Award winning author does things the old-fashioned way

New World War II thriller novel written entirely in longhand

Posted: Friday, October 06, 2006

NEW YORK - After spending a decade writing his first novel, author Peter Quinn hoped to speed up the process on its follow-up.

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And he did. Eight years later, the 1995 American Book Award winner completed "The Hour of the Cat," a critically hailed thriller set in pre-World War II New York City. There's a good reason for the lengthy process: He actually WROTE the book.

In longhand.

On yellow legal pads.

Page after page of penmanship, honed across year after year of Catholic education.

"If you failed Latin, you took typing," Quinn explained of his academic career. "So I was really good at Latin, and I never learned to type. Fifty different times I've tried to make the jump, and I just can't do it."

Quinn's first book, "Banished Children of Eve," was set in Civil War-era New York, detailing the ethnic and racial tensions surrounding the city's "Draft Riots." For its follow-up, he set private eye Fintan Dunne investigating a homicide - and subsequently the Nazis - in 1930s New York.

"That's what I love to do," said the Bronx native, sipping a pint of Guinness over lunch at a midtown Manhattan restaurant. "Anything I do is about New York, because that's where my imagination is."

"Hour of the Cat" is almost two novels: a detective tale with Dunne running between Brooklyn and the Bronx, and a parallel piece played out in Hitler's Berlin. No surprise there, as Quinn majored in history at Manhattan College, received his masters in history at Fordham University and along the way became a devoted student of New York's past.

"They weren't big on history in the Bronx," Quinn said of his native borough. "But I knew my grandfather had worked here, that Marty was a cop in this precinct. ... My grandfather worked building the Woolworth Building. So I was always looking, and I was fascinated."

Quinn, the son of a Bronx judge, sports a salt-and-pepper mustache beneath a balding pate. His enthusiasm for the city's history is evident in his voice; it was evident to Martin Scorsese, too, who used him as an adviser on the film "Gangs of New York."

After writing about 19th-century New York in "Banished Children of Eve," Quinn fast-forwarded a century for his next book. New York in the 1930s was a time that held great appeal.

"New York was about to become the global capital," Quinn said of that era. "The city in '38, at the tail end of the Depression, was about to become something else. So I wanted to look at that scene."

Quinn started with his protagonist, Dunne, and soon came up with a bigger plot.

"I said to myself, 'What if, instead of a single murder, what if he stumbled into the biggest murder plot in history?"' Quinn said. "And then I said, 'I really can't write this without the other plot, which was taking place in Germany.' So it took eight years."

The writing process did become somewhat streamlined: where "Banished Children of Eve" filled 1,000 handwritten pages, "Hour of the Cat" was finished in a mere 600.

"Hour of the Cat" - the title refers to the German officers plotting a coup against Adolf Hitler - boasted some big-name boosters: Pulitzer Prize winners Frank McCourt and William Kennedy, and veteran New York writer Pete Hamill heaped praise on the book.

"A thriller on the highest level, with the best of good guys and the most thuggish of bad guys," read McCourt's rave.

The kind words were nice, although Quinn said that was never his motivation in putting pen to paper.

"In the end, if you're going to write, you've got to write for yourself," he said. "If you're writing for the reward, you might not get it."

"Hour of the Cat" was released in paperback in August, and his publisher was so pleased there's already talk of a sequel following Dunne through World War II and beyond.

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