Monday, July 29, 2019

Q&A with Lisa Grunwald

Lisa Grunwald is the author of the new novel Time After Time, which focuses on New York's Grand Central Station. Her other books include the novels The Irresistible Henry House and Whatever Makes You Happy. A former contributing editor to Life and former features editor for Esquire, she lives in New York City.

Q: What was the inspiration for Time After Time, and for your characters Joe and Nora?

A: This novel started with a story I found in another book, specifically a book called Grand Central, which was written in 1946. There was a ghost story in there—a fairly classic ghost story, as it turned out. But I’d never heard it before.

A young woman shows up at the gold clock in Grand Central early in the morning, lost and confused. A gateman offers to walk her home, but she disappears on the way. Worried about what’s happened to her, he continues to the address she’d given him and rings the doorbell. An old woman answers and says “This happens every year. That was my niece. She died in a gas explosion 35 years ago.”

I was working on something else at the time, but I couldn’t get this story out of my head, and I started to wonder what it would be like to write about a ghost in Grand Central. 

Then I had lunch with a friend of mine, an architect and historian named James Sanders. He remembered the book Grand Central, and specifically a passage that described what sunrise was like inside the terminal on several special days of the year. He proceeded to explain Manhattanhenge to me (his diagram of it is in the back of the novel), and told me that it couldn’t be seen anymore, because the United Nations Secretariat building had blocked it forever.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to recreate New York City and Grand Central Terminal in the 1920s-1940s, and what did you learn that particularly surprised you?

A: This is a photo of my bookshelf, which, as you can see, is loaded with books about New York, Grand Central, and the decades the novel covers. I read everything I could about Grand Central, both in these books and in old newspapers and online.

And this is my research notebook!

Along the way I studied the 1924 Paris Olympics, the S.S. Paris, the World’s Fair, Queens, Atlantic City, and popular movies and music of the day. The facts I gathered and checked ranged from the shape (and date) of the original Perrier bottle to the number of studios in the Grand Central Art Gallery.

Plenty of things surprised me—the art gallery in the terminal; the fact that there really was a porter who held prayer meetings in an empty train car; the details of the items that were buried in a time capsule at the World’s Fair.

But most of all what surprised me was what always surprises me when I’m researching the past: how similar we are to the people who’ve come before us, no matter the era. Hopes, heartaches, conflict, love, war and peace. All so familiar. As is, luckily, this masterpiece of a building in the heart of New York City.

Q: Could you describe the concept of Manhattanhenge, and how it fits into the novel?

A: The best description of the phenomenon of Manhattanhenge can be found at the American Museum of Natural History website.

I altered the facts just a bit to fit the needs of my story, in which the light of Manhattanhenge sunrise hits Nora in Grand Central at the exact moment of her death, essentially suspending her between life and death. 

On the anniversary, when the skies are not cloudy, Manhattanhenge light meets the power of Grand Central’s generators and allows Nora to reappear. Eventually Nora and Joe are forced to confront the fact that she can only stay “alive” as long as she’s within range of that power. When the United Nations Secretariat building is erected, it blocks Manhattanhenge sunrise, and thus any chance of Nora’s return if she steps out of range again. 

Conversely, in this novel, the power of Manhattanhenge sunSET (which also happens twice a year) can pull Nora in the opposite direction—toward a true death. 

Q: The book has been compared to The Time Traveler's Wife. What do you think of that comparison?

A: I’m flattered in theory, because I know people love that novel, but I have intentionally not read a word of it — nor of Jack Finney’s Time and Again or Mark Helprin's Winter’s Tale, all of which were mentioned to me at one point or another when I told friends what I was writing. 

The reason I haven’t read them is that I didn’t want to be either overly intimidated or overly influenced by them. It’s hard, when you’re trying to create a fictional world, to run into other fictional worlds and not wonder if you shouldn’t do just a little bit more of this or that.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a new novel that’s set in the South in the 1920s.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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