Welcome to the Episode 22 of The Art In Fiction Podcast!
Meet Charlie Lovett, bestselling author of 5 novels listed on Art In Fiction, including his most recent, Escaping Dreamland.
Press Play now & be sure to check out Charlie Lovett's novels Escaping Dreamland, The Lost Book of the Grail, First Impressions, The Bookman's Tale, and The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge, in the Literature category on Art In Fiction.
Charlie Lovett's website: https://charlielovett.com/
Inside the Writer's Studio Podcast: https://www.charlielovett.com/podcast/
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Photo Credit: Strategic Arts & Productions
Intro: Paganology, performed by The Paul Plimley Trio; composed by Gregg Simpson
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Hello and welcome. I’m Carol Cram, host of The Art In Fiction Podcast. This episode features Charlie Lovett, author of five novels included the Literature category on Art In Fiction: Escaping Dreamland, First Impressions, The Lost Book of the Grail, The Bookman’s Tale, and The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Charlie is a New York Times bestselling novelist and playwright whose plays for children have been enjoyed in over 4500 productions worldwide. A former antiquarian bookseller, he collects books and memorabilia related to Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland and has written extensively on Carroll. He hosts the literary podcast Inside the Writer's Studio and lives with his wife in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Kingham, Oxfordshire.
Welcome to The Art In Fiction Podcast, Charlie.
Thank you. It's great to be here.
As I was just telling you, I have read four of your novels and you now have a firm fan with me. I am a novelist myself, and I find your work incredibly inspired. I mean, you've accomplished so much in your career, I kind of hardly know where to start. I was reading your bio and I'm thinking, Oh my goodness.
But today I'd like to focus on three of the novels that are listed on Art In Fiction: your new one, Escaping Dreamland, The Lost Book of the Grail, and First Impressions.
You obviously love rare books as do most of your main characters, many of whom you describe as bibliophiles. So how would you define a bibliophile?
Well, I mean, I think broadly speaking, somebody who loves books, but I think of a bibliophile as someone who appreciates books, not only for their texts, but also for their physicality and whether that is bindings or illustrations or just the way paper feels in your hands. They don't just want to read words. They want to have physical books around them and they care about the history of that visible book and all that goes into creating it.
One of the really fun things in, I think I do this in First Impressions and The Lost Book of the Grail. There are scenes where people are engaged in the act of creating a book at different points in history. That was really fun to work on and gave me really an even greater appreciation of physical books than I had before when I had to really understand how is a book bound, how was a medieval book made out of vellum? How does all that work?
And so I think a bibliophile is somebody who has an appreciation just beyond the text, but to all aspects of, of what a book is.
That's fascinating because I have not really had an interest per se in the books themselves, but now after reading your novels, I'm like, Oh, wow. I didn't really think about how much went in to creating them. I love novels that teach me new things and there's a lot to learn in your novels, but fortunately they're also really good stories.
So all of your novels, as you say, they relate in some way to books, but they're all really different. And I'm sure like most novelists you have lots of ideas, but how do you decide on which one you're going to develop into a novel?
I think sometimes it’s the one that sticks with you or the one that sort of keeps nagging at you. Just to take Escaping Dreamland, the most recent one, as an example. That sort of came to me in an opposite way. I had been looking for, you know, the grand figures of English literature. I'm a big Shakespeare fan so I wrote about Shakespeare. I love Jane Austen, another great figure of English literature, so I wrote about that. The Lost Book of the Grail connects at least to some of the earliest works of English writing in terms of the Arthur tales.
But when I was growing up, the books that got me excited about reading were not Shakespeare and Jane Austen. They were The Hardy Boys, you know, and Tom Swift and those children's series books. So I thought with Escaping Dreamland, I thought it would be fun to explore the other end of the literary spectrum.
And I don't mean that in a disparaging way, but books where the importance of the book maybe is not that it's a wonderful text or beautifully written prose, but that they are the other kind of books that got generations of American kids excited about reading for pleasure and that to me is something important.
And also I knew something about these children's series books and how they were created. I knew that was a good story. And the more I kind of looked into that whole history I thought, yeah, there's enough here to make a novel.
Sometimes you start looking into the history of something and you go, well, this is interesting, but it doesn't really feel like a novel, you know, I'm not finding a story in it.
With The Lost Book of the Grail, I mean, I’d spent so much time in English cathedrals, and I knew some of these stories that I knew I could have written 10 novels set in an English cathedral. So that was never going to be a problem. But yeah, so a lot of times it's just the story that keeps coming up and that as you research, keeps broadening and becoming deeper and more interesting rather than sometimes you realize there's really not much there. Those are the ones that you sort of cast aside.
I've had that experience, but it's finding the one that really captures your imagination because you're going to live with it.
Yeah. I mean, that's another big part of it. It has to be a time, a place, a set of characters that I would like to spend a year and a half or two years of my life with. And so that, that definitely plays into it.
Yes. Well, because it sounds to me like you really are writing about your passions like Jane Austen and The Hardy Boys and that kind of thing. So let's talk about your newest novel Escaping Dreamland, which totally blew me away.
There's just so many elements to this novel, you know, although there's all the history of New York at the turn of the century. So many things that I didn't know, you know, about the General Slocum, the boat that blew up, the fire on the boat and all the different disasters that happen, you know, the San Francisco earthquake that you had in there as well. But it's also about secrets that people keep.
And the core of the novel is this relationship of your four main characters, to what you're saying, the children's series books, The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, et cetera. Can you summarize Escaping Dreamland for us?
Yeah, sure. So as you said, it's about four novelists living in New York City. One of them in close to the present day, about 2010, who was really sort of struggling with his work, his writing, his relationships all because he's harboring some pretty heavy-duty emotional baggage from his past. It's all tied up with his relationship with his father and with their love of these children's series books. And especially this series called The Tremendous Trio.
And he, for various reasons, sort of gets led down this path of trying to find out more about the series and the people who created it. And then the other three authors are living in New York City in 1906. And they are the ones who created The Tremendous Trio. They're all young people, they're in their twenties and they're from wildly different backgrounds, but they're interested in writing for children and writing children's series and maybe writing children's series that are a little bit better than the ones they've seen in the bookstore.
It's a passion that sort of ends up drawing the three of them together and they have this fairly complex friendship that also, I think reveals a lot about New York at the time and about America at the time. And it was just a real joy to write in a city that I know very, very well, but in a time period that I don't know very well.
And so, you know, I felt like I had one foot firmly on the ground and the other foot reaching out onto the river. But with research came enlightenment. So many things about that period fit really well with what I was trying to do in the novel.
One of the themes of the novel is identity and how we figure out who we are and how we express that both privately and publicly and with our friends and with our coworkers and everything else and you know, that's an issue that we all continue to deal with today. But there were so many things that came up in my research that just sort of dropped in my lap that played straight into that theme that made me know that I was writing in the right time period.
So that, I mean, that's basically what the novel is about, about these four authors and the unexpected ways in which they're connected, both the three who know each other and then the fourth one who never meets those three and yet is ends up being, you know, really intimately connected with them.
And one thing that I found surprising when I was reading the novel and I'm sure lots of your readers have was that these books that I loved as well as a child, I was actually a Trixie Belden fan. It’s because of Trixie Belden that I became an author. I just loved her. But that these books were not actually, well, they were written by authors, but these authors were basically work for hires. They were guns for hire. They never got the royalties. So that's amazing. How did you find out about that?
I had been in the antiquarian book business in the 1980s, specializing in children's books. And so we sold lots of series books, not just The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, but Tom Swift, and The Rover Boys and The Radio Boys and The Motion Picture Girls.
At one point into the store came this book that purported to be the autobiography of the man who wrote the first twelve Hardy Boys books. And I was like, Oh, Franklin W. Dixon. But it wasn't Franklin W. Dixon. It was a guy named Leslie McFarland.
And through that book, and then further research, I found out how this whole thing worked. And a lot of these series were put together and published by a guy named Edward Stratemeyer. It's really one of the great success stories in American publishing. It amazed me that there really hadn't been very many or, to my knowledge, any novels written about this. But Stratemeyer would come up with an idea for a series and then he would write outlines for each book and then he would send those outlines to ghostwriters who would then create the book. As, as you said, work for hire.
The first Hardy Boys writer got about $125 a volume, which was for work for hire in the 1920s and thirties, that was good pay, but obviously if he got royalties on the Hardy Boys, it would have been a little better.
And then Stratemeyer would invent pseudonyms so that if he moved around the different ghostwriters, it would always be Franklin W. Dixon on the cover of The Hardy Boys. And in fact, a generation later when they started doing, you know, like they had the Tom Swift books were written by Victor Appleton and then a couple of generations later, they had Young Tom Swift or Tom Swift Junior or something and it was written by Victor Appleton, Jr. They played around with these names, but none of those people actually existed.
That was the one thing that I kind of knew before I started researching the novel that I thought, well, this could be an interesting plot point. It turns out that that, that doesn't become a really huge part of the novel because when I talk to groups of people and I say, well, how many people have read a Hardy Boys book or a Nancy Drew book, every single hand goes up. And then when I say, how many people know that those authors didn't exist, you know, maybe one or two hands go up and everybody else just has a pale look on their face.
Our heroes! I didn't know that. That was very, very interesting.
There's a great line in Escaping Dreamland that really jumped out at me. That every good story begins with a question. So what questions did you ask when you started working on the novel?
I think the first question was okay, if none of these writers existed, but the book was still written, who are these people? Who are these mystery people whose names you've never heard of who created these books that everybody knows? And so that, I think that was the initial question.
And then that, you know, that question turns into who could I make these people into? So, it wasn't so much about researching who was the real person who wrote the Hardy Boys or who was the real person who wrote Nancy Drew as asking a more imaginative question of in a world where famous books are written by people that we don't know, who might those people be? Who could I create to fill that void? So I think that was kind of the initial question that started the book.
Yes. I liked that whole idea though, about how novels do start with questions. You know, I’m just thinking of my own one I'm working on right now, what are some of the questions that I can be asking? I think that's good advice for authors.
I think that's true for whether you're the reader or the writer. I mean, the reader approaches every novel with nothing but questions. We read the first sentence and our question is what's going on? Who are these people? And the rest of the novel is sort of answering our questions as readers. So maybe leaving us with some new questions at the end.
Yes. So if you'd like to do a short reading from Escaping Dreamland, and maybe if you could set that up for us.
Sure. So one of the things that I did in Escaping Dreamland is I thought, well, if I'm going to have some fictional writers who were writing children's series books, then I need to invent the children's series books that they write. That was an interesting challenge because I didn't want them to be exactly like other series that already existed so it meant they couldn't be about baseball or football or an exploration, things that had been sort of covered by all these other children's series books.
So I did come up with three ideas for a series, one for each of my writers to write. And then the idea was they were going to work on this one series, The Tremendous Trio, that would bring their three characters together as sort of a crossover series.
So I got to write some bits and pieces of these books that my authors wrote in the style of a 1906 children's series of books. So the one I'm going to read you right now is the first chapter of the first Alice Gold book, Alice Gold: Girl Inventor.
Chapter One: Alice Saves the Day
Alice Gold stood on the curved surface of Bow Bridge in Central Park in her hometown of New York City. She knew that any minute her governess would come around the corner angry that Alice had slipped away, but Alice didn't care.
She had an idea for a new invention and she needed to watch the way the boats moved through the water beneath the bridge. She and her governess had been taking a walk down Fifth Avenue when Alice had run away while Miss Gander stopped to speak to a gentleman admirer on the street corner. By the time Miss Gander noticed Alice was missing, the twelve-year-old was halfway to the lake.
Alice loved nothing better than inventing. She read in magazines about the great inventor Thomas Edison and dreamed of one day having her own workshop as big and bustling as his. In the meantime, Alice had to satisfy herself by plying her trade as an inventor within the confines of the family mansion.
Alice had already invented several improvements to devices around the house, such as the coffee percolator and the flat iron. Although she had not been able to convince either the cook or the laundress to let her try out her ideas, so they remained only sketches on her worktable.
Today, she was working on an improved version of the house's flush toilets, which the upstairs maid insisted on calling water closets. She needed to understand how water flowed past a moving object and the best example she could think of nearby were the boats on the lake in Central Park.
Alice leaned over the edge of the rail with her toes just touching the bridge, watching one boat after another slipping beneath her. She became so lost in her thoughts that she almost didn't notice the cry from the bicyclist.
“Look out! Look out! I can't stop!”
Alice looked up to see a young man on a Roadster bicycle heading straight for her. The bicycle careened onto the bridge at a frightful speed. And the young driver, who appeared to have lost both his hat and his composure, steered it away from Alice just in time to prevent a collision.
At the far end of the bridge stood a group of young school children and Alice felt certain that many of them would be injured as the bicycle sped toward them.
“Turn to the left!” she shouted, seeing one way the rider could save the children and himself, if not his dignity.
“Now! Turn! Turn!”
The young man did as Alice instructed and just missed colliding with several of the children. The bicycle bumped down a short embankment and flung the rider into the lake where he landed with a splash.
As Alice dashed to the edge of the lake, she heard several boaters laughing. The young man stood in water up to his knees and was soaked to the skin but appeared unhurt.
“Thanks,” he said cheerfully to Alice.
“I thought you'd rather land in the water than on the footpath or on the stones,” said Alice.
“Righto!” said the bicyclist.
“You know, I can improve the brakes on that bicycle,” said Alice as the young man waded toward the shore.
The bicycle lay on its side one wheel still spinning.
“I built that bike myself,” said the young man, “But I guess I'm not very good at building brakes. What I need is a proper inventor.”
“I am an inventor,” said Alice, holding out her hand to help the young man as he reached the shore. “I’m Alice Gold.”
“Alice Gold! Come away from that water this instant,” came a shout from the bridge.
“My governess,” said Alice to the bicyclist. “If you want help with those brakes, my address is 922 Fifth Avenue.”
Alice scampered back up the hill to where Miss Gander stood, hands on her hips and a furious expression on her face.
“Just what do you think you’re doing, young lady?” said Miss Gander.
“Saving all those children and getting a new customer for my inventing business,” said Alice with a toss of her head as she walked past Miss Gander and back across the bridge. “Oh. And thinking about toilets,” she added.
Thank you so much. I just love that. That's fantastic. And I can see how you kind of got in the language of the period, you know, frightful and composure and things like that.
Yeah. It was fun to do that. You don't want to take that too far, but I've done that with some of the other writing. I mean, most notably in the Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge where I was sort of channeling Charles Dickens. Yeah. It is fun to do impressions if you will and that's sort of what that is.
Actually, it's a good exercise to do as a writer is to write in the style of, right? It's sometimes flows surprisingly well, when you do that, I've found whenever I've tried it. That's great fun. Thank you.
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Let's talk a little bit about The Lost Book of the Grail, which was actually the first of your novels I read. I was totally blown away. Like you, I've lived in England. I did my university training in England. I love England and I love cathedrals. The search for the lost book of the grail is intertwined with the fictional Barchester Cathedral. So what was the genesis of this novel? Obviously, you like cathedrals.
Well, I spent a lot of time in English cathedrals, from the first one I stepped into in January of 1980 till recently. We have a cottage in England so when there's not a pandemic, we spend a few weeks there every year.
But I’ve also wandered through lots of cathedrals and seen a door that said: “Library: Not Open to the Public.” And I started thinking, I wonder what's behind those doors. And then I thought, you know, The Bookman’s Tale has a university library. It’s sort of a central place where scenes take place. First Impressions has two country house libraries in two different centuries. What about cathedral libraries? That's a kind of library I hadn't written about, I didn't know much about, and I thought maybe there would be something there.
And that was, really the genesis of that book was the location before really anything else came about. And then, and then the next thing that I got was my main character, because I simply said to myself, what kind of person would hang around in a medieval cathedral library all the time? And that's sort of where Arthur Prescott, the protagonist of The Lost Book of the Grail, came from was by asking that question. So while sometimes it, you know, they proceeded in a different way. Sometimes you start with the character and this, this particular book started with the setting and then sort of expanded from there.
And then I didn't want it to be set in a real cathedral city. I didn't want it to be Salisbury or Canterbury or someplace where I would be sort of hemmed in by the actual history. I wanted to create my own history. I wanted my own history to ring true in the context of English history. The things that happened in my Barchester are very similar to things that happened in Salisbury or Canterbury or Winchester or Lincoln or Peterborough, but I was able to sort of shape them to fit my particular narrative.
But then I thought, it's really hard to make up the name of an English city. And why not just take Barchester because Anthony Trollope has already made it up, but he's only written about ten years of the history of Barchester in Barchester Towers and some of the other books.
So if I'm going to start in the 6th century, that that leaves me, like 1,490 years that I can make up. So once I had those pieces in place, then just working with my knowledge of medieval cathedrals. And I'll also say, I'd have to be cagey about this because I don't want to give anything away, but the answer to the central mystery of the book, and this is rare for me, I actually knew that when I started, I knew what the answer was going to be.
And it was something that had been in my head for a long, long time as this could be a cool idea to use in a novel sometimes. And I can't really say too much more about that but very often I began not knowing, not even knowing what the central mystery is, but this was weird because I didn't really know what the mystery was when I started, but I knew what the answer was. I knew what the solution was.
You sometimes start without knowing what the mystery is. I always wonder how people do that.
You know, it’s funny. I don't really think of myself as a mystery writer and yet I do think it's fair to say that there's some sort of level of mystery in all my books.
Really, I believe there's mystery in any good novel because mystery just means there's things you don't know yet that you want to know. While I don't set up to, like, you know, there's never Oh, there's a body on the floor, who did it, there usually is something that people are trying to figure out, a question that they're trying to answer that gets answered near the end of the book.
One of the things I've loved about The Lost Book of the Grail was Arthur Prescott. He's just delightful. He's such a throwback. He reminded me of my professors when I went to university in England. Where did you get the idea for Arthur Prescott?
I think as I created him, I came to him to, like, this idea of a character that the readers might not like him all that much at the beginning.
He’s such a Luddite!
He was called fusty by somebody. What a great word for Arthur. But by the end, they come to really like him. And I think a lot of times that's the way real human relationships work. When we just see the first layer of somebody, we may not react strongly to it. But as we peel back the layers and we get to know them in a deeper way, we often feel very close to that person and feel great affection for them. And I hope that's the way it is with readers and Arthur.
The other place that Arthur spends time is at the university where he teaches. And he is, as you said, a sort of a throwback. He fancies himself a sort of person who ought to be teaching at Oxford or Cambridge. And then he's teaching at this plate-glass university, you know, in this rinky-dink cathedral town.
He's constantly being told by the administration what to do and he hates it. And you know, this whole time I thought I was writing a kind of a medieval mystery about old cathedrals. And what I didn't realize is how much of my own father's academic life I was channeling into that side of Arthur. And I've had academics coming up to me and go, Oh, what Arthur said in that committee meeting, I've always dreamed of saying in a committee meeting, but I never had the courage to do it. Thank you for it. So apparently, it's also sort of a rallying cry for academics who are sick and tired of committee meetings.
Yes. I worked at a college for many years. I was a teacher and I think, Oh yeah, you nailed that. You got the whole committee meeting problems. And the other thing of course with Arthur is the whole digital book controversy, I guess.
Arthur meets sort of the other protagonist of the novel, this young American woman named Bethany who comes to town to digitize these medieval manuscripts in the library. Their first conversation together is a sort of more or less a battle over the idea of the digital world versus the print world or in Arthur's case, even the manuscript world, the world of physical books as we were talking about earlier.
And I've had a lot of readers will say to me, whose side were you on when you were writing that scene? And I said, well, I think one of the reasons that that scene rings true and that I was able to make it work is I can completely see both points of view. The Lost Book of the Grail—I could never have written that book if I could not have gone into a cathedral library and seen medieval manuscripts and held them in my hand and had that really strong physical relationship with books.
But I also couldn't have written it if I hadn't had access to digital archives and scanned materials and all these kinds of things. So, you know, to me, I feel that there is room for both worlds. I think they can enhance one another, but I also think when it comes right down to it, if you really want to preserve knowledge for future generations, there's no better way to do that than to print it in books and try to come up with a technology that preserves knowledge, not over 50 or 60 years, but over 500 or 600 or a thousand years, putting it in a small package that requires no power, that doesn't require any government or any university or any corporation to continue existing. And then it can be copied very inexpensively and dispersed over a very wide area so that if one city burns down, there's copies in another city.
I mean, you just can't beat that for storing knowledge. So even though I see certainly sees room for both, I'm always going to espouse the printed book as the ultimate way to do what it was intended to do to preserve text.
And I think it's a great reminder, your books, of the importance of real books. I think we're getting so digital nowadays, it's starting to get too over the top, you know, which everything is, screens, screens, screens, and that reminder that your novels have of the value of actual tactile books, I personally enjoyed that I lot.
We'll talk a little bit more about structure in a minute because I'm just fascinated by how you structure your novels. The thing that really struck me about The Lost Book of the Grail was how you use the physical structure of the cathedral and how it related to the plot. That must've been a lot of fun.
It was a lot of fun and it involved a lot of sort of puzzling out. The subtitle of the novel is A Visitor's Guide to Barchester Cathedral. So each chapter begins with a very short paragraph as if it were taken out of a guidebook to the cathedral about a different area in the cathedral. So there might be a paragraph about the nave or a paragraph about the high altar or something like that.
And then somehow that relates to what's going on in the chapter. So the chapters have the short paragraph at the beginning. Then there's a historical bit at the beginning of each chapter where we go back to the very early prehistory of the cathedral when the first Christians are in the area in the 5th or 6th century and work our way forward.
And then there's the main part of the chapter where we tell the story of Arthur and Bethany and what's going on. But that was a lot of fun just to structure that and to try to give the reader of tour of this cathedral, of this space, to let them really understand the details of its history, but also sort of try to feel their presence in the same way they would as if they were holding a guidebook in the hand and walking around the cathedral physically.
It was a nice combination of fiction and non-fiction the way you did that. I mean, I love cathedrals, as I mentioned earlier, and I love traveling and old things, so I found that particularly enjoyable, reading all about cathedrals.
So I want to talk a little bit about First Impressions. I love Jane Austen. Of course, what novelist doesn't? So why did you choose to write a novel in which Jane Austen is presented as a fictional character?
I took a long time to write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite The Bookman’s Tale and submit it and submit it and submit it. And then when it was finally bought, suddenly, they were like, yeah, we're going to want another one too. And this process I thought was, Oh, you have years to write a novel. Suddenly I was like, I gotta sit down and write, you know, number two, like, now.
That’s a bit frightening.
And Jane Austen reached out and saved me. You know, she, I'm not sure what I first thought about that, but my father taught English literature and his specialty was 18th century and he taught Jane Austen. And I think one of the things that made me want to write about Jane Austen is my own personal journey, which was that when I was in junior high school, maybe eighth grade or so, you know, I was doing well in my English classes and so I thought maybe I should be reading some books from that shelf over there that, like, the ninth graders read books from.
And I went over to that shelf and one of the books they had was Pride and Prejudice and I knew that my dad taught a class about Jane Austen and so I thought I will read this. And I read it and I don't know who Jane Austen's intended audience was for that book, but I doubt it was 12 and 13 year old boys in the 1970s. My impression after reading that as a preteen was that my dad was completely wasting his time teaching this soap opera.
And when I came back to Jane Austen again as an adult, probably in my thirties, and gave her another chance, I had a completely different reaction. And I thought it was hilarious. I thought it was just so insightful and, like, really fun, but also had really serious things to say about the human condition all at the same time.
And so I think that journey is one of the things that made me think that she would be an interesting person to write about because to write her as a fictional character, I read a little bit of biography, but not much. I really wanted the character that I was creating to arise not so much out of her biography, but out of her novels.
And so I read the novels very carefully with an idea of what sort of person in the 1790s would write these sorts of things. And that's, for me, that was where her character came from. And so the character that I portray is all those things I just said, really funny, you know, quick on her feet, very observant of the human condition, bold and brave and willing to do things that other people say that she can't do or that you shouldn't do to the extent of sometimes not even listening to advice from others.
And I don't really know if the real Jane Austen was all those things or not, but the character that I created was somebody that I enjoyed spending time with and I think I felt like worked in the context of that novel, a novel, that was about as much as anything, the creative process.
And then it was great fun to give her Richard Mansfield, a fictional friend who is a much older man, because I feel like the other thing that First Impressions is about is the idea of a relationship between a man and a woman that is at once deeply loving but completely non-romantic.
And Sophie, the 20th-century heroine, has that with her Uncle Bertram, and Jane Austen has that with this elderly clergyman that she befriends and who sort of helps her on her early journey as a writer.
And so I think that was something that I really enjoyed writing about too, that Jane gave me an opening to. Just in those first few sentences when she first sees Mr. Mansfield, you realize this is an opportunity to talk about something that, again, doesn't get talked about that much in fiction.
Usually in fiction, if there's a man and a woman and they love each other, there's sex or romance or something like that is part of it. I thought, let's just take all that completely out of the equation and explore a different kind of relationship.
And that was really interesting because you're right, we don't see that in literature that much, particularly between a young woman and an older man that is sort of an avuncular relationship.
One of the characters I loved, I think I liked almost the best, was Winston or Winston slash Wickham, I guess. He's such a rake and he's so upper-class British. I mean, I'm sure there's an element of satire there.
The modern story is not an exact retelling of any Jane Austen story although you do see elements of two suitors, one of whom seems unsuitable, and one of them who seems suitable, but it's the other way around. So we've got, you know, the Wickham/Darcy kind of idea. And there's a scene early on where Sophie's in a pub and Eric comes into the pub and has a reaction and an interaction that’s very similar to the one that Darcy has when he first meets Lizzie at the dance, you know, but it's not.
I didn't want to go into sort of an exact retelling of Pride and Prejudice. More what I wanted to do is show that Jane Austen, when she wrote about human nature, was so spot on that a lot of the things that she portrayed are things that you could still walk into a pub or into a bookshop and see happening in 2021.
Well, I think that's what I enjoyed so much about it, because, you know, as a Jane Austen fan, I could see a lot of the parallels that you were doing, but that you would just tweak them a little bit, but they weren't exactly the same, but it was fun to see that. And also to realize the universality of what Jane Austen was doing. It just, again, reminds you how great she was.
Yeah, it really does. And one of the things that's been really nice for me about that book is because I also didn't want you to have to know anything about Jane Austen to enjoy First Impressions. What was really great is that people have come to me and said, well, I'd never read any Jane Austen. Then I read your novel. And then I went and read Pride and Prejudice, and then I went and read Sense and Sensibility. So if I can lead some people back to Jane that's fantastic.
That's an incredible accomplishment to be able to do that. So, I'm sure you've been asked this before, but what's your favorite Jane Austen novel
You know, my favorite Jane Austen novel. I really like Sense and Sensibility. I think the opening to Sense and Sensibility is so funny. And a novel that can make you laugh out loud hysterically, and also make me cry. There are lots of things that I like about a lot of the novels, but I think that if I had to pick one, if I had to have a desert island Jane Austen novel, it would probably be Sense and Sensibility. And I think maybe it's also because of how much I love the Emma Thompson film.
It is a great film.
Not that I would ever teach a class on this, but if somebody said I had to teach a class about adapting a book to the screen and how to write a screenplay based on a book, that'd be the first thing I would go to. I just think it's such a brilliant example of how to capture the spirit of a book within the limitations of the cinema.
They really did. That probably is one of the best of the Jane Austen movies. There's been quite a few of them, for sure.
So I wanted to also talk about a little bit about process. The thing with your novels is they're so complicated, you know, your multiple points of view and the times so simple, like jigsaw puzzles and I love jigsaw puzzles, so I find it interesting.
How do you put all that together? Like, maybe you could share something about the process you go through to create your novels.
I mean, sometimes, sometimes it almost literally is a jigsaw puzzle. I mean, when we were editing The Bookman’s Tale, my editor said, I feel like the individual sections are too short and the reader needs to spend more time because The Bookman’s Tale is told in three different timeframes and she said, I feel like they need to spend more time in each time.
Well, that's easier said than done because the reader has to find out information in a certain order. And the things that are happening in the past have to sort of mesh in an interesting way with the things that are happening in the present. So I literally typed out a one-sentence description of every scene in the novel and clipped those out into little pieces of paper and laid them all out on a table and started playing around with what where they could go in so it became a literal jigsaw puzzle.
But my process generally is to just to write and not to worry too much about structure at the beginning. And sometimes it just flows naturally. Like First Impressions, we edited very little. It just, it just kind of fit together, I think maybe because I was coming off of something that was in three timeframes and this was only two timeframes, it felt easier to me. I don’t know, but it just seemed to work.
Escaping Dreamland we edited a lot. I mean, the first scene of Escaping Dreamland in the first draft is now like 20 or 30 pages into the book. The last sentence of Escaping Dreamland used to be 20 or 30 pages from the end of the book. So I played around a lot with that. And then once the structure starts to solidify, then you start to say, okay, how much help does my reader need?
What sort of signposts does my reader need to help them navigate whatever structure I've come up with? I don't want to condescend to a reader, but also don't want a reader to be lost and confused. So for instance, with The Bookman’s Tale, we just started each chapter with time and place. So it'll say London, 1592, or Oxfordshire, present day.
And then with Escaping Dreamland, I started to have a little more fun with that. For the present day, the chapter headings are things like New York City, Upper West Side, 2010. But then the next chapter is New York City in the days when the elite met at Delmonico's.
Yes, I saw that.
That was really fun coming up with those—New York City when George M. Cohan was a star. But that was really fun to sort of come up with something that sounded almost like it was coming from a novel of that period or from a newspaper article of that period, but that introduced the chapter in a way that would be meaningful by the time you got to the end of the chapter and be like, Oh yeah, okay. I see, I see what he was doing here.
Once you have the structure, then giving the readers the signpost and then maybe even taking the chance for the signposts themselves to be kind of fun and artistic and not just saying it's 1906 again.
When you're doing these multiple structured novels, do you write each of the story sort of through and then chop them up?
So yes and no. I mean, my tendency is just to sort of write what I feel like writing that day. I mean, I don't want to write like all of 1906 and then write all of 2010 because there need to be these, these parallel connections. And if I write all of one side, then I've eliminated a lot of possibilities that might've happened in the parallel structures.
And, you know, Robert has, who's investigating The Tremendous Trio, he has to find out things in a certain way and, like, how, how would that all work? So you have to know, for instance, the clues that he discovers, you have to then go back and plant in 1906, you have to have them being created in 1906 and then somehow some reasonable way of them to survive and pass along to 2010. So I tend to write sort of back and forth with the breaks may not be exactly where they end up being.
I tend to kind of write in chapters. I tend to get to a point where I feel like, okay, I've written what needs to happen there. And I've written a sentence that really feels like, to me, it has the punch of the end of a chapter or the end of the section. And so I'm going to start a new one.
Funny things about Escaping Dreamland, there was a sentence that was about 30 pages from the end of the book. I'm not sure it was even at the end of a chapter but might've been, and every time I got to that sentence, I just, I had like an emotional reaction to it. And I kept thinking, why is that? And finally, I realized the emotional reaction I was having was exactly the way I wanted my readers to feel when they close that book for the last time.
And that that needed to be the last sentence of the book. And so I stole it away from that chapter and I wrote the last two or three pages to lead up to that sentence. And it ended the book exactly the way I wanted to in the book. I don't know how anybody else feels, but when I read the end of the book, I have that same emotional reaction, except now I'm having it in the right place, which is that the end of the book, instead of at some random chapter, that's five chapters away from the end of the book, you know.
Books are not written, they're rewritten. Right?
Absolutely. And sometimes they tell you what to do.
Yes. A big part of writing is listening, isn't it, to your own stuff.
And you know, one of the things I I've started to do, which I've really enjoyed, I started this during lockdown. I had just finished the manuscript of a new novel. And at the beginning, we didn't know we were going to be doing this for a year plus and so we just thought, Oh, we've got to have three or four weeks of sitting at home, not doing much. And so I said to my wife, would you like me to read you this manuscript? It's like, great. That would be great. And it is so great to read your manuscript out loud and hear, hear the rhythm of it. You immediately hear what's wrong and what is ringing true.
And my wife is a great critic anyhow, and I would have given it to her to read anyhow, but she was able to react in the moment and say, now, wait a minute that doesn't ring true with what just happened a few pages ago or something like that.
And you know, she made some great suggestions and I've also, I have a middle grade book coming out next year and I read that to a group of middle graders. And then I did it again during lockdown, we read it over Zoom ‘cause I wildly rewritten it. And they are the best because they are totally honest. And they'll say, Oh no, no, Mr. Charlie, she can't do that because you said five chapters ago, but that magic spell will only work if you know, the water was green or something, you know. They remember everything. It's great. So yeah, it's been nice to have a way both in person and over Zoom to share work with, you know, with a small number of people, but to share it, not just to handle the manuscript, but to read it out loud that I find that tremendously helpful.
Yes, no kidding. That's something to remember to do more often. I know I don't do it enough because often when I'm going to do a reading, I pick out a piece and I read it and then I see things that I wish I'd seen back before I published it, right. Because things come out when you read it aloud that you didn't realize.
I'm so inspired. I'm really inspired by what you've done. It really is remarkable. The whole thing with Art In Fiction is I've managed to discover so many amazing new authors that I never even knew existed.
It’s great. I mean, I've had the same experience with my podcast Inside the Writer's Studio is that lots of authors who I probably never would've discovered, never would have read. As you know, when you're reading a book, knowing you're going to talk to the author, you read it with care and with respect. And, uh, that's been a great experience for me.
I wanted to talk about Inside the Writer's Studio. So you just mentioned it so we can chat about it.
Then very closely affiliated with an organization here in Winston-Salem, North Carolina called Bookmarks, which is a literary nonprofit, and started out just doing an annual book festival. And now we do events year round. Right now they're all virtual, but we hope to have a book festival in September.
And we have a nonprofit independent bookstore, which is our only independent bookstore here in Winston-Salem. It's right in downtown. And so when that store opened, I thought it would be fun to launch a podcast to kind of share what we do at Bookmarks, bringing authors and readers together to a wider group of people than just people here in North Carolina. So sometimes I'll interview writers live at the bookstore, which is the most fun. Obviously, the last year I've been interviewing authors just virtually, either on the phone or now pretty much everybody's using Zoom. So that works great.
We can at least see each other. And I post two new episodes every month. But what I really wanted to do was I'd have the experience as an author of a lot of very well-intentioned journalists who have a million things to do, coming to interview me and asking, you know, pretty much the same four or five questions that are mostly based on the press release because they're going to interview four more authors that day and they don't have time to read every single book and I completely understand that.
But I wanted to have a venue where we could go beyond those four questions where we could really talk more in depth, kind of like what you and I have been doing today, about process, about the issues that are raised by particular novels and talk sort of novelist to novelist. It's been a lot of fun.
I mean my favorite ones and, and I'm proud to say that it happens a lot, are the ones where we, when we get done, the person says, Oh, those are great questions. Nobody ever asked me something. I love asking somebody a question that they've never been asked before, because I love hearing questions that I've never heard before, because it makes you think. That's been a lot of fun and I've had incredibly well-established authors like Ian McEwen and Louise Penny and Henry Winkler and also debut novelists as well. So I like to have variety. I do some non-fiction, but it's mostly novels. And then, uh, you know, the occasional non-fiction. We had Erik Larson on last year talking about The Splendid and the Vile. He was the last person that we had in person at Bookmarks before the 13th of March last year.
So I'll end off with asking you, what are you working on now? What's next?
Next year is a busy year. Because of COVID some things have gotten delayed. So in theory, if all goes as currently planned, next spring, I will have a new academic biography of Lewis Carroll called Lewis Carroll Formed by Faith. It will be the first really in-depth study of his religious life, which was to him the most important element of his life. That'll be coming out from University of Virginia Press.
And then in the Fall of 2022, I will have a new novel currently titled The Enigma Effect which is a straight thriller. I'd never written a thriller before. Just a good old fashioned thriller. It's a novel about a small town librarian who teams up with a professional assassin to solve a 75-year-old Nazi mystery. So it's got World War II and it's got code breaking and it's got all kinds of fun stuff in it.
And then at the same time next, also next Fall I'll have the first book in a middle grade trilogy coming out—The Book of the Seven Spells. So in 2021 I'm sort of in the interim working on some projects, but 2022 will be a busy publishing year.
Thank you so much, Charlie, for chatting with me today, this has just been delightful.
Absolutely. It's been a great pleasure. Thanks.