What do people mean when they call a novel “Dickensian”? A large cast of vividly drawn characters, some of them grotesques with comically descriptive names and odd tics of speech and behavior; a plucky orphan who overcomes a childhood blighted by humiliating poverty or simple lower-class misery; numerous and ingeniously interconnected subplots; panoramic shifts of location; a narrative that makes the reader finish each chapter eager to begin the next.
Bookselling made a writer out of me. Before I got a job at a bookstore, I would sometimes poke around the edges of being a creative writer—I wrote little essays for zines my friends published, and I liked to come up with elaborate fake histories for bands I was associated with in college. I liked books and I liked to read. But being a bookseller moved me from a casual to a professional interest in books, so it meant I needed to read a lot more, and a lot of contemporary work. It gave me a sense of the landscape, and where I might fit into it. (And that I actually might fit into it.) It plugged me into the community of writers and readers. And it gave me access to writers who helped me evolve my writing. I learned that creative writing is a discipline that takes time and attention. (And lots of rewriting.) I learned that a voice and an idea are good things, but they aren’y necessarily stories. I spent time finding out the paths other writers took to get where they were, and got advice on how to find my own way.
We interviewed Matthew Simmons, whose collection Happy Rock is one of the year’s best.