It’s an old maxim, but the saying ‘less is more’ was invaluable for Andrew Taylor when writing the love story, which is suchan integral part of his new novel, The American Boy. When he completed his first draft of the book, featuring schoolmaster Thomas Shield as his narrator, he felt something was not quite right. ‘I felt I had to be careful about how he wrote (and thought) in general, and about sex in particular.’ Taylor goes on to say how finding the right pitch resulted in some ruthless self-discipline. ‘I had to cut an entire sex scene from the first draft,’ he says. ‘Describing it explicitly somehow didn’t ring true, either for Tom or the period.’
Readers will be thankful for Taylor’s thoughtfulness. The American Boy is such a multi-layered novel with such a fine plot that it hardly needs any help, but Taylor’s caution with the love story is richly rewarded, with a denouement that is revelatory as well as immensely satisfying.
The American Boy is a fantastic mix of fact and fiction. What prompted you to weave a literary historical novel with the real-life journey of Edgar Allen Poe? Did you wrap the plot around the details of Poe's life in London, or vice versa?
Poe came first. Eight years ago a theatrical producer invited me to lunch and asked me to send him some ideas for plays. After a flurry of creative panic, I sent him half a dozen. None of the plays was written but one of the ideas, Missing Edgar, concerned the childhood of Edgar Allan Poe.
The germ was my discovery that Poe had lived in England from 1816 to 1820, while his foster father, John Allan, established a British branch of his American import-export business. (One of Poe’s short stories, ‘William Wilson’, is set mainly at an English school and is known to have many autobiographical references.) There was something immediately appealing about the idea that one of America’s first great writers, arguably the founding father of crime fiction, had been an inky schoolboy in the England of Jane Austen.
You must have undertaken immense research for this book. How long did it take you to do all the groundwork? Did you do all the research first, and then start writing the novel, or was it an ongoing process? Did you visit the places you mention in the book, such as the leafy village of Stoke Newington!
There was a lot of research, and I enjoyed it enormously. I know that a historical novel cannot escape the period in which it is written. But I wanted this one to portray as accurately as I could manage the manners and mores of the period in which it was set. I did some general reading beforehand, but much of the research was done in parallel with the writing. Research can be so seductive it becomes an end in itself.
I wasn’t very organised about it. To some extent, I could allow myself the luxury of serendipity. I researched how people spoke and thought and acted in late Regency England, from the mansions of Mayfair to the slums of St Giles and Seven Dials.
I looked at everything from Soane’s designs for ice houses to carriage maker’s advertisements. I found many useful ideas in the Newgate Calendar. (The case of the banker Henry Fauntleroy, hanged for forgery in 1824, led to an important strand of the plot.)
I visited many of the locations in the novel but not, oddly enough, the leafy village of Stoke Newington. Some places flourish better in the imagination.
The dialogue running through The American Boy was particularly captivating. The understated but totally impassioned language was wonderfully hypnotic. How did the language of the nineteenth century become second nature to a twenty-first-century writer like yourself?
By immersing myself in nineteenth century English. I read memoirs, diaries and letters. I read and re-read novels of the period. In a sense I was spending more time in 1819-20 than in 2001-02. (I was even dreaming in semi-colons.) I suspect there’s a connection between how people speak and how they think.
In your acknowledgements you write 'I wish to record my particular gratitude to Clarissa Trant (1800-44), a remarkable woman whose journals deserve to be far better known than they are'. Who is Clarissa Trant, how did you come to stumble upon those journals and did they link in to your writing of The American Boy?
Nowadays few people read the crime novels of John Dickson Carr. But one of them, Fire, Burn!, is set in 1829 and has a note about his sources. He mentioned Clarissa Trant’s journal in that. Her granddaughter published an edition in 1925, and it has been out of print ever since. I looked it up in the British Library catalogue and finally tracked down a copy in Australia. It was worth the effort.
Clarissa Trant was the daughter of a distinguished but impecunious Irish army officer. The Trants went everywhere and knew everyone. They lived in England, Ireland and on the Continent, often staying with wealthy friends and relations, but sometimes living in humble circumstances and meeting some extraordinarily louche characters. Clarissa was intelligent, witty, kind – and obviously very attractive. (The journals suggest she had at least 12 suitors, despite her lack of fortune.) Her journals give a wonderful picture of how women of the period thought and talked; and because of her unusual upbringing she had a wider experience than most of her peers.
Poe's schoolteacher, Thomas Shield, is a fascinating individual. His position as a moral, upstanding man on the edges of the upper classes and yet a hopeless romantic with a questionable mental history created a captivating character. How did you come to develop him? Was he always going to be the central narrator of the book? Was he inspired by any characters you encountered in your research? One of Poe's real schoolteachers perhaps?
In one sense Tom Shield is, or was, entirely real – I stole his name from one of my forbears, an incredibly obscure non-conformist Northumbrian poet (I have a collection of some of his poems published in 1871). I wanted a central character who could move in different spheres of society. What I didn’t want was one of those heroic, gentlemanly characters who populate so much historical fiction, twirling their moustaches and fighting duels. I wanted someone vulnerable – socially, mentally and financially.
I originally wrote 20-30,000 words in the third person, using several viewpoints, including Tom’s. But it didn’t work out. For some reason the novel needed Tom Shield as its narrator.
The love story in The American Boy is very subtle on one level, as one would expect of the period and the people, but it is also enormously powerful and passionate on another. In having Thomas Shield as the narrator you were able to give at least one of the repressed participants a voice to their true passions? Did you feel that you had an advantage over the romantic writers of the period who were shackled by decency laws?
In terms of the plot, Tom Shield is not writing for publication so he can be relatively frank about sexual matters. On the other hand, I felt I had to be careful about how he wrote (and thought) in general, and about sex in particular. I had to cut an entire chapter describing a sex scene from the first draft (though the event it described can still be inferred and remains central to the plot). But describing it explicitly somehow didn’t ring true, either for Tom or for the period.
Adéle Geras described your previous book Requiem for an Angel as being a 'gothic novel' while the Times Literary Supplement said of you, 'Taylor pitches extreme and gothic events within a hair's breadth of normality'. Do you agree with these enthusiastic reviewers, or it just a coincidence that a writer occasionally described as having gothic elements in his own work incorporates the eponymous and very gothic writer Edgar Allen-Poe into his novel?
I enjoy the sensational element in much nineteenth-century fiction, including Poe’s. I suppose that includes supernatural or horrifying ingredients. But ‘gothic’ is a word with many meanings. I’ve just checked it in the Oxford English Dictionary, and the most appropriate definition seems to be: ‘barbarous, rude, uncouth, unpolished, in bad taste. Of temper: Savage’. If the cap fits…
As someone who regularly give workshops to aspiring crime writers can I ask you whether you have any golden rules that you teach your students? Are there any rules of crime writing, over and above general fiction?
It took me many years to discover that writers actually have to write, and that’s the one unbreakable rule; all the others are just suggestions that may or may not work.
As for crime writing, these days you have to get your research right (or at least avoid the risk of displaying your ignorance). The occupational hazard of the genre is that it tends to be dreadfully formulaic (to be fair, many readers like this).
I think this is a very good time to be writing crime fiction – there’s now such a huge variety within the genre that you can write almost what you like, as long as you have the occasional corpse. Unlike some literary fiction, the crime novel retains many of the time-honoured techniques of fiction – character, theme, narrative, tension, etc. That’s part of its pleasure, for its writers as well as its readers.
You appear to be a writer very comfortable with writing in historical contexts. Having produced such a stunning novel set in the nineteenth century do you plan to continue in the period? If not, what will you be working on instead?
I don’t know what comes next. I’d be very happy writing another historical novel, perhaps set in another part of the nineteenth century or even the eighteenth.
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