I was deep in the middle of writing Kavalier & Clay. One of my biggest challenges and sources of constant torment and pleasure while writing that book was attempting to bring mid-20th century New York City to life in a reader’s mind, using nothing but words.
In this effort I was greatly hampered by the fact that I had never seen New York City in the 1930s, '40s or '50s. In the late '90s as I worked on the book I spent a lot of time in the latest model, walking around and taking notes, and was able to find traces and echoes and remnants of the city as it must have been when Empire Comics was in its heyday. Still I was nagged by a constant sense, gleaned from reading and research, that for all its grandeur and splendor and power and importance, New York City had once been, as well, a hard-working, blue-collar, rough-and-tumble, muscular, brick-and-steel, furnace-fired kind of place. I have deep ties to the city of Pittsburgh, with its quilt of ethnic enclaves and tempestuous industrial history, and it seemed to me that New York must once have had a lot more Pittsburgh in it than it does now. That hybrid city, of glamour and grit, skyscrapers and slaughterhouses, was hard to find, harder to imagine.
And then in 1999 I rolled through Chicago,on a book tour. I took a day to walk its streets, ride the L, poke around Near North and South and the Loop. It was all every bit as grand and imposing and magnificent as New York, every bit as swaggering, and yet there was also the hardheaded, no-nonsense charm and workaday rhythm I remembered from Pittsburgh. And I kept thinking, it must have been something like this. Chicago gave me the key to understanding the lost city in which Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay find bliss and grief and a modicum of redemption. It makes me happy to consider that in having been chosen for Chicago’s One Book program, my book will be having a kind of homecoming.