W.M. Akers Dives Into a Divided New York City in His Debut Novel

An interview with Akers, author of the novel 'Westide'

W.M. Akers is an award-winning playwright and now a published author. His first novel, Westside (paid link), came out last year. And the book is available on paperback starting today.

Westside is set in 1921 New York City. Broadway divides the city’s prosperous Eastside from its desolate Westside. Detective Gilda Carr proudly calls the Westside home, and the wasteland that is her community keeps her busy. Investigating a new case, though, Carr discovers the fate of her city is at stake.

A second Gilda Carr novel, Westside Saints, is planned for May. Along with playwriting and writing fiction, W.M. Akers is a freelance book editor. And he publishes a newsletter, Strange Times, that shares odd articles from The New York Times during 1921.

Akers talks below about writing, editing books, dividing New York City, and more. If you enjoy this interview, please consider sharing it with others.

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Remember to get your copy of Westide: Hardover | Paperback (Paid links).

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Interview with W.M. Akers

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was born and raised in Nashville, Tenn. As early as six, I remember wanting to live in New York City—this probably had something to do with obsessive rewatching of Home Alone 2 and the fact that Eloise was one of my favorite childhood reads. Even after I learned that living in New York usually doesn’t mean life at the Plaza Hotel, I was infatuated with the city, where I moved for college in 2006.

I found that I liked living in New York as much as I’d imagined—I loved the immediacy of everything, whether it’s a subway ride to the Metropolitan Museum or a killer torta at 2 a.m. The intense cost of life in New York eventually got old, unfortunately, and my family and I left the city for Philadelphia last year, just a few weeks after Westside was published. One of the many reasons why I’m thrilled to continue working on the Gilda Carr series is to give me a chance to hang out with my own imagined version of New York—where, coincidentally, the rent is very low.

When did you start writing creatively?

I started writing short fiction when I was 15 or 16, and pursued that seriously until I got to college, at which point I switched to playwriting, which became my major at NYU (New York University). I spent about a decade writing theater exclusively, but I knew I’d always go back to fiction. When I had the idea for Westside, I did just that.

How did you get into book editing?

I’ve never worked full time as a book editor, but I’ve been offering freelance editing services for the last decade or so. I started doing it while working as a journalist, when a friend recommended me to a colleague of hers as someone who might be able to give advice on the book he was working on. I view my role less as an editor than as a book’s therapist—my job is to listen and help the writer find their own way.

Did editing other peoples’ novels help you write your own?

Unquestionably! Helping other aspiring novelists work through the problems on their books not only helped me clarify my own ideas of structure and storytelling, but also gave me a first-hand look at what a marathon book writing can be. From start to finish, it’s a grind, and one that can often be discouraging. Helping my clients push through that taught me a lot of skills for doing the same thing with my own work.

In Westside, from where did you get the idea to divide New York City along Broadway?

It crept into the story gradually. Originally, Westside was imagined as a straight mystery, but as I found myself writing the early chapters, it occurred to me that the street scenes I was writing felt eerily empty. I wondered why that might be, and gradually (over the course of two or three very painful drafts) evolved the concept of a city where the Westside is desolate and isolated and the Eastside is vastly overcrowded.

Westside takes place in 1921. You have a newsletter about events that happened in 1921. What is it about that year that interests you?

The newsletter, Strange Times, evolved as an off-shoot of my research for Westside. One of my favorite pastimes is digging around in newspaper archives, and in reading old newspapers as a way to get a sense of what was going on during the start of Gilda’s story, I found so many irresistibly weird articles that I decided to start a newsletter to share them. I started by reading the Jan. 1 1921, newspaper and typing up my favorites, and several years later, I’m about a third of the way through April.

I like 1921 because it’s a moment that people are instictively familiar with—they imagine jazz, bootlegging, silent movies, flappers, and all the rest—which makes it very easy to play with their expectations without losing their interest.

Who are some of your favorite writers?

M.F.K. Fisher, Douglas Adams, Dashiell Hammett

Have you read any good books lately?

The two best books I’ve read in the last year were both non-fiction: How to Survive a Plague, by David France, and Indian Summer, by Alex Von Tunzelmann.


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