Matthew Pearl, author of The Last Dickens (Oct 5-16)
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In The Poe Shadow I really loved the mysterious way that Poe was portrayed and how very curious the book was... it's been a few years since I've read it, but I remember loving it!
I haven't gotten around to reading The Last Dickens yet, but what was the centering plot around it? What made you interested in Dickens? After all, so many people have written about him and many ideas have been gathered around his last novel!
Which of your three books is your favorite overall story- wise? Which was the most fun to write and interesting to research?
QueenAlyss, thanks for your great questions. I've always seen the three literary history novels--The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow, and The Last Dickens--as a thematic set. Of course, a reader doesn't have to read all three or read them in any order, but in my creative vision I see them together.
Dickens's unfinished mystery book is in many ways the ultimate literary mystery. I couldn't resist! I wanted to do something different, though, rather than trying to guess how he would end it, explore the dramatic urge to find the ending. My characters are all on varying quests to understand that final Dickens book.
My favorite part of The Dante Club was definitely breathing life into the poets who formed the club. Their friendships were such fun to explore.
Although Poe isn't still alive when The Last Dickens is set, he plays a crucial role... though I won't say more!
How did you become interested in Poe?
For me, writing fiction came almost accidentally. I had an idea for a story (what would become The Dante Club) and I think I made myself into a writer to tell it.
I didn't have any training. What I take from my own path is that there is no "track" to writing--everyone comes at it from a different direction, and all of the paths might have different obstacles and strengths.
I wrote a blog post about the strangeness I still feel saying I'm a writer, which you might be interested in: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Matthew-Pearl-author/29977879540?v=app_2347471856#...
That's part of why The Poe Shadow is from the perspective of a reader. Reading Poe is really a journey and a quest--an adventure in itself!
Did you know Poe and Dickens met once? I just did a post about it if you are interested:
And I've been ruminating on Poe's drinking, too, always a topic of speculation:
Thanks for answering my question.
I was both horrified and fascinated by Poe when I first read his Tales, but reading them recently I no longer feel the same. The sense of horror in them seems to have gone - to be replaced by repulsion. But as you say there is something compelling about them too.
Thanks for your links - most interesting. It seems Poe was allergic to alcohol? The biographical details are perhaps the things I like best about your book - that research must have been most satisfying.
I wanted to let you know that I absolutely loved "The Dante Club" and enjoy all of your work. Your mysteries are reader's reads, where the true appreciation is not only the story, but the literary knowledge that comes with it. It's fantastic having classic authors become characters for new pieces of literature. Is Dickens the last in this theme? Will we see more? You've covered everyone from Dickens, Poe, Longfellow, Dante, Holmes, and more, is there a modern author you would enjoy writing about?
As I often say, I do see The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow and The Last Dickens as a thematic set. My fourth novel, which I'm working on now, will be something different--but no so different as to disorient anyone who enjoyed the other novels, I hope. It will be 19th century set in Boston and a thriller--just not about literary history.
That said, I love literary history and there's no way I'm done with it. In fact--you heard it hear first--I'm cooking up ideas for *two* sequels to The Dante Club, though I can't say any details about them yet.
Writing about a modern writer wouldn't appeal to me quite as much, though I can't put my finger on why. I always like origin stories, so to speak, and so much was just getting going in the 19th century, I think that excites my natural interests.
Your Poe book is excellent as well. I've not read the Dickens book yet, but I'm intrigued by the idea of a thematic set of literary thriller/mysteries.
Thank you for adding quite a lot of pleasure to my recent reading.
UPDATE: Some might be interested in my post about how I think of the "next" book each time: http://www.redroom.com/blog/matthew-pearl/whats-next-how-writers-tackle-their-pe...
Since I get asked about the process from time to time, I have a template for my own advice, whatever it is worth, which I will paste below.
I hope some of this is helpful. It's true that every path to publishing is different (as I say below), but rightly or wrongly that doesn't mean we can reinvent the wheel each time...
All paths to publication are different, some short, some long, some frustrating and some smooth -- none of which necessarily speaks to the ultimate success nor actual merit of a project.
Getting an agent should be your sole and narrow focus (UPDATE: All this applies to seeking a certain kind of traditional publication, which was the question, not self-publishing, e-publishing, or other alternative routes, and may not apply to indie publishers, as well... My response is predicated on the questioner asking how one might follow a similar path to publication as mine, since of course that's my only experience! I don't want to sound close-minded, just realistic in relation to this particular scenario). There is no way around it (if anyone tells you there's another first step besides getting an agent, or that you don't need an agent, they're wrong) and it is very difficult and frustrating to try to do. If you don't know much about literary agents (and there's no reason someone should outside that part of the business), start by getting a book like "The Literary Marketplace" which you can find in the "Writing" section of any Borders or Barnes & Noble, etc. or from a library. There are many books like this.
They will having listings of agents and their submission process and also essays of advice from agents, writers, etc. Definitely invest in or check out one of these books.
It all comes down to writing a query letter. In almost all cases, agents don't want you to just send your manuscript. You send a half to one page letter describing your book and yourself. You don't want to be timid, but you don't want to sound silly (don't say "Not since John Grisham has there been a book like this" etc.).
Back to the point. You send query letters to agents who are appropriate. Easiest way to figure out who is appropriate is to simply open to the acknowledgements of your favorite books -- or rather, books that share something in plot, style, spirit or genre with yours. They'll likely say "I'd like to thank my wonderful agent such and such" and you write that name down on your list. You then look it up in the Literary Marketplace-type book you've bought at Borders and find their address (or look them up on the internet at a site like http://agentquery.com/). Some agents let you email their offices, often through their agency's website. The Literary Marketplace should tell you such submission guidelines (many agents now let you email their query letters through a submission form online or to their email). Your goal is for an agent to respond to your query letter and request part or all of your manuscript to look over. Agents are swamped and have too many clients, so most -- even if in a perfect world they would have been interested in your project -- will either not get back to you or get back to you with a form letter. Remember agents receives 100s of letters a day!
Below you'll see my query letter for THE DANTE CLUB from that futuristic year 2000. As you can tell from the end, I enclosed self-addressed stamped envelopes, so I sent the query in a larger envelope that could fit it. Usually, the agencies will enclose form letters in the SASEs that they're not interested, of which I received several, but I also received one in the SASE requesting to read it--five or six months later. Again, there are more electronic friendly agent submission processes these days. As you can see, also, you want to gear the biographical paragraph to "match" the subject of your manuscript. Make it look like you were born to write this book. Remember: be patient and confident and persistent, and do not make the mistake of taking an impersonal process personally.
Also, here are some sites that deal with query letters (there are many more out there):
Dear Mr./Ms. Agent,
Please consider reviewing a manuscript of my first novel, THE DANTE CLUB.
THE DANTE CLUB is a mystery set in 1865 Boston. In the burgeoning literary culture of the mid 19th-century, the remarkable works of Dante have yet to reach American soil. Few people in the country speak or study Italian, and no translations of Dante have been produced for the American public. But a small group of literary geniuses is on the verge of initiating a new era as they put the finishing touches on the country's first translation of The Divine Comedy, and prepare to unveil Dante to the New World.
Their plans come to a screeching halt when a series of gruesome murders erupts through Boston. Only the members of the Dante Club realize that the style and form of the killings are stolen from Dante's Inferno and its singular vision of Hell. With the police baffled, lives endangered, and Dante's literary future at stake, the Dante Club must band together and find a way to stop the killer. The novel follows Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell as they descend into the dark recesses of Boston Brahmin society and confront their own personal demons.
I graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude in English and American Literature in 1997. In 1998, I won the Dante Prize from the Dante Society of America for my work chronicling the history of America's literary relationship with Dante; my essay "Colossal Cipher: Emerson as the Lost Dantean" will appear in the next edition of the Dante Studies journal. I am currently in my final year of study at Yale Law School.
Please feel free to call, email, or write using the enclosed SASE if you wish to receive the manuscript of THE DANTE CLUB.
In fact, we've just published a new edition of The Mystery of Edwin Drood from Modern Library for which I served as editor (because Dickens died in the middle, there is no single authoratative text, which means there are editorial decisions to make) and provided an introduction. We also have an appendix with a transcript of wild 1914 mock trial about The Mystery of Edwin Drood that was held in London. You can read more about our edition here: http://www.matthewpearl.com/dickens/edwin.html
UPDATE: new post on why you might want to read The Mystery of Edwin Drood here!: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Matthew-Pearl-author/29977879540#/note.php?note_id...
I am a freelance industry professional and the inside scoop on the companies and personalities and the state of the publishing industry have me chuckling and nodding. Can you say anything about your research into these companies and people? Were your sources the archives of the companies themselves or perhaps newspaper or journal accounts?
I have never heard of Bookaneers, what an interesting lot they were, I'd love to know more.
Thanks so much for your message here, and also for including The Last Dickens on your blog!
I can't tell you how much fun I had diving into the wilds of 19th century publishing history. I have so much fun with research--well, most research, I should say, and especially with this subject. I had first researched Fields, Osgood & Co. (previously Ticknor and Fields) for my first novel, The Dante Club, in which both Fields and Osgood are characters (although they play larger parts in The Last Dickens). Because that publishing firm does not exist anymore, the archival material is scattered around, mainly at Harvard's Houghton Library and in the Boston Public Library. As for Harper & Brothers, now HarperCollins, the best source was a series of books by Harper family members, and various articles and letters from the time complaining about the Harpers or, as they were known by some, the Harpy brothers!
I actually taught a seminar at Harvard Law School a few years ago called The Literary Vision of Copyright where we looked at 19th century writers through the prism of the lack of copyright protection, and in that class I assigned Poe and Dickens, as well as explored the Harpers.
Here is an image of the Harper Bros. counting room in their massive office building in New York, circa 1855:
Thanks for mentioning the Bookaneers, too! I actually plan to write a novel devoted to an ultimate Bookaneer adventure. I don't know if you saw this guest post I had at Reading Group Guides, but I think you might be interested.
I also do my own bloggish posts on my Facebook author page (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Matthew-Pearl-author/29977879540)
Beth, please let me know if I can provide any thoughts or answers to questions on your blog, too.
The research into the publishing firms sounds addictive. I'm going to take some time to explore the links you provided later this evening -- but thanks so much for posting them.
I definitely have to look into the Dante Club to learn more about Fields & Osgood. And I would LOVE to see a novel that focused on the Bookaneer world.
"There are moments when doing research when finding a small detail fires your imagination and opens an unexpected window into the past. This time, it was the discovery that the publishing firms would hire covert agents who waited at the ports and harbors of the major American cities waiting for valuable manuscripts to come in. Particularly Dickens. There was at least one specific report of a manuscript successfully pilfered.
I couldn't stop imagining who these literary bounty hunters might be. What were their backgrounds? What techniques did they employ? Were there rivalries?
I wanted to find more. But like much of history, nothing more than a few lines-worth of material had been documented. This isn't surprising, as these were sketchy tactics being used by self-consciously sketchy publishers.
That's where historical fiction can expand on a world that locks out nonfiction. For The Last Dickens, I created a world and avocation for these Bookaneers (as they're known in my book). They were daring literary pirates willing to use almost any tactic to obtain their treasures."
I just wanted to say that having read your chat I've got a copy of The Last Dickens on order and I'm looking forward to reading it. I enjoyed The Poe Shadow and have to confess that The Dante Club is buried somewhere in my 'to read' mountain - in my defence I wanted to read this close to my rereading Inferno and as I've just started an English MA, this may be some time.
I am fascinated by your Literary Vision of Copyright seminar. I should add that I work in the UK media and spend much of my day acquiring, licensing or fair dealing copyright material. But I'm also fascinated by how Dickens, Eliot and their contemporary British writers struggled to gain some kind of recognition of their rights, especially in the US and how the copyright laws, in the UK at least, demonstrated changing attitudes to writing and I'm assuming that it was similar in the US, with US writers equally as frustrated with British publishers?
I do also have a question, you say that you love the research and try and approach through your characters - do you complete your research before you start writing, or research as you go along, or a combination of the two?
As to your question about research, that's a great question. Some writers do have very separate writing and researching stages. I don't. I am researching from day one to the last day of writing. Every time I make a change in what I'm writing, I match it with new research. I'd never want to be limited by research that I did in the planning or outlining stages.
For those interested in reading more about the research process for historical fiction, I've posted on that here:
It's six years since you first published The Dante Club (which I have read). Later you wrote The Poe Shadow (which I haven't read) and The Last Dickens (looking forward to buy it). You state that you still feel strange being a writer, but after three novels you have quite an expertise. In which ways do you think your writing has evolved since The Dante Club? Have you noticed any kind of literary "maturity"? Has any relative or close friend given you feedback in that direction?
Thanks and congratulations for your books!
Part of maturing as a writer, also, is having the courage to seek opinions and feedback from friends and fellow writers without simply wanting them to say "It's perfect!" and being able to incorporate suggestions. That's a difficult thing since writing is inherently a very personal and private activity.
Thanks again for your nice comments!
Some of the most humourous moments (for me) in your most recent novel are when characters recount how important Dickens is to them. Everyone idolizes him; everyone is, in some way, personally "touched" by his writing.
Its hard to imagine a writer getting that much attention these days. No one really lines up outside of bookstores anymore... well Harry Potter.
My question is, what happened to the Dickens audience? How did an author with such a huge fan-base become only studied in schools today?
As I've said elsewhere, my title refers not only to the last Dickens novel, but also that there will probably never be another Charles Dickens.
In reply to your question, I'd say that there is so much competition to entertain people now, with movies, TV, and internet, that the audience is still out there, but much more splintered. Still, it's heartening that there are as many Dickens enthusiasts out there. Hey, there's even a Charles Dickens action figure!
I read The Dante Club a while back (and recently picked up a copy of The Poe Shadow. I found myself drawn into the dark storyline of your book, the images were disturbing yet gripping, I was compelled to read on. As a reader, a book stays with you, not only while you are reading it, but also afterwards, but I was wondering how, as a writer, you manage to live "outside" the story? Is it hard to switch off from the book you are writing? Or maybe you don't want to?
Thanks and good night! I look forward to reading more of your work.
When I'm really in the groove and immersed in a book, I definitely end up dreaming in the world of the story. That's always the strangest!
Thanks for the article! It describes Dickens very visually. I found your descriptions of Dickens in the novel made me feel as if I was sitting right next to him... it was such detailed, researched description. But not just because you knew the clothes he wore or what colour his eyes were... you seem to really know the spirit of Dickens. What it was like to live and breath as Dickens. You say he had exclamation points for eyes... that's just wonderful.
I am looking forward to "The Last Dickens".
I just wanted to say thank you for the link to your talk, it sounds fascinating, but I won't get a chance to listen to this until after this chat has finished. I also wanted to say that very excitingly my copy of The Last Dickens has arrived, which I am looking forward to reading - I also invested in a copy of The Mystery of Edwin Drood as I haven't read this since I left school and thought it was just about time for a reread.
Also, last and not least, thank you for this fascinating and wide ranging chat.
I guess we've gotten to the end: I want to thank everyone for all your great questions and comments.
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Thanks for the opportunity to have this chat!