Friday, October 14, 2011

Thomas Kelly on His Novel "Empire Rising"

(This interview originally appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger in March 2005)

On March 17, 1930, construction started on the Empire State Building, which was to become the tallest building in the world. In Thomas Kelly’s novel, “Empire Rising” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25), the 102-story building is a looming presence in this gripping novel of New York City, where the city is in the grips of both the Depression and Prohibition, and the Italian and Irish gangsters are in a brutal battle for supremacy.

At the center of Kelly’s subtlety layered novel is Michael Briody, a veteran of the bloody Irish civil war. Though the war is officially over, it is still being fought on the streets of New York. Briody gets a dangerous job on the Empire State Building as an ironworker, and falls for the artist Grace Masterson, the mistress of Tammany Hall fixer Johnny Farrell. Tammany Hall is the corrupt Irish political machine that runs New York, controlling the mayor, cops, judges and politicians. Briody is also pulled under the sway of the Irish mob boss Tough Tommy Tuohy, as the gang wars are about to begin.

Kelly, 43, was raised in New Milford, New Jersey, educated at Fordham University in the Bronx and Harvard University. He worked a construction worker and as a Teamster, and is the author of “Payback” and “The Rackets,” two novels that delve into the muck, corruption and cement of the New York construction world. Kelly lives in Manhattan, where he spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley.

Q. How did you decide to write about the construction of the Empire State Building?

A. It is one of the things you write about if you write about construction and New York City. How do you not write about the Empire State Building? My great-uncle Michael Briody, an Irish immigrant, worked on the building. I don’t know much about him, so I wanted to tell his story. The time had everything for me, with 1930 being an amazing historical moment. You had Prohibition, which maybe for the first time created real wealth and power for the underclass. Then there is the Jazz Age. The Boom had ended, but nobody was sure how bad it was yet. A lot had happened then that determined how Americans would live for the next several generations. I put a few characters in the middle of that, and then I went from there.

Q. You write at length about the new Irish immigrants of New York, running guns to Ireland and settling scores from the Irish civil war. Why?

A. My family was part of the whole migration that happened after the Irish civil war in the mid-1920s. I believe that it was the second biggest Irish migration, but it is never talked about. Part of me wanted to get into the characters that were shaped by the migration. The real Michael Briody was killed in the Bronx. I don’t know what happened, but there were whispers that it was related to the civil war. I wanted to explain it to myself, what happened to him.

Q. All three of your novels focus on construction, gangsters and corruption. In the new book, you focus on Tammany Hall and the graft that permeates all levels of New York society. How did you handle it?

A. (The Tammany fixer) Johnny Farrell is made up, but he is very realistic. On the whole, the Tammany political machine was a very positive thing, but they got carried away. Of course they stole, but I call it moral relativism. You look at the Irish, who took power in the city in 1880, and they are finally getting their share. The reformers are these third or fourth generation pseudoaristocratic elites, who made their money butchering the Indians or trading in slaves. They say, “These Tammany guys are thieves and animals.” The Irish turn around and say, “Screw you. This is our time to get something.” At the end, Tammany was stealing so much that nothing worked. In 1930, corruption was just way of life in New York. Judges paid for their appointments, workers paid for their jobs. You had to give a little to get a little.

(Empire State Building by Lewis Hine)

Q. What kind of research did you do for this novel?

A. One of the things that helped me a lot was sitting in the library for hours at a time and reading the tabloids of the day. They make the New York Post seem like a Hallmark card. The papers were all sex, all violence, all the time. They gave me a feeling of the street and some of the language of the time. I got to talk to some people who were adults at the time, during the construction of the Empire State Building, including a man who had been a 17-year-old “rivet punk,” who was in his nineties.

Q. You juggle the Empire State, the Irish civil war and the gang wars, as well as bohemian culture. How did you keep a balance?

A. Everything is interconnected, more so in New York than anywhere else in the world. You’d have the 21 Club, where you’d have a gangster like Tough Tommy Tuohy, as well as the Astors going there. When I started, I wanted to get into construction, Tammany Hall and the Irish civil war. I thought it was too much, but then I realized it wasn’t, because it was often the same talent pool that all these people were recruited from. The Tammany guys, the gangsters and the cops were sometimes even literally related to each other.

Q. You write at length about the work and lives of blue-collar men, from ironworkers to bricklayers. Why?

A. It is as much because no one else is doing it as anything else. You get tired of seeing these documentaries and reading these books, where you hear about these architects and engineers who built the great buildings and bridges, or the people who finance them, but not one of them risked a hair on their head. It is amazing to me that the actual workers are ignored, totally taken for granted and underappreciated. Then the media portrays these workers as buffoons. Look around the city--these buildings, the energy plants would not exist without these workers. They never get any recognition.

Q. Time and demolition has wiped out much of New York from the 1930s. Do you miss this lost New York?

A. A lot has been torn down, but a lot is still here. If you walk around New York City, and raise your eyes one story, above the Starbucks and the McDonald’s, it is all the same, the same tenements. I read this great thing from E.L. Doctorow. He was working on his novel “Waterworks,” and was in Greenwich Village. A fog settled in and all the skyscrapers had been blocked out. All that was left was the 19th century. It gave him the kind of visual material he needed to start. It was kind of the same for me.

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