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?
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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.
Visit 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!