Foreword Reviews

Fast-paced Historical Adventure: An Interview with Novelist Justin Reed

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Novelists are artists, to be sure, but that flattering description too often overshadows the plain ol’ hard work of research, pounding out sentences, self editing, and maintaining discipline required to finish a quality manuscript. It’s the 99 percent perspiration, 1 percent inspiration thing—with an added bonus: the more work a writer puts in, the more his skills improve. Take Ernest Hemingway’s word for it: “It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.”

In However Long the Day, Justin Reed offers such a convincing depiction of New York City in the tumultuous year of 1918 that readers might question the book’s categorization as a work of fiction. Whether Reed did his homework is never in doubt. In her review for Foreword’s January/February 2022 issue, Wendy Hinman writes that the novel “momentum is maintained through engaging actions,” and that “period details—as of the Spanish flu, the imminent threats posed by Prohibition, and the struggles of new immigrants and poor people—make for an intriguing background to the complicated plot.”

Hoping to glean secrets into Reed’s writing process and sources of literary inspiration, we asked Hinman to follow up with a few thoughtful questions.

However Long the Day-Justin Reed “…an entertaining crime caper set in an immersive period in New York City.”-Foreword Reviews order on bookshop.org

Tell me how you came up with the idea for However Long the Day. What initially inspired your story?

A story prompt from an Instagram follower.

In May 2020, I was in a writing funk. I had written a novel I wasn’t happy with, and lacked motivation to press forward on my second draft. I needed a writerly diversion, a way to clear my head. It was month two of COVID lockdown, and I woke up one day with an idea.

I solicited my Instagram followers for short story prompts. I didn’t have many followers at the time, so I felt comfortable promising a story to everyone who bothered to send me a prompt. Each story had some kind of connection to a pandemic. I called the collection of stories Quarantine Tales or something similar. I hoped to entertain people in lockdown while also experimenting with some new writing techniques.

I received quite a few messages, and I wrote a few stories I published on my website for my followers. One of the prompts—An alien and a boy switch places, like the Parent Trap but with aliens—sparked something inside me. I discovered, after 4,000 words, I had written a first chapter rather than a complete story.

For this story—and all the stories I wrote at the time—I endeavored to wriggle out of the creative box into which the prompt placed me. I played with the definition and historical usage of the word alien. The prompt gave birth to my protagonist—an Irish immigrant (an alien, in the parlance of the day) newly arrived in 1918 New York City—and my antagonist—a rich ne’er-do-well from Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

I wrote sans outline (one of the techniques I explored), and discovered the plot as I went. In truth, I discovered a plot, of which only fragments remained beyond the first draft. What I really discovered were the characters. I came to understand them, to anticipate their reactions to various situations, to nestle them into alleys, parlors, stoops, and hidden passages. The novel blossomed from there.

As for inspiration, another less direct answer exists, one that emerged midway through the first draft: me. I found myself pouring one part of me into the young immigrant, and another part of me into the young ne’er-do-well. I found I wasn’t at war with myself, but there were parts of my being that didn’t share the same ambitions, and were thus in frequent conflict. This flowed onto the page and saturated the main characters and their actions on the night of October 15, 1918.

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Your novel is about a heist set in 1918 Manhattan. It features impending prohibition and the Spanish Flu among other details of the day. How did you go about doing your historical research?

As I broke free from the creative bonds established by the original story prompt, and as the idea of setting the story in 1918 Manhattan took root, I immersed myself in a variety of resources from the time. I wanted to see the locales as they were. I wanted to understand the realities of daily life. How did people move around? What products, careers, and technology existed? What was emerging? Which neighborhoods were ascending, and which were descending? What did people wear? How did they speak? How did they view each another?

I wanted to close my eyes and see the streets of Carnegie Hill, Yorkville, and East Harlem. I wanted to picture characters moving in those streets, and I wanted to hear what they had to say in whatever accent they said it. I wanted to feel like I was a part of the era.

I used many resources: books, maps, photographs, newspaper articles, magazines, advertisements, music, catalogs, police reports, menus, and more. Most were published between 1915 and 1921. The New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library were vital, as was the Library of Congress. The archival, curation, and digitization efforts of these librarians brought 1918 New York to life for me.

That was the baptism by history phase, and that was enough to get me started, but the research continued almost every day until I finished the final draft. There was a just-in-time quality to this ongoing effort, with many adventures down historical side streets prompted by my characters’ experiences.

I looked up scores of product histories in this phase. Cold cereal. Cookies. Building toys. Automobiles. Magazines. Trains. Toasters. Handcuffs. Handguns. Hand lotion. Vacuum cleaners. And on and on and on. If I mentioned something, even by allusion, I wanted to be as accurate as possible.

The ongoing research went beyond the incidentals my characters encountered. Transportation was an important topic to understand, considering some of the major ways people traversed Manhattan in 1918 no longer exist. The elevated trains that served Second and Third Avenues were demolished during World War II. The streetcars became buses soon after. The Second Avenue Subway, first proposed in the years after World War I, didn’t open until 2017. The realities of long lost stations drove a number of plotlines as characters moved through their setting.

Language and dialect were topics of ongoing research. Classes, races, and ethnicities—each with their own idioms, rhythms, and colloquialisms—collide in However Long the Day. I strived to give each their due, which meant finding slang dictionaries from the time, contemporary dialogue in books and magazines (though these sources were dangerous, as they sometimes tilted toward caricature), and sources like diaries that provided a grounded representation of how people spoke.

As a side note, I dialed back the use of accent—especially phonetic pronunciation—for readability. There was too much of it in the first few drafts, and it weighed down the dialogue. I kept much of the distinct vocabulary (eejit, for example) with the hope the reader would hear the character with the proper accent.

Your novel features layers of corruption and criminal activity during the period. How did you uncover factual historical details and invent characters to create a believable fictional story?

The idea of including crime and corruption came four or five chapters into the first draft. This was one of the topics that interrupted my writing with a long research diversion. I needed to get a feel for how city politics worked at the time, how an aggressive, ambitious person might work up the ranks, and how corruption entered the picture for an individual politician.

Organized crime was tricky. My mental image of mobs in New York City—no doubt driven by popular culture—leaped from Gangs of New York (1870’s Five Points Gang, rivals from Hell’s Kitchen and elsewhere) to The Untouchables (late 1920’s Chicago Outfit bootleggers). The setting for However Long the Day fell into the gap between these well known fence posts, so I began to ask a lot of questions. What criminal enterprises existed in 1918? What were their primary activities? How did they operate? Where were they located?

Again, the resources available through various libraries were indispensable, as were blogs focused on the subjects of New York history, mob history, and law enforcement history. Books were too much, at least on this topic. I wanted an overview, not a deep understanding of specific gangs (the usual tact for such works).

I felt I could take some liberties with the criminal element in However Long the Day. By their nature, gangs are a secretive bunch so there was ample room in the historical record for my supposition and extrapolation. Historical detour: it doesn’t appear gangsters planned on Prohibition turning into their main source of revenue. The United States went dry on January 17, 1920, but it took four or five years for organized crime to recognize the profits in hooch. Surely this shortsightedness wasn’t universal, and therein lurked an opportunity for a writer of fiction.

One question drove deeper analysis: did female mob bosses exist at the time? Not many, but there were a few. Stephanie St. Clair captured my imagination, and became the spiritual model after which I patterned two characters in However Long the Day. “Queenie” St. Clair, a woman of color from the Caribbean by way of Canada, has a complex history. Depending on what you read, she was a champion of her race and provider of financial services when white-owned firms wouldn’t serve Blacks. Or she was a ruthless murderer on par with every other thug in the city, irrespective of race or gender. Again, ample opportunity for a writer of fiction.

You captured the subtleties of horse drawn carriages as automobiles began to take hold, as well as the dress and colloquialisms of the period for various classes and ethnicities. How did you bring your scenes alive with these historical details? (As someone who is also researching and writing historical fiction, I know it can be hard to let go of historical details that are fascinating but don’t propel the story forward.) How do you decide what to cut?

A challenging problem, and one I thought about often while I wrote and revised However Long the Day. I invested significant time digging into various aspects of history. Each outlay created its own inertia, each fact its own weight. I wanted the effort to pay off, so I found myself weaseling historical tidbits into the plot where they didn’t belong.

These details were salt. When I eat something, I can tell when there’s too much or too little salt. The dish just doesn’t taste right. When I eat a properly seasoned meal, all I taste is the delicious food. The first time I read through my first draft, I knew I had oversalted. A lot. And in many ways. A big part of the second draft was removing unnecessary historical detail.

There is more danger in oversalting than undersalting. Too many historical facts—spooned over the story for no other reason than showcasing the author’s knowledge—bog down the plot, distract from the characters, and do little to enhance the themes of a historical novel. The reader knows when she’s getting a lecture.

On the other hand, the reader can compensate for missing historical facts. She can ask her imagination to pass the salt. Too few historical facts—sparse or nonexistent description, infrequent setting cues, modern dialogue, and a host of other things of which I’m probably guilty—may leave the reader unmoored. Yet with a dash here or there, she can fill in the blanks on her own.

Here are some questions I asked myself while I worked on my later drafts: What can the character whose perspective I’m narrating see, hear, feel, smell, and taste? What else are they aware of, beyond their physical senses? How much description is necessary, meaning, how much should I narrate because the reader has no other way of understanding the scene? How much description is pleasing, meaning, how much should I describe because it fits the tone of the scene, even if said description isn’t necessary?

A few topics spurred most of these inquiries. Dialogue in general, and the use of dialect, colloquialisms, and ethnic/class idioms specifically. Clothing and what characters were wearing. Buildings, landmarks, and other cityscape details. Products and product usage.

Your novel highlights issues of immigration, wealth inequality, poverty, plus gender and race relations during the era. How did you discover the facts that underlie your story?

From one perspective, I discovered these facts the same way I discovered all the other facts about However Long the Day: careful research, both before the principal writing began, and throughout the writing of each draft.

From another perspective—a less diplomatic but more honest perspective: What facts? On the topic of how real people treated each other on a daily basis, the historical record is warped. The author of each account writes his own biases and views into the story. Depending on the source, most politicians were corrupt. Or most were fighting the good fight. Most white people went about their business not thinking about race. Or they were implicit racists who ignored the plight of their fellow citizens. Most police officers were honorable. Or most corrupt. And on and on.

Piecing together societal norms to impose on my characters was the most vexing aspect of my research. Novels and short stories from the time helped paint the picture, as did crime statistics, newspaper reports, and police blotters (for what was said and unsaid). Firsthand accounts and photographs filled in many blanks.

The facts I most relied on were the historically documented societal events of the time (plus or minus five years): World War I, Suffrage, Temperance, the Great Migration, the Spanish Flu, the Harlem Renaissance, the end of open American immigration policy.

I studied the arguments around these movements and events from all sides, and, with the other resources mentioned, attempted to weave a social fabric into which the characters in However Long the Day could be stitched.

Your novel muses on the complexities of relationships within families, as well as relationships between the classes, the sexes, ethnicities, and races within the era. In your story, misunderstandings spark from inaccurate assumptions and distrust. What were you hoping to achieve as you explored these topics for a modern day audience?

I didn’t set out to teach lessons. These topics manifested themselves while characters were developed and settings were explored. As Niall and Frederick materialized—their forms and habits, their mannerisms and tics—so too did the necessity to explore the reasons behind their personalities. This process informed the creation of many of the secondary characters in However Long the Day.

The modern morals in However Long the Day are allegorical rather than liturgical, so the most I can hope for is that readers experience a moment or two of introspection as they turn the pages (or swipe or listen). I certainly experienced more than a moment or two of introspection while writing.

One lesson is worth calling out, because it’s a lesson learned during research rather than one embedded in the pages of the novel. The great issues of 1918 were nearly identical to today’s: the end of a war; the throes of a pandemic; systemic racism; immigration; debate about controlled substances; policing practices; a volatile stock market; gender equality; political corruption; and the list goes on.

If you, like me, feel discouraged by this historical repeat, here’s the lesson: prior generations thrived in similar circumstances. Our forebears grew as they struggled with the same topics. We, as a society, are in progress. We are blessed to continue the work. Much has been done, and there is much to do. Hope is as reasonable as despair.

Are you currently working on another project?

I have several novels in various stages of development, but I won’t yet discuss them publicly. One of the lessons from my prior career as a software executive: underpromise and overdeliver!

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However Long the Day

Book Cover
Justin Reed
Bulrush Press
Hardcover $26.00 (402pp)
978-1-73750-722-2
Buy: Local Bookstore (IndieBound), Amazon

Set in 1918 in Manhattan, Justin Reed’s historical novel However Long the Day follows two young men who switch identities.

Niall is an Irish immigrant whose world turns upside down when he trades places with his doppelgänger, Frederick. Frederick is a wealthy scoundrel; Niall is a poor ice delivery man who wants to earn some extra cash to help his uncle. Their switch is only supposed to last for one night, but Niall is soon subject to danger and intrigue because of it.

Mistaken for Frederick, Niall is kidnapped from Frederick’s room, drawn into Frederick’s schemes, and exposed to the corrupt underbelly of New York City. Both Niall and Frederick, along with their inner circles, become enmeshed in a complex heist that reveals a more sinister crime ring. That criminal scheme reaches into the highest levels of New York society.

The story opens with excitement, as the lookalike men trade places. Its momentum is maintained through engaging actions that hum from one to the next. Period details—as of the Spanish flu, the imminent threats posed by Prohibition, and the struggles of new immigrants and poor people—make for an intriguing background to the complicated plot. But the cast is large, and there are multiple twists; Niall and Frederick’s switch is sometimes overwhelmed. Further, what motivates people in their personal enterprises is not always clear; some plot points are belabored.

Still, this a story that ably delves into the complex relationships that exist within families, as well as in between different classes, genders, and ethnic groups. This helps to make However Long the Day an entertaining crime caper set in an immersive period in New York City.

WENDY HINMAN (December 27, 2021)

Wendy Hinman

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