Friday, March 21, 2014

Interview with Christina E. Pilz, Author of Fagin's Boy (Review)

Publication Date: January 1, 2014
Blue Rain Press
Paperback; 624 pages
ISBN-10: 0989727300

Historical Fiction
5 out of 5 stars
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About the book
Five years after Fagin was hanged in Newgate, Oliver Twist, at the age of seventeen, is a young man of good breeding and fine manners, living a quiet life in a corner of London. When Oliver loses his protector and guardian, he is able, with the help of Mr. Brownlow’s friends, to find employment in a well-respected haberdashery in Soho.
However, in the midst of these changes, Jack Dawkins, also known as the Artful Dodger, arrives in London, freshly returned from being deported. Oliver’s own inability to let go of his past, as well as his renewed and intimate acquaintance with Jack, will take him back to the life he thought he’d left behind.

If you think that writing your first book as the sequel to a timeless masterpiece could be an exceedingly ambitious project, bound to poorly compare with the magnitude of a nineteenth-century master storyteller, you obviously have never heard of Christina E. Pilz, newcomer author of historical fiction. Newcomer she may be, but I honestly think you will hardly find a better way to revisit a Dickens classic other than reading Pilz's debut novel, Fagin's Boy. If you are familiar with the extraordinary British novelist and his work, chances are you will be genuinely enthralled by Pilz's ability to breathe new life into an iconic character of the Victorian realism. In her extremely well-executed novel, the author re-imagines, with exquisite richness of historical details, and penetrating understanding of character and social biases, the young adult life of Oliver Twist. The angel-face workhouse orphan, who refused to let his humble and troubled beginnings define his future, returns in Fagin's Boy to build new bridges and rehash old demons. The resolution of this riveting and vividly drawn tale will blow you away. Highly recommended.

***Review copy graciously offered by the author in return for an unbiased and honest opinion. 


Welcome to Mina's Bookshelf, Christina. I have thoroughly enjoyed your novel. Such a splendid and well-crafted book for an author quite new on the published scene! What is your background? Can you tell us something about yourself and what inspired you to write fiction?

Thank you for the compliment about my book; I wrote it as well as I knew how.

I wanted to be a writer since the 4th grade. My teacher, Mrs. Harr assigned her class a story writing project based on different pictures; the picture I selected was from the back of a Reader’s Digest; it was the picture of a boy and a girl flying a kite and a bear in the woods.  In the story, the boy and the girl lose the kite, and go into the woods to rescue it.  The bear comes after them, but they are able to escape. The moral of the story (I put in a moral because I was a very serious nine year old child) was that you shouldn’t go into dangerous places like the woods.

Mrs. Harr wrote on the story and said, “This is a really good story, I really like your ending.” Then she put a smiley face next to her comment. It was like getting a shot of adrenaline. I thought, hey, I can do this! So I began to write. A lot. At the same time, I had no idea what writing was about, and for years didn’t know what a sentence fragment was, among other things, but I began as I meant to go on. I wrote little bits of stories and plays, took a stab at poetry, found inspiration in Star Trek and Dark Shadows, and kept writing, and the stories got longer.

Then in 7th grade, my English teacher Mrs. Meyerlie wrote a letter home to my parents. She commented that I had creative writing talent and should be encouraged to continue. Whether my parents read the letter or not, I have no idea; they never mentioned it to me. I think I came across the letter, one day, sitting on the kitchen counter, and I was amazed at it. That this person, my teacher, wrote to my parents to say that I was good at something, it was like a bolt of lightning out of the blue. I still have that letter, pasted in a scrapbook.
After high school, I attended one college after another, where I took as many literary-minded classes as my schedule would allow. I took a lot of poetry up at UNC in Colorado; this amazing serious of classes was taught by Professor Dougherty, and I took every class of his that I could: Intro to Poetry, Advanced Poetry, Writing Poetry I, II, III, a Seminar on William Blake….and on it goes.  I was quite a blue stocking as far as poetry goes, and I think that it had an impact on my writing style.

Fagin's Boy is a sort of sequel to a classic masterpiece (Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens) and features one of the most beloved literary darlings. Why Dickens? Why Oliver Twist? Those are pretty big shoes to fill...
I saw the movie Oliver! in 1969. I was seven years old and I remember connecting with the character of Oliver Twist. He was alone and adrift from anyone who had his interests in mind. He went through a lot of hard times, and yet, in the end, he found a home in the world. Plus, Mark Lester (the actor who played Oliver) was so cute, I adored him, simply adored him. I wanted to marry him!
Several years passed before I realized that the movie Oliver! was based on an actual book. When I read the book in Junior High, boy, was I surprised to find that Dickens was a bit of a slog to read; the writing style was so different from what I was used to. And I was shocked to find out that a) Fagin gets hanged at the end of the novel, and b) that Jack is harrested (as they say) for a two-penny, half-penny snuffbox, and is simply and unequivocally never seen nor heard from again.
For years, I wondered why had the story ended the way that it did? Why did Dick have to die? Where did Jack go? And, most importantly, why did ever single review I ever read about the book have at least one paragraph about what a two-dimensional milksop of a character Oliver was?
I blame Dickens, as he was sloppy with his character development here; Oliver has no kind upbringing, yet he’s a thoughtful, gentle boy who has perfect diction. However, as I read the book, and re-read the book, I began to feel that the milksop description of Oliver was somewhat off the mark than you might think, in spite of Dickens.
Take the ur-scene, where Oliver asks for more. I don’t think there’s anyone on the planet who does not know this scene. Oliver takes a dare that has his knees shaking, and yet he goes up and asks for more, in front of Mr. Bumble and everyone. As punishment for his audacious behavior, he’s locked in a dark room for two weeks. He subsists on bread and water only. He is taken out every day to be flogged in front of the entire workhouse. He wraps his arms around his head and refuses to cry.
Then there is the scene where Oliver is about to be apprenticed to the chimney sweep dude, Mr. Gamfield. Oliver quickly sees that being a chimney sweep is not a good choice, so he is able to convince several people who are insistent that he does go with Mr. Gamfield that he should not go with Mr. Gamfield. Keep in mind, that this is a 10 year old boy who is disagreeing with a) two magistrates, b) Mr. Gamfield, and c) (last but not least) Mr. Bumble himself.
Then there is the pivotal scene where Oliver has had enough of Noah Claypole’s abuse (at Sowerberry’s coffin shop), and he rises up, the lion in his breast. He attacks Noah hard enough to send the older boy crashing to the ground. Then this small boy walks 70 miles to London to make his fortune.
When Oliver meets up with Jack in Barnet, he hears about a “kindly old gentleman,” aka Fagin. Oliver, in short order, resolves to himself that he will, in time make this particular gentleman’s acquaintance, and, at the same time, usurp Jack’s place. Oliver is all of 10 years old, for crying out loud, but his first plan is how to manipulate the situation to his own advantage.
Are these the actions of a milksop? I think not. That’s what stuck with me, and part of why I wanted to write Fagin’s Boy. Oliver is an underappreciated character, and I thought he deserved to have his story told. I never thought about filling big shoes, though I was very concerned with getting it right. I’ve got some trepidation that a Dickens expert will soon find me and upbraid me for my audacious behavior as well as point out all the mistakes that I’ve made.
Then of course, there’s Jack. Oh my, Jack. He’s such a clever lad, the second he claps eyes on Oliver, he knows that Oliver is easily led astray; hunger will do that to you. The first thing he does is to feed Oliver, and promise him shelter. He’s kind, in his way, and attentive to Olive; Jack is frequently petting Oliver’s hair, or eyeing him and making comments about him. Frankly, if Oliver is in the same room as Jack, then Jack is riveted by him.
There’s one scene where Oliver is on his knees polishing Jack’s boots. Already this is a provocative image, but then Jack ramps up the wattage by saying: Pity he isn’t a prig. The common British definition conveys the more obvious meaning in Jack’s statement: a prig is a petty thief or pickpocket. Used this way, Jack’s statement expresses his disappointment that Oliver is not a thief by nature; something that Fagin refused to see, but which is implied here that Jack knew all along.
However, through my research I discovered that the term prig has sexual connotations; saying someone is a prig is practically equivalent of calling someone a rent boy. Which made a whole lot of sense to me; there’s no way that Jack would actually know that Oliver would make a good thief, after all. Then combined with Oliver in that particular position on the floor, and the alternate meaning of prig, well, the scene took on a whole new meaning. I remember looking up from the book at that point and thinking, Now, wait a minute—is Dickens saying what I think he’s saying? That idea, that alternate meaning, planted a seed in my brain that simply would not go away.

Let's talk about character development. Did you originally intend to remain consistent with your source of inspiration when you outlined the psychological arc of each character?
To me characters are the backbone of any story; I can’t get involved in a book, movie, or TV show if I can’t relate to a character somehow. They don’t have to always be nice or perfect, but I need to be able to relate to them, to connect.
To that end, remaining consistent with Oliver Twist from the canon source was very important to me. Even when I was young, something about this character, about his story, resonated with me.  There are events in Oliver Twist that made me want to think more about him, and to find those traits that demonstrated the complexities of this character; I have long grown tired of comments that write him off as a two-dimensional boy who has no real effect on the plot of his own life story.
I love this character, so much, that I had to make him a bit of a jerk to be believable. I wanted to give show those personality traits that would present him as a real human being, and not a metaphor for goodness. So, I looked at him from as many angles as I could to find those traits and build on them.
For example, one pivotal scene in the original book was where Oliver beats the stuffing out of Noah Claypole.  I turned Oliver’s ability to beat up a bigger kid into a flash paper temper.  Anyone might think that Oliver was this tame housecat, but if you cross him, he will mess you up. Mention his mother in anything but glowing terms? He will try and kill you. (The latter of which is actually canon; this is the reason he attacks Noah.)
In the original book, Fagin gives Oliver at least one tumbler of gin and sugar, if not more. From that, I determined that Oliver had a taste for the gin.  And when he drinks, different things happen. If he’s in a dark mood, he could probably find a bar fight to get into. If he’s morose (which is very likely), he might want to sing sad songs. I developed the idea that Jack recognizes early on that Oliver is fairly malleable and relaxed when he drinks, at least when Jack is in the room. So I have Jack purposefully and frequently feeding Oliver gin and water and sugar. In the next book, Oliver and Jack, I hope to develop this idea even further; I’m going to write at least one of these scenes from Jack’s point of view and show him doing it on purpose. Right now, Oliver doesn’t have a clue.
One part of Oliver that was very fun to work with was his fussy nature; in the original book, he’s not keen on the filth and the darkness in his life. I turned that into him being particular about having enough soap and hot water, which I take as a reaction to the memory of 9 or so years being coated in grime. (And also, he’s somewhat afraid of the dark; though this didn’t turn out to be as important as I had originally thought.)
Because he was such a starving orphan for so long, Oliver loves his food and will eat pretty much anything; a good cook will gain his affection forever. This is based on his memory of 9 or so years of near-starvation. If you’ve ever gone hungry, food is the last thing you would take for granted.  But it makes you difficult to be around, particularly if the food isn’t up to your standards. Ever go to a restaurant with a foodie, a restaurant that you particularly liked? You’re all stoked to have your food-conscious friend enjoy the things on the menu that you want to share. But the foodie, after the first bite, goes, hmmmmm, this isn’t very good. Wouldn’t you just want to scream at that point? Well, Oliver is the biggest foodie ever; the only thing he won’t eat willingly is eels. I aim to make him have to eat eels in the next book, just to get mess with him.
To me, my characters are real. I can’t have favorites because I know that if I said my favorite was Jack that Oliver would find out and it would break his heart. In contrast, if I said Oliver and Jack found out, Jack would just laugh. He’s got enough self-confidence to be completely unaffected by what I think of him. Anyway, since I do care about both Oliver and Jack, but in different ways (I decided this, just now) I’ve determined that I want Oliver to come into himself. To step forward, not just as the romantic, dashing figure he’d like to see himself as, but as someone who is true to himself without tying himself in knots about it. Thing is, Jack already knows this about Oliver, and he’s patient enough to see Oliver through until he gets there.

Which character was easier for you to write and which one was more challenging to adapt to your storyline?
I like to write Oliver when I’m in a composed and erudite mood; I like to write Jack when things are a bit more jumbled. But that is a very sneaky question to ask! I’m not supposed to have favorites!  Oliver was more difficult to write because he was the more central character; I was concerned, as I have said, with getting it right, with making Oliver realistic. And, I think, I was so close to the character that I had a hard time being objective about who he was. I remember spending a great deal of time thinking about him, what he liked and did not like, his foibles, and both the dark and light sides of his personality.
Frankly, Fagin’s Boy was supposed to have two points-of-view, both Oliver’s and Jack’s. But when I would write a scene that came from Jack’s point-of-view, the story would go down this odd, fascinating rabbit hole and Jack’s story would take over Oliver’s story. I think that might be because I’d been in Oliver’s head for so long, that Jack’s story felt newer to me, and more stimulating, so his character was sometimes easier to write.
But I didn’t want to spend time writing about what Jack was doing when he wasn’t with Oliver. (While Oliver is working at the haberdashery, Jack is off stealing things.) Jack’s world is complicatedly different form Oliver’s world and that distraction (as delicious as it was) was taking me away from developing Oliver’s world. It kept happening over and over till finally I determined that Fagin’s Boy would contain only Oliver’s point-of-view.  But I did miss knowing what Jack thought. I had his verbal and visible reactions (somewhat laconic and mocking) to Oliver’s predicaments, but that was from the outside; I didn’t know what was going on in his head.
So then I promised myself that I would write a two person point-of-view story to follow Fagin’s Boy. The working title is Oliver and Jack, and I’m already rubbing my hands with glee at the thought of what Jack’s point-of-view will be when he comes upon Oliver in a cranky mood, or when Oliver gets drunk. (And really, Oliver is constantly either cranky or drunk, it seems, in Fagin’s Boy!) Plus, I’ll get to write about Oliver from an outsider’s perspective. Oliver is very beautiful, in my mind, so to have someone else who also thinks that? Terrific. Oliver can hardly think, “Oh, I’m so handsome!” But Jack can think it for him and will do so, frequently.

The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin, recently adapted into a major motion picture, puts the life of the great Victorian novelist in a new historical perspective: Dickens appears to be a darker and more complex man, far from the 'jolly' character we have perceived over the years through his novels. As a fan of the prolific British author, have those revelations changed the way your read his work?
Those revelations are already known to me, actually. I did a lot of research for this book, including background information on Dickens. I pretty much watched ever y BBC show on the subject, till I probably could recite a lot of it by heart. 
And while I was surprised when I heard about the deeper side of Dickens’ nature, it was at the same time a relief to know that Dickens wasn’t a paragon of virtue, that he had his flaws and foibles. It makes him a real person, who struggled, and made mistakes. I can relate to that more than I can the jolly Victorian Christmas-god that Dickens is sometimes presented as.  So it’s not changed the way I read his work, it’s reinforced the notion that no one, even Bill Sikes, is all good, or all bad.

What's in your future? More historical fiction?
Historical fiction is my favorite thing to write about. When I was young, I despaired that I would never be able to wear a bonnet to school and get away with it. I was never going to be required to write on a slate with a slate pencil to do arithmetic lessons. I was never going to be asked to bring water in from the well. In my head, I lived in another age; I live there still. So that’s what I write about.
My current project, now that Fagin’s Boy has been published, is to write the sequel to Fagin’s Boy. Oliver and Jack are still talking to me as well as to each other, and they won’t be quiet, so I am forced to listen to their complaints and woes, their desires and their fears.
Jack hates being out of London, and he’s sure that all that fresh air is what’s causing the rasp in his breathing. He wants to go home, but he wants to be where Oliver is, so he’s conflicted. Though, likely, he’ d put it a different way, such as: “All this fresh air, blast it, it’s given me the consumption – wait, where you goin’?” Personally I think that the country sky is way too big for Jack at this point; he’s used to rooflines, chimney pots, church spires dotting his horizon, along with the constant smudge of coal smoke, and he rather misses them.
As for Oliver, he’s lost. He’s so lost, even though he knows which road he is on and where that road leads. The sky is full of rain and there is no comfort to be found anywhere. He’s got no job, no respectable lodgings, and, perhaps worst of all, he’s got mud stains up to his knees and he’s not had a hot meal in days!  He doesn’t complain out loud about any of these things, but I can see it in his expression, in the tightness of his mouth, the way his eyes narrow when they look at the world around him. The way he doesn’t ask Jack to pick pockets so that they can eat, but at the same time, he doesn’t rebuke Jack for doing it either. The only constant in his life is Jack at his side, and as Oliver walks, he uses Jack as a touchstone while he attempts to knit together the pieces that his life has become. Poor Oliver.
This project has a working title of Oliver and Jack, even though I’ll probably come up with something that resonates more with what the book is about.

Just for fun, if you could be a character in a Dickens' novel, who would you be and why?
Great question! My mind went first to the twins in Nicholas Nickleby, Charles and Ned Cheeryble. These two were the kind souls who helped Nicholas out of a bind. The first time I read Nicholas Nickleby, I was shocked and not convinced that people like the Cheerybles existed; they handed out kindness out of nowhere for no reason. I doubted them, and I tsked-tsked Dickens’ creation of them. However, life does contain people like that, who hand out kindness to strangers.
Another character that I would like to be is the initial judge in Oliver Twist. He’s the one who won’t sign the papers that might send Oliver to work for Mr. Gamfield (the chimney sweep dude). He says about Oliver, “Treat him kindly, he seems to want it.” Of course no one does treat Oliver kindly, but at least the idea was there.
Though, truly, I’d like to be Oliver or Jack. They’re young men in a vibrant and growing city, they have the world before them. I think it would be fun to have their adventure. (Though I don’t envy them what’s coming at them in the sequel!)

Thank you for this fantastic interview, Christina! 

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About the Author

Being a writer is not just what I do, it’s who I am. Even if everything else in the day turns sour, if I have written, then it’s still a pretty good day.
I decided I wanted to be a writer when my fourth grade teacher (Mrs. Harr) gave me a good grade on a creative writing story I’d written. And not only that, she added “I like your ending,” along with a smiley face. At that point, I was off and running. I’ve been writing and making up stories ever since.
I live in Colorado. I’ve tried to live elsewhere, but it’s always too far from my family, so I returned for good some time ago. Colorado is a brilliant location to live in as it’s not very far from either coast, and the local international airport is only an hour away.
Right beside my writing desk, I have a green arm chair and ottoman that I call The Vortex. There are two reasons I call it that. The first is that it’s always trying to suck me in and sit down and do nothing but think and read and stare at the sunlight and shadows as they dapple the walls and ceiling. The second is that once I sit down in the thing, it’s almost impossible to get up, as The Vortex keeps sucking me in.
Visit Christina Pilz’s website for more information. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.


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