The carnival scene in Gilded Age New York City forms the colorful backdrop of Leslie Parry's remarkable first novel, Church of Marvels. Here, the Chicago-based writer opens up about the inspiration behind this high-wire act of historical fiction, reveals her dream sideshow act and shares her instant cure for writer's block.
Church of Marvels takes place in and around New York City at the end of the 19th century—what about this setting appealed to you as a writer?
The Gilded Age was a time of such extremes—unprecedented wealth and abject poverty, sumptuous mansions and teeming slums, booming industry and westward expansion and an unprecedented wave of immigration. And nowhere was that more visible than in New York City, hub of both robber barons and rag-ships. It’s a world in which a dizzying number of cultures and subcultures co-existed, often within the same square feet. I was curious about those people who had perhaps slipped away from history, who had disappeared among all that color and noise. What did they fight for; how did the live? Not only is the city in the late 19th century a spectacular sensory experience to imagine as a writer, but the stakes would also be very high for its denizens. I wanted to feel what it might be like to walk those streets with a sense of urgency and desire.
"I was curious about those people who had perhaps slipped away from history, who had disappeared among all that color and noise."
Prior to writing Church of Marvels, you focused largely on short stories. Did you approach writing a novel in the same way as you would a short story?
It’s interesting. I wrote the first pages of what would become this novel early on, before I’d ever really written—let alone published—a short story. And I grew quickly overwhelmed. I set the project aside (for years!), uncertain what it was or how to proceed. During that time I wrote only short fiction—a form I wasn’t completely comfortable with, but it afforded me the discipline that I needed and craved. It required a kind of hyper-focus, a distillation, a strong sense of scene. I was able to concentrate on specific tasks: characterization, mood, setting, the building of tension, etc. I think I built up my individual muscles during those years (in terms of confidence and discipline, if nothing else). Then I was ready to run.
Writing the novel was a little more freeing. It was gleefully sloppier. I went down all sorts of divergent pathways and colorful loop-de-loops. It was challenging to keep the tone consistent, the characters curious and active, and the momentum up (both on the page and in life). In the end I felt supremely exhausted—but vital, too.
One of the impressive things about Church of Marvels is how meticulously it is plotted and how cleverly the various storylines flow together. How much of the novel did you have planned out before you sat down to write it, and how did you approach the writing process?
I pretty much knew nothing about the book when I began to write it—except that these four people intrigued me, and I wanted to know who they were and how they lived. Gradually I developed a loose outline, but left enough room for discovery and improvisation. At one point I tried to write the novel in discrete blocks, character by character, but that was short-lived. I would lose the thread of the plot, or the overall tone and voice; I’d forget the rhythm. Writing sequentially had its challenges, but overall it worked far better for me—and when I got stuck with one character, I just ran off with another. Instant cure for writer’s block!
Did you do any specific research in preparation for writing this book? If so, what was the weirdest bit of information that you stumbled upon (and did you include it in the book)?
I did read a lot—mostly out of curiosity, just to get a sense of the world these characters lived in. While it’s very tempting to cram everything in—there is so much fascinating stuff—I tried to use only what was relevant to the world of the novel. And the great joy of historical fiction (in my mind, anyway), isn’t analysis or even accuracy, but imaginative interpretation. Some details I had to invent—either because I couldn’t unearth all the morsels of information I wanted, or because the imagined details were truer to the characters’ situations and inner lives.
The weirdest bit of information, which I didn’t use in the novel, was the concept of dentistry as a sideshow act. I read about it in a book on dime museums and medicine shows. People would gather to watch these very real, very bloody tooth extractions, replete with costumes and props (sometimes performed by actual dentists, sometimes not). One hustler, who went by the moniker of Painless Parker, became so successful that he started his own Dental Circus and entered the show on the back of an elephant.
Sylvan is particularly intriguing by virtue of the fact that in a novel populated largely by women, he is a man. What was your thought process involving this character, and was it a conscious choice on your part that the action of the novel revolves nearly exclusively around women?
That’s a good question. It wasn’t a conscious choice, although I’ve always been intrigued by women who don’t conform to the expectations of their era (not because they have a specific desire to outrage or rebel, but because their own lifestyle is normal to them—and true). Sylvan was the character who came to me first, actually, years ago. I had an image of a man finding a newborn in an outhouse. I wonder what that story would be? I remember thinking. Even though Sylvan is independent, self-sufficient and muscular—qualities we associate with masculinity—I don’t think of those as his greatest strengths. I was interested in the side that he was kind of frightened of showing: his compassion, his nurturing, his need for love, for family, a sense of belonging—as much as those impulses might scare him at times, as much as he might try to dismiss or conceal them. I think it’s his sensitivity that keeps him grounded, that humanizes him in a world that doesn’t always see him as worthy or capable of much. How do you hold on to that bit of vulnerability, I wondered, especially in a world that leaves you so hardened, where your own preservation is paramount?
"I’ve always been intrigued by women who don’t conform to the expectations of their era."
Sexuality plays an important role throughout this novel, and at times make what is a historical story feel very current and modern. Can you talk a bit about the gender politics of Church of Marvels and what you hope readers will take away from it?
Sexuality and gender were obviously discussed and understood differently in 1895 (as were things we take for granted now: psychology, biology, codes of masculinity and femininity, sexual drive and desire). But that doesn’t mean homosexual or “androgyne” subcultures didn’t exist, or (in certain circles) even thrive. It may be easy to forget—especially in an era that favors speed, access and instant phenomena (the flipside of which is instant amnesia)—that there’s a long, vibrant history to what seems like a modern issue. And I hope that gives some people comfort, and others perspective. Language may change, circumstances may change, politics and social spheres may change—but the heart remains familiar and constant.
It may be impolitic to pick favorites, but if forced to choose, which of the characters in this novel do you relate to the most? Which character was the most challenging for you to “crack”?
All the characters have traits I relate to: Sylvan’s solitary nature and occasional prickliness, Odile’s stubbornness and loyalty, Alphie’s romantic sensibility. Initially Alphie was the most challenging character, because she’s clever in many ways, but also naïve. She doesn’t think of herself as savvy or particularly strong, and yet she’s forced to be cunning, often out of sheer desperation. That was a difficult—but rewarding—conflict to explore.
Two of the characters in this novel are performers in a sideshow and perform incredible feats. If you could have your own act in a sideshow, what would it be and why?
Great question! I would be a snake-charmer. The L.A. Zoo had a two-headed snake when I was a kid. I was absolutely terrified of it—and also transfixed.
There are some really incredible twists and surprises throughout this novel—what’s one novel that you recommend to readers who like a mystery that keeps them on their toes?
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.
Now that you have your first novel under you belt, what are you working on next?
I have a few projects underway—another novel, a play. I’m curious to see what takes shape. Otherwise I’ll have to go join the circus.
RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of Church of Marvels.