Matthew Pearl is a New York Times bestselling author of four historical novels: The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow, The Last Dickens, and the recently released The Technologists. Several years ago I picked up his first book, and despite knowing very little about Dante, enjoyed it a lot and realized that Pearl was an author I didn't want to forget about. Fortunately for me I didn't, because his next two books dealt with two of my favorite authors (Poe & Dickens). I recently read and reviewed his latest book and was excited when he agreed to a brief interview.
First of all, I've enjoyed reading your books. I think historical fiction appeals to me because of the alternate version of historical events and individuals that it offers. I would imagine it's not the best genre for a writer to choose if he or she is not willing to go through extensive research during the writing process. What type of research do you go through when writing a book?
I'd guess it all depends on the writer and his or her goals, which within the historical fiction category can differ very much. That said, research has definitely been part of each of my novels and, as you say, it's extensive enough that you have to know what you're getting into. The type and amount of research changes with each book, and varies within the book's aspects. It can range from digging up historical maps and blueprints to going through newspaper articles to reading travel guides, novels, memoirs and other full length books contemporary with your setting. I've been fortunate enough that for the last couple of books, starting with The Last Dickens, I've found a great research assistant who helps me out with collecting some of the material and strategizing my approach to the research. There's a fair amount of tension sometimes when to concentrate on writing and when to concentrate on researching, and whether interrupting one midway will cause problems. It's a juggling act, definitely.
Your first three books revolved around events in literary history, with The Technologists you transitioned away from that. Why the change? and can we expect to see more books from you in the future that deal with literary events?
Yes, my next (fifth) novel will be back to literary history and, for whatever reason, the majority the ideas I have deal with literary history one way or another. There's even some literary references that slipped into The Technologists, for instance a character who appears who is in a theatrical production of a Dickens novel. But as you say The Technologists--and its focus on the rise of what seems to the world to be dangerous science--is a change for me. After three novels it felt like a good time to stretch myself in a new direction, although of course the 19th century Boston setting, and a story that you'd call a thriller, carries over from the other novels. I had a great time with the new elements.
In the short story that you contributed to the collection Sherlock Holmes in America, you brought the famous detective to Boston to solve a crime. I was wondering if The Technologists originated during the writing of that story since I think Holmes would have been impressed with the deductive methods used by the MIT students.
You're on the money! I had the idea for an MIT novel years before, but it was while writing "The Adventure of the Boston Dromio" for Sherlock Holmes in America that the idea came back to me. I was trying to think where Holmes would visit and thought of MIT.
I think all of your books so far would translate very successfully to movies. How likely is it that that might happen?
Well, I appreciate the thought. The truth is, historical stories, especially set in a large city like Boston, would cost so much to produce -- well over 50 million dollars -- it's pretty unlikely. There have been almost no 19th century thrillers as movies, at least until the recent Sherlock Holmes movies, but those are made because of the Holmes brand, sort of in spite of the setting.
Have you started writing your next book? If so, is there anything you're willing to say about it at this point?
I have started on the fifth novel. In addition to mentioning that it's literary history, I could add that it revolves around a "bookaneer," the sort of literary bounty hunters I introduced in The Last Dickens. So far, it's been fun to work on.