Thursday, March 13, 2014

Blog Tour Interview: Fagin's Boy by Christina E. Pilz

Please join me in welcoming author Christina E. Pilz to Let Them Read Books! Christina is touring the blogosphere with her debut historical fiction novel, Fagin's Boy, a sequel to Oliver Twist. I had the privilege of working with Christina in an editorial capacity, and I designed the cover! This is a beautifully written novel of Victorian London, and I'm pleased to be able to share it with you! Christina was kind enough to sit down and answer my questions about taking on a classic and following in Dickens's footsteps. Read on and enter to win a copy of Fagin's Boy!

Hey Christina! Welcome to Let Them Read Books! Thanks so much for taking the time to visit.

You’re more than welcome, it’s a pleasure to talk about my project.

When did you first meet Oliver Twist, and what inspired you to write about him? 

This is a terrific question, by the way. It brings up the feelings that I have about this character, that I have actually met him, and that he’s real. Most of the world doesn’t understand that, that characters are alive, but writers, and, really, any artist, would understand. For a writer, the characters they create are folks that are alive in the world. Somewhere.

So for me, Oliver is a person I met when I was seven years old. My parents had dropped their daughters off at a movie theater in London in 1969. I had no idea what movie we were going to see, and we entered the darkened theater halfway through the credits. The credits were made up of wonderful stills, drawings of umber and dark brown ink on cream colored paper that flashed across the screen, one after the other. They depicted what I now recognize as classic scenes from early London. The final still was of boys on a workhouse treadmill, walking in tandem, pushing the planks down with their feet to drive the motor that ground the grain for their gruel. As the image shockingly came to life, there on the treadmill was pretty much the cutest boy I had ever seen.

He seemed to be my age, maybe a little older, wearing rags, and he was barefooted; I could easily imagine how much the planks would hurt his wee feet. His expression was somewhat distant, as if he were simply existing on that treadmill without any expectation that his future would get any better. And at seven years old, seeing a movie with a kid in it, a kid who was an unloved orphan, affected me quite deeply. So I paid attention to this movie, more so than I had previous films I’d seen. I was riveted to what was happening to this boy, his trials and sufferings, and I related to him.

Did I mention he was cute? Oh my word, cute, cute, cute. Later I would enjoy many years watching any film made by the actor who played Oliver, a young lad by the name of Mark Lester, who brought the same sweet poignancy to all of his characters. But in the meantime, there was young Oliver on the screen, moving through his life, pushed by the whims of the plot and of the adults around him. The world, his world, was pretty much out of his control, and there isn’t a child I know, although I mostly speak for myself, who hasn’t felt this: that adults have no idea (or have forgotten) that what they do affects children.

As to what inspired me to write about Oliver, I quite simply wanted different things to happen to him. I wanted him to not have gone with Jack to be part of Fagin’s gang, because everything that happened afterward was the result of Oliver trusting Jack. Because that moment, in Barnet, was a crossroads for Oliver, and there was no turning back.

Not that the characters Oliver met weren’t interesting; I’m quite conflicted about my feelings for Bill Sikes, Fagin, and Jack. As the villains of the piece, they tend to be more colorful; they’ve got texture that is lacking in, say, Aunt Rose, or any of the other kinder characters. So I think it was this conflict, that I didn’t want Oliver to have joined Fagin’s gang, but yet, at the same time, that I was quite interested in Oliver’s relationship with Bill and Fagin and particularly Jack made the need to tell the story quite insistent.

After several attempts (and after having viewed every movie version of Oliver ever made), I finally read the novel Oliver Twist, and I was somewhat stunned to find out the truth about several things. First, that Fagin is hanged at Newgate at the end of the novel, in a scene that was quite dark. Fagin is crazy, there is wailing and scheming on his part, and Oliver, afterward, is so undone by the visit that he spends the next several days in bed. Who on earth would take a twelve-year-old to visit Fagin the night before he was hanged? Mr. Brownlow actually thought it a good idea that Oliver be allowed to visit Fagin in his cell.

Which leads me to the truth about Mr. Brownlow. In the movie versions, he is the kindly uncle, the partial relation, and in all guises and versions, he is Oliver’s savior. But in the book, Dickens paints quite a different story. It’s one thing to realize that Mr. Grimwig never liked Oliver, but what I discovered by close reading is that Mr. Brownlow is not as paternal as first it might seem. The one scene that comes to mind is the one where Mr. Brownlow says to Oliver, "As long as you never betray me, I shall never let you down." What kind of thing is this to say to a young boy? Of course, Oliver’s going to make mistakes; that Mr. Brownlow expects a kind of perfection says much about his experience with young children, which is to say, none.

But later, when Oliver does not come back from the errand where he’s supposed to return the books, Mr. Brownlow shrugs as if this is just what he expected and turns away, as if Oliver had never meant anything to him. He’s so ready to believe that Oliver comes from bad blood that at the first sign of it, he’s very easily convinced. Granted, he takes some pains to travel to the East Indies (or wherever) in search of Oliver, though this seems a rather far route to take to look for a lad who, by all accounts, is probably still in London.

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 in so many scenes in the book, Jack is quite attentive, 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. One common definition conveys the more obvious meaning in Jack’s statement: a prig is a British term for 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.

I discovered, however, through my digging that alternately 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 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 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.

I would imagine penning a sequel to a classic presents a whole other set of challenges on top of the challenges inherent in writing historical fiction. Can you tell us a bit about any challenges you faced and how you overcame them?

One of the challenges was the scope of the original book. There are so many characters and scenes that don’t directly relate to what Oliver would have seen and would know, that it was sometimes a struggle to remember on which page thus-and-such scene would have occurred. I used the unabridged Penguin version, and I couldn’t skim any of it! My copy is well thumbed and marked by now.

Another challenge was the chronology of the original book. Dickens did not have a continuity assistant to help him keep track of his timeline. It was somewhat laborious to go through and attempt to calculate how old Oliver was when he went from Mrs. Mann’s baby farm to the workhouse. Then, since he had just turned nine when he went to the workhouse, when was his birthday? And then, how long was he at the workhouse before he was emboldened to ask for more? I determined that his birthday was in January, and that he was three to six months at the workhouse, around three months at Sowerberry’s, a week on the road, and on it went, with rough calculations everywhere.

The scene that created the most anxious chronology confusion for me was when Oliver runs away from the funeral parlor and stops by Mrs. Mann’s baby farm to bid farewell to Dick, his beloved companion. Dick is in the garden weeding; this would indicate that it’s late spring or early summer, which is when the weeds can take hold of a garden. However, when Oliver arrives in London and meets up with Jack, Dickens paints rather vivid pictures of fog and icy mud, which would indicate that it’s still winter. So I had to imagine that Dick is sent out to weed the garden in early spring, more as punishment than to be effective in any way.

When the book ends, Oliver is said to be twelve, which would indicate that the whole of the story takes approximately two years. I had some rather painstaking notes about how many months here or there, just to attempt to make it turn out right. I’m sure I tripped up somewhere; one of my biggest fears is that some Dickens expert will turn their nose up at the book, merely because I miscalculated the amount of time Oliver spent anywhere. (“Three to six months in the workhouse? WRONG!”)

Yet another challenge was the self-doubt that would spring up at odd times. Any writer could tell you the same: self-doubt is a part of writing. But I was so charged with the idea of the book, and I certainly got some raised eyebrows of interest when I would mention that I was writing a sequel to Oliver Twist, plus I was very excited about my project, that I was able to ignore the doubt. But later, when I would give specifics about the story, the eyebrows would go down and then the comments and advice would start. The comments indicated that the listener didn’t think I should be taking Oliver’s story down the particular path that it went, and the advice seemed to want me to write about something else entirely.

Plus there was the idea of writing a derivative work that brought some derision. I actually had one individual who sneered at me as she said, “Oh, I see, this is a derivative work,” with the word derivative said as though it were something disgusting and a waste of time. I was told by more than one person that I should be more inventive and work with my own characters; I was told I was a weak writer if I could not create original stories. Imagine struggling with this type of judgment at the same time that you are attempting, with your whole heart and soul, to do justice to the work of a writer who you very much admire.

Luckily, I stumbled across Bill Bryson and his book, Shakespeare: The World as a Stage. In this book, Mr. Bryson brings Shakespeare to life in a way that no one had been able to do for me before. Most importantly, Bryson points out what was news to me, that Shakespeare borrowed almost all of his characters and plots from other earlier writers and stories. This was a common practice in Shakespeare’s day, but, most importantly, I realized that if the most eminent playwright of our time can write what are in essence derivative works, then it is not inappropriate that I do the same.

Dickens was known for using his novels to highlight social injustices in Victorian England, and you've done a heartbreakingly wonderful job of following in his footsteps. What do you hope readers take away from Fagin's Boy?

I think I would want them to be supportive and care for those in need. For example, I want my readers to be enraged by Mr. McCready’s treatment of Martin, and thus, to be encouraged to do something about those orphans who are currently at risk all over the world.

Additionally, I want them to believe that Mr. McCready would actually be that dismissive of an
orphan’s death. His was the most difficult characterization. He started out being the villain of the piece, that fairly typical, moustache-twirling villain of yore against whom the hero would be wonderfully contrasted and perfect. Then I realized he would be more interesting, and create more ambivalent feelings, if Mr. McCready was a typical Victorian gentleman, one who was raised to believe that those who are beneath him are there because they deserve to be.

During that process of developing Mr. McCready, I discovered that people and good characters aren’t merely all good or all bad. It was terribly interesting to watch Oliver struggle with his admiration for Mr. McCready at the same time as he realizes that Mr. McCready is, in reality, a cold-hearted bastard. Plus, it was fun to work with Oliver’s character, figuring out where he fails as a human being and where he succeeds. Did I paint a realistic picture? Do readers believe that this could have happened to Oliver? That’s what I want my readers to take away.

If you could sit down with Charles Dickens today, what would you ask him?

Well, first I would give him a stern talking to for the way he treated his wife. He had an unnatural obsession with his sister-in-law, Mary, and when she died, she became this sainted woman to him, and he was mean to his wife. Considering how adamant Dickens was in support of the poor and the destitute, the treatment he gave his own wife is shocking.

Then I’d ask him, so what’s up with the obsession with the theater and the stage? When I read Nicholas Nicholby, and when Nicholas leaves Dotheboys Hall and encounters Vincent Crummles’ theater troupe, the story got very tedious. Dickens loved the theater, and loved reading his works aloud, and I get that. But he interrupts a perfectly good character story with his own personal pet joy, dragging the story almost to a halt.

Then I would ask him about his characters. He’s got such wonderful, fully-fleshed characters, it’s amazing. Where did he get them? And, what’s more, where did he get so many varied and completely different characters? All of them are unique and original.

When I went to Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, which Dickens was known to frequent, back in the day, I tried to imagine him sitting in his booth by the fire with a pot pint in his hand, watching people shuffle past him, and thinking about who they were when they were at home. Then I walked the path he might have walked when going home to Doughty Street. During Dickens’ time, his walk home would have taken him through the less salubrious parts of London, where he would have seen the grimy and the less-than-lovely. I would ask did he give any pennies to the street sweepers? Did he press a coin into the hand of the blind beggar crouched in the doorway? Did he see anyone for whom he had pity but to whom he could give no aid, and did that inadequacy haunt him for days afterward?

Lastly, I would buy him a drink and I would give him my sympathies for his time spent at Warren's Blacking Warehouse. It must have been an awful time doing such basic labor, considering how smart he was. It got worse because even when Dickens’ father was released from Marshalsea, Dickens’ own mother did not call him home, and Dickens continued to work for his six shillings a week. This imbued in Dickens a loathing for the treatment of the destitute, and helped to develop his much lauded interest in socio-economic reform. Frankly, I believe that the truer, deeper reason that Dickens wrote so well about the lower rungs of society was not to bring about reform, but, more, to exorcise his own demons.

What are you working on now?

Currently I’m working on a sequel to Fagin’s Boy. I’ve got my notes, I’ve got a map of London from the Victorian era, and, frankly, both of the characters have more to say. Both Jack and Oliver are still talking to me about what’s going on with them. In fact, they won’t shut up.

Jack tells me that he is not feeling his best, and he puts it down to being away from the smoke of the City. He doesn’t like being on the road, out in the open, and he thinks that Oliver’s search for his paternal family is a foolish errand. Oliver, for his part, is quite disappointed, giving me dark looks because being on the road isn’t a fun adventure like it’s been described in the books that he’s read (it keeps raining, for one), and he gets irritated every time Jack’s fingers get itchy and he picks someone’s pockets.

But Jack’s pickpocket activities are all that keep both Jack and Oliver from ending up dead in a ditch somewhere, and, at Oliver’s insistence, Jack only picks the pockets of those gentlemen who look as though they can afford the loss. Jack mocks Oliver for his definition of what acceptable stealing is; even Jack, uneducated as he is, knows that stealing is stealing, and that Oliver’s customized mores are rather silly. Especially if the alternative is starvation. And while Jack mocks, Oliver sulks, in the prettiest way possible of course.

Unbeknownst to Oliver and Jack, I’ve got both happy and miserable things planned for both of them. Of particular note is my plan to continue working on the theme of Oliver’s love for most food and his distaste of anything made from eels. What do you do when you hate eels, but you’re starving and the only thing to eat is eels? Additionally, one of my readers has kindly requested to know whether or not Jack will ever have a bath. I hadn’t considered it, exactly, but I think I would enjoy working with this idea.

This giveaway is closed and the winner has been selected.
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I'm giving away an ebook of Fagin's Boy to one lucky reader!

To enter, simply leave a comment and tell me which Dickens novel is your favorite, or if you haven't read Dickens, which one you would most like to read, along with your email address. That's it!

This giveaway is open to all and ends at 11:59pm Thursday, March 27, 2014. Winner will be selected at random.

Fagin's Boy is on a blog tour!


  1. I read several of his novels in school, remember enjoying Great Expectations; on my own, I liked A Christmas Carol.

  2. I loved A Tale of Two Cities....anything to do with the French Revolution is interesting to me!


    1. That is the only one of his I've read, and it remains one of my favorite classics!

  3. A Tale of Two Cities was one of the first books I ever re read! Such a classic!

    king_nickolay @ yahoo . com

  4. A Tale of Two Cities is the only one I've read, but after reading this post, I think I need to read Oliver Twist. BTW - I love the cover, it screams historical fiction without the headless woman in a lovely dress.

  5. I would like to read Great Expectations for when I ask a British person (I am French) which books by Dickens he/she would recommend, Great Expectations often comes first.

  6. A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, A Tale of 2 Cities, Nicholas Nickleby and Pickwick Papers in that order. Actually, I love all of his books! Thank you for the giveaway.

  7. Pickwick Papers is the one I have missed out. Thank you for the giveaway.



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