Find Him in a Cafe
Novelist Brendan Mathews leaves no Berkshire coffeeshop unturned
Brendan Mathews is a familiar face at the Lenox Library, where he will be launching his debut novel, The World of Tomorrow, on September 8, 2017.
“Next to the bed was a table with a glass of water and a lamp that cast a pale glow, beyond which lay another bed just like his. On the other side of his bed was a leather chair and in the chair sat an old man with a sharp, beakish nose and a spray of white hair above his lean face. The man wore spectacles— round, black, and heavy—and a creamy white suit and waistcoat. A black cravat, like some leafy night-blooming flower, ran riot from his shirt collar. Michael nodded to the old man and the old man nodded in reply. He couldn’t remember ever speaking to the old man but he knew the man had been there—in that chair, in this room—for … for … for as long as Michael could remember. Was that a day? A week? More? It could not be his whole life because out on the fringes of his memory, in that spot where his own name had hovered just out of reach, there were other, brighter moments, and he could only hope that they would return to him like the wreckage of a ship pushed, ebb after ebb, to the shore.” — excerpt from the novel The World of Tomorrow
Simon’s Rock professor Brendan Mathews is pretty sure every coffeeshop in the Berkshires served as his writing room during the seven and a half years he worked on The World of Tomorrow, to be published by Little, Brown and Company. His most memorable session, though, was at The Mount, where he spent a winter in the Sewing Room on the third floor. He had been warned it might be haunted, but that was a small price to pay for the quiet writing time.
“I was typing away and felt very definitely a tap on my left shoulder and finger tracing across to my right and then lifting up,” says Mathews, who lives in Lenox. “I turned around and looked and there was nobody there.”
Mathews isn’t superstitious, and whether it was a ghostly encounter or not isn’t entirely the point. His novel features the ghost of Williams Butler Yeats as a character, and Mathews was burdened about the need to explain whether it was really a ghost or just a figure of imagination for one of his characters. His moment at the Mount helped him come to terms with aspects of the novel itself (a portion of which begins this piece).
“I was comfortable with that maybe not being entirely rational or realistic in the novel, too,” says Mathews. “If someone’s a big believer in ghosts, the most realistic or simplest explanation is that it’s a ghost. Stop trying to tie yourself in knots to try and find a logical reason for it.” His 560-page novel, set to be released September 5, is steeped with history and research. The starting point was Mathews’s Irish-Catholic grandfather, who immigrated to New York in 1929 with the dream of becoming an arranger in a big band. He played in clubs and speakeasies when he first came over, but ended up owning a carpet store in Kingston, New York.
“I tried to imagine a different course for him,” Mathews says. “What if he’d stuck with the music and that had become his career?” The character becomes a jazz musician in the book and has two troublesome brothers—an escaped convict and a former seminarian— who are the catalysts for the story, which involves money stolen from the IRA. In prepublication, the book has been lauded for its complex, multiple narrative threads, weaving the world of Irish Catholics together with those of New York crime, Harlem, and jazz, all peppered by the emotional and political climate of pre–World War II.
That scope required Mathews to be a master of organization, a sometimesdifficult task when your novel is scattered across notebooks, slips of paper, and even coffeeshop receipts. It was the calendar that saved him—the story takes place during one week in 1939.
“I could look at the calendar and think about where each character was on a particular day and when those stories were colliding,” says Mathews. “At one point, I did make a calendar and place all the moments I’d written on it and I realized, hey, there’s a lot of things happening on Wednesday and there’s nothing happening on Tuesday. I’ve got to figure out what’s wrong with that.”
It was important to him that every character had a say, and the organizing principle of the weekly calendar helped him keep the momentum of the drama and allowed him to map out characters in the narrative, making sure they didn’t “skulk on the periphery,” as Mathews calls it. He repeatedly assured friends he was two months from finishing. Eight years on, the new novel is on the American Booksellers Association’s September Indie Next List. And he is preparing a short-story collection while pondering a second novel.
Brendan Mathews and his new novel
›› Friday, Sept. 8, Lenox Library, book launch, reading, reception, 6:30 p.m.
›› Wednesday, Sept. 13, The Mount in Lenox, “The Book Show,” interviewed by WAMC’s Joe Donahue), 3:30 p.m.
›› Saturday, Sept. 23, Stockbridge Library Speaker Series, 4 p.m.
›› Thursday, Sept. 28, White Hart Inn Speaker Series, Salisbury, Conn., 6 p.m.