Posts Tagged Matthew Pearl
Title: The Last Dickens
Author: Matthew Pearl
Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks (October 6, 2009)
Category: literary thriller/ historical fiction
Review source: Random House
The whole world awaited it, as had been true of each Dickens novel since The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist placed the former court reporter’s name before the public thirty-five years before. Dickens alone, among all the writers of popular fiction of the day, could employ wit and discernment, excitement and sympathy, in equal parts in each one of his books. The characters were no mere paperdolls, nor were they thinly veiled extensions of Charles Dickens’s own persona. No, the characters were utterly themselves. In a Dickens story, readers were not asked to aspire to a higher class or to hate other classes than their own but to find the humanity and the humane in all. That is what had made him the world’s most famous author.
The Last Dickens engulfs readers and transports us to times and methods gone by in the writing and publishing world and the rather seedy opium business. Who knew that there were Bookaneers [scrappy people who stop at nothing to access unpublished works by various authors] and such vengeful publishers about? Today of course there are bidding wars between publishing houses for someone’s memoir or novel but it is not the pirate-like business in which author Matthew Pearl describes in The Last Dickens. The novel inventively imagines what might have happened if Charles Dickens’s Boston publisher Ripley Osgood attempted to discover the final pages to Dickens’s unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood in 1870 after Dickens death.
From the brownstones and cobblestone streets of Boston to dark corners and publishing houses in New York to opium fields in India to opium dens in London and Dickens’s estate in England, Pearl captivates the reader with a story that is so dense with information about Dickens and the publishing industry that one feels simultaneously educated and entertained. Pearl is an impressive, brilliant, creative author with an eye for detail and adoration of Dickens that catapults this page-turning literary thriller. Pearl provides us with a front row seat for Dickens speaking tour of America. He includes an element here and there that enriches the experience set forth by his flourishing words. The Last Dickens remains engaging, detailed and riveting right up to its surprising ending.
[This was a difficult review for me to write because whatever I say about The Last Dickens, I feel I will not honor author Matthew Pearl’s exhaustive research and dedication to the subject matter. I also respect and admire him greatly as a writer.]
Protect our authors: Fields’s mandate above all else. That is what Osgood thought about as they walked. His efforts in England were not only for the financial life of the company and all its employees, it was for the authors, too—Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes, Stowe, Emerson, and others. If the publishing house plummeted from its current financial precipice, how would the orphaned authors fare? Yes those writers were beloved, but would the breed of publisher represented by Major Harper care about them. Without Fields and Osgood to protect them, would they be buried by obscurity, like Edgar Poe or once promising Herman Melville? The true future of publishing was not publishers as manufacturers, as Harper foresaw, but publishers as the authors’ partners—the joining of the upper and lower half of the title page.
When an author scribbled, “Amy, enjoy the read.” I was not thrilled. And then years later, I feel I should keep the book merely because it’s signed. I’m getting rid of many signed copies because they don’t “add” any personal value to my bookshelf. Just clutter. Recently, I interviewed two authors and they signed, “Have fun reading.” Really? Not: “It was really nice talking to you” or “Thank you for the interview.” When I met Jonathan Lethem and we were tentatively planning an interview during a signing, I walked away and opened my book. It read: “I look forward to speaking to you.” Now that is a class act and why I have a literary crush on him.
I have pitched this piece to many many publications since November and while I think it is a fantastic idea, I guess I live in my own world because editors never like my ideas. Thus I never get paid to write.
I contacted some authors and these nine (thank you!) responded to my questions (even from a book tour, my literary crush Jonathan Lethem): Elinor Lipman, Tom Perrotta, Mameve Medwed, Jonathan Lethem, Dick Lehr, Erica Kennedy, Meg Cabot, Jacquelyn Mitchard and Matthew Pearl.
Note the heavy Boston connection. That’s because the literati reside here! No offense anyone. Both Elinor Lipman and Mameve Medwed are Simmons alumnae like me so they HAVE to agree to speak to me (The Simmons Code—not really!). On another aside, in 1999, Tom Perrotta answered a “fan” letter I wrote to him and met me at a Starbucks to discuss writing—I had completed my masters in journalism at Boston University in 1995—I haven’t gone very far since then– but I will always remember feeling that he took an interest in my works in progress.
Here are their responses [and some of my questions interspersed].
ELINOR LIPMAN [The Family Man, Then She Found Me, Isabel’s Bed, The Inn at Lake Devine]
I always come away from a signing feeling that it’s been part Old Home Week and part Fan Appreciation Night. People tend to tell me how much they’ve read and/or their favorite of my books, so I’m always looking for an original thing to write that expresses my gratitude for their devotion or even just coming out on a rainy night. Maybe once every 20 people, I get to write something that has a little originality based on what they’ve told me or a connection we have. Anthony Burgess once wrote in a friend’s book–and this friend is a shy, non-flirtatious, serious academic–“I’ll never forget our night in Paris.” I think that remains for me the high-water mark in inscription humor. I like to repeat something that the person in line has told me about the friend or mother or daughter for whom the book will be a gift, something like, “I hear you are a true-blue fan (Mary told me…)” etc. I never just sign my name unless someone says, “Signature only,” and I think it’s insulting to a reader to write the same few words in every book, especially something banal like “Best wishes.” Often the book signing portion of the evening–one on one with a reader– is the time that you hear the most touching and meaningful things. I’ve been moved to tears by some little testimonials.
TOM PERROTTA [The Abstinence Teacher, Little Children, Election, the Wishbones]
Interesting questions. I do try to interact a bit with everyone, but it can be challenging. Partly it just depends on the size of the group–it’s easy to give twenty people a minute or two of your attention, but harder when it’s fifty or sixty. Some writers are more outgoing than others–they have the skills of the politician, and I don’t mean that in a negative sense. I do my best, but that kind of thing doesn’t come naturally to me.
I like the signing–it’s nice to have real human interaction with people who read my books. I know that I still get a kick out of meeting writers I admire. Also, writers are the most accessible of “celebrities”–if you really want to meet a writer you admire (with the exception of Salinger or Philip Roth) you can probably do it. You can’t really say the same about movie stars or rock stars.
I try to write something personal when I can, but again, sometimes you don’t have time to come up with something clever or specific. The analogy I use is yearbook signing when you’re a senior in high school–sometimes you don’t have anything particular to say, so just write the equivalent of “I enjoyed being in Biology class with you!” So it definitely helps if the person has interviewed you, or if you’ve had some sort of interaction with them before the signing.
MAMEVE MEDWED [How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life, Mail, Of Men and Their Mothers]
I always love to meet my readers, the biggest thrill on earth, and I try to talk to each and every one of them. We authors sign books to illuminate the bond between writer and reader. I work hard to make each inscription personal. If it’s someone I know or have been interviewed by, it’s a pleasure to refer to that connection in the inscription. That a person has bought my book gives me a sense of responsibility to that reader and makes me want to give him or her the best experience possible. If no one shows up, I sign the bookstore stock, a generic “with best wishes”. But I, like almost every writer I know, adore the one on one and will happily go on signing forever. It’s a privilege and an honor.
JONATHAN LETHEM [Chronic City, Fortress of Solitude, Motherless Brooklyn]
Amy, here’s a couple of answers, on the fly — sorry about the lack of luck placing your good interview. [Turns out it DID get placed in The L Magazine].
Steele: What kind of inscription do you write when you sign books?
I’ve fallen into the habit of automatically writing either “All best wishes” or merely “All best” — though with my handwriting people tell me they often think I’ve written “Auf bill wishers” or “At last” or “Awl bent wirrs” or something else meaningless. I really should either slow down and get this right or stop completely.
Steele: Have signings gotten any easier?
It really depends so much on the setting — sometimes there’s a long line, and it is especially full of people who seem to be standing in an uncomfortable place or not enjoying any kind of conversation, or there are great numbers of collectors with vast piles of multiple items, and then I tend to get into an industrial mode and try to just push through, not avoiding interaction completely but always focused on getting to the next person. In other circumstances, in a comfortable, fun bookshop or where everyone seems relaxed I’ll let myself stop and talk to people much more, which can be quite enjoyable, in fact, and I’m usually glad when I do slow it down. But the great enemy of this is loud music in the background, all too often the case, and then I find it can be quite difficult to hear people speak when they come up to the table — a situation made worse by the fact that I’m seated and they’re standing. Probably I should stand up.
DICK LEHR [The Fence, Black Mass]
Steele: When you are at a book signing, are you operating in assembly mode or do you get a chance to interact?
I’ve done both. It all depends on the size of the crowd. I’ve been at signings where I’ve had to crank them out and been borderline rude to keep the line moving, which I don’t like. Some book buyers want to chat a bit, but if there’s 25 or more people waiting, and the one person in line has no clue, I find myself feeling for all the other folks waiting in line (I know I hate waiting in any kind of line!). So I’ll be pushy and do anything to get to the next person. It’s weird, on the one hand, you want a ton of people in line buying the book, but I’ve also had some really interesting conversations when there’s only been a small line and that allows for some actual talk.
Steele: How do you feel about signing books in general?
I actually feel honored and privileged that someone wants one of my books signed.
Steele: What kind of inscription do you write when you sign books?
When cranking, date, best regards and my name.
Steele: What has happened at book signings when no one has been there to get a book signed?
Only happened a couple of times at a bookstore; I end up browsing for books. I love bookstores. With my first book signing experiences, this would be a bummer, but now it’s all taken in stride.
Steele: What has been your best book signing experience?
Black Mass was a national bestseller, and some of the signings were wild, with long lines extending out of the store. There was a bit of a carnival atmosphere and real uplifting that the book connected with so many readers.
Steele: How have signings changed/gotten easier as you’ve written more books [become more experienced] i.e. do you tend to interact more and sign different things/ more personal messages?
Yes, like I said, it’s much more a matter of stride. Whatever happens happens. Unless I know someone and personalize the signing, or unless someone has wording they want me to use, I simply do a fairly straight autograph
ERICA KENNEDY [FEMINISTA, Bling]
I only did book signings for my first book, Bling. I went on a 10 city tour but even with that big publicity push I don’t think it did much. There was really no way then for people to know you would be at the book store other than your picture in the window. The most people I had was maybe 50 and that was at the NY signings in Manhattan and the B&N in Brooklyn Heights around the corner from where I lived then because it was people who knew me.
But when you’re doing it in a store they have a set amount of time for you to talk and then you have to sign books and they move everyone along so I’d just sign my name and whatever the person might have asked me to write to them. I would stay and answer questions for 2 hours if I could but they don’t let you do that. Which sucks.
On the 10 city tour there were a couple where no one showed, usually independent bookstores which the pub wants you to hit – in my case, black owned bookstores. But there were others when there were really cool, fun chicks who I really appreciated being able to talk with.
Nowadays, you could alert people to signings through Facebook and Twitter but publications do them less because no one has marketing money. I don’t really care because I don’t think they do much. Publishers need to do other events than just going to a bookstore but they just do what they’ve always done even if it doesn’t work anymore.
But when I send books to people now, I write a personal inscription. I just sent one to a big Hollywood actress who shall remain nameless who is reading it for movie consideration. I thought a while about what I should write because I knew she would be reading it for a very specific reason. I wanted to make her think this would be an interesting character to play. But I don’t know her so who knows how she or her people will receive that. Who knows if it will even get to her. And no, I won’t tell you what I wrote. That’s between me and her 25 people!!! LOL
I have never gotten a book signed by anyone. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m not sure why people want books signed but if they ask me, I do.
MEG CABOT [Queen of Babble series, Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls series, The Princess Diaries series]
Hmmm, these are all good points.
I think it was Margaret Atwood (or one of those quirky British lady authors, anyway) who said that wanting to meet the author who wrote your favorite book is like wanting to meet the cow who produced your favorite hamburger.
I have to say for the most part, I agree with her. Meeting favorite authors, for me anyway, has invariably been disappointing, since they’re often big grumps who in no way should be released amongst the public.
But that’s why they’re such great writers, usually. They just sit home, thinking up weird thoughts, which they then write down. Why let them out? Just keep them home, where they belong and want to be.
But I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed some of the signings of favorite writers I’ve been to, specifically Sue Townsend (Adrian Mole series), and Robert B. Parker (Spenser Series), among a few others, and have kept the books I had them sign. I never asked for a personalized copy or introduced myself because I know how hard signings are on authors, who are shy for the most part. I just asked them to sign the book as mementos of the fun time I had at their signings.
I would hope other readers felt the same about my signings as I’ve felt about my favorite authors.
That’s all I have to say about that.
[The Deep End of the Ocean, No Time to Wave Goodbye, Still Summer]
Book signings used to be a HUGE deal — like huge numbers of people turned out for even authors who were NOT Dan Brown or Jodi Picoult. It was a novelty, a chance to hear and see the person who wrote something you liked. The shekels shrunk. The publishers panicked. They either sent people to way too many places, overexposing them, or way too few. Signing a book was once a sort of assembly line, but with the occasional really moving personal encounter.
I loved signed books. They are my treasures. I don’t care if they are even signed to ME. One of my most cherished things is my favorite book (A Tree Grows In Brooklyn) signed by Betty Smith to HER agent, easily 15 years before I was born, given me as a birthday gift by my agent. When they are inscribed with special love (as my book signed by my pal Karin Slaughter, “to my pal, Jackie, the fighter,”) because she was with me the day I learned that we’d lost everything in a Midwestern investment scam, they have a special meaning. But I would rather just have a name than “Enjoy the read ..” or some such … I have a special thing I write: “Settle for more …” I think everyone should hear that. To me, they’re never clutter. They’re always either a memory or an encounter, or something I loved, or something someone THOUGHT I would love. That matters too.
I have a signature. Period. It’s become sloppier and more artful over time but it’s my only signature. If I’ve met the person before, I’m more likely to make it a personal, hopeful message.
People who want to write want signed books. People want gift books signed as a surprise by a favorite author. I’ve never signed one “thanks for last night….”
Dickens signed books and even table napkins. [nice transition to the hysterical Matthew Pearl]
MATTHEW PEARL [The Last Dickens, The Poe Shadow, The Dante Club]
Steele: Why do authors sign books?
Authors will do pretty much anything they’re told to do.
Steele: How do you feel about signing books in general?
I have to admit, I never went out of my way to have a book signed as a
reader. Even these days, I’d usually only get a book signed if a
friend of mine wrote it. That said, I’ve never been a collector of
anything, and I respect the preferences of those who like their books
Steele: What kind of inscription do you write when you sign books?
By nature, novelists aren’t the best slogan writers. I’m happy if
someone wants it customized in a particular way, less thinking for me.
I do come up with a catchphrase for each book. You can’t think of
something new each time. For The Dante Club, I write “Welcome to the
Club” (which replaced “Go to Hell” after I worried I might offend
someone who didn’t get it) and for The Last Dickens, “Find the ending”
(since it’s about Dickens’s unfinished novel). For The Poe Shadow, I
write “See you in 1849,” which is when the novel took place, though
one reader pointed out that sounded like I was giving out my hotel
room number. It’s not true, of course. I’m really giving out Ben
Mezrich’s hotel room number.
Steele: If you have met someone or done an interview, what kind of thought will
you put into the signing?
I do my best, but it’s hard to wow anyone with a few words, especially
if you’re in another country and don’t speak the language. I always
feel awful writing “Muchas gracias” to a reporter in Spain, I feel
like they often politely smirk at me.
Steele: How have signings changed/gotten easier as you’ve written more books i.e.
do you tend to interact more and sign different things or is it just an
I wouldn’t describe it as an assembly line, and I always do like to
interact. It’s nice now that a reader might have several of my books.
That’s a nice feeling. Sometimes people ask me to sign a book that I
didn’t write, though, like an antique edition of Poe or Dante. I try
to talk them out of it.
Matthew and I emailed back and forth for some time about having him write a Guest Post or having me interview him. He remarked that he does tons of interviews [and I interview lots of people] and that he enjoyed writing the guest posts he’s done previously. I met Matthew when he spoke [read his post at Porter Square Books], he doesn’ t like to read, at the Westford Public library. Fittingly, I brought my mom and he brought his mom and his grandmother. During his talk, I wrote down something he said: “It’s odd to look over and see your words in someone else’s hands.” And that became the impetus for the post.
When you’re writing a manuscript you’re extremely careful about whom you’d give it to read for feedback. It’s not just for writing a novel. Think about one of your college essays—not the one that you stayed up Thursday night to hand in Friday morning, but one that you were actually pouring your heart into. Maybe you asked one of your roommates to read it. But you also probably knew you would never let your other roommate read it. You know, the one who’d say, “This is a first draft, right?”
As a published author you can’t stand in the bookstore and screen customers to see if you approve them as readers. In fact, if you were brave enough to stand around in the bookstore near the New Fiction table, you’d want everyone and their uncle to buy your book. You’d probably start bribing.
I remember the first time I saw someone with a copy of my book outside one of my author events. It was in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Crossing the street, I glanced over at a woman holding a battered paperback of The Dante Club. I said, “That’s my book!” She looked at me funny. I think she thought I meant she had a copy of The Dante Club that belonged to me. Damn that author photo for making me look less disheveled than in real life.
Once when I found myself grounded on the tarmac at Chicago O’Hare for three hours, with the passenger in the middle seat reading my book, this time I said nothing. I was trapped, watching my words flip by. What a surreal feeling. Was he catching the foreshadowing on that page? He read the page too quickly, surely. Should I give him a pop quiz and remove his reading privileges if he fails?
But that wasn’t my book I saw in Park Slope or on the plane, not mine. If I walked into Porter Square Books and picked up a copy of my latest novel, The Last Dickens, and walked out, I’d be shoplifting. There is the paradox: when I started writing, I imagined the point of publication as the moment in which you’d ascend to a new level of authority and control over your work. In fact, it is the moment when you lose control over your book, and when you have to learn to let go of what you thought belonged only to you.
A writer friend of mine, Cynthia, once got a call from her friend who said:
“I think I just met your friend.”
“Who?” Cynthia asked.
“Haven’t you said you were friends with Matthew Pearl, the author?”
“I just met him at a poker tournament at Foxwoods.”
I’ve never been to Foxwoods casino and wouldn’t get past the first round of a poker tournament. It turned out there was a guy, who apparently looked nothing like me nor my author photo, who was saying he was Matthew Pearl. Of course, I wouldn’t forbid another writer named Matthew Pearl from existing, but this one was naming my books and saying he wrote them. (Poe, whose love for doppelgangers helped inspire my second novel, The Poe Shadow, would probably smile at this.)
Countless questions entered my head about this impostor. First of all, can’t you pretend to be someone more exciting than me? Second, did you try to get a credit card or a house in my name (as far as I can tell, he didn’t)? Third, do you want to stand around at the bookstore and bribe people for me?
–by Matthew Pearl
Matthew Pearl’s links:
Giveaway: one copy of The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl courtesy of Random House. U.S/Canadian residents only. Submit email in comments section. Contest Ends DECEMBER 1.