The next next novel (updated)

Because I am nearing the end of my next novel, and fast approaching my deadline, naturally my mind has turned to the novel I’ll be writing after this one. It will be set in New York City in the 1930s. Yup, I’ll be trying my hand at some historical fiction. Why not, eh? After all, it’s on my list.

And like, Cassie, who’s preparing for her next novel by only reading books about or set in Victorian England, I’m going to only read Depression era New York City books. Though because I am cunning I also get to watch many of my fave movies from the 1930s. An astonishing number of which are set in NYC. Damn I’m good.

I need no help with movie recs but I’d love to get recommendations for books, especially non-fiction such as histories and journals and collections of letters from that era. Novels would be fab as well. Preferably written and published then, but if a book is particularly good just set then should be fine.


Update: Thanks so much for all the suggestions. Just to be clear: New York City recs only. I have no need for general US recommendations. And as I said I’m especially interested in primary sources: letters, diaries etc. Thanks again for all the help.


  1. E. Lockhart on #

    I have a long-stalled project set in the 30s. I liked Niagra Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken, though not set exclusively in NYC. About Vaudeville. I recently read Funny Boys by Warren Adler, set in a borscht belt resort and in NYC. Not sure of dates but similar. Liked the first half a lot. Fun with gangsters!

    Read Damon Runyon! But then, you knew that.

    Dreamland by Kevin Baker. (Again, exact dates not remembered).

  2. robin on #

    Only Yesterday, by Frederick Lewis Allen — it was published in 1931 and is a really textured account (and personal history) of the previous ten years (including the crash and the early years of the depression). Even though it focuses on the 20s, it gives you a great feel for everything that was lost in the crash.

    Also Middletown in Transition (pub’d 1937), by Robert Lynd, a detailed sociological analysis of depression life in a small US city. Not new york specific, but chock full of useful info.

  3. Hillary! on #

    F. Scott Fotzgerald?

  4. Hillary! on #

    Fotzgerald? Who’s that? I believe I meant Fitzgerlad.

  5. Hillary! on #

    Wow, I just get worse and worse. Fitzgerald!

    Sorry about the tripple post.

  6. Sherwood on #

    Studs Terkel wandered around collecting real stories from ordinary people during that era. It’s fascinating.

    “wit’s End” is a good roundup of the Algonquin Round Table, and the interconnected group of writers and artists around Alexander Woollcott. (In fact, you should read him–it will be amazing now, but he had a profound effect on letters and on Broadway shows of the time. He’s so superficial he’s just about unreadable. FPA ditto, another one who had a profound effect.)

    E.B. White’s Letters are really interesting, and oh yes, Edmund Wilson has his thirties notes published, as well as his letters, etc.

  7. Leahr on #

    I am trying to think of some. I must have read a bunch. Dave at night by Gail Carson Levine is set in NYC, a decade earlier than you wanted, so never mind. I read as a kid, Ida Early Comes over the Mountain- that’s depression era, but its set in Georgia. (Cute little book, though.) Why can’t I think of anything? I used to read a ton of historical fiction…there may be a Dear America diary of that era. Does Ann Rinaldi write about a period that late?
    Oh! All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren is in the 30s. again, not NYC, but Huey Long did have a lot to do with the tone of the era. I never read it but I heard it’s good.
    Strawberry Girl by Lois Lensky- set in Florida
    My mother reminded me of The Grapes of Wrath, which I’m sure you already thought of but deserves to be on a list anyway. I’ve only read part of it, though.
    I tried googling Depression historical fiction and found some reccomendations. I was reminded of Mildred Taylor’s books, which are good. So is Bud, not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis.
    But still can’t find any on city life! You are pointing out gaps in my reading, Justine. Or possibly just my memory. I’ll try to post again if I do think of anything better.

  8. Patrick on #

    I was living as a vampire, in NYC, during the 1930s. I can’t help though. I prefered everything from 1910. I was an old fashioned vampire.

    I got better, though. In 1947 the aliens cured me.

  9. Jonathan on #

    I thought of Studs Terkel as well. Working is the book I’ve read, and it’s got a lot about the Depression in it

  10. Kate C on #

    Have you read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhed? Ghastly philosophy but interesting portrait of the time.

  11. Justine on #

    Sherwood: White’s and Wilsons’s letters? Awesome. I’m right on it! Thanks for the rec.

    Kate C: I have indeed read The Fountainhead not to mention Atlas Shrugged I find them both deeply hilarious. A true comic genius, Ayn Rand.

  12. rebecca on #

    “A true comic genius, Ayn Rand.”
    HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! She must be turning in her grave.

  13. Mike on #

    Damon Runyon. Wrote the story that became Guys and Dolls. His stories are a slang-fest. Runyon and New York go together like er, things that belong with each other.

    For a more documentary approach, Luc Sante’s Low Life is a hugely readable portrait of New York from 1840 to 1920.

    And while on the topic, Harpo Marx’ memoir Harpo Speaks includes some hilarious stuff around the collapse of Wall Street in 1929. And just a beautiful book.

  14. Justine on #

    Ariel & Mike: Good recs. I’ve read ’em both many times. Dawn Powell is actually a huge influence on my writing. She’s a genius. Runyon still makes me laugh even on the umpteenth read.

    The Luc Sante’s a fab book but no good for my period. I shall check out the Harpo Marx.

  15. simmone on #

    how about jim tully, or john dos passos (particularly manhattan transfer), nathaneal west’s miss lonelyhearts, john fante …. oh it’s a great time to be writing about!

  16. Ariel Zeitlin Cooke on #

    Justine, also don’t forget BUtterfield 8 by John O’Hara. And why don’t you check out the WPA guidebook to NY and see if they have other writings? (As many of you probably know, WPA was the U.S. gov’t’s work program during the Depression and employed writers; most famous work to come out of the program was the photoessay on Appalachia, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans–which is just so fantastic but of course isn’t NY.)

  17. Claudia on #

    try Dreamland by like Kevin Baker? might be 1920’s though. It is a historical novel taking place around Coney Island

  18. caitlin on #

    What fun — the music, the theatre, the fashions! I wish for you a fashion designer fairy so that you can be completely immersed in the next next novel. I can’t wait.

  19. janet on #

    Gosh, there must be a lot of good Harlem Renaissance stuff. Have you looked at Zora Neale Hurston’s autobio? I can’t remember what years she was in New York, but I think for at least part of the 30’s.

  20. Meg on #

    My Ears Are Bent, the first collection of nonfiction from Joseph Mitchell (originally published in 1938). His second collection, Up in the Old Hotel, spans up to the 60s but I think it might have a few 30s pieces included as well.

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