31 Bond Street tells the real-life story of a murder mystery that scandalized the nation and the presses as a sensational trial played out, while an entire country looked on in wonder. Exciting as the events of this novel are, at the backbone of 31 Bond Street is a smart, insightful, upstairs/downstairs look at antebellum life in New York City during the mid-19th century. Harper recently released the paperback of 31 Bond Street.Please join me in welcome the author, Ellen Horan, to Hist-Fic Chick for an interview today.
I read in your “The Story Behind the Book” piece on your website that you decided to write 31 Bond Street after coming across a newspaper page in a print shop–fascinating! This led you to a paper trail of 17 different newspapers that were covering the murder at the time. Were these newspaper articles your primary research sources?
The newspapers were my primary resource, and once I got past the difficulty of reading the 19th century prose, they were a wonderful immersion into that world. They contained reportage on the murder case, dialogue transcripts of the trial, plus politics, advertising, and the amusements of New Yorkers of the day. I created files on various subjects like fashion and entertainment to give the book flavor. I also backed up with lots of reading – there are some great histories on New York City’s role during the Civil War.
How did you come up with the fictional aspects of 31 Bond Street and blend them with the facts you knew to be true?
I realized that I wanted to have characters that had motives and desires and to understand what made them tick, and that is the stuff of fiction. I had to put myself in the character’s shoes and try to figure out how each of them would feel, embroiled in this dramatic case. So it’s a bit like method acting. For instance, the fact that Emma Cunningham was a widowed mother with two teenaged daughters made me realize how important it was for her to find husbands for herself and her daughter’s, given that women did not have means to security except through marriage or family. So, once her primary motive become clear, many of her actions become clearer in context.
I read in The Washington Post that you had initially intended this to be a nonfiction study. What made you decide instead to write it as a historical fiction murder mystery?
The Bond Street murder was extensively reported in the newspapers of the time, and I found myself getting caught up its many twists and turns when trying to ‘tell’ the facts of the case in a nonfiction study. I became more intrigued by fiction’s ability to ‘show,’ not tell. The personal dynamics between the characters came naturally from the facts: Emma Cunningham had a strong conflicts with her lover turned nemesis, Harvey Burdell, and then the defense lawyer, Henry Clinton, was in opposition to the ambitious prosecuting District Attorney, Oakey Hall. So, these character’s conflicts created a natural plot dynamic and lots of dramatic tension.
New York City is as much a character in your book as Emma, Henry, and Dr. Burdell. A New Yorker myself, I greatly enjoyed your historical descriptions of pre-Civil War Manhattan. Tell us a bit about this dynamic; the economic, social, and political differences of New York then vs. now.
The setting, New York City, 1857, still had undeveloped areas of virgin landscape and that fascinated me. I love the idea of turning a corner, and stumbling into the past. As a New Yorker, we often overlook the natural beauty of the city’s location with its splendid harbor and waterways. So, yes, the setting, both geographically and politically, became a character of the book. Politically, I discovered that there was pro-Southern sentiment in pre-Civil War New York, something that is being uncovered in recent historical examinations. And I looked at the positions of women, children, ex-slaves, and servants in New York of that time, all of whom did not have voices in the history books, and wondered about the dangers and perils that were part of their everyday lives.
I’ve heard rumors of a 31 Bond Street movie – what more, if anything, can you tell us?
I hear that the book is circulating as a possible movie, but the ways of Hollywood are pretty mysterious, and I suppose I can only wait to see what evolves. Having already ‘created’ the characters from real people, it would intrigue me to see them re-created again by actors and sets, but that would someone else’s job – not mine.
31 Bond Street received excellent reviews and was very well received – do you have plans for a second novel? If so, what is the time period/subject matter?
I am fortunate to have the chance to write another novel. There is a natural sequel with Henry Clinton and his wife involved in a political trial later in the century. But I am taking a breather from those characters, and working on an idea that takes place in the present day, a mystery on an archeological dig. I hesitate to go into detail too early, as I still need to present this to my editor, but I do hope to have a third book afterward, and that Henry and Elisabeth Clinton will return.
About the Author
ELLEN HORAN was raised in Philadelphia and New York. After graduating from college, where she studied painting and history, she lived in France for a year while working as an au pair and studying studio art. She remained abroad for a second year and was offered a grant to live and paint in the South of France. She returned to New York City and worked for many years with photographers and photo agencies. She maintained an art studio and worked as a freelance photo editor for magazines and books. She turned her attention to writing after becoming intrigued by the Bond Street murder case. She lives in downtown Manhattan, the setting of her first novel, 31 Bond Street.