Hannah Tinti discusses her first novel, The Good Thief
Why did you decide to set your novel in New England?
I wanted The Good Thief to take place in America in the 1800s, and New England felt like the perfect place. I grew up in Salem, Massachusettsfamous for the witch trials and as the birthplace of Nathaniel Hawthorneso stepping into the time period was actually quite natural for me. Most of the houses in the neighborhood where I grew up were built in the 1700s and 1800s, and it was not unusual to have a back staircase, or fireplaces in nearly every room, low ceilings or small latched pantry doors. Whenever my family worked outside in our small garden, we were constantly digging up things from the pastfragments of blue and white china plates, broken clay pipes, or crushed shells that used to line the path to a neighboring carriage house. Once, my grandmother found a Spanish Reale from the 1700s. This unearthing of tangible history, and being conscious every day of the people who have lived in places before you is something common in Europe and other parts of the world, but in America it is more unusual. In any event, it made a lasting impression on me, and has certainly wound its way throughout The Good Thief.
How did you come up with the title The Good Thief?
Originally I had planned to call the book Resurrection Men. Then, for a number of reasons, I had to change it. I was at a loss for a long time, and nothing seemed appropriate. Finally, I gave an early draft of the novel to my mother, who worked for many years as a librarian and has read more books than anyone else I know. She came up with The Good Thief, and as soon as she said it I knew it was the right title. There is a lot of stealing going on throughout the book, with mixed intentions and results. I also liked the biblical reference of the Good Thief (also known as Saint Dismas), who was one of the men crucified with Jesus Christ on Golgotha. His story is one of redemption, at the very last minute, and that suits this novel perfectly.
What are Resurrection Men'?
A number of years ago I was given a copy of Jeffrey Kacirk's Forgotten English, a collection of words that have fallen out of use in the English language. One of the words was "Resurrection Men," and it included a brief description of what the word meant:
"Body-snatchers, those who broke open the coffins of the newly buried to supply the demands of the surgical and medical schools. The first recorded instance of the practice was in 1742, and it flourished particularly until the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832. The resurrectionist took the corpse naked, this being in law a misdemeanor, as opposed to a felony if garments were taken as well First applied to Burke and Hare in 1829, who rifled graves to sell the bodies for dissection, and sometimes even murdered people for the same purpose."Ebenezer Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, excerpted by Jeffrey Kacirk in Forgotten English.
I was drawn to the moral murkiness of these resurrection men. They were doing something terribledesecrating gravesbut with the knowledge of the medical schools and partial acceptance from the law. These thieves did it for the money, but they also inadvertently saved others from dying by providing the test subjects doctors needed to further their science. I tore out the definition of "Resurrection Men," and pasted it into my journal with a notepossible novel? That was six years ago.
How did you come up with the character of Ren, and why does he have only one hand?
After learning the definition of Resurrection Men, a scene began to form in my head. It was a moonlit night, and a small boy was holding the reins of a horse and wagon outside a graveyard. I didn't know anything about the boy, only that he was waiting for the resurrection men to bring the bodies, and that he was terrified. This was the first chapter I wrote of The Good Thief, and it became the center of the book.
Writing for me has always been an intuitive and mysterious process. As I expanded the scene, I began to describe the boy, and wrote that he was holding the reins of the horse with his right hand. But when I tried to say what he was doing with his left I faltered. Then I realizedhe didn't have a left hand. And suddenly the boy was alive. This is how I discovered Ren's secret, and I used it to unlock his character. It answered so many questions about himwhy he was alone, and how he might have fallen in with these dangerous men.
The Good Thief has been compared to the work of Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Dickens. Did you set out to write an adventure tale?
It's humbling to be compared with these master storytellers. Stevenson and Dickens were my heroes growing up, along with James Fenimore Cooper. I'm not sure if I set out purposely to write an adventure story, but I was certainly influenced by these great writers. Who could forget the scene in Kidnapped where David Balfour climbs the empty staircase and nearly falls? Or when Magwitch appears on the moor in Great Expectations? Whenever I felt daunted by the task before me (The Good Thief is my first novel), I went back to this important lessonwrite something that you would like to read yourselfand tried to put it in motion on the page. Once I started it was hard to stop. I like to fall into books; to read about strange places and about characters who make me care deeply. I also like to be surprised at what's going to happen next.
What is a wishing stone?
A wishing stone is a rock, usually found near water, with an unbroken white line circling it completely. It is good for one wish to come true. When I was a child I would collect them. Later, I was reintroduced to them at an important time in my life. At the beginning of The Good Thief, Ren comes into possession of one. It is his golden ticket, and this wish reverberates throughout the rest of the book, as do the stones themselves. Several people have asked me what a wishing stone looks like, and so I'm attaching a photo, below, of a few that I've held on to.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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