Why Do You Write?

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Lower East Side

Long before they were books, the Serafina Florio mystery series began as two paintings. In 1997 I was commissioned by the American Jewish Committee to paint a diptych of the Lower East Side. The client told me I had free rein as long as my work reflected all ethnic groups that settled in the area from 1882 to 1925.

So how do you stuff the richness of that neighborhood onto a canvas? Before I picked up a brush, I spent three months walking the streets of lower Manhattan, sketching in a notebook, reading as much as I could about the great migration of the early twentieth century, interviewing long-time residents, frequenting the delis, the pickle stands, the Tenement Museum. I stood on the site of the pig market at Hester and Ludlow, the historic focal point of New York’s garment center; I walked Orchard, Mott, Eldridge, Grand, and—my favorite—Elizabeth Street where Sicilians settled.

Maybe it was the onion soup at Ratner’s, but one day as I sat on a park bench, I imagined a young girl. Smudged from play and wearing a patched smock, she looked at me a moment, pointed to the mass of haggling peddlers, shoppers, prostitutes, and children playing under push carts. Placing a finger to the side of her nose, she whispered something indistinct, disappeared. What did she say? Where was she born—in a back street in Sicily? A village in Russia? A brothel on Allen Street? What were her dreams?

Tessa, I called her, a name taken from the roll of those who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in March 1911. Probably she lived in one of ten thousand overcrowded tenement buildings south of Fourteenth Street. For sure she breathed fetid air, carried water from the well up five flights of stairs. She froze in winter, roasted in summer, was ashamed of her accent and dress.

So I sketched my roughs and painted my paintings.

Time passed and I switched from oils to words, but Tessa lives on in my mind. Like the lower Manhattan neighborhood I love, she has cast her spell. That’s how DEATH OF A SERPENT started. It’s the first book in a very long series.

What inspired you to write?

Photo: Clam Seller, Mulberry Street, Lower East Side, New York, ca 1900. Credit: Detroit Photographic Co.

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