Author Cynthia Drew’s “City of Slaughter” (Fithian Press) is a powerful novel of turn-of-the-20th Century immigrants and their struggle to adapt in a new land. Drawing on actual history and mixing fiction with fact, Drew’s fascinating tale focuses on two sisters, Carsie and Lilia, who attempt to overcome poverty, the prejudices of the time and their rural background to make their way in New York City.
Q: You evidently spent a good deal of time researching the life of an early 20th century immigrant. How did you discover the research tools that you used? And how much time did you spend researching the book?
CYNTHIA DREW: I researched the book various ways—on the internet, through websites like Genealogy.com and the Ellis Island site, and read scores of books about the economics and politics of the period. Most valuable, though, were trips to New York City, interviewing a man from the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (himself a Russian immigrant), visiting the corner of Washington and Greene, where the building still stands that housed the Triangle Waist Factory, and many trips to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. From beginning to end, the project took about three years. The last year of it I spent almost all day every day writing and researching.
Q: What drew you to this time period and this particular set of people?
DREW: I had worked in the garment district for several years in my twenties. On the first day I worked there I was sent to a sweat shop (yes, they still exist) to deliver buttons. I was horrified at the working conditions and the fire was lit, so to speak.
Q: The book doesn’t have a happy ending where everything is neatly wrapped up and everyone goes into the sunset. Why did you make that choice?
DREW: Because that’s not what life is like, is it? Carsie’s life goes on. She is quite real to me now, though that sounds a little whackaloon to anyone but a writer. She is still trying to solve the world’s problems.
Q: Did you develop a greater understanding of today’s immigration issues from your research? Or are we talking about totally different experiences?
DREW: I don’t know that the experience of today’s immigrants is that different from how it was a hundred years ago, except that 112 years ago it was far easier to get into the U.S. When the Immigration Quota Law was enacted in 1921 and made stricter still in 1924, it got trickier to get in to the U.S., but from what I understand of both then and now, once an immigrant arrives the economic and ethnic issues are similar.
Q: Aside from Carsie and Lilia, which character in the book do you have the greatest sympathy for?
DREW: I liked the Benders—the con artists. They were fun to chase around because they provide what is almost comic relief. A breather from the darkness.
Q: Will you stay in this milieu for your next book?
DREW: Yes, the sequel is in the works now, due to be out in March of 2014. You didn’t think I left all those loose ends by accident, did you?
Q: The book has several highly-emotional moments for Carsie. Were you affected in your own life during the writing of these passages?
DREW: Some, as you can imagine, were easier than others. Carsie’s first brush with real anti-Semitism at the Astor home was cathartic, although I’m not Jewish. Her broken heart when Arnold Rothstein marries Carolyn Greene was familiar ground to most of us. Lilia’s experience in the Triangle Fire was tough—I resisted writing it even though it was the pivotal scene in the book. I wrote through tears for the first draft of that scene.
Q: Was there some historical fact that you learned during the research that was vastly different from your past understanding of history? Or did your research reinforce previous beliefs?
DREW: Everything we see on TV and in the movies romanticizes the period. Any costume drama usually will—it’s more fun to watch. But New York City in 1900 was anything but romantic—it was smelly and dirty and crowded and people fought to stay alive. Unemployment, disease and drug addiction were daily facts of life.
The most interesting piece of the research was that I wrote myself into a box when I chose the date that Carsie and Lilia arrive in the U.S. in June of 1900. Turns out Ellis Island had burned to the ground in 1897 and didn’t reopen until December of 1900. In the meantime New York used the Ferry Building at the foot of Manhattan, in the Battery, as a processing center. That made it easier to get the girls into the city, but it was difficult trying to figure out the logistics of how they moved immigrants through there.
Q: Why did you choose the title that you did? Were there other choices in mind?
DREW: I had originally chosen Tabernacle as the title, but my publisher felt that wasn’t quite apt. The title City of Slaughter is taken from the poem by Hayyim Bialek that I quote in the front matter, written in 1903 after the pogram on Kishinev, when he exhorts the Jews to stand up for themselves and find their voice. Carsie spends twenty years learning that lesson, but I think she finally did.