The television writer talks to SFTV Communications Director Ariane Bicho about writing a novel, the dark-side of Thomas Edison, and his love for his lady detective.
You are primarily a writer for television, with two Emmy nominations and credits including Seinfeld, Family Ties and Roseanne. What inspired you to write a novel? Actually, I originally thought of it as a movie, but I knew that Hollywood has never warmed to original period piece movies because of the expense. I figured that a novel wouldn’t restrict me, since paper is paper no matter what is written on it and some of the most popular books are period pieces. I loved the story and my characters so much, I was hooked and felt I had to tell what was in my mind. So, I decided to write my first novel, and in doing so, I fell hard for the medium. There’s a reason it’s been around for many centuries. It’s a great way to tell a story.
The central character in “Second Street Station” is the first female detective in Brooklyn. She’s smart, principled and fearless. Is she for real? Mary Handley was a real person who was hired by the Brooklyn Police Department to sleuth a high profile murder. Of course, this is fiction, and I have created the personality of the woman I would have loved her to be. I really don’t know the actual personality of the real Mary Handley.
Are there striking similarities or differences when it comes to developing characters for television as opposed to a novel? I think when you develop for both mediums, ideally you want to give your characters a full, rich background, so you really know who they are, what they would do in different situations, how they would emotionally react, and why. The difference I find between writing a novel and television is that in a novel I have more personal control. I don’t have to rely on actors, a director, cameramen, a budget, etc. to fully realize my vision. I can describe and create exactly what I want. I didn’t really realize that until I started writing Second Street Station, but it’s an incredibly freeing and creative experience.
You have a daughter. What was her influence on your “Second Street Station” character, Detective Mary Handley? Or did she influence other characters? Ah, you caught me. There is a lot of my daughter in Mary Handley. Not all of Mary is my daughter nor is all of my daughter in Mary, but the idealism, the desire to achieve something special in a difficult profession, and the sensitivity are there.
The book is historical fiction. Are there any historical facts woven into the story? The short answer is plenty. The Edison/Tesla feud is well documented, and I’ve even put in the true historical fact that Edison had Brown create the electric chair to discredit Tesla’s AC electricity. And Edison did go around electrocuting live animals in public to do that. J.P. Morgan did back Edison and George Westinghouse did back Tesla. Morgan’s trysts with prostitutes are legendary. The Goodrich murder did happen as depicted in the book. Mary was hired to find the killer. The characters of Chief Detective Campbell, Kate Stoddard, the police commissioners, and many more characters were real people involved in the case. Edweard Muybridge was a real inventor whose invention was, to use a kinder word, borrowed by Edison. Vin Mariani was a real wine that had cocaine as one of its prime ingredients, and Edison was a proponent of cocaine. There are many more facts and I can’t give them all here. Suffice it to say, I did a lot of research, and the book reflects that.
Okay, so Thomas Edison was a schmuck. Tell me more. It’s hard for me to tell you more without giving away some key events in the book. Let’s just say he was primarily an excellent businessman. He was also an inventor but many of the inventions for which he got credit were mostly other peoples’ work. He had a lab he populated with some of the best scientists in the world, and they did most of the work. There are many stories about him stealing other peoples’ technology. When he died, he had over a thousand patents to his name. Only a fraction of those were genuinely his own work. And there is some convincing and compelling information that indicates he had a much darker side.
I was riveted by the story. I read it in a day. What drew you to write a mystery set in the late-nineteenth-century? A number of facts, actually. Years ago, I was helping my son with a term paper and came across the Edison/Tesla feud over the electricity market. I thought that was fascinating, but I also thought it might be too dry by itself and decided to put it in the context of a murder mystery. After doing research, I found the Goodrich case and thought it fit perfectly. As I developed it, and I think it’s quite apparent, I feel in love with my lady detective, Mary Handley, and she took over.
Can we expect a sequel? And what about a TV deal? Random House has already hired me to write a sequel, Brooklyn On Fire, and I am already very much into it. By the time this article is in print, it will be complete. As far as TV is concerned, Warner Brothers has optioned it as a TV series. Of course, it will be a while until that comes to fruition. As you know, the TV process is lengthy with a lot of steps. But I hope watching my Mary every week will be very intoxicating for everyone. She’s totally won me over.
“Second Street Station: A Mary Handley Mystery” is available for pre-sale and will be available online and in bookstores beginning June 9. “Brooklyn On Fire: A Mary Handley Mystery” arrives in January.
If you reside in the Pasadena area, Levy will be doing a book signing and reading at Vroman’s bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., on June 17 at 7:00 p.m.