- Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery
J Aaron Sanders’ new novel Speakers Of The Dead quickly became one of my favorite debuts for 2016. It features Walt Whitman as a young reporter in 1843 New York, looking into a real murder to clear the name of a friend. It is a well crafted historical mystery, filled with politics, religion, and grave robbing. Sanders takes a look at the city that was as tough in the 1840s as it was in any other time. Mr. Sanders was kind enough to answer a few questions from us.
“Nearly every sentence in a historical novel has to be bolstered by research, and so I surrounded myself with stacks of books and journal articles. I pasted photocopied images of 19th century New York on my walls. I combed through Whitman biographies over and over, and I read from Leaves of Grass every day.”
MysteryPeople Scott: Which came first, using the Beautiful Cigar Girl Murder for a plot or Walt Whitman as a protagonist?
J. Aaron Sanders: The idea to use Whitman as a protagonist came first, but when I was researching the novel I came across Daniel Stashower’s The Beautiful Cigar Girl. Reading that book changed my novel. He writes that the Mary Rogers murder “became a catalyst for sweeping change” in 1840s New York City (4). Law enforcement was exposed as inadequate. The sensational details gave rise to sensationalism. And murder became “a bankable commodity” (5).
I realized that a novel about 1843 New York City cannot ignore the impact of the Mary Rogers murder. Rogers’s death exposed a city mired in corruption, power plays, and incompetence. It is precisely this fact that makes “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” the perfect way to frame my novel Speakers of the Dead. In it, a young Walt Whitman attempts to solve the murder of a friend, Abraham Stowe, a doctor suspected of botching the abortion that killed Mary Rogers (Stowe’s character is pure fiction). To find out who killed Abraham Stowe, Walt must take on the unsolved Mary Rogers murder too.
MPS: You get a real feel for this time in New York. how did you go about researching it?
JAS: I researched this novel like I was writing another dissertation. Nearly every sentence in a historical novel has to be bolstered by research, and so I surrounded myself with stacks of books and journal articles. I pasted photocopied images of 19th century New York on my walls. I combed through Whitman biographies over and over, and I read from Leaves of Grass every day. Nonfiction narratives like Gangs of New York and The Beautiful Cigar Girl helped me build the world of the novel.
All that said, I still made mistakes. One reviewer pointed out how Whitman’s mother is humming Onward Christian Soldiers twenty years before it was written! I remember working on that detail, thinking I got it right, and now—well, it’s wrong.
MPS: Much of the book deals with the period’s controversy over human dissection. What drew you to it?
JAS: First, it’s morbid and creepy—two aspects I love. I found this book of dissection photographs from the 19th century, and I couldn’t stop looking at it. But then dissection became more than a gruesome fascination. The more I read about dissection the more contemporary it felt. Anatomical dissection calls to mind ongoing debates about individual rights: marriage, choice, etc. I didn’t set out to write about such issues, but they emerge organically, and that is exciting.
MPS: What did you want to say about the period in 1843?
JAS: The most striking thing about writing historical fiction, for me, are the moments when I connect with the problems my characters face in the 19th century. In other words, my ability to relate with characters in another time illustrates the relevance of a novel set in the past. In our lives we fall in love, we hurt people, and we ourselves are hurt, something about that part of being human, and the way it stretches across history, comforts me.
In 1842 Walt Whitman published a temperance novel, Franklin Evans, and was working on a follow up he never finished called The Madman. I wanted to explore why. Research taught me that this was around the time of the unsolved Mary Rogers murder, the rise of yellow journalism, body snatching for anatomical dissection, disease, immigration problems, and political corruption—a transformative time for New York City. For each of these narrative strands I used a corresponding historical character (Edgar Allan Poe, James Gordon Bennett, Samuel Clement, Elizabeth Blackwell, and Isaiah Rynders). I never felt the fictional elements intruding on the history, but I did have to bend history to bring all these narrative strands together. That’s what makes this book so fun.
The more I read about dissection the more contemporary it felt. Anatomical dissection calls to mind ongoing debates about individual rights: marriage, choice, etc. I didn’t set out to write about such issues, but they emerge organically, and that is exciting.
MPS: As a debut author did you draw from any influences?
JAS: Yes! Arnaldur Indridason, Henning Mankell, and Patricia Highsmith. Indridason’s Jar City helped me the most with structure. I mapped out his book, scene by scene, and then used that plot map to help me think about Speakers.
As experts in the historical mystery genre, I leaned on Caleb Carr, Matthew Pearl, and Nicola Upson. The Dante Club was especially useful. I love how Pearl deftly negotiates the tension between history and fiction, and I studied his depiction of historical figures such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes. I also love the boldness of the conceit: a serial killer who uses The Inferno as inspiration, and a group of scholars who use the same literature to help catch him. Finally, the novel is both a fun read and an intellectual challenge. I should also note that his second novel, The Poe Shadow, inspired a subplot in Speakers of the Dead.
MPS: What advice would you give to someone taking on a historical mystery?
JAS: My experience is that there are no shortcuts. You have to do the research, you have to be current in the genre, and you have to acknowledge the intelligence of the mystery reader. In some ways, the mystery novel is a game and the readers of the genre are very good at that game. The author has to create a new game based on the rules of the old game—a very difficult task—and the only way to do that is to read, write, and rewrite. I wrote at least 30 drafts of Speakers before I felt like I figured out my own novel!
You can find copies of Sanders’ debut on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.