As part of the Writers at Work series presented by the UMKC Department of English, American author Elizabeth Gaffney visited the Kansas City Public Library last week to give a talk about her latest book, “When the World Was Young.”
Inside, eager book lovers and MFA students filed in and sat down as some gathered outside enjoying refreshments. This was the first Writers at Work talk of the spring semester and a chance for young, aspiring writers to meet and talk with active members in the field. Elizabeth Gaffney is a prolific writer who has been featured in many periodicals, including The New York Times, A Public Space, The Virginal Quarterly Review, The Brooklyn Review and many others. She’s also fluent in German and has translated four books. “When the World Was Young” is her second novel. Her first, “Metropolis” has been described as an “enormous achievement.” She worked at the Paris Review for sixteen years as an editor and now works as the editor-at-large for the New York-based literary magazine A Public Space, which gives chances to new writers who haven’t been published yet.
“One of the things we’re really devoted to is finding new voices and publishing writers who aren’t already represented by agents or have book contracts,” Gaffney said. “A publication for us means that a writer really hasn’t been published anywhere not just a writer who has just come out with a really well represented book of short stories from Knopf. We want to be at the ground level finding different voices.”
Gaffney began by reading an excerpt from “When the World Was Young.” The novel takes place during World War II and begins on V-J Day after the bombings on Japan. The narrative revolves largely around the suicide of a woman, Stella, and how the lives around her, especially those of her children are affected by it. Reading a portion of the first chapter, Gaffney painted a picture of the young girl Wally Baker experiencing the explosion of joy filling the streets of New York as America celebrates its victory over Japan, though there is a slight tinge of melancholy in Wally’s perception of it.
“There was a sense of joy that I wanted to convey that would contrast with the sadness of the first move of the book, which is the death of Stella,” Gaffney said.
UMKC Professor and novelist Whitney Terrell, who was interviewing Gaffney, suggested that Stella’s death is less of a spoiler than it seems. Having it occur in the first chapter of the book sets the tone enormously, placing a suicide in the middle of Brooklyn on V-J Day.
“You know pretty quickly that Stella is not going to make it, but the book goes far back into her story so we learn about her earlier life,” Terrell said.
“When the World Was Young” is very much a novel about deep rooted familial history, much of which was inspired by Gaffney’s own life and family. The setting being Brooklyn Heights allowed Gaffney to shape the story in a personal way by using environments she grew up in.
“It’s a historic neighborhood of brownstone townhouses that were built in the 1840s,” Gaffney began, “and the first ‘suburb’ of Manhattan as some people say. It’s right across the Brooklyn Bridge from lower Manhattan and past the skyline. Brooklyn Heights is called that because it’s located on a cliff side made when the last of the glaciations stopped right there on Long Island and Brooklyn.”
A majority of the novel takes place in one brownstone building similar to the only that three generations of Gaffney’s own family has been living in.
“I was born into the building,” she said. “My parents lived there because they were going to have me. They lived in a little dark apartment in the bottom of the brownstone but later they bought the building and I lived there after college and now I have a family and I live upstairs and my mother lives downstairs and my children live in the building.”
A portion of the inspiration for the story came from a “scandal” of Gaffney’s family’s past that came in the form of her great grandmother taking on a man who was living with the family for the war effort as a lover.
“What happened was my great grandmother had this affair and when the war ended the gentleman went back to wherever he had come from and she got rather depressed and laid down in front of the gas oven and turned it on and committed suicide,” Gaffney said. “So there’s a history of depression in my family that I never knew about and I had suffered from depression as a young girl and I was kind of angry that no one let me know about it or even thought that psychotherapy was appropriate and thought it was embarrassing and ‘why would you talk to strangers about your problems’ meanwhile my great grandmother solved her problems by killing herself. I thought that someone should have gotten a heads up there.”
However, much of the story differs from Gaffney’s family history, and it wasn’t Gaffney’s main intent.
“I think my biggest urge was to make a story that explained the life and death of a woman who was reduced in family stories to ‘oh Bessie who dies in the baking accident.’ … The ‘baking accident was really serious and the life that she had lived which led her to kill herself seemed to me important to document and to explore what the ramifications of suicide are.”
After a certain point Gaffney introduced April Wolfe, a young writer, journalist and filmmaker who was one of three people selected from 1,200 applications from the emerging writers fellowship A Public Space offers twice a year. Writers send in work which gets edited by an editor and a contributor to the magazine. The hope is to develop a relationship with the magazine that can blossom into a mentorship like Wolfe has currently in. Wolfe has already been published in Vice, as well as having told stories on NPR for “Snap Judgement.” She has also had her films shown at various film festivals in places such as LA and Portland, Oregon.
Wolfe began by reading a short portion of the story she submitted, “Trig Functions,” about two sisters experiencing a deep moment of resentment and detachment on both a personal and ideological level. Talking about Catholicism and her family changing their name because of a “mafia thing,” Wolfe has a life as vibrant as her writing.
“Being six years out of an MFA and publishing in literary journals is still fulfilling,” Wolfe said. “I send stuff out a lot but A Public Space has always been my number one favorite literary journal because the quality is amazing. … Getting this fellowship, even though I’ve been working on things for a long time, still feels like it’s a step up to me. A really big step up.”
The Writers at Work series helps students greatly by showing how close the tools are to help propel them further into writing. A real chance to connect and learn from those in the field and learn how they work.