An Interview with Jonathan Lee

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

As editor-in-chief of Catapult Books, Jonathan Lee has shaped an enviable roster of award-winning and memorable books. Given the brilliance of The Great Mistake, his newly-released third novel, one hopes that he continues to carve out ample time to pursue his own writing, even as he shepherds others.

The Great Mistake is an epic work of historical fiction, centered on the life and impact of Andrew Haswell Green, the city planner, civic leader and preservationist often considered the "Father of Greater New York." Green was the catalyst for many of New York’s iconic spaces and programs—the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Central Park, the Bronx Zoo and the New York Public Library to name a few—who was inexplicably murdered at the age of 83, at the turn of the 20th century. The ensuing mystery is the doorway to the novel, but it quickly becomes less about whys of the man’s death and more about his public achievements and private life. Through lyrical prose, Lee masterfully mixes the mystery around Green's murder with reportage and creative storytelling to create a compelling novel that is of its time and ours.

TriQuarterly: Andrew Haswell Green is a fascinating individual, to be sure. How did you become aware of him, and what part of his long, complex story inspired the novel? Did your subsequent research change the direction of your writing?

Jonathan Lee: There’s an Emerson quote that is inspirational but a bit nonsensical: “Shallow men believe in luck or in circumstance. Strong men believe in cause and effect.” By that account, I am definitely shallow—I believe in luck and circumstance. I was walking in Central Park one day, nearly ten years ago now, and just got lucky—I came across a bench dedicated to “Andrew Haswell Green, Father of Greater New York, Creating Genius of Central Park.” I got curious. Soon enough I was going through boxes of his diaries and letters at the New York Historical Society. His death intrigued me first. He was murdered on Park Avenue at the age of 83 in what police decided was a case of mistaken identity. But the more I researched him the more I became interested in the even lesser-known moments of the life that took him toward that ending.

TQ: How did your own perceptions and expectations of New York—which is as much a character in the book as Green is—alter in the writing of this book?

JL: I’ve always been a bit of an obsessive when it comes to the history of cities like New York and London, but delving into the details of very specific dates for The Great Mistake was fascinating to me and did throw up surprises. I would, say, discover that Andrew Haswell Green was in a given place on a given day of a given year. Often that day was one when no big events—from Posterity’s perspective—had been recorded. But in the archives I’d read newspaper articles from that day or the next day and see minutes of meetings and little fringe stories that were forgotten almost as soon as they were published but absolutely drew me in. In The New York Times archives I developed this slightly insane habit of reading the newspaper back to front for the weeks I wanted to know about, so that I’d be forced to focus on the smaller stories first. Those contemporaneous records gave me a greater sense of New York as a constantly-shifting site of smaller ideas and struggles than the more settled histories offered forth by more recent books perhaps have. I figured out after a year or two of writing the book that stripping away as much hindsight as possible was a better way—for me—of bringing my own ghost-version of the city to life. 

TQ: This book is meticulously researched—what facts did you find fascinating that couldn’t make it into the novel?

JL: I spent about a year compiling this weird dossier of clippings about people in 1903 or in the surrounding years who had died by virtue of accidents and mistakes. There were cases where the wrong medicine had been put in a bottle. A case where a customer had their throat slit because the barber got surprised by a pig running into his store. Things like that. It seemed to me that each case said something about life, and captured the way sadnesses and absurdities are always intertwined in complex ones, but I couldn’t really see a way in the end to use most of that material in the book. But those stories informed the tone of the novel in ways I’m only now starting to see. One real incident that does get recounted in The Great Mistake that I discovered in a small article in a newspaper was the story of a card game where a guy, having no more money to gamble, made the drunken decision to bet his infant daughter in a game. He lost the game, and his daughter. I couldn’t stop thinking about that tiny anecdote—something about the details of it really crushed me. In the book it’s just a little aside, but in a sense it forms everything, because Andrew Haswell Green was someone who felt abandoned by his own parents. His mother had died. His father had sent him away. That informed everything he did in later life.

TQ: How does your experience as an editor inform your own work?

JL: Well, I read a lot, so that’s useful. I think close reading requires certain muscles to be in good shape, and editing is a form of close reading, so it strengthens those muscles. I spend a long time working over the sentences. My favorite thing on earth, pathetically, is taking a sentence apart and putting it back together in some slightly different way. In some of the books I’ve written that polished style then needs to be pared back or scruffed up a lot—but in the case of Green, his own voice was so full of careful clauses and aphorisms and tiny explosions of oddity within an overall sense of restraint that I felt the style I settled on instinctively was a good fit for who he was. Then there was room to experiment in chapters like the one set in Trinidad—his time there seemed marked largely by the repetitions and the rhythms of the fields he worked in, and the religious belief that filtered in and out of his life like sunlight. So I listened to those rhythms and repetitions as I wrote. It’s a bit like trying to tune a radio.

TQ: How do you determine the fine line between fiction and history?

JL: I feel like the business of life involves navigating that line all the time? One thing I tried to capture in the book was the speed with which, after a given event, history and fiction both rush in and start to intermingle to form the version of the event that might last. For example: something as simple as the weather on the day that Green was murdered. The contemporaneous accounts differed. In some it was sunny. In others it was overcast. In one account, a light rain was falling as he was shot. I formed a pretty solid view on which of those was the most accurate version—but it was more interesting to me to reflect in the book the fact that all these different versions of the same history existed and still exist. That emotional truths can be definitive but accounts of actual events rarely are. The fine line you speak of is always being blurred, erased, rewritten—and that’s before you get into the question of how good the eyesight of the linesman is…

TQ: Given that this book centers on events that occurred about a century ago, what made it easier or harder to write than High Dive, let’s say, which occurs in the mid-1980s?

JL: Both books required a lot of research, and I keep promising myself that the next novel will be this beautiful breezy thing that requires none—but that plan is already falling apart. High Dive was at least largely set in a year I had been alive for: 1984. And a place I knew well: Brighton, England. I wasn’t there on the day the IRA tried to assassinate Margaret Thatcher and her entire cabinet…but that book was a little closer to my own lived life. In The Great Mistake, one of the challenging things was the fact I was grappling with 83 years of Green’s life. That created certain demands in terms of research, intuition, and imagination, and when to switch between the three. When chapters are set in different years—when a protagonist might have been a different version of him or herself—they become their own novels or stories, in a way. You have to spend a few months getting to grips with the summer of 1876, then write that chapter. And then when that’s done you have to become familiar with this specific day in the building of the Brooklyn Bridge—the one when Green was there with Tilden. But that is part of the delight of this kind of work—you might be writing what you know when it comes to certain “universal” experiences of love or loss or loneliness, but in terms of the specific situations and settings and character histories you are always learning. That learning process can be a huge thrill and is at the heart of why I love writing.     

TQ: With a life of such consequence, one of many masterful editorial decisions made was to narrow the lens on the times that ostensibly might seem less important from a biographical point of view. Would you talk to the decision to focus the bulk of the narrative on Andrew Haswell Green’s formative years, rather than the years that made his legacy?

JL: I think what interested me is that those formative years are what made his legacy, in a sense? The private and the public moments are inseparable—it’s just that the private ones are less visible, they have been brushed away into the more cobwebbed corners of history. I loved reading things in Andrew Haswell Green’s diaries and letters from when he was young and thinking about how they might have shaped his later achievements.  If he hadn’t arrived in New York as a teenager, alone, and found it impossible to scrape together the funds to access books from one of the many exclusively private libraries available, would he ever have gone on to help the New York Public Library come into being? And if he hadn’t found there were no places to walk except the expensive pleasure gardens, would he have brought Central Park into being?

TQ: Your use of multiple temporalities is a critical element of the narrative and how successful it is. How did you manage the planning for this complicated aspect, which in your hands is cinematic in scope?

JL: When I settled on the final structure of the book, whereby each chapter is arranged according to the name of a given gate providing access into Central Park—Miner’s Gate, Boys’ Gate, et cetera—a lot of other things clicked into place. That structure gave me permission—or so I felt—to start arranging events in Green’s life and death according not to when they happened but to the ideas and dynamics they seemed to help to shape or disturb. Suddenly I was free of the tyranny of chronology that had afflicted my earlier drafts. I could start to group little moments together that seemed to speak to one another. Errors. Mistakes. Successes. Failures. They became part of what Andrew in the book calls the “concert of barely connected moments” that make up any life.