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Interview: James Livingston, Author of Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Guilded Age New York

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James Livingston was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1930 and went on to study engineering physics at Cornell University, receiving a PhD in applied physics from Harvard University in 1956.  After retiring from a lengthy career as a research physicist, at General Electric, Mr. Livingston taught in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT.

With an intense and strong interest in American history, James Livingston coauthored A Very Dangerous Woman: Martha Wright and Women’s Rights with Sherry H. Penney.  Mr. Livingston’s newest and incredibly insightful book is Aresenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York.  

James Livingston can be found at Arsenic and Clam Chowder and www.jamesdlivingston.net.

Please tell us a bit about your book: Arsenic and Clam Chowder — characters, plot, etc.

The full title, Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York, is very descriptive. The book’s focus is an 1896 murder trial in New York in which a black-sheep cousin of mine, Mary Alice Livingston, was tried for murdering her mother with a bowl of poisoned clam chowder. It was a sensational trial, up to that point the longest trial in New York City history. Mary Alice, an unwed mother of three and pregnant with a fourth, was arrested in her mourning clothes immediately after attending her mother’s burial. The allegedly poisoned chowder had been delivered to the victim by her ten-year-old granddaughter. If Mary Alice were convicted, she would be the first woman executed in New York’s new-fangled electric chair.

All these and other lurid details made the trial a natural subject for the circulation war then underway between Pulitzer’s World and Hearst’s Journal. The cast of characters in this dramatic story includes the various members of the dysfunctional family at its core, the witnesses, lawyers, judge, and jury at the dramatic trial, plus various colorful personalities of Gilded Age New York, including Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, Anthony Comstock, Diamond Jim Brady, and Lillian Russell. And the story all revolved about a simple bowl of clam chowder. The book inspired the song, “Who Put the Arsenic in Mrs. Bliss’s Chowder?” which you can see on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eiFcVJl-kzo. In Mary Alice’s trial, the prosecution and defense had very different answers to that question.

If you could meet, in person, any of your characters, who would it be and why?

I’d like to meet my black-sheep cousin, Mary Alice Livingston, and ask her whether she really did kill her mother with that arsenic-laced clam chowder. I think she did, but for various reasons, I do have some “reasonable doubt.” And what fascinates me is that I actually could have met her. In the 1940s, she was in her eighties and living in New York. I was then a teenager, also living in New York. If only I had known about her and her story then, I could have met her! Maybe, if she got to know me and wanted to unburden herself as she approached her own death, she would have been willing to tell me all about her life and her murder trial that had happened fifty years earlier.

If you could fictionalize yourself and put yourself in any situation, how would it play out? Could you give us a scene/scenario of such an occurrence?

When I was younger, I liked to picture myself as James Bond, saving the world from the bad guys with my brains and brawn, while winning the beautiful women with my charm and good looks. Now that I’m older, that’s more and more of a stretch. I guess now I’m more plausible as Q, the old guy who has all the technical gadgets that Bond uses.

Do you have any particular habits that you do while writing? Places you write the best, foods, drinks, etc that help set your “writing mood”?

I always try to have water within reach so that I don’t get dehydrated when I sit for hours at the computer, and I often have a candy or cookie snack in the afternoon to pick up some extra energy.

What are you reading right now?

Two books I just finished are The Arsenic Century by James Whorton and Sacco and Vanzetti by Bruce Watson. You can tell from the title of my latest book, Arsenic and Clam Chowder, why I was interested in the former. As for the latter, I’ve been interested in the Sacco and Vanzetti case for many years, and have read several books about it. Watson’s book was very well balanced, and told me some new and interesting things about the case.

Who are some of your favorite authors and/or books?

I mostly read non-fiction in history or science, the genres in which I write. In fiction, two of my favorite authors have been John Updike and Ian McEwan.

If you could meet any author, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

I’d like to meet William Shakespeare, both because his work is so varied and so impressive, and because I’d like to settle once and for all whether he really did write all that stuff himself.

Okay, here are a few “get to know you better” questions:

Please share with us a favorite memory.

I still remember how euphoric I was in my senior year at high school when the girl I was interested in agreed to be my date at the prom. And that happened 64 years ago, so it must have made quite an impression to remain so vivid a memory all these years.

Please describe a perfect meal — including menu and those present.

I enjoy a nice tenderloin or rack of lamb, especially if I’m in the company of my wife and three daughters.

What are some of your favorite ways to relax?

I find swimming (well, mostly just floating) in salt water very relaxing. And at home, sitting down with a good book.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?

I love the Boston area, where I live now, except for the winter months. I’m now retired, and when my wife finally retires too, I’d like to be in a seaside condo in a warm clime for the winter months, but one that still has many of the cultural features of Boston, especially good theater, sports, music, movies, and lots of good restaurants.

If you could only read books by one author, who would it be? *I know, this is an inconceivable thought, lol.

I could keep busy for some time reading Dickens. There are still a few I haven’t read, and it’s been so many years since I read the others I could enjoyably read them again.

Share with us a few of your dreams. Also whether they have been fulfilled or are still a work in progress.

Now that I’m retired from science and my main activity is writing books, I have the dream that some day one of my books will make it to the best-seller list. And I’ll appear on the Daily Show and discuss it with Jon Stewart.

What are some of your guilty pleasures?

I try hard not to feel guilty about my pleasures.

If you could leave the world with one piece of advice, what would it be?

Enjoy.

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