irish brothers, a Bronx politician, an heiress, a mob boss, and a young Jewish photographer facing deportation to Czechoslovakia. Each takes center stage in this complex story.
Set primarily in New York in 1939, the book’s name comes from the motto of that year’s World’s Fair and its promise that industry would make life better after a long economic slump. “It was an important year,” Mathews says. “It was the end of one era and the beginning of another.”
The optimism of the faith that the future would be bright and beautiful and that everything would work out sets the tone of the novel. “Everyone in the book is chasing one kind of dream or another, or working to make themselves new,” Mathews says. “The book explores whether it’s possible to ever leave your past behind. There are different answers for each character. The large cast of characters allowed me to have different answers.”
The inspiration for the book came from works by Edward P. Jones, E.L. Doctorow, and Zadie Smith. “The Known World was the star I was shooting for, a star I knew I would never reach. That book is such a masterpiece. Its structure is endlessly fascinating. It moves from time to time and character to character. It has moral reach,” Mathews says. “Ragtime—it’s so completely steeped in a certain era. And White Teeth, you feel London on every single page of the book. No one makes a walk-on. Everyone has their own time.”
The starting point for The World of Tomorrow was Mathews’s paternal grandfather, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland as a young man in 1929. He wanted to become a big-band leader, but became an upstate carpet dealer instead. “I started thinking,” Mathews says, “what if he had stuck around New York? What if music had worked out? My grandmother says he gave it up because he couldn’t make any money at it. But later she admitted he made money. What if he hadn’t become respectable? In my novel I gave him brothers—and the scope of the book kept expanding.”
The biggest challenge Mathews, a professor of literature and creative writing at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, faced was finding time to write. “I have four kids, a wife who works, and a full-time job,” he says. “But I couldn’t have written it without being a father. Believing I could do it was also a big thing. I’m 48 years old, and this is my first novel. I’m a slow writer. That stopped me from starting.”
Mathews hopes readers will take away from his book the realization that people’s lives are filled with stories. “Everyone is a protagonist,” he says.
Today, 10–10:45 a.m. Brendan Mathews will participate in the Adult Author Buzz Panel on the Uptown Stage.
Today, 3:30–4 p.m. Mathews will be signing in the Autographing Area, at Table 6.