Simona Zaretsky: The city of Chicago plays a large role in the story, by dividing communities – often along class lines – but also by providing space for Jewish immigrants to recreate pieces of their lost home. Can you speak to the role of setting? How does the World’s Fair factor in?
Aden Polydoros: While drafting this novel, the setting was always on my mind. It fascinated me to realize how the 1893 World’s Fair attempted to create this image of a pristine and idyllic ‘White City’, when the fairgrounds were surrounded by a second city rife with social injustices, labor exploitation, and widespread poverty and suffering. The more research I did, the more I realized that 1893 Chicago was a perfect setting for my book. The 1880s and 1890s were a period of increased Jewish immigration to the United States, and both the circumstances that led Jews to leave Eastern Europe and the shifting political and social environments in Chicago at the time ended up greatly influencing the plot and setting.
SZ: In the beginning of the story, Alter considers Yakov one of his closest friends, but it soon becomes clear that the two harbored many secrets from each other. Frankie and Alter’s relationship is also filled with secrets. Can you talk more about the role of unspoken feelings, or the difficulty of feeling close to someone but still not revealing your full self to them? In these friendships, or otherwise?
AP: I would definitely say that secrets and unspoken feelings play an important role in the story, and that The City Beautiful explores what it feels like when there are parts of yourself that for whatever reason you feel the need to keep hidden. All three characters are dealing with fears, trauma, and insecurities of their own, and while Yakov doesn’t get a chance to overcome his while he is still alive, the other two characters come to terms with their past and begin the healing process over the course of the story. In many ways, I would say that this is a book about self-acceptance, redemption, and retribution.
SZ: Magical elements are woven throughout the story, and Alter’s possession by Yakov’s dybbuk is a catalyst for much of the action. Can you speak on weaving these magical moments and plots together with other, realist aspects of the narrative?
AP: I knew from the beginning that I wanted my novel to be about a dybbuk, but I didn’t want to write a traditional possession tale, where the ghost is seen as evil. For me, the dybbuk represents more than just a supernatural possession — it represents grief and trauma, and how Alter carries that with him. This idea of the dybbuk being an embodiment of loss is what inspired me to write the magical moments as, basically, Yakov’s own memories and trauma encroaching upon Alter’s present.
The dybbuk represents more than just a supernatural possession — it represents grief and trauma, and how Alter carries that with him.
SZ: What kind of research did you do into Jewish mysticism? Was there anything you found that surprised you, or that didn’t make it into the story?
AP: I wasn’t very familiar with dybbukim or Jewish mysticism before writing this story, so a lot of my research during the drafting process was focused on those topics. I couldn’t find many resources concerning dybbukim or exorcisms, however, it did interest me to read about how there are actually two kinds of possessive spirits in Jewish folklore — the dybbuk and the ibbur. And while the dybbuk is considered a more malevolent possession, the ibbur is actually considered a benevolent one. I would have liked to mention the ibbur in my novel, and I actually did bring it up in earlier drafts, but unfortunately those lines never made it into the final manuscript.
SZ: The past haunts many of the characters emotionally and literally; Alter, for example, is looking for economic and religious freedom in the US, but finds the same antisemitism and corruption that exisited in Romania. Can you discuss the themes of immigration and fleeing the past?
AP: All of the major characters in The City Beautiful are recent immigrants, and the plot itself is deeply tied into the wave of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe during the late 1800s. One of the most interesting things about writing this story was researching what it was like being a Jewish immigrant at that time, and how the details of a character’s immigration story would’ve impacted everything from the language they spoke, to their clothing, to their level of religious observance.
On the topic of fleeing one’s past, I didn’t consider this as I was writing, but I do think it’s interesting how the three male characters in the novel approach the past differently. Driven by vengeance, Yakov doesn’t want to flee the past, but instead finds himself on a collision course with it. On the other hand, faced with an unfamiliar and sometimes hostile present, Alter finds great comfort in immersing himself in the traditions and lifestyle he grew up in. And Frankie goes beyond simply trying to flee the past, and by severing all ties with the boy he once was, attempts to recreate himself entirely.
SZ: Alter’s sexual orientation is tenderly potrayed throughout the novel. How did Alter’s sexuality play a role in your conceptualization of this story?
AP: I knew when I began writing this story that I wanted Alter to be gay, but I also realized that he wouldn’t have the same understanding of his sexuality that we have today. He wouldn’t have the same words to describe it, and everything he understood about his same-sex attraction would be filtered through both his upbringing and Victorian society’s views on homosexuality. This was something I kept in mind while working on the novel, and I put a lot of consideration into the words he used to describe himself, and the way he and other characters talked about their sexualities.
SZ: The story is rich in historical details and has a gothic tone. What were your literary influences? Was there a particular moment of inspiration for the book?
AP: Gothic horror is one of my favorite genres, and I would say that the writing of Stephen King, Anne Rice, and H.P. Lovecraft have influenced me in that regard. This book was inspired by an article I read about H.H. Holmes, a real-life serial killer active during the 1893 World’s Fair. That article acted as a catalyst for The City Beautiful, because it got me thinking about what the 1893 World’s Fair stood for, and what life was like in Chicago during the time.
SZ: What was the process of writing a book like? Did you encounter any challenges in writing the story?
AP: This was actually one of the most difficult manuscripts I’ve worked on, both because of the extensive amount of research I had to do early on in the drafting process, as well as the fact that I’ve rewritten the book multiple times. If I had to make an estimate, I probably ended up writing 250k+ words for this novel over the course of drafting and revising it.
SZ: What are you currently reading and writing?
AP: I’m currently reading The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones. I’m working on the sequel to my upcoming MG novel, Ring of Solomon (Winter 2023), and revising a gothic horror YA novel I’ll hopefully be able to talk more about in the coming weeks — all I can say is that it centers Jewish main characters and involves a golem.
Simona is the Jewish Book Council’s managing editor of digital content and marketing. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a concentration in English and History and studied abroad in India and England. Prior to the JBC she worked at Oxford University Press. Her writing has been featured in Lilith, The Normal School, Digging through the Fat, and other publications. She holds an MFA in fiction from The New School.