If I could dedicate a book to a place, where I live now would be that place. An 18th-century log cabin on six wilderness acres. The logs have been patched many times, the kitchen is in the basement and the outhouse (a two-seater) is crumbling, but our cabin is the perfect perch from which to fly to times gone by. James Joyce used to say that history was a nightmare from which he was trying to awake. In this cabin, history is a dream that I’m trying to fall into. It was here that I wrote the New Amsterdam-based novel about a 17th-century serial killer on the loose, The Orphanmaster, from Viking (available in paperback from Penguin). And it was also here that I wrote my upcoming novel, Savage Girl (Viking, winter 2014) a story set in Gilded Age Manhattan.
The past for me is a series of mysteries within mysteries, endless Chinese boxes. In my work I try to crack these open. You go into a mansion of a hundred rooms, say. Enter one room to start. What furniture is there, what hangs on the walls, what style is the hearth (there are as many kinds of hearth as there are houses)? Are the walls plaster? Is that a series of framed miniatures hung beside the mantel? Whom do they depict? Outside, on the façade, do you see Georgian brickwork, Tudor stone or simple clapboard? Of course, learning all of this detail serves to unlock the character of the people who live inside. And we haven’t even gotten to the petticoats yet. If ever I can’t make progress in my writing, I have a simple solution. Do more research. A surefire remedy for writer’s block.
The mystery of the house I live in is that it wasn’t originally built where it is now, but carried here over seventy-five years ago. It was the kind of job that only a twenty-something with a lot of energy would attempt. In 1935, at the height of the Depression, a young man managed to move it, lock, stock and barrel, from the Delaware Water Gap to the lower Hudson Valley. Two rooms, one upstairs, one down, no indoor kitchen or plumbing. Built in the 1780s, the structure stood for a century and a half before it was dismantled log by log and transported a hundred miles to the east. The story goes that he relocated to be near his aunt, who lived just across the swamp from where the little cabin now sits atop a small hill. Someone else might question why anyone would move an ancient structure with all its dents and wrinkles, rather than just build anew. For me, it makes perfect sense.