Matthew Pearl at the gate to Poe's grave
"...The Poe Shadow is thick with intrigue and thicker still with carefully researched details... He doesn't just disinter Poe's story; he disinters the language of Poe's time." -- The New York Times Book Review
Matthew Pearl is the author of the international best sellers The Dante Club (Random House, 2003) and The Poe Shadow (Random House, 2006). Here Octavia Randolph asks him about his approach to historical fiction and the writing of The Poe Shadow.
Octavia: What is the purpose of historical fiction?
Matthew: I don't think there's any single purpose, just as with any category of fiction. One thing I'd point out -- I suppose it could be called a purpose -- would be to pressure the blank spots of history. Nonfiction can speculate, but fiction has more license to imagine. So much of history is lost. Far more than people usually acknowledge.
Octavia: Fiction about renowned literary figures carries with it an extra resonance, and perhaps a perceived responsibility due to the expectations of readers of that figure. Was Poe's voice ringing in your ears while writing The Poe Shadow?
Matthew: Well, yes and no. If I were writing a novel from Poe's perspective or -- gasp! -- "narrated" by Poe, that would be an extra burden. Because The Poe Shadow is narrated by a fictional figure, my allusions or links to Poe's writing can come and go as I please. Of course, it's narrated in a 19th century voice, which means it will have some natural overlap with Poe's writing. Certainly, though, people bring whatever preconceived notions they have about a figure -- Poe, Dante, or whoever -- to a historical novel that incorporates that figure.
Octavia: Poe has remained a subject of deep fascination over the years, both for his literary output and the turbulence of his short life. His name is well known to many who have read but a single poem of his. What initially captured your attention about his story - his work, or his life?
Matthew: Both. When I first read a few of his stories and poems as a high school student, Poe's life was integrated into the discussion. Most people who think about Poe think of the life and work very much intertwined. This may help explain the general resistance or indifference to Poe in academic circles for the last twenty or thirty years, as it hasn't been fashionable to worry about an author's biography.
Octavia: His character Dupin must have come alive for you in extraordinary detail.
Matthew: Absolutely. Dupin is key to understanding Poe. Not only because of his relationship to detective fiction, but because of his internal role with Poe's work. Think of it. Poe wrote about 80 short stories and Dupin is the only recurring character (in any real sense, leaving aside unnamed narrators, etc.). Clearly Poe saw something special in him, and I think there is. He gives very few details about Dupin's physical presence or background, so we have to use our imagination to really fill him out. Somehow this makes him a more exciting character. There have been Poe scholars who have declared Dupin a "paper thin" character and I couldn't agree more, but he may be a different type of character than we're used to.
Octavia: In The Philosophy of Composition (1846) Poe writes "The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world." What insights about Poe's creative processes did you gain during the course of your work on the book?
Matthew: One thing I picked up about Poe is we're never quite sure when he's being sincere. You bring up The Philosophy of Composition which is a great example. People have tended to picture Poe writing it with a straight face, but really it's not clear he was completely serious. The death of a beautiful woman, we can be sure, he means it because he obviously does see so much poetry in that (more poetry than he seems to find in the actual personalities or characters of women). On the other hand, when he explains how he wrote The Raven it's very, very hard to believe he's being straight with us. I suppose this is something that I've picked up -- we tend to read Poe a little too literally, and miss the big surprise about his work: his humor.
Octavia: Historian Barbara Tuchman wrote "Research is endlessly seductive". The desire to immerse ourselves in an era or a personality so that we can presume to approach the topic with authority can become an end in itself. How do you reach your own internal balance point - that moment when you "know enough" and can forge ahead with the actual writing?
Matthew: I haven't yet reached that balance point, and never feel research is ever "enough." Technically, it is never enough, it is endless. You do reach a point where you accept there's nothing more to do, but that usually only comes after the work is actually published! My perspective so far is that stopping research is an artificial part of the process, and makes you feel out of balance -- the research is so much less artificial.
Octavia: In an era like our own in which the teaching of history is spottier than ever, it is interesting and more than a little frightening that historical fiction serves as a way that history is understood. And certain works of historical fiction have been defining: If you want to tell a story of the American South set during and after the Civil War, Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind has preceded you, along with Alice Randell's parody (and self-named "antidote") The Wind Done Gone. Certain perceptions are created - even if it's "We don't need another novel about that subject." How did you work with what people think they know about Poe, and what you wished to illuminate about him and his times?
Matthew: That's a tough question, because any subject -- whether Poe or the Civil War -- will come with an infinite amount of perceptions on the part of any given audience. I see my job as trying to be true to the history, as I see it and know it, rather than true to any preconceived perceptions, much of which might be completely wrong. I think of Hollywood as an example of cultural "historians" that tend to do the latter. Elliott Ness, for instance, mostly did paperwork in his attempts to get Al Capone. But boy would the audience be unhappy if you remade Untouchables that way. I hope historical novelists can serve as a counterpoint to that appeasement.
Thank you Matthew, and many congratulations on another extraordinary work. Please visit Matthew Pearl's website for details about both The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow.
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