Like many children, I longed for superpowers. I wanted to fly, to conduct electricity, to breathe underwater. But most of all I wanted travel back in time. Conveniently enough, there was a time travel machine in my neighbor’s hedge – a crude, unfinished doorframe – and if I scurried quickly beneath, it could transport me to Travers’ London or Wilder’s Kansas prairie. (It could also revitalize my strength in the event I was hindered in an alien-robot battle.) Then there came a time when I could no longer trot out into the garden and lose myself in reverie. I was a grown-up: working in an office, riding the subway, eating potato chips for dinner while balancing my checkbook. In this new life, writing fiction – something I’d always done in one fashion or another – took on a different role. It became a way of immersing myself, sustaining myself, keeping that merry and curious part of me alive. As an adult, I found it was far too easy to lose that sense of play, to stray from the wild fields of imagination. So the world of Church of Marvels was not so much a deliberate choice on my part – I didn’t set out to research and write a piece of historical fiction – but rather, a natural, outward-growing expression of those necessary returns to daydreams.
Most of the novel was written in the small back room of my apartment, at a desk with a view of the alleyway. Staring out at that alley, with its trash bins and hopeful bird feeders, its snow drifts in winter and fizzled firecrackers in summer, the landscape began to take on a unique, otherworldly quality – it became the hairpin lanes of the Lower East Side, the corridor of Blackwell’s asylum, a misted stretch of sea. How do you write of a time you haven’t experienced? I’ve often been asked. And how do you know if you’ve done it well? Honestly, it isn’t easy. Historical fiction poses certain challenges of scope and philosophy – I wanted to honor the characters, to faithfully evoke to the world that they lived in; at the same time, I had to accept the fact that research could only take me so far (before it became a distraction, a crutch, an impediment). So I tried to read for pleasure as much as for information. I read about the history of magic lantern shows, bareknuckle boxing, medicine and opiates, hustlers, superstitions, the social and economic aftermath of the American Civil War. I read to understand the circumstances these characters would face, the backdrop and color of their everyday lives – but ultimately I had to create the New York they lived in. (Sometimes I wonder if I’ve lived more deeply in the city of my imagination than the city I’ve known for half my life.) It was a high-wire act, in the best sense. In the end, I relied on the research that was relevant, interesting, and meaningful – then I had to trust the characters to guide me the rest of the way.
Leslie Parry is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has received an O. Henry Award, a National Magazine Award nomination and an honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories 2013. Raised in Pasadena, California, she now lives in Chicago.