Filling the Gaps
By Jonathan Carr
There can’t be many contexts in which it can be claimed, even metaphorically, that a famine is better than a feast. Yet when it comes to the source material accessed by a historical novelist, a dearth can often be more valuable than a glut. Take this reaction from the reader of an early draft of Make Me A City about the representation of a character called Eliza Chappell. Eliza, a schoolteacher, was depicted as being toothless by the age of twenty eight. Wasn’t that hamming things up? Would it make any difference, I asked, if you knew that Eliza Chappell was based on a real life figure, and that this detail about her was true? Yes, came the answer, it would. I, though, was not so sure.
The Rambunctious Protagonist
By Jonathan Carr
I came across John Dos Passos’ novel Manhattan Transfer, set in New York in the early 1920s, when I was in my own early twenties. It is not an easy book to read. The pace is frenetic, its construction fragmentary with frequent narrative shifts and a changing cast of characters. But on that first reading, as I saw intratextual connections developing, I began to sense the presence of an overarching story to which each episode might be contributing. Whatever that story was, it wasn’t linear, logical or obvious.
About one thing, though, I was sure. Dos Passos had channelled many of my own responses to the city on a visit I had made there a few years earlier. Young and naïve, I had been overwhelmed by New York’s unceasing rush and noise, by its immense scale, and by that uniquely urban sensation of being lonely and alone among a multitude of strangers. Although Dos Passos had written about a different age, many essentials of city life remained constant. Indeed, his novel struck me as an attempt to cram the whole metropolis, in one go, between the covers of a single book.
'Make Me a City': A chat with the author of a new epic about the founding of Chicago
By John Warner
I first met novelist Jonathan Carr almost 25 years ago when we were both studying creating writing at McNeese State University, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, under the tutelage of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler. Carr, an Englishman, has just published “Make Me a City,” a stunning novel about the first
hundred years of Chicago’s existence as a city. I had to pick up our conversation from a quarter-century ago about what’s so fascinating about the city we both love. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
Top 10 books about building cities
By Jonathan Carr
A big city is rather like an overcrowded cruise ship, direction unclear, belching smoke, the lives of the many controlled by a few. Except that citizens are not, of course, on vacation. We have become a predominantly urban species. More than 80% of us, in Britain and the US, live in cities. So shouldn’t we know by now what makes them work?
Despite a changing world, many of the fundamentals have indeed stayed the same. There must be a viable economy, social inclusion, technological innovation, sufficient housing, clean water and sanitation. Growing cities require visionaries, inventors, engineers and a ready supply of immigrants. Inevitably, cities will breed crime, inequality, corruption and cause environmental degradation.