Confession time: I never read The Great Gatsby in High School. I preferred darker fare in those days, Stephen King and Clive Barker, even the taboo erotic VC Andrews novels were more my speed. Not until I was in my early twenties did I sit down and read The Great Gatsby. Ok, I skimmed it. Despite my love of the period and all the glitz and glamor associated with it, I was never really able to connect with Fitzgerald’s work. It wasn’t until much later, having become a writer myself, that I was able to identify the aspects of the book that prevented me from connecting with it. (I don’t want to get into that too much here. Obviously, it’s a work that has stood the test of time and gained wide acclaim, so who am I to poke holes?)
Fast forward to 2015. I had just come off finishing my Stolen Empire series, which takes place in the late 1700’s. I’d written two modern mysteries to cleanse my palate (something I do fairly regularly, to keep myself from getting bored or burnt out on a particular genre), and I found myself enamored once again with the prohibition era. Maybe it was one too many episodes of Downton Abbey or the fact that many of the conventions I’d done that year had some sort of flapperesque event, but I knew that I wanted to play in this particular sandbox for a while.
So I did what I normally do, I immersed myself in the period. I redecorated my office with aesthetics from the era, I borrowed a record player and got a dozen 1920’s jazz albums, I watched, read, and listened to everything 1920’s until I could feel it in my blood. I studied maps, researched historical figures (a few of whom ended up in the book itself) and generally lived and breathed the world–or as close as I could to it. The devil is in the details, after all, and if I show my characters eating Corn Flakes at breakfast, there damn well had better have been Corn Flakes in 1927.
From there I set about brainstorming my story. By that point, I already had Benny, one of my main characters, firmly rooted in my subconscious. I understood him, knew his hopes and dreams and regrets like they were my own. Then I did my very favorite thing. I dropped him in an impossible situation just to see what he would do. The story grew from there. Once I knew the basic plot and was able to do a decent outline (it’s worth mentioning that the book ended up pretty far from my original intention, as it usually does) I set about casting my story, creating my vision board, and naming my new friends.
But then I stopped. I looked back at Gatsby, reading it again for the first time in years, and while my enjoyment didn’t increase, I found that I understood it much better. Among Fitzgerald’s strengths are his ability to say a great deal with very few words, and of course, to create complex, if unsympathetic characters. I understood that what I wanted to do, much differently than he had, was to show the complexity of human relationships, but do so in a way that left the reader feeling hopeful rather than angry or disappointed. I wanted to write a story not of tragedy and greed, but redemption and growth. Knowing that, I set pen to paper and The Canary Club was born.
Now, it’s not a Great Gatsby retelling, not even close. Other than the period, there are surprisingly few similarities. My story is geared more toward a young adult audience, and so I tried to keep the pace quick and the narrative engaging as the story is told in alternating point of views from Benny and Masie. It showcases the best and worst of human nature, of the complex society that was only beginning to emerge, and, at least I hope, it is a book that explores the gray areas we all too often have to live in. Most stories in the period, especially in the YA genre, deal with young women moving ‘to the big city’ to make their mark–or some variation of that. Mine is a much darker tale, set in the early years of the New York Gangsters who rose to near celebrity during prohibition. It deals with abuse, death, and poverty–nothing is left behind and nothing is shied away from. In a way, it’s much more Boardwalk Empire than Great Gatsby, except in one aspect.
In a time of burgeoning feminism (we’d just got the vote, but still couldn’t wear shorts in public) and when even ‘good’ people publically flouted the law (Religious leaders were known for purchasing wine and beer ‘for ceremonial’ use, then selling it to their well-to-do parishioners), when even cops were on the take (paid well to look the other way or worse, become enforcers with a badge), I wanted to find a hero that could stand his ground, who could draw his line in the sand and say ‘this I will not cross’ and mean it from page one. For Gatsby, his green light may have been the irredeemable Daisy, but in my story, that light is something much different. And it’s that kind of light becomes a beacon to others, to people looking for something to believe in. I think we feel that way again right now, that we are so inundated with darkness, that we are seeking out the light–that we desperately need it. Hopefully, my book can do that, can bring a little light into the world.