So19 talks with...STEVEN PRICE

In reviewing Steven Price's By Gaslight for Publishers Weekly, I commented, "Price’s elegantly written, vividly evoked second novel marries historical suspense with literary sophistication...With its intricate cat-and-mouse game, array of idiosyncratic characters, and brooding atmosphere, By Gaslight has much to please fans of both classic suspense and Victorian fiction. Yet Price’s novel is entirely contemporary, and assuredly his own: a sweeping tale of hunter and hunted in which the most-dangerous pursuer is always the human heart." I'm not the only enthusiast: By Gaslight has earned stellar reviews and a place on the 2016 Giller Prize longlist. Price is also the author of the novel Into That Darkness (Thomas Allen Publishers, 2011) and two volumes of poetry: Anatomy of Keys (Brick Books, 2006), which won the Gerald Lampert Award, and Omens in the Year of the Ox (Brick Books, 2012), winner of the ReLit Award. He lives in Victoria, British Columbia. All that said, I'm delighted to offer this chat with the author of one of my favorite books of the year.

Q. In many respects, this is a dramatically different book from your debut, Into That Darkness. Did you consciously set out to write something very different this time around?

Yes and no. I'm finding that every book I write is different from what has come before, each usually finding its own shape in the writing itself. But I wasn't thinking, how do I make this different? I hear an echo in the prose itself, between the two books, as if the one is answering the other, but that echo is shifted slightly because I myself have shifted as a writer, my interests are different with this book, and the material itself makes demands on how a story is imagined and told. With By Gaslight, I set out with a character in mind - William Pinkerton - and a setting, but not much beyond that.

Q. Conversely, what themes or preoccupations—obsessions, perhaps!—of yours do you think the two books share? From the outside, I notice that both have a central search or quest, an interest in the parts of ourselves and our culture that we tend to hide or suppress, and a dystopian landscape—even if in By Gaslight, that's an ominous Victorian London rather than a future time and place.

Interesting, Victorian London as dystopian landscape! I hadn't thought of it in quite those terms but yes, absolutely, I think you are right. I don't see such a strong break creatively between the two novels. But I do see a greater parallel, thematically, between By Gaslight and my first collection of poetry, Anatomy of Keys, which was a book-length biography of the escape artist Harry Houdini. Both books work with a public historical figure, both books explore intimate memories and hidden moments of great significance to these figures, both books are plagued with darkness, and forgiveness, and are fascinated with the thin line between living and dying and the ways the human heart leans sometimes towards the one, sometimes the other.

Q. Into This Darkness appeared in 2011. Were you already working on By Gaslight by that time, or did you actually create this massive work in only a few years?

I started the writing of By Gaslight in late 2012. But in the fall of 2011, after two visits to London, I was already turning a story over in my mind, a story that would be set in Victorian London, though I was still looking for some way of climbing inside it.

—One of the book's two protagonists is William Pinkerton, son of legendary detective agency founder Allan Pinkerton. How did you come across these figures? What made you interested in writing about them?

My great-grandfather, Albert Price, was trained as a gunsmith in London but left as a very young man and travelled to Canada, then west to the coast, then further west again to Vancouver Island. This was in 1889-1890. In Victoria he established a locksmithing shop, which has been passed down through four generations and is still in the family today. What we never knew was why he had made such a long, perilous, difficult journey to the west coast of Canada. Some ten years ago we learned that Albert had got into some sort of trouble with the law, and had fled as far from London as he could get. The idea of a man with criminal leanings finding himself on the other side of the law fascinated me. Years later I was reading a biography of William Pinkerton and I found the detective described in similar terms—as a man with all of the talents of the master criminal, a man for whom the ends justified the means, and whose easiest friendships were with the criminal class, but who worked on the side of the law. I suppose while I was writing William Pinkerton some part of me was also writing my way back towards my great-grandfather.

—Though Pinkerton's antagonist is a thief and con man who goes by the name Adam Foole, he grapples just as powerfully with the legacy, personality and influence of his larger-than-life father, who has recently died at the start of the story. Did you know from the start that you were going to write a novel about fathers and the ways that they haunt our minds and lives? Why, do you think, did this theme speak to you? 

I'm so pleased you read it in this way. Yes, By Gaslight was always fundamentally a novel about parents, and grief, and loss, and the unfinished business of a life. I began with William's character, measuring itself against the sudden absence of his powerful father, and the novel wrote itself forward from there. It's difficult to say how and why such obsessions matter to me, as a writer and as a person, but it does seem one of the dominant elements in the stories I tell: the ways our lives are so much a grappling with what we have inherited from our parents, and the complicated nature of what we see—and fail to see—ourselves passing on to our children.

Q. The book's main story is set in1885 London, but you move fluidly between that and 1868 Ohio, 1874 South Africa, and more. How did you organize the sequencing of the narrative to keep it clear and coherent while also shifting in time? Did you start out with a more chronological sequence, or not?

Thank you! There was much trial and error, much rewriting to be done. I made many diagrams and maps. My wonderful editors were a great help in this. I wanted a book that was digressive enough to encompass a life, but also somehow lean in its forward movement, engrossing. I'm not sure how close it comes to either. But what I did understand early in the process was that the leaps in time would need to justify their presence in the telling itself. Which is to say, nothing could feel arbitrarily located. If I could not be clear, to myself, about why a flashback was placed where it was, and why the novel could not be written without its being there, then it needed to be reconceived. In some ways this novel is a study in character. But on a more fundamental level, it is a study in structure and how to work with structure to create movement and meaning.

Q. Given that 1880s London is very well-traveled fictional territory, I'm awed by the extent to which you made it fresh and surprising. And as though that isn't difficult enough, you've added sections dealing with the American Civil War, among other things, to the mix. So research must have been very time-consuming. Could you talk a bit about the source materials you drew from to build your vision of the historical places and times in the novel?

I would research in the evenings, and write during the days, and often I would go back through the already written pages and rework what I'd done to absorb new historical material. If this sounds maddening in a 750 page novel—well, it was. I drew on personal memory at times, too, having lived in Virginia for several years in the early aughts, and having travelled to South Africa and London. But, too, writing place in fiction is different from writing it in nonfiction—in fiction, a location acquires atmosphere by being seen through a character's emotional state. It isn't the correctness but the 'trueness' that I was seeking. I needn't write the real 1885 London, which can never be recovered, but rather Adam Foole's London, and William Pinkerton's London, the cities that parted as they moved through them. Of course, one still needs to research thoroughly the facts of a place. My wife bought me an enormous wall-sized 1880s map of London for my birthday one year. And I read everything I could find, dozens and dozens of books, in part or in whole. Particularly wonderful nonfiction books that stood out for me include Inventing the Victorians by Matthew Sweet; The Victorian House and The Victorian City, both by Judith Flanders; Henry Mayhew's conversations; Frank Morn's and James Horan's biographies of the Pinkertons; Charles Evans' excellent book about aeronauts in the Civil War; Shelby Foote's magisterial history, Orlando Figes' The Crimean War...the list goes on. I feel a tremendous gratitude to the authors of these books.

Q. It feels to me that the novel deals with the shaping and constraints of identity. Pinkerton's identity and experience are in some sense over-defined by his father; "Foole" has been freed, and perhaps in some ways compelled, to be a kind of shape-shifter. Fair reading?

More than fair; I think it wonderfully sensitive. And not only for the two central characters, either, I think. I've come to regard the novel as a kind of panoramic view of the Victorian age, in some ways. One of the origins of the novel came when I realized—perhaps obtusely, but with a kind of visceral shock all the same—that the American wild west, the west of the outlaws and railroad hold-up men, was happening at about the same time as Jack the Ripper's gaslit London. Who were the people who moved back and forth between such worlds? The novel grew out of a curiosity about what was happening in that world, in the sprawling, fast-changing modernity of an age that saw all of our early modern obsessions standing in the forefront—media, crime detection, new forms of travel that would shrink distances and make the world both larger and smaller, public morality, new forms of technology and communication, etc. 

What I was doing, though I could not have described it so at the time, was viewing the underbelly of the great nineteenth century British Empire from my own North American perspective, trying to write London as one of the first great modern world cities, in which the world arrived on its doorstep and brought its multiplicities with it. There is something very Canadian in this, I think, both in the multicultural interest, and in the ways characters and loyalties are torn between differing pressures. Adam Foole is, indeed, a figure whose life has been determined by the social and political boundaries of both race and empire, a person without a past who is constantly reinventing himself—not through perversion, but as a way of moving unhindered forward into life. Both his strength and his weakness have something to do with his own control over his "identity." The same is true of William Pinkerton, in an inverted way. Pinkerton must struggle to find out who he is, by struggling to find out who he is not. Both characters are grappling with how to know themselves, and trying to comprehend the differences between the world that has made them what they are, and the other world, the world that has not.

Q. Even within the single setting of 1885 London, you depict so many different worlds: the affluent and the profoundly impoverished, the law-abiding and the law-breaking, the public/cultural facade and the darker reality that lies behind it. Do you have a favorite moment or vignette among these very different scenes?

Not a favorite, no, alas. Though I do like the first time William Pinkerton enters the gunsmith's and encounters the shifty-eyed, vulnerable, still young figure of my great-grandfather, Albert Price.

Q. You're a poet as well as novelist. How do the two inform each other in your work or practice, do you think? And how do you divide your time between the two forms?

This is an interesting question. I can't work on both at the same time; the kind of rhythms, the manner of expression is too different. I have always found myself turning away from one, rather than turning towards the other; it is the exhaustion of fiction, for instance, that leads me back to poetry, and vice versa. I do believe that my prose fiction is sharpened by my poetry, and that my poetry seeks a forward momentum that is linked to my love of fiction. Beyond that I'm not sure. In the end I believe it is the material itself that demands the form. The novel is a novel because it couldn't be otherwise.