Fiction Desk contributor Richard Smyth is in the process of crowdfunding his new novel Quays through publishing platform Unbound. Here he tells us about the novel, and its connections to his Fiction Desk story, Crying Just Like Anybody:
Richard has now added a new reward for supporters on his Unbound page. For £35, pledgers can choose to receive both a signed copy of Quays and a signed paperback of Crying Just Like Anybody. Visit his Unbound page and scroll down for details.
I had this map of Manhattan tacked up over my desk for a couple of years. It shows Manhattan Island in 1916, a century ago, just before the US entered the war. The Battery, on the tip of the island, is at the bottom; 110th street, north of Central Park and south of Harlem, is at the top. In the middle – “way out of the way in midtown”, to be exact – is where I set my story ‘Crying Just Like Anybody’. And it’s where Tom Quays, the hero of my new novel Quays, grew up.
Around here no-one calls anyone by their right name. There’s little Tomas Quis who’s Spanish but he’s called Tom Keys, and there’s my sister Jesca and the boys call her ‘Yes’ and make dirty jokes about it. At the repair shop Mr White is really Mr Weiss and then there’s Si Portman who works for the grocer and wears braces on his legs, and he’s just called Dumdum. Johnny ought to be Gianni really but everyone calls him Johnny. He doesn’t mind.
I’m not sure which Tom Quays – or Tom Keys, or Tomás Quis – came first; I have an idea that the Tom of Quays (then barely even a work in progress) strolled into the New York of ‘Crying Just Like Anybody’, but it could have been the other way around, and in any case these things are seldom clear-cut – all these little worlds bleed into one another.
Why New York? Why midtown Manhattan? Why there, and why then? In one sense, there’s a straightforward answer: books. In my early twenties I was led through urban America by a succession of library paperbacks: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, and, from after the war, John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer most of all. Non-fiction fleshed out the picture: Luc Sante’s Low Life, Anne Douglas’s Terrible Honesty.
I found that there was room in this world for the stories I wanted to tell. Of course, some of these stories – stories about love, death, war, sex – could have been told in any place at any time, but others played on themes that I picked out most clearly in the madly symphonic Manhattan of the early 20th century. These were stories of immigration and identity, of political radicalism, of literary fame, of escape, ambition and opportunity.
The Fiction Desk chose to publish ‘Crying Just Like Anybody’ as the title story in its fourth short-fiction anthology in 2012. It remains one of the stories I’m most proud of; it’s certainly one of the stories I’m most fond of. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these streets: sending Tom Quays stumbling drunk along Broadway, or putting Dorothy Parker on Pearl Street at midnight, or letting Anna Moller look up at the stars from Coenties Slip. I know this place better than anywhere else I’ve never been.
If it’s possible to escape from the places you grew up (and I’m not at all sure that it is) then Tom, in Quays, does escape the crowding alleys of midtown: he goes to war, first of all, and then is plunged into the smoke and glitter of the Jazz Age literary scene. But his past – the grimy Manhattan of ‘Crying Just Like Anybody’ – won’t ever really let him be. He finds its shadows in an upstate mental asylum, in the offices of Metropolitan magazine, in the history of his city, in his own books and stories.
It’s been kind of like that for me. I spent a lot of time in this place – pretty much all of it without leaving my office chair – and it probably won’t ever really let me be, either.
People seemed to connect with ‘Crying Just Like Anybody’, with Anna and Johnny and the sorry-looking Martian they find in midtown Manhattan. I think they’ll connect with Quays, too: I think anyone who ever feels lost in a big city, or who has ever wanted to escape without quite knowing where from or where to, will get along with the novel (as will anyone who wants to read about Damon Runyon reporting from a WW1 shell-hole or a drunk novelist applying Freudian theory to the Dempsey-Tunney fight – it has something for everyone).
The Manhattan of Quays is my Manhattan; Unbound’s crowdfunding model means that it can stay like that, just as I dreamed it up, without creative compromises or focus-grouped revisions, all the way to the bookshop shelf. It’s a terrific place, and it’d be wonderful if you could read the excerpt, pledge to the book, and maybe (cue clink of cocktail shaker, hum of passing El train, opening bars of Rhapsody In Blue) join me there.
Richard Smyth’s prize-winning stories have been published in The Fiction Desk, Structo, The Stinging Fly, Riptide, Minor Literature[s], The Stockholm Review, Foxhole, The Lonely Crowd, Haverthorn, Firewords Quarterly, Vintage Script, The Nightwatchman, Cent and anthologies from Arachne Press and Ink Lines.
His first novel, ‘Wild Ink’, was published in 2014; he also writes for the TLS, The Guardian, The New Statesman and a few others.
You can pledge to buy his new novel ‘Quays’ – and pick up rewards including one-to-one writing mentorship – at: https://unbound.com/books/quays.