Thursday, October 15, 2009

Animals and Writing: A Guest Post by Matthew Pearl

A lover of the classics and thrillers, I jumped at the opportunity to host author Matthew Pearl here at Musings of a Bookish Kitty. I could not resist a novel set in the nineteenth century involving Charles Dickens, the publishing world at that time and his last writing project. Please join me in welcoming author Matthew Pearl!

Be sure to stop by tomorrow for my review of The Last Dickens and for a chance to enter a giveaway for a trade paperback copy of this great book!

I tend to write about literary history and the nineteenth century, stirred up together inside the format of thrillers. Whenever I have the chance, I also like to include scenes involving my characters interacting with animals, even if it's just a moment or two.

In light of Literary Feline's name and theme, I thought I'd ruminate on why. I think I have creative and personal reasons. Creatively speaking, the way a character interacts with animals is a good window into that character's psyche, and one that creates variations on the other ways we observe a character. More on that in a second, in relation to my new novel, The Last Dickens. From a personal perspective, animals are an important part of my own life, and when it fits organically writing about animals is a chance I relish.

The Last Dickens is what I'd call a dual narrative, switching between a period right after Dickens has died and has left an incomplete mystery manuscript that launches a quest for his young American publisher, and a period when Dickens was touring America a few years before his death. The two narratives gradually tie together. As much as possible, I draw on my research into Dickens's actual time in the United States, as he went from city to city giving readings before huge crowds.

At one point Dickens and his entourage were in upstate New York (yes, Dickens had an entourage on tour and a pretty big one, including a full time employee who was what we'd call a stylist!). There had been massive snowstorms and, after several days of warmer weather and melting, severe floods. The Dickens party had to go by boat to Albany and on the way they passed a stranded train car filled with livestock. Dickens ordered his companions to help him rescue the animals, who would have otherwise perished.

Here was a good example, in my eyes, of the way a scene involving animals can help shape a character. Charles Dickens could be a very difficult person and rather demanding. I wanted to show this in my novel, particularly as Dickens struggles with competing desires for privacy and for fame (and money). He was harried and in declining health. This touching moment, away from his public, helps humanize a larger-than-life character.

I'd suggest that writing and fiction have a natural match with animals. Animals, of course, lack their own voices (which isn't to say they can't communicate in different ways and to different degrees). Fiction writers have from time to time entered the minds of animals. Anna Sewell's Black Beauty, narrated by a horse, is groundbreaking and far more sophisticated than many might realize or recall. The life of an animal has also been commonly used to structure a story about a particular person, group or culture. Virginia Woolf wrote Flush, a biography of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning's cocker spaniel. Besides their frequent use in children's books, animals can also be used as stand-in or allegorical characters, with Orwell's Animal Farm as a famous and influential example. The substitution of animals for humans in a world that resembles our own distances us from the subject and conditions us to read the story differently.

In my personal life, I actually do write for animals—not for publication but as a volunteer at my local animal shelter, where I write cat biographies in first person, er, first cat, to be displayed on their cages and online. It gives us a way to encourage empathy with animals who are often too terrified or traumatized in their cages to be outwardly friendly or affectionate. The text can bridge an empathy gap between animal and person. I would never allow my interest in animals or animal welfare to intrude unnaturally into one of my books. I do hope to find more venues in the future for writing about animals, since it's something I enjoy so much. In the last year or so, I was able to add my voice in opposition to greyhound racing in an op-ed and I contributed a short story to a new collection of Sherlock Holmes stories in which I have the detective cross paths with the founder of the first modern animal shelter in America (the Animal Rescue League of Boston, where I volunteer).

I encounter many writers who have a deep interest in animals. Coincidence or not? I sometimes think of trying to start an organization—something like Writers for Animals, but maybe with a catchier name.

What are some animal-focused fiction or narrative moments that stick out in your mind?

* * *
Matthew Pearl is the author of The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow, and The Last Dickens. For more information about the author and his books visit his website.

Photo of the beautiful cat, Wendell, provided by author Matthew Pearl; Wendell was named after Oliver Wendell Holmes who was a character in The Dante Club and makes a brief appearance in The Last Dickens.

TLC Tour stops for a list of Matthew Pearl's tour stops!

Many thanks to Matthew Pearl for taking the time to stop in and visit!


  1. If Matthew Pearl wrote biographies at my animal shelter, I'd have 15 cats in my house instead of 5! What an enjoyable post! Anyone who sees the merit in building animals into a story (even one about Dickens!) has already earned a spot on my favorites list.

  2. I have 2 of his books on my nightstand ready to read: The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow -- and I am most excited to obtain The Last Dickens. I love his comment that a character's interaction with animals reveals a lot about his personality.

    And....what a wonderful volunteer activity! Talk about using your talents for a good cause!

    Great post :)

  3. What an interesting perspective! I've certainly noticed animal interaction in films as a shortcut to a person's character, but it's much less noticeable in books. (Or maybe I just don't notice because I think books and pets go so naturally together.)

    My current favourite animal fiction is Firmin, by Sam Savage, narrated by a literate rat living in a bookstore.

  4. What an awesome post! I really love that Matthew creates biographies for all those kitties at the shelter, and I agree with the above poster, if he was writing for my animal shelter, my house might be a lot more crowded. I think the way he uses animals in his books to illustrate a bit of insider information about his characters is really interesting, and when I am reading his other books I will be on the lookout for it. I did really like the animal rescue scene in The Last Dickens, and thought it was one of the most touching scenes in the book. Great post! I am learning so many interesting things about Matthew and his books as I follow these tour stops!

  5. wonderful guest post! I'm glad that a few stops (two that I've read have actually allowed Matthew to write guest posts). Wonderful that he writes for a local shelter and the op-ed piece agst greyhound racing, which we voted against in Mass.

    Cats and books do go so well together.

  6. I just love Matthew Pearl!

    Long ago I read Watchers by Dean Koontz and anyone that is familiar with his work knows how he feels about Golden Retrievers. He volunteers as a local Golden rescue and he has book out now about his beloved dog Trixie. Anyway, when I read Watchers, I felt connected to the dog in a way that I had not experienced before.

    More recently I read The Art of Racing in the Rain and it's told from the dog's point of view. I was very affected by that because I am totally a cat person and not really that into dogs.

    I was just thinking that Dante or Poe would make a nice name for a dog or cat. See how my mind works?

  7. I am a Matthew Pearl fan after reading this! I agree that you can tell a lot about a person from the way they treat animals. An animal focused work of fiction that sticks out in my mind is Charlotte's Web.

  8. I've always enjoyed Matthew Pearl's books but now knowing about his cat "biographies" I'm going to make sure to buy my own copies and not occasionally use the library's.

  9. Cat biographies? How great is that! Really enjoyed this guest post. Looking forward to your review of his latest book!

  10. Great post. I love that Pearl actually tries to figure out where he can insert an animal into the story.

  11. What first comes to mind are books I've read recently including Clea Simon's Shades of Grey that featured the spirit of a cat. Clea often touches on serious issues surrounding cats in her Theda Krakow series, although I think many of the lessons there could apply to dogs as well. I also thought of the beautiful angel of a dog in Angel's Advocate.

    I really liked the scene in The Last Dickens, where Charles Dickens insists on saving the livestock--it was a defining moment.

    Thank you to everyone for dropping in and commenting! And many thanks to Matthew Pearl for being my guest today.

    I hadn't known about Matthew's love for animals before meeting him through this book tour. I think what he has done and continues to do for animals is admirable.

  12. I do prefer stories with animals in them (even better if they're main characters)! What a great guest post and I enjoyed that little tidbit about Dickens rescuing those animals.

    I'm sure I'll remember some animal fiction in about an hour or so lol, but nothing comes to mind as of now.

  13. What a wonderful man! I think I am in love (don't tell my husband!)I am so tired and was about to go to bed & then thought let me just read Matthew Pear's post. I'll read anything he writes knowing he donates time to his animal shelter and writes cat biographies - whic makes me wonder if there is a high turnover rate of cats at the animal shelter because I'd expect his biographies would cat the cats adopted!
    Hiw thought about writing about people interacting with animals is so on point, in my opinion, I have always believed that you can tell so much about a person by how they treat animals.

    Thank you for hosting Matthew Pearl, Wendy!

  14. Wonderful guest post! I am very anxious to read The Poe Shadow in addition to his newest one that you reviewed.

  15. It is so cool that he writes the bios for the shelter cats! Very appropriate for your blog, Wendy :)

  16. This is a great guest post and I love that he writes those bios for cats at the shelter. I love books narrated by animals, and I really enjoyed Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain most recently.

  17. Thank you all for taking the time to visit and to those of you who have left comments! I think what Matthew Pearl has done to help animals is wonderful. If I didn't already want to read all his books, I would now. :-)


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