Trouble in New York: An interview with Sylvia Bishop

Jamie Creeden has always wanted to be a reporter – so when he is given a tour of the famous MORNING YORKER newspaper, he can’t believe his luck. But a chance phone call draws him into the mystery of the missing actress. Soon Jamie, along with his new friends Eve and Rose, must navigate a tense world of infamous villains, double crosses and carefully planted clues – a world in which he can trust absolutely no one. He still longs to be on the front page – but at what cost?

Set in 1960s New York, Trouble in New York is a fast-paced adventure for mystery fans! Here, Kevin Cobane talks to Sylvia Bishop about Trouble in New York, which is published by Scholastic!

When and how did you start writing?

When I was younger, I wrote all the time, and I don’t remember the when and how. I grew up in a family where making up stories to tell was normal, so writing them down wasn’t such a big step. I stopped for a while when I got older, but started again in earnest because I was meant to be writing a masters thesis and I really didn’t want to. The result was Erica’s Elephant, my first book. So my whole writing career has essentially been one giant procrastination project.

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Erica’s Elephant is a warm, funny and ever-so-slightly bonkers story about friendship, family and practicality. Find out more here!

Without giving too much of the story away could you tell us a little bit about Trouble in New York and the inspiration behind it?

I’m fascinated by New York – my parents lived there for a while, and when a very good friend of mine moved there, I finally had a chance to visit. The straight wide streets unfolding out ahead of you feel so free and exciting, it seemed to cry out for a character on a bicycle who could enjoy them, especially when the early morning light hit just right. Jamie is a paperboy who becomes a reporter – but he was a paperboy first, in the story, and in my head.

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Illustrator: Marco Guadalupi Find out more here!

In the first few pages you tell us that Jamie knew everything he needed to know about the world through reading The New Yorker newspaper. Are you a fan of reading newspapers and if so which ones do you read?

Actually, they were never a big part of my life. Growing up I heard the news in the morning on the radio, and now news is rolling, constant, and overwhelming. Maybe it’s a nostalgia for the slightly more contained world of newspaper news that made me want to write this! Although of course, in the scheme of things, even a single daily newspaper is an unprecedented volume of information for one human to cope with.

Now I get my news online, invisibly filtered and curated for me I’m sure. I mostly read the Guardian. For a while I tried tuning out from the news and only reading the weekly roundup in The Week, which I do recommend if you find it all a bit much and have an hour to yourself with a cup of tea at the weekend!

Who is your favourite character in the book and why?

It’s so hard to choose between your characters! I think my favourite is probably Rose, one of the three children. She gets very emotionally affected by other people’s pain, and she hasn’t ‘unlearned’ that. I think we need those people, and she brings her own kind of bravery and wisdom, although it’s very different to the other two children.

The book really captures the atmosphere of working as a News Reporter in 1960s New York. What research did you do to help you write the book?

Oh thank you, that means a lot! I wish I’d kept a better record, the research was very scattered. There was trawling real newspaper articles from the time; some hefty tomes on the history of this or that big paper, although they tended to end just before the period I wanted; a timeline I pieced together of 1969; and endless little google wormholes to get the technology right. I’m particularly indebted to the tv series ‘Good Girls Revolt’ (an adaption of a book by Lynn Povich), which follows researchers at News of the Week; and the documentary ‘Linotype: The Film’.

Besides getting the technical details right, though, I think the atmosphere of a certain stylised 1960s New York is just well known. I think Trouble in New York ended up with some of the feel of a comic book story – the resulting mad-bad-city-that-never-sleeps is as made at least as much out of our literary idea of New York, as any actual research!

The chance meeting between Jamie and Harry Hooper and the phone call Jamie takes for Bud Finkleby are the catalysts for the story. Do you believe in serendipity and have you ever had serendipitous moments?

Yes, I believe in serendipity. Every moment in our lives is equally unlikely, so the odds are good that at least a few of those unlikely moments will be fortunate!

Possibly my strangest coincidence was going all the way to Washington DC to research agricultural subsidies, and running round the city trying to get interviews – only to meet an lecturer in my hostel who worked on the same topic and knew all the relevant civil servants. He found me at two in the morning, despairing over getting any interviews, and happened to glance at a paper open on my laptop. He was there for totally unrelated reasons, and he’d been right there in my hostel the whole time.

More generally, I like a serendipitous beginning to a story. I’ve always enjoyed stories which remind us that, however carefully we plan or however set things seem, chance might knock us off in a whole new direction.

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The Secret of the Night Train: When Max is sent to Istanbul to stay with her boring Great Aunt-Elodie, little does she expect to be plunged into a thrilling night-time adventure across Europe. And when the mysterious Heartbreak Diamond goes missing, Max must find her feet in a whirling world of would-be diamond smugglers, thieves and undercover detectives. Will she discover the real diamond thief before they reach their destination? Or does the answer lie closer to home? Find out more here!

At the end of the book Cindy Bell talks about Jamie’s commitment to finding the truth when she says: ‘We are all here to tell the truth, even about powerful people – especially about powerful people.’ What other qualities does Jamie have that make him a good journalist?

I think a certain fearless confidence in the rightness of what he’s doing. He’s not afraid to just call someone up, announce himself, and start investigating. I would be much too shy and apologetic.

Also he rides a bike like a demon, which helps when you have all of New York City to report on…

I love the monolithic candle in the Offices of The Yorker. Where did you get the idea for it and how important is it to the story?

It’s not too important to the plot, but it ties together quite a few themes, so it’s important in that way. I knew that I wanted a visual reminder of the frenzy of daily news, with that twenty-four hour countdown on endless loop. I played with a few different ways of arranging conventional clocks, and none were right, so one day I tried brainstorming all the types of clock I could think of. And once I thought of a candle clock, it was a perfect fit! The candle, for truth, is part of the Morning Yorker’s logo; and there’s also a running theme of fire and smoke, which allowed me to tie the candle back in at the end.

I really liked to character of Eve in the book with her passion for engineering and machines. Was this a deliberate choice to help combat gender stereotyping?

It wasn’t a conscious choice, but I was very self-conscious about how to represent the very gendered world of the 1960s newsroom, so maybe she developed in unconscious revolt! I didn’t want to pretend there was a gender balance when there wasn’t, as I think it’s important to understand the history of women in work and how far we’ve come; but I also didn’t want to normalise a male dominated world by presenting it without comment. The result is that the reporters are all male, but they are also all matching and have rhyming names and do everything together like a slightly dim Greek chorus – so that Jamie wonders if they aren’t a bit too matching. And yes, Eve is there blithely ignoring them all, so I suppose she’s a foil to that world.

The character of Vinnie casts a sinister shadow throughout the book as Jamie, Eve and Rose race to solve the mystery. Where did the inspiration for the character of Vinnie come from?

Vinnie was one of the last characters I got right – I re-wrote his key chapter a million times. I kept trying to come up with quirks for him. At one point, for some reason, he drove everywhere backwards; I think I was getting desperate. In the end he worked when I stopped trying to give him a quirk, and just played the game of seeing how hard I could go on all your cheesy standard mobster-thug traits. And that was so joyfully fun, I realised he didn’t need anything else!

The urgency Jamie feels to deliver his Newspapers on time, the moto of The New Yorker, the candle at the offices of The Yorker and the actual story which takes place over eight days in the Summer of 1969 suggests that time is an important part of the book. Was this deliberate and if so why?

Yes! It was very deliberate and I’m so glad to be asked about it! Timing proves important at the end of the book, and I wanted it to feel ever-present throughout, so that this would feel satisfying at the conclusion. I think mystery clues shouldn’t just logically add up – it should feel like the right kind of solution for all the themes that have been important up until that point. The massive candle clock was almost comically overdoing it, but I liked the image so much it had to stay.

Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?

Maybe the very earliest was Winnie-the-Pooh, which my parents used to read to me. The comedy is so pitch perfect. I remember the wonderful humour of the Jeremy James books too. Later my real hero was Dianna Wynne-Jones. When I wrote to her at the age of nine she replied, and I still have and treasure that letter!

I absolutely loved reading about your book with its world of infamous villains, double crosses and carefully planted clues and I would love to read more about the further adventures of Jamie, Rose and Eve in the future. Are there any plans for a sequel or series?

Thank you so much! No plans yet, but I would always be open to revisiting that version of New York. It’s such a breathless, glittering world to write in, and I had a lot of fun.

Finally could you describe Trouble in New York in three words?

Pacey, high-stakes, fun!

 

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