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Matthew Pearl: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Matthew Pearl is the bestselling author of The Dante Club The Poe Shadow and The Last Dickens. His latest novel, The Technologists, was released in February 2012 by Random House.

Which part of The Technologists came to you first?

The first scene I envisioned was one that appears early in the novel, when a group of the original MIT students are bullied by a Harvard crew team as both groups row the Charles River. It's still an important scene for me when I think about the book and especially the main character. The early MIT students were ultimate underdogs and this moment captures that, plus introduces the Boston backdrop.

Your previous books have put major literary characters at the center of the action; what made you decide to use college students this time around?

For many if not most people, college is a formative and unique experience in their lives. Different from any time before or after. "The best four years of your life"? Maybe, though probably not. But certainly among the most interesting. I really loved releasing my characters into that context.

Did you find it easier to write using fictional protagonists rather than historical characters?

The Technologists has a mix of fictional and historical characters. The central protagonist, Marcus Mansfield, is fictional, though based on my research into many of the original MIT students. It's hard to say what ends up making writing "easier," at least for me, because the long process of writing the novel inevitably complicates every task. Still, I can't deny there's a liberating quality when working with fictional characters after spending time on historical figures with more established profiles!

For those who find themselves intrigued by the early years of MIT and the rivalry with Harvard, is there a good historical account you can recommend?

As a matter of fact, there is not a particular historical account about this element of the colleges' history that comes to mind. It's all out there, but scattered in other material. When I started my research, one of the very first things that struck me was that the rivalry between MIT and Harvard began almost immediately at MIT's founding in the 1860s. Even back then, Harvard was the old guard and on so many levels MIT represented a threat, albeit a small one unlikely to survive. The students, not surprisingly, developed animosity toward each other, but so did many of the professors! MIT's founder, William Barton Rogers, was rejected for a job by Harvard's professor of science, Louis Agassiz. It all started there.

More generally, tell us about your research process for this book: what did you learn that surprised you? What sources were particularly useful?

There are two main secondary texts on early MIT, one called Mind and Hand and an earlier one called When MIT was Boston Tech. But one of the the surprises for me was that there has been overall little focus on the very early MIT history. Especially relative to how interesting that history is! I don't mean to imply that there aren't MIT affiliates and scholars interested in its history, as there certainly are, and the recent 150th anniversary of the founding was celebrated on the campus. Still, I didn't get a sense of the historical attention being built into the culture. My guess is that the inherent future-thinking of MIT factors into this, as does the fact that the buildings from the 19th century are all gone. I've been happy to see some excellent recent books that take on MIT history after a long drought, including William Barton Rogers and the Idea of MIT by A. J. Angulo and a new book of essays edited by Professor David Kaiser, called Becoming MIT.

Describe your writing process for us: when do you do your writing, and how (longhand, computer, &c.)?

I write on my laptop, which I replace whenever the warranty runs out (I'm into the fourth year on my current one, which at this point has a broken six key and dash). Ideally, I'd have a four hour block of productive work every day, though that doesn't always happen, and during intense phases my work blocks can be much longer. This isn't necessarily all writing, it can be outlining, research, editing, etc. More and more, I work outside my house, in cafes, libraries and now a part time office share that I'm trying out.

What's your favorite part of the writing process? Your least favorite?

My favorite part is definitely the beginning of the idea stage, when everything is free floating and could go in so many directions, before you start pinning it all down. Probably my least favorite part usually comes on the other end, the final stage of completing a project. At that point I'm too bleary eyed to be as confident in my own judgment on the book.

Which of your (now four) novels are you the happiest with? Why?

I'm terrible at making decisions so that would be a tough one for me to answer! Honestly, I've found you're in such a different place writing each book that they simply occupy different parts of your inner creative portfolio. The goal I set for myself is no more or less than to be proud of each book, to feel you've done your best with it, and I've been able to do that. My guess is it's more natural for readers to pick favorites than for writers.

What books have you enjoyed recently? What are you reading now?

At the moment, my pleasure reading is a nonfiction account of the shootout at the O.K. corral called The Last Gunfight, by Jeff Guinn, which I'm greatly enjoying. I'll probably pick up his earlier book on Bonnie and Clyde. I loved Lyndsay Faye's upcoming novel on the early New York police, The Gods of Gotham.

Have you embarked on a new project yet? If so, can you tell us a bit about it?

Thanks for the interest, and for that matter for all the great questions! My fifth novel will circle back to literary history, though with a different type of story, setting and protagonist than I've had before. More to come on that!

—interview by Jeremy Dibbell

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