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Matthew Pearl Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Matthew Pearl
Photo: Sigrid Estrada

Matthew Pearl

An interview with Matthew Pearl

In the first of two interviews, Matthew Pearl explains his fascination with the 19th century and how he came to write The Technologists; in the second, he talks about his interest in Dante, and his first mystery/novel, The Dante Club, which blends fact and fiction into a captivating thriller that will surprise readers from beginning to end.

The Technologists is a thriller revolving around the very first class at M.I.T. It is my fourth novel and my third set in Boston of the nineteenth century. I'm sometimes asked what it is about that time and place that appeals to me. I might need some psychoanalysis to answer. Like many other things in the creative process, I was drawn to the setting as much by accident and instinct as by a deliberate process. The first story I conceived as a novel, which would become The Dante Club, brought me to 1865 through historical fact - that was the year that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow gathered some friends together to help him finish his groundbreaking translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, and that was the subject matter I wanted to pair with a mysterious story.

Though I came to it by chance, I found I enjoyed writing and researching about the nineteenth century. The more I immersed myself in it, the more I wrote in it, leading into more novels.

Though I had not planned to become such a long-running tourist to the nineteenth century, I recognize some specific elements that keep me there. I've always been fascinated by origins. What it was like to be the first at something. In The Technologists, the first students at M.I.T. were pioneers striving against suspicion and ridicule for this experimental new college. I even thought of calling the novel The First Class (until those X-Men stole the idea for the prequel movie about a very different school). In general, much of our modern culture and society took recognizable form in the nineteenth century, and Boston was often at the forefront. With all of those origins swirling around, there's an endless amount of material.

The origin could be in the form of a person - in The Poe Shadow, I follow the first mega-fan of Edgar Allan Poe. In The Last Dickens, my third novel, I included a climactic scene involving the first passenger elevator in Boston. I envisioned this as the slowest chase scene in literature! The elevator in 1870 was more of a parlor, with a chandelier and benches to sit on while taking the very slow ride. The controls were very complicated and operated by a trained employee, usually a boy.

The other natural connection I feel to the nineteenth century is how conscious some people were becoming then of ushering in our future. This is what was so interesting to me about The Technologists. The characters are very aware that the scientific innovations that they seek will change the world, which is why they are feared by others. That tension animated much of the plot.

Despite my interest, I wouldn't want to live in the nineteenth century - that's a question I'm also asked. Still, it would be nice to visit.

Interview reproduced from www.everydayebook.com, with permission

Matthew Pearl Discusses His First Novel, The Dante Club

Matthew Pearl's been busy. He graduated from Harvard in 1997, won the prestigious Dante Prize from the Dante Society of America in 1998, and graduated from Yale law school in 2000. He is currently teaching at Harvard and has just published his first novel, The Dante Club. He also generously took the time to answer our questions. Thanks Matthew!

When did you first become interested in Dante Alighieri?
I became intrigued by Dante in a backward fashion: I was studying the "modernists" (e.g., T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound) and was deeply impressed by the influence from Dante that they not only displayed but flaunted. I wanted to find out for myself what had motivated them so intensely and interestingly.

Who comprised the original Dante Club?
The original Dante Club was a group of poets and scholars who helped Henry Wadsworth Longfellow complete his groundbreaking translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. The core members were James Russell Lowell, a renowned poet and professor, and Charles Eliot Norton, an editor and later a famous art critic. Other members included Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, a professor at the Harvard Medical College and a poet, James T. Fields, Longfellow's publisher, and George Washington Greene, a Revolutionary War historian. Often other guests, prominent in fields of science, art and literature, would join them for the evening, and the mixture of disciplines surely helped Longfellow in the daunting task. They would meet every Wednesday around 7:00 p.m. at Longfellow's house in Cambridge and would follow their translation discussion with an elaborate supper, often not concluding until after 1:00 a.m.

Why's the study of Dante important in the twenty-first century?
Great question, and an important one. One answer from a cultural perspective is that Dante, despite writing a poem seemingly steeped in doctrine, finds a way to bring out the humanity in the most savage and hopeless persons, without denying their wrongs, and at the same time forces us to confront the always startling reality of goodness that never reaches apparently deserved rewards. From a literary perspective, we might also think how important it is to remember that literature is not separate from life, and Dante makes himself out of the poem and the poem out of himself, unapologetically and powerfully.

Tell me about Longfellow's translation of Inferno.
Longfellow's translation, published in 1867, was the first translation of Inferno by an American, and because of his wide fame it opened Dante to the American readership for the first time. There are 34 cantos (or subdivisions) of Inferno and Longfellow completed the first draft of his Inferno translation in 34 days, doing one canto each day, starting the day he learned his son Charley had joined the army to fight in the Civil War. Longfellow's translation is remarkable for its accuracy and faithfulness to Dante's text. Though the translation has been out of print for over forty years, there is now a new authoritative edition published by Modern Library, released simultaneously with The Dante Club novel.

Which mystery writers do you like the most? Who do you think has influenced your work?
The writer who influenced this project most was probably Umberto Eco, who is not a mystery writer by trade, but whose novel The Name of the Rose redefined historical fiction and the profound intersection of history and mystery. Iain Pears, author of the remarkable historical mystery An Instance of the Fingerpost, also provides an amazing model for this type of writing and storytelling. As a child, I couldn't get enough of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. Doyle, interestingly, is said to have named his character after Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, an author he admired and one of the main characters in my novel, The Dante Club. In my original draft, a young Conan Doyle visits America and meets Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes while Holmes and the Dante Club are seeking out the murderer.

In an article for Legal Affairs you write about Dante's concept of contrapasso in that "...punishments must arise from the crime itself, not from the damage it has caused. The Hypocrites, for example, wear cloaks of gold encased with lead. The false representations they made while on earth elicit a punishment embodying the sin itself -its deceitful contrast between the external and the internal - rather than an attempt to revisit the effect their sin had on their victims." Are there elements of contrapasso in The Dante Club?
Definitely. Contrapassos appear throughout the novel. In The Dante Club murder victims are discovered that have been killed through the use of the contrapassos designed by Dante as eternal punishments. Only the members of the Dante Club, as the first American Dante scholars, realize this connection, and once they discover the contrapasso they must figure out why that particular contrapasso or punishment was chosen for that victim, since Dante creates a highly differenciated range of punishment. Dante makes similar investigations by interviewing the sinners he meets in Hell to find out what brought them to their fate, and then speaking with the penitents he comes upon later in Purgatory.

How did you envision the cover of The Dante Club? Are you pleased with the cover design?
I had many ideas for the cover, none of which my publisher listened to! The truth is I love how it came out, thanks to the talented Allison Saltzman, who oversaw the design. There was a process and evolution. The original version of this design pictured an illustration from Dante's Inferno in the backdrop rather than a street scene of Boston. I voiced my opinion that since Dante was in the title it was overkill to have the image Dante-related and that the balance between the book's subject matters - the literature of Dante and the 19th century world of Boston - would be better served aesthetically with a Boston image looming behind the prominent Dante titling. They did take my advice on that! The title is really the anchor for the cover design and what's nice, for bookstore purposes, is you can read it pretty easily from far away. If the book is on a shelf, on the other hand, I think the spine is distinctive and exciting enough to draw your eye.

Funny enough, the cover designer chose an image of the Park Street church in Boston that would have roughly been the view from the window of the offices of Ticknor & Fields, the publisher of Longfellow's translation, where many scenes in the book take place. I don't think the choice was deliberate but it shows the stars were aligned!

Has anyone compared you with other lawyers-turned-novelists like Scott Turow and John Grisham?
I don't think anyone has drawn comparisons to Grisham or Turow, but I wouldn't complain!

What will you be working on next?
Well, I'm very busy right now with activity related to The Dante Club. I have book signings planned for February in Boston, New York, New Haven, Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Pasadena. I looking forward to hearing from readers and sharing time with them. When I have more time to write, it's on to the next project, another 19th century thriller set in a literary environment, though will all different characters and focal points.

Interview first published at ospreydesign.com and reproduced with their permission

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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Books by Matthew Pearl at BookBrowse
The Dante Chamber jacket The Last Bookaneer jacket The Technologists jacket The Last Dickens jacket
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All the books below are recommended as read-alikes for Matthew Pearl but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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