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.