A Talk With Matthew Pearl

I discovered novelist Matthew Pearl two years ago, when I was browsing a slim bus-station gift shop bookshelf for anything I could bear to read and found a curiously intellectual paperback titled The Dante Club. I was surprised to encounter the Florentine poet in this setting, and after I bought the book I was thrilled to find a rigorously smart but undeniably entertaining adventure novel featuring not only Dante but a crowd of New England notables — including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes — grappling with the American reaction to Dante’s shocking work and trying to catch a murderer who shares their fascination with the Italian poet.

Suffice it to say, Matthew Pearl stands alone at an intersection between popular fiction and literary history. He might be compared to Dan Brown, but unlike Dan Brown he takes academic research seriously and works hard to earn the respect of the experts in his fields. His work also hints at complex psychological themes, and it’s no coincidence that the writers he illuminates in his imaginary plots are among the darkest voices in the history of literature.

The young author’s second novel is The Poe Shadow, a fictional and near-dreamlike spin through mid-18th Century Baltimore and Paris in the aftermath of Edgar Allan Poe’s sudden death. Like The Dante Club, the new novel presents literary history in a genre setting to very pleasing effect, and is generating heated reviews and much attention from readers.

I had a chance to ask Matthew Pearl a few questions in an ongoing email interview. We talked about Poe, Dante, history and fiction, and Pearl offered some controversial ideas about how literary criticism is practiced in our time.

ASHER: There is a general perception that Edgar Allan Poe was an uncontrollable alcoholic with a self-destructive streak. Your book leads a reader to believe that this is entirely untrue. Are you convinced that the popular conception of Poe’s troubled life and death are wrong?

PEARL: Poe was self-destructive but not entirely, and his drinking was far more complicated than people (scholars and public) usually want it to be. We tend to de-historicize, and superimpose our own experiences on the past. We drink, and we understand the difference between “having a drink” and “getting drunk.” Between 1840-1850 (Poe dies in 1849), American males drank more alcohol — undiluted with any water, mind you! — than anytime in our history before or since. To whatever extent Poe was obliged to drink, the minimum expected of an adult male would be frighteningly large, and Poe clearly could not handle even a small amount of alcohol. This does not mean there were not times when he actively drank too much, he admitted he did, but the idea of Poe as Bohemian drunk, as a pre-Jim Morrison, seems to me all wrong. The actual documentary evidence points to Poe being hardly able to drink a minimum amount of alcohol, rather than someone who drank to excess.

There are other health issues that may have impacted Poe’s drinking, and his behavior generally, and these still need sorting out. I hope readers of The Poe Shadow might consider resetting their ideas about Poe just a bit. Even if one concludes Poe was an alcoholic (and I don’t, obviously), it is important, at least, to see it was something Poe fought against, not something he embraced. Again, there are interesting questions to ask ourselves. Why are we so anxious for Poe to be drunk? Do we want to believe that only someone intoxicated could write what he wrote? Does that rationalize our desire to drink, or let us “explain” Poe’s writing in an easy way?

ASHER: You’re presenting a vision of Poe as a purer writer — devoted to his admittedly spooky and disturbing craft but capable of separating his life from it. Where do you think most academics and Poe experts stand on this question? Have you caught any flak for this book yet?

PEARL: Poe experts are pretty accustomed to a range of opinions about Poe. Scholars have actually been supportive of the book and my research. My findings about Poe’s death will actually be published in the academic journal, Edgar Allan Poe Review.

ASHER: You seem to have managed a difficult balance here. In one sense, your books seem similar to Dan Brown’s in that they are entertaining works of historical fiction. But nobody (as far as I know) takes Dan Brown seriously as a historian. As you continue to become more well-known as a novelist, are you concerned that this balance may become harder to maintain?

PEARL: I do not know that it would be a function of being well-known or not. As with my fiction writing, if I am proud of my scholarship then I feel satisfied. I cannot control what anyone else thinks. I also hope to write nonfiction books, and have no plans to write exclusively one type of book.

ASHER: How did you become a writer?

PEARL: I guess I became a novelist by accident. I was in law school and reluctant to be a lawyer, in part because I didn’t feel that I was good at most of it (though there were areas I found interesting, and still do, from an academic and historical point of view). I played around with a “chapter” of The Dante Club one night in my apartment in New Haven — at that point, the book was just a storyline in my head. I read it over. I thought “Well, this isn’t bad at all!” It probably was bad. I don’t think I have those test pages because my computer crashed at some point and they wouldn’t resemble anything in the novel (they dealt with the characters discovering George Washington Greene, their elder member, stuck in ice in the mountains, if I remember correctly).

That night — or over the course of a couple of days — working on those test pages made me a fiction writer, in retrospect. I was too timid to tell anyone when I started writing the book. It just grew and grew into a project that could have been pretty destructive to me — really, I should have been working on my law stuff. I had no reason to think I could pull it off well, and certainly no right to think that I could find an agent, a publisher, etc. It wasn’t a very rational decision, looking back.

ASHER: There are shades of Quentin Clark [the main character in The Poe Shadow, and a reluctant lawyer] in this comment — is Quentin Clark Matthew Pearl?

PEARL: Sure, there are some coincidences, or non-coincidences. Quentin is a better lawyer than I would have been, though.

ASHER: In your two novels, The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow, you have depicted not two but three distinct literary worlds: Dante in Florence, the Transcendentalists in Boston, and Poe in Baltimore. Are Poe and Dante your two favorite writers, as the evidence would suggest?

PEARL: Well, yes, they are two writers that have been meaningful to my reading and life. Of course, writing these novels made me feel more engaged with both.

ASHER: You hint at a rivalry between Poe and, if I remember correctly, Longfellow. Can you shed some light about this? Since you portray both very favorably, I wonder where you stand on the matter yourself (whatever exactly the matter is, or was).

PEARL: Poe accused Longfellow of plagiarism. It became something of a sensation in the literary world because of the fight that followed. This was more or less a publicity stunt, though it got such negative publicity it backfired on Poe, as with most business decisions. Longfellow stayed out of it, for the most part, but his friends fought back against Poe. The fight was a stand-in for many other things, including Boston’s rivalry with New York.

ASHER: Very inte
resting … and, in your opinion, was Longfellow actually a plagiarist? If you were a lawyer and this case was going to court, whose side would you prefer to argue — Poe’s or Longfellow’s?

PEARL: No, Longfellow was not a plagiarist anymore than any of us are for using the English language (Poe’s main complaint). What an interesting thought — a court case between the two sides! I suppose Poe’s side would be more interesting, but Longfellow’s side is the winning one.

ASHER: Dante Club inspired me to read Inferno for the first time. I was quite fascinated, but at the same time I find Dante’s single-mindedness frustrating. I certainly feel the power of his work, but I am confused when I hear Dante compared to, say, Shakespeare — it seems to me that Shakespeare had a much broader range. Can you fill me in on the source of your deep connection to Dante?

PEARL: Dante is broad in a different way, with the range of his topics rather than stories or styles. Dante’s fame is based on a single work, of course, as opposed to Shakespeare’s range. It’s the depth of Dante that’s so remarkable. He is relentless in his insistence on the importance of his poem, and somehow this infects readers who otherwise wouldn’t care about many of the topics — at least some readers.

ASHER: I think that’s a great point — I noticed as well that admirers of Dante’s work often talk about the force of Dante’s personality, and about the travails of his life. Would it be far to say that both Dante and Poe were literary celebrities in their own time? Is there something about the concept of literary celebrity that particularly interests you?

PEARL: I am very interested by literary celebrity, and both Dante and Poe experienced it in some degree. Or, in Poe’s case, he aimed for literary celebrity and never quite achieved it. In his own lifetime, he was more of a literary anti-celebrity, the guy who today would be on Page Six for fighting with an author more respected than he is. The guy whose achievements were bogged down by rumors and apparently strange antics. Longfellow was more genuinely a celebrity. People would stop him in the streets, particularly in his later years. Imagine that today, a poet stopped in the streets! It was also common for writers like Longfellow to have their autographs cut out of letters and sold, or even their signatures forged and sold. I use this in a few scenes in The Dante Club because that just seems so proto-eBay.

ASHER: I also delved further into Poe after reading The Poe Shadow — I had never read the Dupin mysteries before, and I was shocked to discover what looks to me like the template for Sherlock Holmes in the character of Dupin. Now that you’ve cleared Longfellow of the charge of plagiarism, do you think we might convict Arthur Conan Doyle of this charge?

PEARL: First let me say your reading more Dante and Poe in conjunction with the two novels is very gratifying for me. And your comments about Dupin are right on: it was my first reaction, too. “This is just like Sherlock Holmes!” Conan Doyle made no secret of it, and credited Dupin as the better detective. Plagiarism, probably not, but inspiration, deeply, and I think it’s time for people to rediscover the Dupin tales (which is why I was happy to republish them as a standalone edition through Modern Library, for which I have a page on my site).

ASHER: I’ve observed, and I hope you don’t mind me saying so, that you don’t strain too hard to make your novels utterly plausible. In fact, over a year ago I wrote an article that compared your Dante Club to Da Vinci Code in which I called you the better writer but called Brown the better plotter, in that there were a number of spots in Dante Club where I felt I had to suspend disbelief (most notably, the idea that these lofty writers of New England would not seek help from the police in solving their mystery).

Similarly, while this did not impair my enjoyment of The Poe Shadow at all, I did notice that this plot depended on numerous coincidences, mainly in terms of Quentin Clark magically finding himself at the exact right spot at the exact right moment to observe the next unfolding of the plot, which seems strange in a city the size of 19th Century Baltimore. As a writer, how important is plausibility to you? Do you agree with my appraisal that the coincidences of Poe Shadow depart from utter believability, or do you think my criticism here is misguided?

PEARL: I have to say I think most of that is opinion — and opinion is the right of every reader — so I do not know if it’s fruitful for me to lay out other points of view, except to say that for any opinion one reader has about a particular element in my book (or any book) I can guarantee to find a reader who has the opposite opinion about the same element (for instance, I get emails about both books saying they were so plausible, they questioned whether they were fiction). This is not a right or wrong proposition, but certainly The Dante Club explains why they can’t go to the police (and opinion can follow on whether a reader would agree with the reasons).

The only thing I’d say, regarding The Poe Shadow, is the plot is designed to seem much much more external than it actually is — and Quentin interprets it as much more external than it is, too. Almost everything in the plot is generated by Quentin’s own actions and imagination (including the letter that provokes the Baron to get involved), so it is not coincidence that he is present for the moments of the plot, since he is the plot, in a way. He converts random events into plot in his mind, and interprets them as happening to him. One could even read the entire book as taking place in Quentin’s imagination, though I would not necessarily advocate that reading. For much of the story Quentin is spying on the competing investigators, so it also builds in that his observation of things around the city would make sense.

This is not to say I am against coincidence — it has its role in every story, and its own literary importance we shouldn’t dismiss or become too cynical about in an age of faux “reality” media. Coincidence is part of reality, too.

ASHER: What do you think of Baudelaire and T. S. Eliot (two of my favorite authors who happen to share your interest in Dante and Poe?) — might either of them be the inspiration of a future Pearl novel?

PEARL: Baudelaire and Eliot had similar strengths and weaknesses, in my opinion. Both were profoundly self-aware not just of their writing but their identities as writers. This lead both to different sorts of crises of identity. Eliot is one of my favorite poets and probably the reason I’m so engrossed by thinking about the relationship between literary periods over time. “what are the roots that clutch, what branches grow” — can’t get better than that.

ASHER: What contemporary fiction writers do you most admire?

PEARL: Wow, that’s a tough one. Whenever anyone asks my favorite movies or books my mind draws a blank as though I’ve never seen a movie or read a book. I really like David Liss as someone who pushes historical fiction in a great direction (I haven’t yet read his new contemporary book), Arthur Phillips is exciting, too, and I loved Zoe Heller’s Notes from a Scandal.

ASHER: You’ve been touring Europe and the world — how is your novel being received around the world? Do you enjoy this type of activity?

PEARL: The Dante Club was published in about 42 countries, including some I couldn’t find on a map (Estonia? Ok, I’m not good with geography to begin with). The publishers are all supposed to send copies of the books when they’re published, though not all of them do, but I have a shelf with all the foreign editions which is a real kick in a silly way.

On a personal level, the travel has been one of the best parts of publishing these two books. Before The Dante Club was published, I had only been out of the country twice, Canada when I was very young and England when I was in college. Since The Dante Club, I have been to something like 13 countries on the books’ nickels, including multiple times to England, Italy and Spain. It’s great to see Poe fans everywhere — he’s bigger in Europe than here.

ASHER: Have you generally been treated well by critics?

PEARL: For both books, I have received amazing reviews, good reviews, and some horrible reviews. You get used to it, I guess, though it’s certainly one of the stranger parts of the process. I’ve had a few reviews that read like personal attacks, on my age or my educational background or my success (by whatever definition of it they’re using), and these just mystify me. Probably my favorite recent review was one of The Poe Shadow by Jasper Fforde because he’s a novelist I really admire, and I actually have all of his books! To be honest, I am probably just as or more excited when I receive an email or message from a fan talking about how much they enjoy one or both books, than by a review. There’s just something about how self-motivated that fan is, not only to pick up the book and read the book, but also take the time to share their response with me, that is really gratifying and affirming.

ASHER: Having published two novels, do you think of the publishing industry as generally healthy and functional? What, if anything, would you like to change about the way books are produced and sold, and about the way writers are treated?

PEARL: Big question, Levi! It would probably take three times the length of the whole interview to give my thoughts, but I’ll just throw a few things out there.

First, on the bright side, I’d say my experience has been that publishing is filled with really smart, really motivated and dedicated people. I have worked extensively with two different editors (Jon Karp and now Jennifer Hershey) and the same literary agent (Suzanne Gluck, whom I couldn’t live without) throughout the process of writing and publishing my two novels, as well as two publishers (Ann Godoff and now Gina Centrello) and two publicists (Todd Doughty and now Kate Blum) at the publishing house, and they have all been superb. (Hey, I’m sure not everyone in the industry is as great, but I can only speak from my experience).

Also on the bright side, I think it’s largely a fair business in terms of the setup in relation to writers. I say this in comparison with other media-related fields, like the music industry which, if I understand correctly, deducts marketing expenses from the artists’ payments. Yikes!

Now, things to change. I’ll toss out two problem areas, at least problems in my opinion. First, the book reviews, which I touched on a bit earlier. There are some deep, fundamental problems in the way the system works. There is, of course, the strange fact at the outset that you as an author are being reviewed by your rivals. Imagine if this was the case in any other field? Imagine if rival film directors were reviewing each others’ movies, and this was what we read in the newspapers? I don’t think it would be allowed, at least not without that being the whole explicit point, but that’s exactly the case frequently in books. There may be no way around it, but it makes for a blatantly odd dynamic — particularly since within publishing the advances (how much money an author is paid up front) are often public knowledge.

The flip side of the problem with rivals: you can just as easily call it a friend problem. I don’t think anyone would stoop to reviewing his or her friend directly, but it’s just not that big of a world, and writers know writers who know other writers or their agents or publishers who are close with other writers. There are many writers I feel I know and I root for (or don’t root for, after hearing stories of rudeness or unprofessional behavior) even though I’ve never met them, because of these sorts of indirect connections.

Second problem, the way reviews are assigned (even putting aside the rival/friend situations). There are so many times where a book is reviewed by someone completely inappropriate. I think there should be a simple rule: if a person would not buy and read a book on their own, they should not be reviewing it. I had one vicious (Imean vicious) review of The Dante Club in which the reviewer started the review by ridiculing the premise. Okay, well, this person would not buy the book, right, so is he really the right person to publish a review? Forget journalistic ethics, try out decency and decline writing the review. (From what I found out later, this reviewer had also been rejected for a book of his own by my editor and publishing house, so that would also fall into the category of problems with “rivals” reviewing).

Third, and this is the deep dark not-so secret of the industry, there are some reviewers (and let me be very very clear that this is a generalization — this applies only to a small fraction of reviewers) who are simply not good readers; they tend to read quickly and sloppily, maybe because they are on a tight deadline, maybe because it simply isn’t their priority and they are fitting it in between other activities (most reviews are not written by full-time critics). There are reviewers, yes, believe it or not, who *skim*. I’ve had reviews (both positive and critical) that make major factual mistakes in talking about my books, I mean, talking about characters who *are not in the book*.

Again, this is not meant to be a generalization, and I think the good reviewers and book page editors would be the first to agree and point out the changes that need to be made. Publishers and writers are understandably scared to say anything or defend books, because there can be repercussions, so I think it falls to readers to be vigilant.

More than anything else, I hate when I see reviewers being disrespectful. It’s not about every review of every book needing to be positive, but even a critical review can be respectful of the fact that the writer probably took years to write the book and are putting part of their writing career on the line, and the reviewer is taking a few days or weeks to do their piece at no risk to themselves. It’s asymmetrical warfare, because it’s very cheap and easy for a review to be backbiting and vicious, and a potential reader is more likely to see that than to give a new author a chance, and there’s nothing an author can do about it.

I’m not talking about myself now, because I’m lucky enough to be at the point of having some degree of a readership and I don’t live or die on reviews, one way or the other. Plus I have support from a major publisher who can afford advertising and other means of communicating about the book to the public. But the disrespectful reviews can destroy a first time writer, and being a first time writer is a hard enough position to be in. And don’t write a review under the premise of informing everyone how you would have written the book differently; again, not fair, you didn’t write the book.

If all of this would make reviews lean a bit less negatively, I say unequivocally “good”; when accepting the trend of disrespectful and patronizing reviews, we are sabotaging careers of authors — human beings, remember, not just names — who have probably worked years to get the chance to publish; at worst, if we (readers, writers, editors and critics) stand up against these and end up with something more responsible and civilized, we may be encouraging a few more readers to be open-minded.

I’m also thinking of reviewers who are out to prove themselves smarter than the author on whatever the author is writing about; again, what’s the point of this? In all likelihood, the author has probably dedicated years studying the subject (if nonfiction, for instance, or nonfictiony fiction) and again it’s asymmetrical warfa
re because the author has no forum for reacting. I had a review of my new book in which the reviewer clearly had only read two Poe stories, The Pit and the Pendulum and The Tell Tale Heart, and attacked me because I didn’t capture The Pit and the Pendulum’s themes in my book. I didn’t want or try to capture The Pit and the Pendulum — hey, I love the story too, but Poe wrote about 80 stories and the truth is many of them not about premature burial are really interesting.

It was obviously important to this critic to prove that he knew more about Poe than I did, even though it’s really, really unlikely (and believe me, not all of Poe’s 80 stories are great or so fun to read, so I’m not saying he should know as much about Poe, just that he should have some respect). Unknowingly, critics like that are imitating none other than Poe himself, who was brutally unfair as a critic, although self-aware enough to be tongue-in-cheek about it.

I don’t think book reviews are even fact checked. I don’t know why. In addition the mistakes I already mentioned, I have had reviews incorrectly point out anachronisms, too. I’m not perfect on this front (I don’t think anyone can be). But if they’re wrong, and I know it, what do I do? On two occasions, I’ve emailed the reviewers noting that, in fact, the words or phrases they picked out were not anachronisms. The first, not disagreeing, said I could write a letter to the editor. Well, sure, I could, but should that be my responsibility? What about a correction on their part? The second basically said, oh yeah, they’re not anachronisms, and offered no recourse or even an apology.

I’ve had reviews for both of my novels point out typos — yes, typos, in a 400 page novel; just disingenuous, as anyone in any form of publishing or journalism, or even who has been on a high school newspaper, knows.

I’m frequently asked to write reviews for major publications and, although flattered, I politely decline because I see too many problems in the practice. Plus, I freely admit, I don’t know if I’d be immune, for instance, to the dynamics I mentioned above of feeling in competition or camaraderie with authors I’m asked to review. I don’t have answers to most of the problems (and I’m open minded enough that maybe you could convince me they’re not problems) but I think the questions are worth raising and the call for respect and decency a must. Again, I think the good, responsible reviewers and editors would tend to agree with most of what I’ve said, and would have much more insight into it than I do.

One other thing I’d say about what can improve in the publishing industry, if I haven’t said too much already: We need to publish more books translated from other languages. I think we miss out by not doing so (I think only about 5% of our books are translated, compared to 30%-50% in many European countries). Also, many authors in other countries cannot earn a living because the English language market is so important and they can’t break into it, even when they are hugely acclaimed and successful in their own markets.

ASHER: You obviously know a tremendous amount about literature in general, and about famous literary controversies specifically. I thought it would be interesting to run a bunch of other hot-button literary enigmas by you and see what you think about them. Who wrote Shakespeare’s plays?

PEARL: Shakespeare.

ASHER: What was the deal with Lord Byron and his sister? And what was the deal with Lord Byron, period?

PEARL: Byron’s the first beat poet. Anyway, sister is such a subjective word.

ASHER: Why did Virginia Woolf (or Sylvia Plath, or Anne Sexton, if you prefer) kill herself?

PEARL: Hmmmm… which one was played by Gwyneth Paltrow?

ASHER: All of them, as far as I can tell. Why was Pushkin killed?

PEARL: Wow, I actually didn’t know he was.

ASHER: If there were a cage match between Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who would win?

PEARL: Papa Hem, definitely. But Scott would be tragic in his loss.

ASHER: What is J. D. Salinger doing right now?

PEARL: Waiting.

ASHER: Finally, what other literary worlds will you be taking us too in your next novels?

PEARL: I hope some of my novels will return to the literary world, particularly literary Boston, however I don’t have a master plan, so I can’t know for sure. As of now, I haven’t decided on my third novel.

ASHER: Thanks for doing this interview with me, and I’m thrilled to realize I could beat you at Jeopardy in at least one category (Pushkin).

5 Responses

  1. Very niceGreat interview,
    Very nice

    Great interview, insightful and interesting — without being too predictable. Nice use of the cage match. (Although I wonder how Pearl feels about Tom Hanks, I think you’ve just about covered everything else.) Glad to see Pearl is willing to delve deeper than just the pat answers.

  2. top notch, old fellowYou and
    top notch, old fellow

    You and Mr. Pearl were both in good form, resulting in a rich and substantive exchange.

  3. Awesome!That was a great

    That was a great interview. Not only did I wake up to a good read this morning, but now I’m totally turned on to check out Pearl’s books, though The Poe Shadow seems more interesting to me than The Dante Club.

    By the way, Levi, when I clicked back to the article on DaVinci Code and Dante Club, I noticed this transposition at the end of the article:

    “I give “The Dante Code” four Scooby Snacks out of five, and “The Da Vinci Club” gets five.”

    Was that an accident or on purpose? If it was purposeful, why? I’m just curious.

  4. Thanks for the comments,
    Thanks for the comments, Steve.

    About that transposition between “Da Vinci Code” and “Dante Club” … that was actually my (not very successful) attempt at humor. I wrote that article mainly to question why Dan Brown is so widely vilified by “serious” readers whereas other authors who blend history and fiction, such as Matthew Pearl, are generally treated respectfully. My point was that “Da Vinci Code” is really not such a terrible book, and that the well-liked “Dante Club” can be viewed as another book in the same category.

    However, having now spent much time communicating with Matthew Pearl, and especially having read his comments about book critics who are unnecessarily nasty towards well-meaning writers, I wish I hadn’t been so flippant.

  5. Yeah, Pearl seems like a
    Yeah, Pearl seems like a really decent guy with his head screwed on straight.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!