I'm pretty sure I've always been lucky enough to known Thelma Adams. Okay, the truth is, we became friends on social media because I was fan-girling her and the rest is history. BITTERSWEET BROOKLYN is as if she is channeling Charles Dickens himself. Every page crackles with life and history, and of course, Brooklyn int he early Twentieth Century, a world full of molls and mobsters both. And I'm not the only one to love this book. Take a look:
“Smart and complex, Bittersweet Brooklyn is a riveting journey into a glamorous and deadly underworld. Fascinating characters and a backdrop of New York in the 1920’s kept me churning through pages. Add in twist after twist to an already vibrant plot, and you’ve got the makings of a perfect read! No one writes women in history better than Thelma Adams. I loved this book!” —Heather Burch, bestselling author of In the Light of the Garden
“Set in the savage underbelly of a Mafia-linked social club and amusement park, Bittersweet Brooklyn tells the sizzling and unforgettable family saga of a brother and sister who must pit survival against loyalty, desire, and compassion.” —Susan Henderson, author of The Flicker of Old Dreams
“A fresh, fierce retelling of the crime family saga from the female point of view.” —Paula Froelich, New York Times bestselling author of Mercury in Retrograde
Thelma Adams is the author of the bestselling historical novel The Last Woman Standing and the O, The Oprah Magazine pick Playdate. She coproduced the Emmy-winning Feud: Bette and Joan. Additionally, Adams is a prominent American film critic and an outspoken voice in the Hollywood community. She has been the in-house film critic for Us Weekly and the New York Post and has written essays, celebrity profiles, and reviews for Yahoo! Movies, the New York Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, Parade, Marie Claire, and the Huffington Post.
I'm so jazzed to celebrate the publication of this book by having Thelma on the blog!
I always think there is a why now moment for an author to write any book. What were the origins of this one for you?
This book was a long time cooking. It began with personal essays and memoir, and expanded when my father shared a half-written short story he'd drafted with his-daughter-the-writer a few years before his death at 62 from a brain tumor. His prose – half typed, half scrawled, disappearing into an ellipse before it concluded – cracked open a new understanding of my father's past, one that was too painful for him to reveal in the jokes and banter and tall tales he told about his Brooklyn childhood.
He and my mother named me after my paternal grandmother, Thelma, who died the year before I was born. When I arrived, her death was new, still raw for my father. I presume there were a lot of heavy unresolved emotions when I entered the world, cross-eyed with an unformed hip and squalling angry. As I grew up – not a Mary or a Bonnie or a Sara – I found Thelma a heavy name to carry on the sunny schoolyards of Southern California where my Brooklyn-born father transplanted us. There were no other Thelma's. It was an old and odd name in a world that honored new and unexceptional. With that name, and the wild temper I inherited, I couldn't go with the flow.
In some ways the name shaped me – and it was only a matter of time before I tried to figure out the widow whose name I had, and wonder why she'd left so few memories behind. I swam myself out of Southern California through strong academics, went to Berkeley, embraced feminism, wrote poetry, believed that I could own and shape myself and my future. It was a very optimistic time: the cusp of the 80s. I was still being pushed along by the social reform movement of the 60s and 70s. I would make change. I would own my sexuality and not let men define me. And, yet, when I considered my grandmother, and imagined her with my strong spirit and intelligence and energy, I really wondered what it was like to be a liberated woman before her time.
What was the price that Thelma paid for her individualism?
The answers were not in the stories told within the family. My father had passed. I asked a cousin who'd known Thelma, and he said one word: "Dissolute." Not kind, or generous, or funny. What did that judgment mean? Why did he curl his lip? It only piqued my curiosity.
When I had finished a historical novel about Josephine Marcus, the longtime companion of Wyatt Earp, called The Last Woman Standing, the time came to gather my memoirist musings and look deeper into the available history to find my grandmother and her milieu. With my editor's blessing, I went in search of the historical shreds that would shed light on my grandmother. Her older brother had been a small-time hood in the growing enterprise that was Murder Inc., the Jewish mob in Brooklyn in the first half of the 20th Century. He made the news – and the police blotter and a minor paragraph in Rich Cohen's book Tough Jews. With his criminal activity as narrative tent poles, I began to create a portrait of an immigrant family from Galicia that struggled and prospered and climbed to home ownership, and to see the vibrant, star-crossed Thelma as a woman in full.
She did not define herself in the way I had since I was that child hopscotching at recess asking: what will I be when I grow up? And maybe that aspect of her will be a challenge for contemporary women reading about Thelma. She is not aspirational as we've come to expect our strong women to be. Survival was her struggle, to kindle the light that shined so brightly within her. She loved passionately – her husband, her brother and her only son. Like a Douglas Sirk heroine, this outsider burned to live. And that was something with which I could identify – and so will the readers who fall in love with this flawed woman born too soon.
I absolutely loved this book. The details were so real that I swore I was time-traveling. Tell us about your research and what startled you the most?
What startled me the most was how much detail I could build by collecting census data, birth and death certificates and war records. I know it sounds dusty (although most of it can now be performed online). I was able to track this family back to the ghetto of the Lower East Side (and the wheat fields of Galicia) but also I could see when and why they died – and imagine its impact. When a father passes of tuberculosis leaving an illiterate wife and four children, how does she cope? That's the drama. What happens when the family is in free fall – and who steps up? The two-dimensionality of the data becomes the three-dimensional of the imagination.
In and among those records was something that was very shocking to me – the widow, 36, institutionalized her two sons aged nine and 11, together in a Jewish orphanage. It's there in black and white: an application for admission among the New York Jewish Orphan Asylum Records for Abraham and Louis Lorber signed by their mother, Rebecca, on August 14, 1905. That happened when Thelma was only three – and I imagined the loss of her brothers had a huge impact on her life and the underlying instability of the threat of being sent to an orphanage herself. I didn't know this fact at all before I started writing – and can only imagine how it introduced violence into the brothers' lives. One became a gangster; the other enlisted in the Army and became a war hero at the Battle of the Marne. Oddly, I'd heard about my great uncle the gangster not the decorated soldier.
I also threw myself deeply into the era's popular culture. My father loved to dance and was a mad lindy hopper – as anyone who saw me fly over his shoulders at my Cousin Linda's wedding might remember. I knew he got that from his mother. So I wanted to know where she'd go dancing and what it was like. For years, I spent a lot of time across the street from the Roseland Ballroom at Gallagher's bar and steakhouse, a favorite NYC haunt. And, so, I wanted to know every detail of what it would be like to go dancing at the Roseland in Manhattan for a Brooklyn girl.
Similarly, I always knew she would go to the movies as the big movie houses expanded across Brooklyn like the Kinema. And, since I love movies and have a career as a film critic, I imagined the impact of the screen's glamor, the romanticism, the sexual freedom of Joan Crawford and Pola Negri and the beloved Rudolph Valentino, the matinee idol of the day. I spent a lot of time watching those movies, reading about the stars' public and private lives, and listening to Karina Longworth's excellent podcast, You Must Remember This. And I also knew that behavior that might fly on the screen in the Pre-Code 1920s would have exacted a high price for a poor young woman if acted out on the Brooklyn streets. And, in the case of my grandmother, it did.
What I love about the research phase is that when you hit your historical fiction groove, the research continually resonates. I call them rabbit holes: when you start reading about one thing, and discover a name or a character or a setting and look up and three hours have passed. All the movie stars mentioned above – Crawford, Negri and Valentino – have "unsavory" pasts deserving of their own novels.
I absolutely loved when Thelma, your heroine, ventures over to an Italian family and has her first taste of Italian food, which she adores. But it’s made very clear that “like must sticks with like” and the loss of being a family member makes her bereft. That’s a prominent part of NYC history, where different nationalities “ran” different streets. Could you talk about this please?
My father was raised, off and on, by his mother's Italian girlfriends. Jews and Italians lived side by side. He had strong memories of Italian feast days and the freedom of running around the neighborhood with his Italian friends. These memories were almost always joyous: his stories about who climbed the greased pole on the feast days in the Italian neighborhoods wormed its way into my narrative.
And criminal activity ran side-by-side in Brooklyn so that Jews and Italians were often in business together although Italians ran the larger Syndicate. Murder Inc., in which my great Uncle Abraham Lorber played his part was predominantly Jewish, a hitman for hire operation to the Italian families. But there were Italians affiliated with that off-shoot organization, too, and these boys that had grown up together on the streets continued their connections long into adulthood.
As for the scenes in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, centered on Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, it was inspired by my attending the feast, the Giglio, when I lived in Brooklyn with my husband. And, also, my love for the books of Elena Ferrante set in Naples. The Brooklyn Italian community had emigrated from that same area and I wanted to capture the rhythm of that life, the food, the festivals, and the extended family – and how it might appeal to Thelma to be a part of something larger than herself. How she might see the potential for another mother figure and acceptance, a place to belong. However, here, too, she is an outsider. And, for her, that discovery is heartbreaking.
I cared deeply for all the characters and want to know how you develop your characters?
I go very deep into character studies before I write page one. It's like an actor preparing character – my goal is to get under their skin and look out through their eyes. I am very detailed about their physical attributes, and handicaps, and ailments that stem from character.
It is at the center of all my fiction that each character merits their own book, could tell their own story with themselves as the hero. In this case, I struggled writing the older sister, Annie, because I structured her as the antagonist from a shred of the story my father left behind. The challenge was looking at Thelma through Annie's critical eyes – and it was very painful. Knowing how much Thelma needs to be seen and how that is absolutely not a priority for Annie is heartbreaking. But, I also had to look at Annie through her own lens: no older sister wants to take care of her invalid mother and three younger siblings just at the moment she feels her own sap rising. She also has a self-protective streak that makes her a survivor, which is good for her own children but makes her a ruthless rival in controlling the family soul. And when I allowed her a voice, she spoke with a clarity and strength that surprised me.
The mother's character was built on a huge amount of research that provided back story and is less in evidence in the novel's descriptions: she was born in Drohobych, now located in Ukraine. That detail was also on the orphanage admit application. Her character was rooted in that past and its rituals. I needed to know her place as a middle daughter in a large relatively prosperous rural family in order to understand her points of reference and how ill-prepared for the American adventure she was. She hadn't been raised to be an individual; she was part of a herd. In New York, she became a widow alone raising children in a country in which she'd never expected to live. Her values remained those of her roots, and a nostalgia for a time that had already past even in the old country. I found her incredibly sympathetic even at her weakest and most hurtful because I felt for a woman who had been bartered into an arranged marriage and then had given birth so many times and had also miscarried, and whose emotional life was so determined by these bodily functions.
I regret that any real memories of these women were harmed in the writing of this fiction. That was never my intent. This isn't memoir but investigation. Choices were necessarily made. I presume there are many more stories for each of these women – and for the brothers as well. I look forward to hearing them in the future because at the root of this book is raising the voices of history's unheard. I chose to start with the woman who was closest to my heart, whose name I bear.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Politics -- And writing about the intersection of the women's rights movement and Spiritualism in 19th Century America. It amazes me that so many of the battles that we have been fighting in my lifetime for women's equality were also being hotly debated the century before. To have struggled so hard to achieve the right to vote, to own property, to divorce abusive husbands, to have custody of our own children – and then for me in the present to witness the white men in suits in government still deciding issues like a woman's right to choose, or when to believe a women's testimony about sexual assault obsesses me. One way I know how to combat this is to write female-driven narratives overlooked in homogenizing history books. The other: vote, canvass, and don't get numb!
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
How did being a movie critic influence how you wrote this 20th century Jewish noir? I grew up on The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Sopranos and, more recently, binge-watched Boardwalk Empire. The first "dirty book" I read was Mario Puzo's The Godfather, when Sonny bangs a bridesmaid upstairs while the house is full of family, business associates and guests. But what do we really know about that bridesmaid, her pleasure, the bride, the mother? How would they have seen or remembered that wedding day, the loss of their husbands to the maw of the family business, their children entering lives of crime, the violence on the day of their infant's baptism? What were their dreams and desires outside of the family? I wanted to flip that genre on its head and write about the matriarchy behind the criminal society of men – the sisters, mothers, daughters and girlfriends squeezing out joy in an experience that largely skipped the newspaper headlines and was only sketched out in the census rolls. Certainly, they were more than just collateral damage. Each life engenders its own struggle, its own surge toward the light of joy. And, so, I like to see the moments in Thelma's life where she experienced transcendence -- dancing with her man at the Roseland, sharing a stoop with her brothers and laughing at shared jokes, watching Valentino in the glamorous movie palaces – as something worth rescuing from the unrecorded past and sharing with my readers.