Matthew Pearl’s Appearance at Collin College

Last Wednesday night, October 14th, I went to hear Matthew Pearl speak at Collin College’s Book-in-Common presentation in Plano, Texas. The book chosen for 2009 was Pearl’s The Poe Shadow (see previous post). Never having been to this campus located only 5 minutes from my house, I found the auditorium by following the crowd entering one of the buildings. I was impressed with the number of students filing into the auditorium and was afraid I would be near the back of the room. Since I was by myself, I boldly walked to the front of the room and found a seat on the second row. One of the college’s adjunct professors happened to sit next to me and was as excited as I was to get to hear Mr. Pearl speak. The auditorium became so crowded that two partitions on both sides of the room were opened to the overflow crowd.
After a few introductions by the college president and others, Mr. Pearl took the stage and began his talk. Matthew Pearl has a very amiable personality and is an interesting speaker. He began by reminding the audience that this was the bicentennial of Edgar Allan Poe’s birth and the anniversary of Poe’s death had just passed a week earlier. The first two stories that Mr. Pearl had ever read of Poe’s were “The Black Cat” and “The Purloined Letter,” which both repelled him and intrigued him. Apparently, Poe loved cats and had his own. Mr. Pearl had the copy of his own first Poe collection that was tattered and missing the cover. He talked about how he was challenged to start writing because one of his classes in law school. This particular class was a legal writing class and at the beginning the professor said that when they finished that class they would never write creatively again. Pearl took it as a challenge.
Mr. Pearl acted on this challenge by first writing a test chapter (which turned into his first novel, The Dante Club). Doing this gave him some confidence in his abilities and then he wrote more and started investigating how to get his work published. By the time he was writing his second novel, The Poe Shadow, he was more aware of his decision making regarding his writing. These two novels were not written quickly. The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow took 3 ½ and 3 years, respectively, to complete. Mr. Pearl was adamant that you have to find a topic you really love so much to write about, so much so that you still like it when you most hate it!
Mr. Pearl was motivated to write about Poe because of his mysterious death. Of course, one of the things you hear about Poe was that he was “drunk in the gutter” right before his death. Mr. Pearl was intrigued by this literary history and the puzzle of Poe’s death. Doing research on Poe was not so easy because Poe himself constantly lied about his life when he was alive. Mr. Pearl had to sift through Poe’s lies such as that he had lived in Paris and that he held a swimming record to find what was true and what was not to be as accurate as possible. Poe also claimed to have served in the Polish army.
Some interesting Poe tidbits as given by Mr. Pearl during his talk:
• Pearl named the book The Poe Shadow because Poe is “over” all the characters and the story, but he is not present in the book as a character.
• Poe was striving for a normal life before he died—he was going to be married again and was going to stop drinking (Poe reacted very badly to small amounts of alcohol, leading some to believe he was an alcoholic).
• At the time, Poe’s writing was considered grotesque, dangerous, and unreligious.
• Poe’s writing has a timeless quality (it is not fixed to a moral point in history).
• Many intellectuals such as E.L. Doctorow do not have high regard for Poe’s work.
• Poe wrote one novel, but mainly wrote short stories and poems because at the time writers were paid in copies of their novels, but short stories and poems paid cash.
• Poe’s writing was popular in France before it was popular in the U.S.
During his discussion, Mr. Pearl showed some international covers of The Poe Shadow and these can be found on his Facebook page.
After he was finished with his presentation, Mr. Pearl answered a great number of questions submitted via index cards that audience members formulated. A few of these were:
How do you organize your ideas when writing a novel?
Mr. Pearl stated that he files everything he researches in documents that he stores and accesses on his computer. For example, he has separate documents for each city he researches and for each character.
What are some tips for getting a novel published?
Even though this is a very general question, Mr. Pearl stressed 3 important points: 1) find a literary agent (kind of like a real estate agent), 2) your query letter just to convince an agent to look at your manuscript is of utmost importance, and 3) write about something you are passionate about.
What is your process of choosing names for your characters?
Mr. Pearl keeps extensive lists of names from his research in a particular time period that he can refer to when needed. Some names are from history and just “fall into his lap.” Lastly, some names are tributes to friends such as the main character’s name in The Poe Shadow, Quentin.
The last question was about what Mr. Pearl believed to be the cause of Poe’s death. Matthew Pearl is the first to point out the theory that Poe perhaps died of a brain tumor. But, of course, Poe’s death will forever remain a mystery.

Mr. Pearl will be lecturing and signing again tomorrow night, October 20th, in Irving, Texas for an Irving Public Library event. Details can be found on his website.
Mr. Pearl’s latest novel is The Last Dickens, another intriguing historical fiction and mystery.
I am so happy to have invested a few hours time to hear Matthew Pearl speak on Edgar Allan Poe.

  2 comments for “Matthew Pearl’s Appearance at Collin College

  1. October 21, 2009 at 10:17 PM

    What a super report, on both topics of writing and Edgar Allan Poe. And good for you for going to a new place all by yourself — so many times I talk myself out of doing that very thing and I know I’m missing out on a good adventure. Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. October 22, 2009 at 2:29 AM

    Cathy, Sometimes I don’t like going to events by myself, but book signings and author talks I really do! I usually talk to the people around me and meet some interesting people (like the adjunct prof)! I just went to another signing and interview last night and will try to post about it soon! Thanks for the support!

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