Interview with Matthew Pearl

February, 2012
Matthew Pearl In his first three novels, New York Times best-selling author Matthew Pearl gave new meaning to the "writer's writer," exploring the tales of real-life figures from literary history—not the usual fodder for page-turners. First was The Dante Club, a murder mystery guided by the Inferno, then The Poe Shadow, a thriller based on the unexplained circumstances surrounding the death of the master of the macabre, and most recently The Last Dickens, an adventure novel set on the hunt for the great Victorian writer's lost manuscript. Now Pearl's latest work exchanges the literary past for the scientific. In The Technologists, students in the first graduating class of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology investigate a series of deadly events in 1868 Boston, a time when most found the freshly coined term "technology" to be frightening. As crosstown rival Harvard guns to shut down the upstart school, a small band of scrappy students races to solve the crimes by means of untried forensic techniques and groundbreaking science. Pearl, a Harvard alumnus himself, chatted with Goodreads about the historical underpinnings of his writing.

Goodreads: Today most colleges and universities have departments dedicated to chemistry and engineering. MIT was one of the first institutions dedicated to these disciplines, which in 1868 was a controversial choice, especially for many traditional Bostonians. Why was there such fear surrounding the concept of "technology?"

Matthew Pearl: The word "technology" was coined in the 1820s, but it wasn't vocabulary for decades. The meaning kept shifting in different directions. So it was actually a noticeable and strange decision to include the word in the title of the college. As the characters mention at different points in the novel, people wouldn't know how to spell it or how to pronounce it or certainly wouldn't be able to define it. So there was the word on one hand that was intimidating, and then the concept itself was threatening because it cast science in a light of changing the way we live. That's always something that shakes people up—especially in the 19th century, when there were so many changes happening. The idea of teaching technology, instead of what would normally be taught, was really considered outrageous.

GR: How did you begin work on the story?

MP: I had the idea a long time ago of doing a story with the first class at MIT. I can't remember if there was anything specific that triggered that idea. It resurfaced when I was writing a short story about Sherlock Holmes, which I was asked to contribute to an anthology called Sherlock Holmes in America. The guidelines were, as the title suggests, to put Sherlock Holmes somewhere in America. So I decided to put him in Boston, and I was thinking about what Sherlock Holmes would want to do in Boston in the late 19th century. I thought, well, maybe he'll visit MIT, and that reawakened the idea.

GR: We meet many students from MIT's actual first graduating class. How did you choose whom to include in your crew of technologists?

MP: The core group is Marcus Mansfield, Bob Richards, Edwin Hoyt, and Ellen Swallow—and Hammie [Chauncy Hammond Jr.] also. Of this group, Marcus and Hammie are fictional. I guess I would say research-based fictional characters. I don't create them out of thin air and then insert them with historical characters. I researched many more historical students before I started to make decisions about what the characters would be like. At the same time, I sometimes prefer to make a fictional character so that I have the freedom to draw different elements from what were real characteristics you might have found in students.

GR: The Technologists casts your alma mater in a negative light. Why make Harvard the villain?

MP: Harvard was also a little bit of a villain in my first book, The Dante Club. I guess there might be a way to make Harvard more of a sympathetic presence, but it's such a powerful institution that it more naturally lends itself toward not necessarily a negative but an obstructionist element in a story. The idea started with thinking about MIT and that first class, and as I did my first round of research, it just became very evident that Harvard was positioning themselves against MIT and trying to shut MIT down.

GR: In The Technologists, part of the MIT-Harvard animosity stems from a public debate about Darwin's theory of evolution between MIT president William Rogers and Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz. Was that a historical event?

MP: Yes, it was! Harvard and particularly Louis Agassiz were really instrumental in slowing down the spread of Darwinian evolution and really trying to stop it completely. Agassiz has a very mixed track record—in certain things he was ahead of his time, and in others he was a hindrance to science. When Rogers got to Boston, he applied to teach at Harvard and Agassiz rejected him, and one of the reasons was evolution. So they did stage these debates, and they were a big draw. The theater was packed with students and locals. The consensus—even from people who didn't agree with Rogers—was that Rogers won. It definitely amplified the animosity that was already there and set up Agassiz to be more self-righteous and determined to be in MIT's way.

GR: Almost 150 years later, evolution continues to be a hot topic. What do you think Rogers's reaction would be to the current evolution debate?

MP: [laughs] It would probably be surprising—or maybe not because he was in a world where most people were questioning it. So he might actually be happy to know that it is, at least, largely accepted.

GR: One of your historical characters is Ellen Swallow, the first American woman to earn a degree in chemistry. Whose decision was it to allow a woman to attend MIT in 1868?

MP: It was mostly Rogers and also [John Daniel] Runkle, who was Rogers's right-hand man. It really was an isolated decision, because it wasn't as though Ellen's presence was followed by other women until much later. Once that happened, Ellen was a professor, and she was instrumental in that. One of the things that really surprised me while researching this: I thought there would be much more material on Ellen out there. There are a few biographies, although pretty outdated, and in those biographies her MIT years are very thin. I really had to dig into the archives. As far as I can gather, she was just very persuasive in her letter to Rogers, which we don't have, but we do have the letter he writes in return. She was an exceptional person, as was borne out over her career.

GR: Goodreads member Kathy asks, "Is this new novel the beginning of the end for your literary-related stories?"

MP: That's a good question. No, it's definitely not the end or the beginning of an end, although I do hope to be able to shift back and forth in different categories of writing. The book I'm working on next, which will be my fifth, returns to literary history. I really do love literary history, and I have plenty more ideas on it.

GR: Goodreads member Ann writes, "I'm reading his short story, The Professor's Assassin, and I'm wondering if he plans to do a collection of short works."

MP: Publishers always discourage any thoughts of doing that because it's really hard to market and sell. Maybe that will change as we do more electronic publishing. I love writing shorter fiction. [The Professor's Assassin] wasn't easy. It's a prequel with William Rogers [MIT president] set 25 years earlier. So it's not just using all your material that you already have. I needed to research the University of Virginia, 1840, and all the details that go with that. It was actually a pretty big project, but I had fun doing it. I even added some other prequel shorter short stories to my Web site, and they're available for anyone to read. I really like that way of opening up the world of the novel.

GR: Goodreads member Dan Radovich asks, "Are you considering writing a novel set in contemporary times?"

MP: I was just thinking of one this morning for no reason. I don't know that I'll actually write it. I tend to have an endless number of ideas for writing projects. I don't necessarily say that as a good thing. Maybe it's a good thing, but I have ideas for all kinds of projects: contemporary novels, graphic novels, anything that happens to go through my mind. I have an idea for a personal memoir that I'd love to write. I'm four books into my career, so I hope there's going to be room, space, and time for lots of different kinds of books.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

MP: Things have changed for me since I now have two small children. At this point, I have to get out of the house to work, which was a challenge. Sometimes it's the library and something I'm researching, then go somewhere else for the other shift.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

MP: Looking at what I'm writing and what I've written so far, I have to say 19th-century ideas and writers. Even in the case of The Technologists, even though it's not about writers but scientific ideas and minds. There is something about that time period, and maybe it's because everything is starting to look familiar to us. If you are researching the 17th century, a lot of the fascination would be how different things are from our own time. I think the 19th century really starts to look modern in that sense of the word. That whole group of 19th-century events, writers, and ideas is what seems to keep me going.

GR: What are you reading now?

MP: I'm reading an advanced edition of a novel by Michael Ennis called The Malice of Fortune. It's historical fiction including Machiavelli as a character in Italy. It's been a great read. A lot of what I read are early editions and advanced editions that have been sent to me. That was important to me when I was getting my first book out there and asking some authors and other people to take a look. I always try to leave time for that.


Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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message 1: by Janellyn51 (new)

Janellyn51 Very interesting....Looking forward to the book and seeing you at Porter Square Bookstore!


message 2: by Lee (new)

Lee Rene Pearl's books are dense and literate. No easy reads but certainly worth the effort.


message 3: by Marieru (new)

Marieru I have read the previous three and i love them, can wait for this one.
As soon as i get home i'll start reading the short stories.


message 4: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl Carpinello Absolutely loved The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow. Enjoyed the intellectual reads. Missed The Last Dickens and The Technologists. Can't wait to read these!


message 5: by Ali (new)

Ali awesome


message 6: by Brianna (new)

Brianna Grantham I first approached The Dante Club in high school, and since have come back to it after studying The Divine Comedy in depth during my MA. I am definitely looking forward to another well-written, intelligent novel!


message 7: by Janellyn51 (new)

Janellyn51 My Dad is 81. I always check the bathroom to see what he's reading...not too long ago it was The Dante Club on the counter!


message 8: by Vicki (new)

Vicki Matthew Pearl is my favorite author! I loved the Poe Shadow and The Dante Club. I am planning to start The Last Dickens once my 19th century historical fiction novella MA thesis on Abraham Lincoln has been successfully completed and defended (later this month). At present, The Last Dickens is adorning my dresser; the cover art for Matthew Pearl's novels is almost as captivating as his prose. Wouldn't you agree? I have The Technologists reserved through Amazon--it's set to ship any day! I can't wait to curl up with both books near a crackling fire--a cup of espresso at hand. Bravo, Mr. Pearl!


message 9: by Josie (new)

Josie Patterson Matthew Pearl will be at the MIT Museum Tues. Feb. 21 from 6 - 7.30 at 265 Massachusetts Ave talking and signing books. It's about a 7 minute walk toward MIT & the river from the Central Square T stop, or take the #1 bus on Mass. Ave. There's also usually plenty of on-street parking, just bring quarters. Hope to see you for his book launch at the Musuem! Also check out non-fictionalized MIT history at http://museum.mit.edu/150/


message 10: by Janellyn51 (new)

Janellyn51 Your talk was great last night, I really enjoyed hearing about your methods and what you learned about M.I.T. If I had a nickel for every time I've passed M.I.T. I'd be rich today...but I never really gave it's humble beginnings much thought....so thanks for sparking my new found interest...I'm loving the book so far...and I'm sure it will be a tremendous success!


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