This month’s State of the Thing, LibraryThing’s monthly newsletter of features, author interviews and various forms of bookish delight, should have made its way to your inbox by now. You can also read it online. It includes author interviews with Francine Mathews and Russell A. Potter.
You’ve previously written, as Stephanie Barron, a series of books featuring Jane Austen as a private detective. In Jack 1939, you turn instead to a young John Kennedy. Do you recall what first gave you the idea of using Kennedy as your protagonist?
Oddly enough, it was a glimpse of a photograph from the summer of 1937, when Jack was twenty years old and traveling with his best friend through Europe. He was standing on a street in Germany—possibly Nuremberg, possibly Cologne—wearing mismatched clothes he clearly hadn’t changed in days: baggy flannels, a T-shirt, a crumpled check jacket with sagging pockets. His hair was a mess, and he was thin as a rail, all cheekbones and chin, but his mouth was wide open in raucous laughter, and he was juggling for the camera. He looked like some crazed street busker—carefree, joyous, young. And I thought, My God, he was just a kid once. I wanted to know who that kid was.
When I realized he’d taken off half his junior year to travel alone through Europe just as Hitler was about to invade Poland, I had to use it.
What benefits do you see in deploying historical characters as fictional detectives/secret agents? On the flip side, are there disadvantages to this?
Most of my books are about people who actually lived—not just Jane Austen, but Allen Dulles and Virginia Woolf and Queen Victoria. As a writer, I’m caught by the “what if” moments in the known record. The gaps. The blank weeks in a well-documented life. For me, they’re tantalizing opportunities. I can fill those gaps with fiction and create an alternative reality. As a guide, I’ve got a famous person who’s already intriguing—readers are willing to follow Jane Austen or Queen Victoria or Jack Kennedy anywhere they choose to go.
The drawback as a writer, of course, is that the historical record has its limits. Virginia Woolf went for a walk on March 28, 1941, and her body was found twenty days later. I suggest in The White Garden that she was alive for most of that time. But her body was pulled from the river in the end, and the fictional story was forced to address that.
Where did you get the idea for PYG? Can you tell us a bit about the historical precedents for Toby?
I first read about the “Learned pig”—an act in which the animal spelled out answers to audience questions using pasteboard cards—many years ago in the pages of Richard Altick’s magisterial volume The Shows of London. Some time later, perusing Ricky Jay’s delightful compendium of curiosities, Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, I was surprised to discover how many such pigs there had been in the 1780s, with several living claimants vying for attention with automaton versions of the same act. Jay also mentioned that the proprietor of one of these pigs had gone so far as to issue an “autobiography” of Toby—for so all pigs seemed to be named—which gave a punning account of his “life and opinions.” It occurred to me then that, should there be a pig who had learned not only his letters, but gained through them the ability to express his own feelings, how much richer and more varied a tale might be told from his viewpoint as an animal exhibited as a “Freak of Nature,” and so PYG was born.
The book is beautifully designed; what was the process like for choosing the images, font and other elements of the text?
I love the design as well, though in part it was simply the result of a series of fortuitous accidents. I’d always conceived of it as a book which would emulate in its form the conventions of a late-18th century novel, and when the designer at Canongate suggested Caslon Antique I was delighted. Originally, I’d wanted to use the same woodcut of a learned pig that appeared in Ricky Jay’s book, but since that volume was about to be republished, Jay asked us to not to copy that design. I set out to locate an image from the period, and in the wonderful Osborn collection of early children’s books at the Toronto Public Library, I found the Darton volume with the image of a learned pig. I’d already given all the chapters three-letter names, so it seemed natural to use this image and have the titles spelled out with the cards—I made a rough mockup in Photoshop and sent it to the designer, who did the rest.
What’s your own library like today? What sorts of books would we find on your shelves?
Most of my collection is online at LibraryThing (here), so interested parties can have a virtual “browse” of my shelves any time they like. I have a few books from each century—including a little duodecimo edition of Johnson’s Rasselas just that the one Toby has in the novel—and collect mainly literary fiction by my favorite authors, particularly Ursula K. LeGuin and Steven Millhauser. In my non-fiction incarnation, I’ve worked extensively on the history of Arctic exploration, and so that makes up the biggest single section of my collection. Among my most prized volumes is an 1820 edition of Sir William Edward Parry’s account of his first Arctic expedition, printed in Philadelphia by Abraham Small, one of the earliest US editions of a work of polar exploration.
Catch up on previous State of the Thing newsletters.