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Dante dandy
At 27, Cambridge author Matthew Pearl has a critically acclaimed first novel, The Dante Club, and a legion of new Dante fans to his credit

MATTHEW PEARL is growing accustomed to hearing people describe him as an overachiever. He doesnít necessarily agree with the characterization, but he understands it; after all, itís a rare breed who, while attending Harvard University as an undergraduate, writes a thesis on Dante Alighieri; adapts the thesis into a 367-page novel while a full-time student at Yale Law School; and goes on to sign a book deal with a major publishing house at the decidedly unripe age of 24.

The overachiever label may be up for debate, but no oneís arguing with the fact that Matthew Pearl is a bit of a phenomenon. His novel, The Dante Club (Random House) ó a fictionalization in which historical figures Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and J.T. Fields gather to translate Danteís The Divine Comedy, only to be faced with a series of murders in Boston and Cambridge that bear an uncanny resemblance to Hellís punishments in Danteís Inferno ó has received international praise, catapulting him into the literary limelight and leaving many readers and critics wondering just what the Cambridge resident will do next.

Q: So ó why Dante?

A: It was sort of by accident that I took a course on Dante; it was while I was at Harvard. I was an English major, and I had been focusing on T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and the modernist writers, and Dante of course figures very prominently in their writing, particularly T.S. Eliot, and always in really exciting ways. I think witnessing how a poet was using Dante in such inspired ways made me want to find Dante for myself, because I had never read Dante at all before. It just happened that Harvard had just brought in a new Dante professor ó I mean, thatís not exclusively what he teaches, but thereís sort of a tradition of calling the professors who teach Dante " Dante professors " ó Lino Pertile. And just right away there was just something about [Dante] that connected with me, and I just kept going.

Q: Tell me about the research involved in writing the book.

A: The first major engagement with The Dante Club I did was for my senior thesis at Harvard. The thesis was also called " The Dante Club, " so that was the first time where I was doing research that eventually would form a major part of the novel. But at that point I had no concept of the novel. I was sort of forced into this research, because what I wanted to do, after falling in love with Dante and starting to study Italian, I wanted to switch into the Romance-languages department, but I couldnít fulfill all the requirements because too much time had passed in college. So I was very disappointed, and I went to Lino Pertile, and I said, " Well, it looks like Iím not going to be able to do my thesis on Dante, " and he said, " Why donít you look at the first American scholars of Dante, and sort of find that intersection. " So I was kind of forced into that because I couldnít switch entirely to Dante. And I just found this wonderful story of these first American scholars. To fast-forward, when I sat down to write the novel, I thought I had this huge jump on the task because I had done so much scholarly work on it.

Q: But thatís a very different kind of work.

A: Exactly! When I sat down, I realized, I donít know what they ate for breakfast, I donít know what hat they wouldíve worn, I donít know how they wouldíve greeted each other when walking into one anotherís houses ... so it dawned on me, something thatís probably very obvious, that I needed to know the entire universe that they lived in, not just what we study as scholars, which is really just the text, the text, the text. And in fact, knowing too much about the writersí lives is sort of looked down upon in todayís academics. So the research involved literally everything: reading their work, their poems, their books, their novels, in some cases their journals, their letters to one another and to other people, their familiesí journals and letters, memoirs by other people who knew them or knew the world.

Q: You sat down to write this book while you were a law student at Yale. What made you think you could do it all?

A: It probably wasnít as deliberate as it sounds in a capsule biography. I mean, when I was at law school, I really missed literature, literature just for its own sake. I took some classes outside the law school on literature and found other ways to read, but I guess I was sort of groping for a way to fit into my schedule a more satisfying continued exploration of literature, and particularly of Dante, which I really hadnít gotten out of my system. I didnít sit down and say, " Iím going to write a novel and do law school " ; I really just started doing it for fun in the evenings and on weekends. The first thing I did was write a sample scene ó which in the end wasnít in it at all ó and said, " Wow, this looks pretty good. " Iím sure if I saw it now, Iíd think it was terrible. So it really just started for fun. At some point it had to become much more deliberate. You have to make decisions, unless you never sleep, and I like to sleep. So at one point I really decided that this was something I wanted to work on in a way that gives it the time and energy that I think it deserves, and so I designed my second summer of law school where I would work three days a week at a law firm, and then write the rest of the week. So that was the point where there was a decision and I had to maneuver things in a way that was unusual for a law student.

Q: And yet you didnít leave law school.

A: No, no. I ended up graduating law school. I mean, one footnote is that Yale Law School is an unorthodox law school; itís much more flexible, much more in your own control how you choose your courses and your time. So yes, I did end up continuing everything, but I had enough written by the beginning of my third year of law school, the last year of law school, that I could write letters to literary agents which, when researching, I found was the first step in publishing, and when I received positive responses and then signed with an agent, it gave me that extra motivation-slash-adrenaline to really just work all the time, and do my law work but also get this done.

Q: So what happens to your law degree now?

A: Well, the epilogue to all that is that I got my book deal a month before graduating law school, so even if I had wanted to practice law at that point, I really couldnít, because I had a lot of revising to do, and editing. But I donít plan on using my law degree in any traditional way.

Q: Did you at one point think you would?

A: Not in any completely traditional way. I thought I would do something in the legal world, but not the standard legal job, just because I donít think I wouldíve been very good at that. I wrote an article called " Dante and the Death Penalty " recently, for this magazine Legal Affairs, so itís sort of combining my study of legal thought with the literary examination. And in my next novel, the main character I think will have gone to law school, so it might help me in some strange ways.

Q: But your new book isnít going to be a John Grisham.

A: Oh, no. Itís not about the legal world at all; itís 19th century again. But some writers ó I just met Scott Turow, which was very exciting for me, and heís been practicing law his whole writing career, so some people definitely want to do both. But for me, for now, the writing is so much fun, and very time-consuming, particularly because itís so research-intense, that even if I wanted to, it wouldnít be practical to have something full-time right now.

Q: What would you say to people who think that they wouldnít enjoy the book if they havenít read Dante or donít have a particular interest in Dante?

A: That was actually a very real issue when I sat down to write, and when I sat down with Random House when I got my book deal, which was to make sure that no one would be alienated who didnít know Dante. And so it was something I worked on very carefully to make sure that, because itís a story about discovering literature and discovering the power of literature, that any reader could experience that, regardless of their prior knowledge or lack of prior knowledge of the literature. What I do like, however, or what I find rewarding, is that it gets people excited about Dante, or about Longfellow, or about the other literary figures that factor into the book. I guess thereís no specific way to measure that, but I get e-mails almost every day from people saying this made me want to read Dante, or re-read Dante, I havenít read it since high school and I donít really remember it, or I didnít like it when I read it in ninth grade but this has got me so excited, or what translation would you recommend, and asking questions about Dante. In fact, my Web site has a Dante forum on it, specifically for discussions and questions about Dante. So at the same time I wanted to make sure there are no prerequisites, I really am greatly satisfied by reactions of excitement for the literature.

Q: How would you say Dante is relevant today?

A: I think one way is that Dante sort of explores not just the nature of evil, but the nature of punishing evil, and thatís something thatís obviously very much in the forefront of our current national and international dialogue. And probably the most interesting thing that Dante embeds in his poem is that thereís a certain disappointment that comes with any attempt to punish great evil. My students are always very disappointed when they get to Satan, to Lucifer, at the end of Danteís Inferno, and most readers are very frustrated by it, because as opposed to Milton, where Lucifer is this sort of dashing, charming figure that you can hate, or you can love, or you can do something with, the Lucifer of Dante is a mute, dumb beast who is drooling, chewing, and crying, and thatís about it. Heís essentially an inanimate object. And itís very frustrating to people who want something more, and it sort of reminds me of the term that the writer Hannah Arendt used for the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel after the Holocaust, which was " the banality of evil. " In that case, you brought one of the masterminds of the Holocaust to justice, and heís just this nebbishy little guy with glasses who never said anything. He basically just seemed like a normal guy. I think thatís part of whatís so relevant about Dante, is the quest for justice that weíre always sort of challenging and exploring.

Q: Does it feel particularly fitting for you to be living in Boston now, because the book takes place here?

A: Oh, yeah, definitely. I wrote the first draft in New Haven, and then came here right after that and worked for several years on the revisions and editing. Iím literally blocks away from Longfellowís house, and from many of the sites in the book. Iíve lived in the book in my imagination for so long, itís great not only to be here, but the fact that this is a city, or two cities, Boston and Cambridge, that are so set on preserving their history. Particularly Cambridge; I mean, most of the Boston sites are gone in terms of the charactersí houses. But Cambridge, if you look at a map from the 1860s, which of course I did, you can really find your way to many places from that map.

Q: Did you ever expect the book would get this kind of attention?

A: No! Itís really beyond all my expectations. I still find it hard to believe that anyoneís reading it other than my family and people they forced to read it, but I guess they are. I have all these friends who tell me, " I saw someone reading your book on the beach! " or " I saw someone reading your book on the subway. " I havenít. I always look: is that it? Because itís just such a strange idea that there are people reading it and enjoying it. Like I said, I get e-mails all the time, and just such wonderful things about how much the book means to someone, or it made someone cry, and this and that. And I get e-mails from students doing book reports on it in high school, which is just the most insane thing to think about! Thatís probably my biggest surprise so far. Itís also being assigned in some high schools, some AP courses, and some college courses. Thatís just something that wouldíve never occurred to me.

Q: Do you worry at all about how your next book will be received, whether it will measure up?

A: Maybe I should, now that you mention it! I get a lot of people saying, " How are you going to top this? " Actually, Iím not yet worried about it. Itís far down the road. I think part of it is Iím really excited about my next novelís idea and premise and story line, and I think itís just going to be so much fun to write, and I think thatís a big part of how people receive a book. To me, I want to write things that I want to read, and I hope that that will mean there will be other people who have fun reading it as well.

Q: Can we get a sneak preview of the next book?

A: Not yet. Iím not quite ready to spill the beans, although when Iím ready, Iím first going to e-mail it to people whoíve signed up for my e-mail newsletter on my Web site. But itís another 19th-century thriller that uses literary history as a starting point. I will say itís different, and itís different in a way that Iím excited about, in that the primary characters are fictional characters reacting to an actual historical event, as opposed to this, which was historical characters reacting to a mostly fictional event. So Iím excited for that change. Because as fun as it is to work with historical personalities, there are obviously many restrictions that come with it, if youíre intending to be accurate and authentic, which I did.

Q: " Overachiever " is a word thatís been used a lot to describe you. Do you consider yourself an overachiever?

A: No, I donít at all. I think I consider myself indecisive, and there are just many things that I want to do, and I end up doing a couple of them. So itís not about the achieving; itís probably more motivated by not being sure what to work on next. But Iím really happy with how this has turned out, in terms of allowing me to write essentially full time; I mean, Iím teaching, and I do some volunteer work as well, but the writing is the priority, and Iím really comfortable and happy with that for now.

Q: Do you have time to read?

A: I always say, the irony of being a writer is that I have so little time to read. For one, so much of my work, my research, is reading. So if I spend several hours reading with research, and then I close the book and say, " Okay, Iím going to take a break, " itís hard to say the break is going to be reading. Also, reading novels is now like work, which is kind of a shame; you know, itís just natural: youíre analyzing how the writer is doing this or that, or how come they could do this so well. And also there are friends asking me to read their manuscripts, or authors who are about to have a book come out asking me to give a blurb quote. There are these new sources of requested reading. So the reading is definitely something that gets pushed to the side.

Q: Do you think youíll ever get tired of talking about Dante? Do you think youíll ever get Danted out?

A: Oh, yes. I think I am! People ask me if the next book has to do with Dante or if itís a sequel, but no, I think I need a break. I mean, Iíve been working on Dante consecutively for so many years that I think I need a break, and probably Dante needs a break from me. For now, Iím still happy to be talking about Dante and teaching Dante, which I am this semester, but Iím happy to be writing about very different things that have nothing to do with Dante.

Matthew Pearlís Web site can be found at Tamara Wieder can be reached at twieder[a]

A complete archive of our weekly Q&As
Issue Date: April 25 - May 1, 2003
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