As the U.S. release date for his vast, richly imagined, Dickensian novel Death and Mr. Pickwick nears, Stephen Jarvis was generous enough to answer our questions about his debut. After twelve years of work on his tale of skulduggery he deserves a break, but we couldn’t help ourselves!
Who would you say is your ideal reader?
Well, Death and Mr Pickwick is really a brew of three things. Firstly, it is a story of colossal global success—because The Pickwick Papers was the greatest literary phenomenon in history, with a circulation that was exceeded probably only by the Bible. Secondly, in the figure of Robert Seymour, it embodies the “tragic genius” motif, which is beloved by Hollywood. And thirdly, there is a conspiracy angle, with Dickens’s attempts to cover up the true origins of his first novel. So if you are fascinated by huge success, tragic genius, and skulduggery by famous people, then you are probably my ideal reader.
What is the question you are asked most frequently about your writing?
“How much of your historical novel is true, and how much is made up?” The answer is that it is grounded in fact throughout, but there are some historical events about which nothing is known, and so only fiction can fill the gap. A good example is the fateful meeting between Dickens and Seymour, shortly before the latter’s suicide. Nothing is known about what happened at the meeting—it IS known, though, that Seymour returned home afterwards in a state of extreme emotional distress, and he burnt all his papers and correspondence connected to the Pickwick project. So I had to completely invent the specifics of the meeting, subject to the constraint that Seymour had to be reduced to that extreme emotional state at the end of it.
Is there a book you return to over and over again?
Well, the obvious answer is The Pickwick Papers! But, that book aside, I would choose not a novel, but the short story by Borges, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” I have read it a number of times, and there is something fascinating about its central idea of creating an entire world. However, it took twelve years to write Death and Mr Pickwick, and during that time everything I read was related to The Pickwick Papers, in one way or another. So I need to refresh my memory of Borges’s story, and read it again. Perhaps I will no longer like it!
What book would you consider an ancestor of Death and Mr. Pickwick?
The obvious answer again is The Pickwick Papers! Death and Mr Pickwick parallels The Pickwick Papers in numerous ways—in its meandering narrative, in its huge cast of characters, and in its inset stories.
If you could say anything to your book’s protagonist, what would it be?
That’s a real toughie, because the thing you naturally want to say to a person who is about to commit suicide, like Robert Seymour, is “Don’t do it!” But then, of course, I wouldn’t have a book at all.
What’s one book you’ve tried to finish but couldn’t?
I’m afraid I didn’t like Proust. It had sat upon my bookshelves for years, and I had made several attempts to get through it, but I always gave up after about a hundred and fifty pages. When I finished Death and Mr Pickwick, I was absolutely determined to give it one more try, and finish it. And, strictly speaking, I did so. But in reality, I just ran my eyes down every page, without taking any of it in.
Stephen Jarvis was born in Essex, England. Following graduate studies at Oxford University, he quickly tired of his office job and began doing unusual things every weekend and writing about them for The Daily Telegraph. These activities included learning the flying trapeze, walking on red-hot coals, getting hypnotized to revisit past lives, and entering the British Snuff-Taking Championship. Death and Mr. Pickwick is his first novel. He lives in Berkshire, England.
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