Matthew Pearl has hit success with his very first novel The Dante Club. Pearl had received an award from The Dante Society of America prior to writing his debut novel, and has just co-edited a new edition of Longfellow’s influential, first American translation of Dante’s Divine Commedy. Though highly accomplished (he’s also a law graduate from Harvard), it’s a pleasure to see that the young author is courteous and enthusiastic when approached for an interview. We exchange a number of emails including clarifications – and so, without further ado, Mr Matthew Pearl talks to ThreeMonkeys:
You have a website dedicated to the book – unusual for an author. How involved with technology are you, and what opportunities does it give you as an author?
More and more authors have websites promoting their books. It’s a great opportunity both to give prospective readers an idea of the book, as well as give those who have read the book extra information about the background materials that inspired the book. On my site, we have “lost chapters,” or sections of the novel that were edited out before the final printing. Although I’m not particularly good with computers, I supervised the design of the site and the updates. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t merely an “ad” for the novel, but a mini-community of information and interaction.
Let’s talk about your novel. The characters in the Dante Club, are all remarkably well portrayed.Who, out of the protagonists in your book, do you identify with most?
Definitely Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. At times I’m frighteningly indecisive, and moreover afraid of decisions. So his need to build commitment to the Dante project traced my own unexpected decision to follow through with writing and finishing and publishing the novel. Appropriate that Holmes was also writing and finishing a novel in the period the story takes place. I probably wish I identified more with Lowell, the fiery activist and fighter.
You’ve chosen to portray a less than flattering portrayal of post-civil war America, uncovering some uncomfortable truths at the same time – Have you received any criticism for that?
think at this point in our collective sense of history nobody believes the American Civil War solved everything. A historical novel offers the chance to explore the small details of everyday life, rather than the broad strokes of history. I think readers and critics have enjoyed that.
You’ve written illuminatingly about Dante and the death penalty in the United States. As a law graduate, do you really think that a poem written by a medieval Italian has any relevance to the American justice system?
Thanks for the compliment. Dante’s vision of punishment has many parallels with our own. However, even a Dante fan like me has no illusions that our lawyers or judges are reading Dante in their court chambers for advice — and that’s probably a good thing! I believe strongly that if you invest yourself in literature it will always be relevant to your own era and issues. I think Dante pinpoints some of the frustration with any attempt to obtain justice. The American justice system, and perhaps most legal systems, prides itself on its ability to create justice, but we should occasionally remind ourselves even Dante’s “divine” justice is not always satisfying.