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Talking with LI's David Laskin about his debut novel 'What Sammy Knew'

"What Sammy Knew" by David Laskin is partially

"What Sammy Knew" by David Laskin is partially set on Long Island. Credit: Penguin Books

Before you dive into Great Neck native David Laskin's novel What Sammy Knew, cue up its playlist on YouTube, a juicy mixture of rock singles and gospel songs mentioned in the book, from "Honky Tonk Women" to "Oh Happy Day." One might add "Long Time Gone," the 1969 Crosby Stills and Nash hit with the lyric "It's been a long, long time comin'."

Half a century, to be exact. After decades of success in nonfiction including the 2004 bestseller "The Children's Blizzard," Laskin at 67 published his first novel, "What Sammy Knew" (Penguin, $26), last month. Set in 1970, it tells the story of Sam Stein, who — like his creator at that time — is a smart but immature high school kid, an aspiring writer, about to leave his childhood behind. Disillusioned with his privileged suburban lifestyle in what he and his buddies like to call Fat Neck, Lone Guyland, he meets a girl and through her gets involved with radical politics in Manhattan.

At the heart of Sammy's discontent is his concern for his family's housekeeper, Nettie "Tutu" Carter. a character inspired by his family's real domestic worker Ethel Beane Foreman, who shares her nickname and history. What Sammy Knew has its origins in a nonfiction project Laskin undertook to tell the story of the real Tutu's life.

We caught up with him by Zoom from his current home of Seattle to learn more about the back story of his breakout fiction debut.

Much of this book feels like it could be autobiographical. Is that the case?

The real Tutu died when I was 10, and I grew up knowing little about her aside from a vague memory of her telling me that her grandparents were enslaved and she had a son who died. I spent a year and a half finding her birthplace and tracing her ancestry, then wrote a nonfiction book about our relationship. In the absence of primary sources — letters, journals or memories recorded by Tutu — it just didn't have liftoff, and yet I loved her too much to let it go. I thought, OK, I'm going to start making things up.

So the character of her adult son, Leon, is fictional?

Yes, and so is Sammy's girlfriend, Kim, though I did have a girlfriend I fell in love with at a New Year's Eve party. Eli, the young Israeli guy they meet in Greenwich Village, is fictional. As for the novel’s villain, Richard Rines, he is a composite — I welded one old friend’s back story onto another friend’s youthful antics and then gave the resulting character the charisma of a rock star. It sounds a little woo woo, but at some point, I felt I was eavesdropping on my characters rather than creating them. I fell in love with these kids. Obviously they do bad things and bad stuff happens, but I enjoyed their freshness and insouciance. I liked being around them.

The Manhattan town house bombing that plays a role in the book — that was real, right?

Yes, on the same day it happens in the book. It was front-page news. Once I decided to set the book in the year 1970, politics came streaming in. In the first draft, the bombing was offstage, but writing during the Trump administration and the events of the last four years had a politicizing effect as well.

Were you actually involved with the Black Panthers?

Oh, no. What I share with Sammy is his surly attitude toward his own privilege and his real outrage about the injustices that informed the lives of domestic workers. Like him I viewed Long Island as this kind of steppingstone to the city. The city was where the magic happened. But all the detail about underground left-wing activity came from putting on my nonfiction hat and going back to the memoirs of the radicals involved.

What are you working on now?

I definitely got bitten by the fiction bug while writing "Sammy." I’m currently about two-thirds through the draft of another novel, this one a big, sprawling epic that spans most of the 20th century. Even though it’s fiction, there is a lot of history in it — both World Wars, the McCarthy era, the Six Day War in the Middle East, U.S. politics in the 1960s and 1970s. It will take me years to complete the research that will give the book verisimilitude, but I’m in no hurry.

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