Shauna Gilligan Writer
A Girl's Writing Is Never Done
Writers Chat 15: Karen Lee Street on “Edgar Allan Poe and The Jewel of Peru” (Oneworld: London, 2018)
Karen, you’re very welcome to my Writers Chat. We last chatted in September 2016 upon the publication of the first in the Edgar Allan Poe trilogy Edgar Allan Poe and The London Monster. Edgar Allan Poe and The Jewel of Peru, the second in the trilogy was published in late August 2018 to critical acclaim and rave reviews including a starred review in Publishers Weekly, Shots Magazine calling it “a cleverly penned work of intrigue and enigma”, and the Historical Novel Review recommending it “for lovers of Poe’s writings, for those who enjoy the Gothic and macabre, and for all historical mystery fans.” You are currently working on the third novel in the trilogy: Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead, set in Paris 1849. Point Blank Books (Oneworld Publications) is the UK publisher; Pegasus Books, USA; AST in Russia; Vulkan in Serbia; and Paris Yayincik in Turkey. Previous publications include Writing & Selling Crime Film Screenplays and Tattoos and Motorcycles (a collection of interconnected short stories), articles on screenwriting and cross-arts collaboration, along with a number of commissioned screenplays.
KLS: Thanks very much for chatting with me about the books, Shauna. Your insightful questions really got me thinking in a useful way as I try to finish book III: Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead.
SG: That’s so difficult, isn’t it – promoting one book whilst writing the next. Well, I have to say I devoured Edgar Allan Poe and The Jewel of Peru in almost one sitting but what struck me the most was that as well as serving as a sequel to Edgar Allan Poe and The London Monster, it is also a stand alone novel. Can you talk a little bit about how the three books in the trilogy are connected yet – it seems to me – written so that they can be read independently.
KLS: I’m glad you felt the first two books in the trilogy work as stand-alone novels as that was the intention and it’s normally essential when writing a crime or mystery series. For example, I’m a real fan of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels, but have been reading them completely out of order, which hasn’t bothered me at all, despite the inevitable jumping around in the development of his personal life and, more subtly, his character. My trilogy is connected by its sleuthing duo: the writer Edgar Allan Poe and his character ur-detective C. Auguste Dupin. They are presented as old friends with similar interests but rather different approaches to life, Poe being more creative and emotional and Dupin strives to be very rational. Each novel sets up a mystery that must be solved, the ‘A’ story if you like. Other story strands are introduced that are further explored in subsequent novels. For example, Helena Loddiges is mentioned in Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster as she has hired Poe to edit an ornithology book. In Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru, she brings Poe a mystery to solve. C. Auguste Dupin’s nemesis is introduced in book I, but he eludes Dupin until Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead in which their attempt to apprehend him is the main story. The duo have very personal connections to the mysteries they must solve in each book and their adventures influence subtle changes in their characters.
SG: I enjoyed that personal/social/political thread running through the books. Once again you provide readers with a wonderfully intriguing opening (if not a little macabre!) inviting us into possibly the most striking element of the book – how you evoke birds, their worlds (both real and symbolic) through some wonderful sensual writing. Can you tell us a little about your research? I am sure it must have been fascinating.
KLS: I suppose the notion to write about birds was inspired by a favourite childhood book that belonged to my grandfather: Birds of America, edited by T. Gilbert Pearson of the National Association of Audubon Societies, with colour illustrations by Louis Agassiz Fuertes. Looking at those images as a child, prompted an interest in birds, as did Brief Bird Biographies, written and illustrated by a great-Uncle, J. Fletcher Street, who was an artist and amateur ornithologist. My father included birds frequently in his paintings, which was another inspiration. The notion to write a story featuring ornithology and ornithomancy came from living in London Fields, Hackney, which I was surprised to learn had been the site of Loddiges plant nursery, the largest exotic plant nursery in Europe in the 19th century. I discovered that owner George Loddiges was a keen bird collector, which was a popular Victorian hobby. His famous hummingbird cabinet is held by the British Museum. This in part inspired the idea for the trilogy as Poe had gone to school in Stoke Newington, Hackney as a child and it’s quite possible he might have visited Loddiges nursery which was a tourist destination during that time. I also learned that George Loddiges hired Andrew Mathews to collect birds and plants for him in Peru, and that Mathews also did collecting for Bartram’s plant nursery in Philadelphia before he died in Peru, 1843. This connection proved a useful plot point in Jewel of Peru.As I continued my research, odd links between Poe, Hackney and Philadelphia suggested a bird motif. Poe’s most famous poem is probably “The Raven”, allegedly inspired by Charles Dickens’s novel Barnaby Rudge, which features Dickens’ pet raven Grip. Further, Dickens had Grip stuffed when he died and he now lives in the rare books room at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Additionally, in the mid-nineteenth century, Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences had the largest and taxonomically most complete ornithological collection in the world, so certainly Poe would have been well-acquainted with the Victorian obsession for bird collecting. The sad sight of ‘collected’ birds displayed in the British Museum made me keen to include a subtle subplot regarding endangered birds. For example, when Poe lived in Philadelphia, there were still huge flocks of passenger pigeons that would literally darken the sky as they passed through the area. Now they are extinct due to the reckless hunting of them.
SG: Isn’t it wonderful that you have, in a way, brought the birds back to life and fascinating to hear how and where the trail of research led you to the heart of the story. I enjoyed the power play and games that each of the characters bring to the narrative. In particular, Miss Helena Loddiges and Rowena Fontaine (in disguise). Given that Poe and Dupin are the main players, you manage to incorporate some incredibly strong female characters. Was this deliberate or did the story evolve this way?
KLS: Very deliberate. Poe adored his wife Virginia and his mother- in-law ‘Muddy’ and I wanted to show that happy aspect of his life. Not much is written about Virginia’s character in the biographical material concerning Poe — she’s described as beautiful but that’s about it. I wanted to portray her as an intelligent woman Poe could have an intellectual conversation with, a woman who was very loyal to her friends and loved ones and therefore would insist on being involved in the
investigation. Rowena Fontaine appears first in London Monster and uses her skills in unethical ways, but when she achieves her dream of being on stage, due to her undeniable talent, she becomes much more gracious and tries to end the vendetta between her husband and Poe. Muddy is very strong also, but in a highly practical sense; without her, Virginia and Poe would struggle to exist at all. Helena Loddiges is quite eccentric, but is an expert in her fields (ornithology and taxidermy). She has the strength of character to defy her father and leave the safety of home alone to seek justice for someone she loves.
SG: You also stay true to the politics of the day without taking the reader out of the spell of the mystery. I know part of the action is based on real riots in Philadelphia in 1844. Was it strange writing about historical riots (about immigrants) at a time when the US Government was talking about building walls to keep illegal immigrants out of America?
KLS: I decided to set Jewel of Peru in Philadelphia when I first thought of developing the Poe/ Dupin sleuthing duo into a trilogy, so that was well before the current US administration. When I started reading about the Nativist riots of 1844, I was shocked that we had never studied that part of Philadelphia history in school. (I was born in Philly and went to school in Pennsylvania.) It was strange after researching the 1844 riots when the term ‘nativist’ was suddenly (or so it seemed to me) being used in connection with current events and talk about building the wall. It was also odd for me to read feedback from a reader who felt I was referencing contemporary events too overtly in the riot scenes when actually I was writing about true events.
SG: Yes, us writers don’t always plan everything. There’s often some strange synchronicity when writing about one era and finding that the themes and even events suddenly appear in your present day. Very unnerving!
I have to confess that while I have enjoyed some of Poe’s writing, I wouldn’t be familiar with much of his works. One of the other layers to your trilogy are the subtle and clever references and nods to Poe’s own writing. How important was this part of the book for you, and would you like to comment on the intricate nature of threading references through the narrative?
KLS: The references to Poe’s works within the books, particularly Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster, are really just meant to be fun for those who know some of Poe’s work—an extension of Poe appearing in a story with one of his own characters. It’s not necessary at all to know Poe’s stories or poems to follow the plot. It would be wonderful, though, if someone new to Poe read the book and became interested in reading some of Poe’s work. There are other allusions and connections explored in the trilogy that I think spring from the basic nature of writing historical fiction and creating an alternative biography/ history. In researching Poe, I read about some of the events that influenced his stories—for example, the true murder that inspired his tale “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”. Allusions to Poe’s stories play with the idea of what might trigger a writer’s imagination and inspire a creative work. When considering the idea of alternative history, odd connections I found when doing historical research provoked story ideas. Had Poe ever been taken to visit the renowned glasshouses of the Loddiges plant nursery in Hackney when he lived in Stoke Newington? Or did he ever visit the famous Bartram Gardens when he lived in Philadelphia? These ‘every day’ events might never be recorded in a biography, but might have inspired Poe in some way. And finally, when one creates a story or a character that becomes part of the memory of its readers, it seems to take on its own life. This is relevant to Poe the reader, who was well-versed in the classics, but as an editor and a critic, also read enormous amounts of contemporary literature. In book III in particular, I explore the way characters and stories he admired might influence him, particularly in knowing that characters and narratives that live on after the writer. As Poe said:
“Ye who read are still among the living, but I who write shall have long since gone my way into the region of shadows (...) and yet a few will find much to ponder upon in the characters here graven with a stylus of iron.”
What a wonderful quotation, Karen! Now, some fun questions:
Surf or Turf?
‘Surf’ for food; ‘turf’ as an environment. (Too many sharks in Australia.)
What’s your favourite unappreciated novel?
Anything by Marilynne Robinson— she can’t be appreciated enough. Also, Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm.
Oh I’m a big fan of Robinson too. Now what writer – living or dead – would you invite to high tea?
Perhaps Gabriel García Márquez as his books were formative reading and were so exciting and fresh when I first devoured them. (I would invite myself to high tea at Edward Gorey’s to see his amazing house and cats and to hopefully find his life matched his stories.)
What’s on your to-read pile now?
It’s a never-diminishing pile; at its top are two film scripts and Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame, which I really need to re-read while completing the editing of Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead.
What is the last book you read?
I just finished Alice Munro’s short story collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage bought at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris while on a research trip. Munro creates such memorable characters and her descriptions are effortlessly visual and original. I’ve also been re-reading Eugène Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris — again, essential research.
Karen, Thanks, once again for being so generous with your answers. I wish you much continued success with the sleuthing duo of Poe and Dupin.
Readers, keep up to date with Karen visit/like the Poe/ Dupin trilogy Facebook page:
and follow her on twitter and instagram: @karenleestreet