Interview with 2016 NEPCo Speaker, Matthew Pearl
Matthew Pearl is the author of five novels, including The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow, and The Last Bookaneer, as well as a variety of nonfiction pieces. In 2013 he won the Massachusetts Book Award in fiction. We are lucky to have Matthew Pearl as the speaker at NEPCo this year, and as an introduction to him and his work we were able to have a conversation about his writing process and different projects, the importance of books, and the changing landscape of literature and publishing today.
Q: When did you first start seriously writing? Did you always want to write fiction, or did you ever consider (or consider now) writing different genres?
A: I only started “creative” writing (I don’t love that term, thus the air quotes) when I was in law school. That turned into my first novel and I was able to get a book contract a month or two before graduating law school, so I never ended up practicing law. At that point, I went into writing full time, and have been doing it full time for almost 17 years now. The type of novels I write—I’m not big into categories or genre labels, I guess I stick with historical fiction—was slightly accidental, it’s just how the first book came together and that gave momentum to design other stories with similar building blocks. The last few years, I’ve done more and more long form narrative nonfiction—articles ranging from 4,000 to 10,000 words, the latter being about a tenth of the length of a typical book—and I’ve had a blast doing that. So my plan is to do more nonfiction going forward, including (I hope) book length nonfiction.
Q: All of your books thus far are historically based. Have you always wanted to write with a historical frame? Do you ever consider writing something where the plot isn’t so intrinsically tied to its historical context?
A: As with the example of adding nonfiction into my arsenal, I see my writing plans as a constant, if very gradual, evolution. What tends to happen is future ideas come out of existing writing projects, so they tend to resemble each other. The truth is, I have a list of ideas for books, articles, and other writing projects of all types. The list is way too long, I’ll never live long enough to write all of them, so it’s just a matter of choosing a project that feels right and relevant at the time you have to pick what to work on next.
Q: One of the things that draws me to your novels is the combination of literary history and a compelling story. I loved learning about the first English translation of The Divine Comedy from The Dante Club. When you write, are you drawn to a certain point in literary history and then you work a story into the setting? Or does it work the other way around?
A: The anatomy of an idea is very hard to isolate, at least for me. There’s no way to X-ray an idea. By the time an idea feels concrete and to have some weight and be worth contemplating, you often don’t notice how it formed in the first place. The Dante Club was a bit easier to trace because the subject matter was from my senior thesis in college. Of course, there is almost no relationship between what work I had to do for a thesis and for the novel, and really almost zero resemblance between the two, but one ultimately set up the other, without my realizing it, of course. Ideas can come in dreams (really!), from conversations with friends, from deliberate strategizing, from combining or refining past ideas that never developed.
Q: Are there any specific writers that you admire or try to emulate, either for their stories or their style?
A: Not really. For every writing project, I probably take inspiration from different places, including different writers.
Q: Are there any specific points in history that you would like to write about but haven’t done yet?
A: Some of my ideas are earlier than the period I’ve most often worked on—one of my nonfiction book ideas is in the 18th century, for example—and I have an idea for a series of novels that would take place around the 1930s, which isn’t a period I’ve done much in.
Q: Have changes in the publishing industry over the last several years—the creation of eBooks, the effect of Amazon, the connection to readers via social media, etc.—influenced or changed the way you work, or your relationships with your publishers and editors?
A: I think the constant changes force writers, at least in my take on it, to be more protective of their writing space. Social media “responsibilities” can be especially draining. It’s hard enough to concentrate on writing without your workspace—your laptop, in my case—being a frequent distraction.
I worry about attention spans, in general, and whether all of ours are being cut and chopped up, sometimes without noticing. Reading a book is one of our only forms of media that take sustained focus. Books also have a fairly standard size page. The size has a kind of natural relationship to what our eye takes in, what feels manageable but not overwhelmingly long. I worry that as our eyes and brains adjust to smaller reading spaces—smart phones, especially—it will change our level of patience.
Q: Your perspective on books and publishing is slightly different than an editor or a reader or a bookseller. As a writer, how would you describe the importance of reading and literature in people’s lives in general, and yours specifically?
A: There’s all kinds of great new ways to share our books with each other—from writer to reader, from reader to reader—and I think that’s always been an important part of books and publishing, a way of making connections across time and space. In some ways, that’s the theme of my most recent novel, The Last Bookaneer. At the same time, I think reading is a private act, and we have fewer and fewer of those, so that’s an aspect of it worth appreciating.