About seven years ago, I decided to make a concerted effort to read more fiction. The first book I read after making that decision was Louis Bayard's Mr. Timothy. The second book I read was Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club.
I loved both books and both writers quickly became my favorite contemporary authors. I've since read two more of Louis Bayard's books (The Pale Blue Eye and The School of Night) and two more of Matthew Pearl's: The Poe Shadow and The Last Dickens.
In fact, I just finished The Last Dickens this week after only a few days of reading (I couldn't put it down!).
Both men - whom I admire greatly - have written on some of the same themes: Bayard's The Pale Blue Eye features Edgar Allan Poe as a cadet at West Point caught up in a campus murder mystery ; Pearl's The Poe Shadow is centered around the mystery of Poe's death. Bayard's Mr. Timothy features a twentysomething Timothy Cratchit (from Dickens's The Christmas Carol) trying to protect a young girl from a killer in 1860s London; Pearl's The Last Dickens, which takes place in the summer of 1870 after Dicken's death, seeks to shed light on the mystery of the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Both men have a genius for lovely language, wonderful characters, thrilling and intelligent stories, and an uncanny ability to make you feel, see, smell, and hear the 19th-century streets of Boston, Baltimore, London, and other locales, and make you feel that you are really there. Their talent is inspiring.
You can learn more about Louis Bayard and his work at his website here and more about Matthew Pearl and his books at his website here.
I wrote Mr. Pearl a note earlier this week to let him know much I enjoyed The Last Dickens (my favorite so far of all of his novels) and he kindly agreed to answer some questions about how the Civil War plays a part in his books, about characters in The Last Dickens, what he is reading himself these days, about his forthcoming novel The Technologists (my preview is here) and any advice he might have for aspiring writers and novelists.
It is my great pleasure and privilege, then, to introduce Matthew Pearl, offer a brief review of The Last Dickens, and - especially - feature his thoughtful answers to my questions!
First - about Matthew Pearl, from his website:
Matthew Pearl grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and is a graduate of Harvard University and Yale Law School. He has also taught literature and creative writing at Harvard University and Emerson College, and has been a Visiting Lecturer in law and literature at Harvard Law School. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His books have been New York Times bestsellers and international bestsellers translated into more than 30 languages. His nonfiction writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and Slate.com. He has been heard on shows including NPR's "All Things Considered" and "Weekend Edition Sunday," and his books have been featured on Good Morning America and CBS Sunday Morning.
Next - the publisher's description of The Last Dickens:
Boston, 1870. When news of Charles Dickens’s sudden death reaches his struggling American publisher, James Osgood sends his trusted clerk, Daniel Sand, to await the arrival of Dickens’s unfinished final manuscript. But Daniel never returns, and when his body is discovered by the docks, Osgood must embark on a quest to find the missing end to the novel and unmask the killer. With Daniel’s sister Rebecca at his side, Osgood races the clock through a dangerous web of opium dens, sadistic thugs, and literary lions to solve a genius’s last mystery and save his own–and Rebecca’s–lives.
My review of The Last Dickens:
The Last Dickens is by far the most enjoyable of the three Matthew Pearl novels (I've read all three) without losing any of his historical style. It was very difficult to put down!
First, I especially liked The Dante Club and The Last Dickens because I am a Civil War enthusiast, and even though the war is over in both books, the effects of the war are still rather immediate and having an impact on the characters and narrative. As someone who has read and written about the emotional scars on the war's veterans, I can assure you that the behaviour of Rebecca's ex-husband in The Last Dickens is rooted in fact.
Second, the characters in this book are "well-drawn"...many of them are based on historical fact, but I also wonder if Pearl was inspired by Dickensian characters: Osgood is a good man in love with a younger woman...he reminded me so much of John Jarndyce in Bleak House. Rebecca - a fictional character - is a strong young woman and I found the divorce laws, which she was subject to, to be so interesting...the villains are, well, villanous (!) but rarely cartoonish. The Bookaneers were delightful. The Dickens family left in the wake of the author's death - the children especially - are not perfect but are human and engender empathy.
The main plot involving the manuscript, Osgood, and Rebecca is just terrific...the separate sections about a plot afoot in India and the flashbacks to Dickens's visit to America 2 years before the main action may seem disconnected and unnecessary, but they aren't (in other words, Pearl does not let us down)...it all comes together nicely.
Readers will delight in the still-familiar names of writers, publishers, and weeklies.
Readers of Matthew Pearl are treated to some favorite historical characters from Dante Club and The Poe Shadow...like old friends dropping in!
The interview between Osgood and Pearl in an appeto the softcover edition is fun and clever.
It is a wonderful story and it shows Mr. Pearl to be on top of his game! I can't wait to read his next one!
And now - the best part - a Q&A with the generous and talented Matthew Pearl!
Jim Schmidt (JS): Matthew, two of your books - The Dante Club and The Last Dickens - don't take place during the Civil War per se, and yet they are not far removed from the war and people, places, and events from the war show up in the narratives. Even The Poe Shadow features slave traders as a bit of a preview of the war to come. Is the "shadow" of the war important in your writing? If so, why?
Matthew Pearl (MP): I guess it's hard not to grapple with slavery and the Civil War when writing stories set in the nineteenth century. The war stands out when we reflect on history, but the war and all the attending issues were very much alive in the personal and creative lives of almost every historical figure I research. I didn't set out to write about the Civil War and the soldiers, and I probably would have been surprised if I knew, when I began as a writer, I would do so much research and thinking about those.
JS: I was especially affected by the story of Rebecca's ex-husband in The Last Dickens; he is mentioned only briefly (although their very interesting status as a divorcees is carried throughout), but the emotional and mental effects of the war on him are unmistakable and correspond to my own research on this somber subject. What was your inspiration for that character?
MP: Thanks for mentioning that element of The Last Dickens, I'm certainly gratified it stuck with you. I did a fair amount of research for The Dante Club on post-traumatic stress in Civil War soldiers, one of these topics very difficult to research confidently because at the time there was little recognition or understanding, and certainly not serious terminology, for those aftereffects. Rebecca is a fictional character, and as I thought about what happened to her marriage, my mind returned to that earlier research for material.
JS: Did you intend for The Last Dickens to be, well, "Dickensian"? I ask because it has some of my favorite aspects of Dickens's writing: a plethora of characters, major and minor, all well drawn; Boston is as much a character in your books as London is in Dickens's (and is in The Last Dickens!); the clever device of "installments" is also incorporated into The Last Dickens. Even the historical characters - like the good and kind Osgood - remind me of some of my favorites of Dickens's (such as the equally good and kind, but fictional, John Jarndyce).
MP: I actually set a somewhat strange goal for The Last Dickens. I wanted to aim for a Dickensian sweep but without the length that often came with it. Having the installments helped me jump between two different time periods (before and after Dickens's death), and several locations. With that (I hope) comes a sense of the plot being propelled into many different places and characters' lives but with an efficient framework. If I remember word counts correctly, The Last Dickens turned out to be my shortest novel.
JS: I was so pleased to see some of my favorite writers - especially Louis Bayard and Joseph Gangemi - listed in your Acknowledgments, and some books in my own to-read list mentioned among some of your favorites on your website, including The Poisoner's Handbook and The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. What are you reading now?
MP: I'm on a nonfiction-about-crime kick. I just read an account of the pursuit of Billy the Kid by Pat Garrett (To Hell on a Fast Horse by Mark Lee Gardner) and then one on the shootout at the O.K. Corral (The Last Gunfight by Jeff Guinn). Now I'm reading Get Capone by Jonathan Eig. None of those are for my own projects (I always have to specify that, or people assume!). My reading for pleasure is usually pretty slow, though, because I am eternally reading research books, too. Joseph Gangemi is always busy with screenplays but I try to stay on him to write another novel, and always perk up when he runs a new idea for one by me!
[By the way, I agree: Joseph Gangemi's novel Inamorata is also one of my favorites!]
I've been lucky to have the chance to get to know Louis Bayard personally and I consider his work, as well as David Liss, at the forefront of historical fiction, always pushing the ball forward, and I'd add to that Lyndsay Faye, whose second novel, Gods of Gotham, comes out early next year.
MP: I just uploaded our book trailer for The Technologists, actually, and the website for it should be live any day now:
This is a departure for me since it's not literary history but scientific history that gets the story rolling. That said, it returns us to Boston and 1868, so it wasn't completely new territory for me nor will it be for those who have read my other books.
The story follows the first graduating class at M.I.T. as they encounter a scientific threat to the city they must unravel to save their college and keep the city safe. I actually had the vague idea for this one a long time ago, then put it out of my mind, then remembered it while writing a short story about Sherlock Holmes visiting Boston in 1899. I was trying to think what Sherlock might want to see in Boston and mentioned in passing that he visited some laboratories at M.I.T.
When it came time to decide what to write after The Last Dickens was completed, I wrote a few lines for three or four possibilities. My agent and editor both immediately gravitated toward what would become The Technologists. The Civil War is definitely an important part of the story. For one, the protagonist, an M.I.T. student named Marcus Mansfield, fought in the war. Though he is fictional, he is based on my research into the first M.I.T. students, several of whom had been soldiers.
JS: And finally - any words of inspiration or advice for aspiring novelists who admire your work and want to write in the literary fiction genre?
MP: My general advice is to write something you're most excited about, not something you try to calculate might have a receptive audience among publishers or readers, since it's almost impossible to correctly guess. If you're passionate enough about the material, chances are better someone else will be than if you're going through the motions.