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Steeped In Fantasy, 'Westside' Novel Follows A Young Detective's Quest For Clues


"Westside" is set in an alternate 1920s in which a 13-mile-long fence runs down Broadway to split Manhattan between the sunny and prosperous East Side and a West Side that's historically held the city's deplorables, what the narrator, Gilda Carr, 27 years old and a private eye, calls the feckless, greedy, criminal and mad.

Gilda is a West Sider. And like her father, a gang leader who became a police captain, she tries to solve what she calls tiny mysteries, like a missing brooch or a piece of millinery. But Gilda Carr finds that the case of a missing thin white glove will throw open both sides of the city and pull her into the riddle of the city itself and into a looming turf war between bootleggers and crime lords that rekindles the mystery of the disappearance of her father.

"Westside" is the first novel for W.M. Akers, a playwright and professional writer-for-hire. We're going to talk about that. He joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

WM AKERS: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: So the West Side is rotting and catching fire. What's going on there?

AKERS: Well, it is a great and terrible mystery, and it's one too large for most people to dare trying to solve. It has always been a strange place. In the last 15 or 20 years, people have begun disappearing, first by the dozen, then by the hundred, then by the thousand.

Starting in 1914, the city built this long fence right up the middle of Broadway, right on the dotted yellow line. And since then, everyone on the West Side has been completely walled off. If they have the right permit, they can come and go for work. But mostly, they're trapped there.

And since the city walled it off, the neighborhood has gotten stranger. The trees have grown taller. Vines have crept up. Water has sprung up where there was no water before. And it is altogether a mysterious and enchanting landscape perfect for mysteries and perfect for Gilda Carr.

SIMON: Gilda's proud to be a West Sider, isn't she?

AKERS: Oh, yes. She's just that type of native New Yorker who loves the city exactly as horrible as it was when she was born and resents anybody who has any ideas of trying to make it a better place.

SIMON: Are we meant to see any metaphors in your hellscape to modern life? Because it's hard not to look at the fence between the East Side and West Side and think of the U.S. southern border today becoming more militarized.

AKERS: I think that while I wasn't going for any kind of specific allegory there, I am very interested in the ways that a great, big piece of iron and steel can divide people and the way that it will warp the people on both the sort of happy, prosperous side and the unfortunate side. I think that it has terrible effects on both and that it was something I wanted to explore here, yeah.

SIMON: And on the West Side in this book, modern technology, as it was in 1914, 1915, just doesn't work. It rusts or blows up. Now, is that kind of an allegory about the digital divide of our times?

AKERS: I think that that was just a way of letting me have my cake and eat it, too, because I love New York in the 1920s, and I also love the bad, dark era of Herbert Asbury's "Gangs Of New York." And I wanted to be able to bring sort of, like, a creepy, eerie, 19th century, almost-Victorian flair to this neighborhood.

And with the overgrowth of the landscape, it just seemed - it just made sense to me that everything from guns to light bulbs to washing machines simply couldn't exist in this realm because they were too new and too fancy and too polished for this dark, grim place.

SIMON: You are involved in - I almost said a hundred different activities, which is surely a mild exaggeration. But can I ask you about some of the other ones?

AKERS: Absolutely.

SIMON: Your plays, for example. I read you have a play called "Dead Man's Dinner." All I know about it is a paragraph. But there's some similar themes to "Westside."

AKERS: Absolutely. "Dead Man's Dinner" is a play about three women who are trapped in an Upper West Side apartment house sometime in the unidentified future while New York City is under siege. And they're trying to grapple with cold and hunger and a lack of fuel and distrust for each other, and to deal with these sort of, like, creeping questions of what happens when the food runs out. How far do we have to go before we turn into animals? Before we turn into cannibals? What does this city look like when you take civilization away but the landscape remains? And what happens to the people who are unfortunate enough to live there?

SIMON: I mean, you've heard all the New York jokes that, you know, if an elevator gets stuck, it takes 30 seconds for New Yorkers to turn to cannibalism, right?

AKERS: (Laughter) And I believe that's firmly true.

SIMON: (Laughter) You offer to edit other novels as an independent. Can we know anything about that, or do you have to keep that a little bit to yourself?

AKERS: Oh, no. I'm eager to talk about it. I love being able to share the sort of tips and tricks and everything else that I've picked up along the way with new or beginning writers. It's a great pleasure.

SIMON: I write novels. Tell me a trick, please.

AKERS: My absolute favorite trick is when you finish a book - and I realize that this is down a long road - sit down and just write as many words as you can about how I did it. These are all the different things that were essential for me in, like, making this book real.

And writing that document and having that document in hand when you get to starting your next book - because you will write another book, and it'll be even better than the first one. When it comes to that, you are going to look at it and say, how did I write that first book? It is so perfect. I don't know. And you will have this moment of panic. And if you have this file to go back to that's, like, actually, that first book you wrote was a mess for a long time, and here's how you fought your way out of it, it is immensely soothing and very, very helpful.

SIMON: Look; you've written a novel, "Westside," that's getting praised. I enjoyed it. I expect it to be very popular. But what do you make of the popularity of dystopian fiction today, when we're living in, you know, a world of mass shootings and mass surveillance and mass migration and desperation and the revival of hatred? I mean, isn't the damn world tough enough?

AKERS: I think that there are different types of dystopian fiction. I think that future-based dystopian fiction can be extremely grim and can really, really bum me out. But things set in present day or in the past, I think, provide - hopeful is not the right word, but a different sort of perspective on it because when you have something like this that's set in, like, a dark, alternate version of 1921, the point is not to say the world is dark and terrible. The present is dark and terrible. The future will be dark and terrible. It's to say the past maybe wasn't as great as you're remembering.

And a lot of the work I do when I'm working with history with historical fiction is to explore the ugly side of the past that we've mostly tried to forget and the ways in which the past is more like the present than we realize, and the ways in which the past is totally out there and stranger than we know.

SIMON: W.M. Akers - his novel, "Westside" - thank you so much for being with us.

AKERS: Thank you so much for talking with me. This was a great pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.