AMY J. BARRY, Special to the Day
Jean Zimmerman's debut novel, "The Orphan Master," is a historical thriller/love story set in 1663 in the small Dutch colony of New Amsterdam-present day lower Manhattan. It's an era in which Zimmerman feels fairly comfortable as author of several works of nonfiction that feature the people and places of New York City in centuries past.
In the novel, orphan children start going missing or turning up dead.
Among those investigating the mysterious set of affairs is Dutch She-trader Blandine von Couvering and her love interest, Edward Drummond, a British spy. The whodunit is filled with political intrigue and suspense against the backdrop of Colonial New York and its surrounding wilderness.
In this recent Daybreak interview, Zimmerman talked about recreating in fiction this time and place in history.
Q. Did growing up in Tarrytown, in the Greater New York area, make you particularly interested in writing a historical novel set in New Amsterdam?
A. Even though I grew up in Westchester and live in Westchester now, I lived in New York City for about 20 years and never felt anything but intimate with Manhattan — I've always loved it.
Q. Starting with the protagonist-Blandine von Couvering-was she based on a real person or an amalgamation of various Dutch women of the times?
A. I had written a nonfiction book about women of that era in New York. ("The Women of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty"). The woman I profiled was Margaret Hardenbroeck. She was so intense on trade, in making her way in the fur business that she ended up being the richest woman in New York City at that time. I loved learning and writing about her. It made me want to write (a novel) about a She-Merchant, and how she came about. In terms of Blandine's general character, yes, she was (typical of) women of the time in New Amsterdam.
Q. Why were Dutch women of New Amsterdam so much less restricted than Puritan women of the same time in New England?
A. Dutch women had more freedom than any women anywhere in the world. It was typical for Dutch women to engage in commerce. It was expected of them almost. I just think the English have always been very repressive. If the Dutch had held onto New Amsterdam, wouldn't women's roles be so different? It was so advantageous for women to have liberty. The economy was better because of it and they were stronger as a culture.
Q. Why did you decide to build the story around the orphan killings?
A. I never wrote a novel before this. Nonfiction evolves out of fact, and so it evolves for (the writer). Writing a novel evolves beyond your control. I don't remember where I got the idea of the orphan killings. I do know orphans were very common on Manhattan because of parents being killed so frequently by disease, shipwrecks and Indian insurgents. It left lots of kids without parents. The reality of that struck me as very poignant. I wanted to push it from there. Blandine herself is an orphan and has such a poignant back-story.
Q. There's a lot of vividly described violence and cannibalism-in the passages about the supernatural creature Witika that consumes human flesh. It was hard to read some of it. Was it difficult to write those passages?
A. Yes, it was horrible, but I wanted to show the dangers to the people on the islands. To tell the story, you have to be real. That said, there were places in the story that were difficult for me to even write. A certain character is killed later on, and it really struck home with me. It was somebody I liked, but I felt it was necessary for the story.
Q. This is your first foray into historical fiction versus historical nonfiction-what are the challenges and rewards versus writing nonfiction?
A. First, I love writing nonfiction. What I love about it is your ability to snoop into other people's lives. But being able to write historical fiction let's me go into that research process I love, but take it a step further, the what-ifs: What could have been? What could have happened? You come up with an alternative world, a different real world.
Q. How is this new world you've created the same and not the same as New York today?
A. Now when I go to the foot of Manhattan, the only thing that remains the same is Pearl Street and Broadway-called 'The Broadway' then. Up to Wall Street, the streets are still there, they run the same way. Marketfeld Street was a grand street, and is now a small alley. I feel like I can see that the Red Lion (pub) was on this corner and can see Blandine's house on another corner. It's so amazing to have that come alive. It's so much fun. A friend said, 'This didn't really happen,' but to me it did happen.
Q. Is there anything else you'd like to mention?
A. There's a lot in the book that seems like it must be patently unreal. But I want people to know that some of the details are absolutely real from historical record. There are instances when history is more astonishing then fiction can really be. If you look in the historical record, you find amazing kernels. I don't want people to think it's all crazy made up because it's not.
"The Orphan Master" by Jean Zimmerman (Viking) is $27.95, hardcover.