To celebrate the release of The Lost Book of the Grail, Charlie Lovett’s latest novel, our friends over at NewBooks have been chatting to him; check out the interview below! We’ve also got 50% off all three of his novels – scroll down to find out more…
Q. An important aspect of your writing which has become very evident in your first two novels is your love for books and book collecting. How has that influenced “The Lost Book Of The Grail?
A. The Lost Book of the Grail certainly continues the bibliophile tradition of my previous novels. Having set a novel partly in a university rare book library (The Bookman’s Tale) and one partially in libraries of stately homes (First Impressions) I thought it would be interesting to set one in a cathedral library. The setting and some of the books existed in my mind before the characters did. Many of the books Arthur encounters are real and many of the medieval manuscripts in the library he loves were inspired by pieces I saw in various cathedral libraries.
Q. I’d like to know more about the decision to set the novel in modern-day Barchester, a location which would certainly resonate with Trollope fans.
A. I knew I wanted the book to be set in a cathedral city, and I also knew I wanted the freedom to invent most of the history of that city for myself (the historical bits of my novel go back as far as the sixth century). But I wanted my fictional city to have a ring of authenticity about it. Setting the book in Barchester seemed the perfect solution—it seems real, especially to lovers of English literature, but I can invent its history for myself. I did include many references to Trollope: character names, details of the local geography, and so on. Arthur even lives in what was once (in The Warden and Barchester Towers) Hiram’s Hospital (now converted to modern flats).
Q. Central character Arthur Prescott is a delight, set in his ways, full of procrastination and contradictions and bewildered by modern academia. In many ways a contemporary Everyman. How did he develop as the unlikely hero of the novel?
A. For me Arthur started first and foremost as a book lover, and I rapidly began to realize that his ability to interact with books far exceeds his ability to interact with human beings. His small circle of friends is comprised of other bibliophiles and he is happiest alone in the cathedral library. With the common image of the grail hunter being an adventurer on horseback, like Indiana Jones, I wanted to create a grail hunter whose adventures would be more of the mind, yet just as exciting.
Q. In your work it is easy to appreciate the obsession with the search for a rare book. As an antiquarian bookseller what was your greatest “find”?
A. I got called out to a house one time that was little more than a shack in the woods—four small rooms. Inside were over 6000 books, including many classics of modern fiction in perfect condition in their original dust jackets. I ended up buying most of the books and it took me months to sort through them all. I didn’t sell paperbacks at my shop and I was about to pitch a couple of paperback volumes on to the 25¢ pile when I realized they made up the two-volume first edition of Lolita. I sold them with a phone call for a lot more than 25¢.
Q. Tension is established in the novel when Bethany arrives to digitize the cathedral library with its collection so dear to Arthur. There’s a dilemma between books being special and becoming demystified by the process of having them readily available. As someone who made a living with rare books what are your feelings about the physical versus the digital?
A. I believe a lot of what Arthur says when he argues with Bethany, but I also believe a lot of what Bethany says. That’s why those scenes were so much fun to write. I think there is, and will always be, room in the world and in the marketplace for physical books. Most people I encounter prefer to read them, and they are a proven means for safely storing information for hundreds of years without the need for electricity or infrastructure. However, digitization has been a boon to me as a researcher. The online British Library Newspaper archive, for instance, allows me to access information that it would have taken me years working away in Colindale to find the old fashioned way.
Q. I can tell that church buildings have a great appeal to you. How did that come about and is there a particular church/cathedral which has a special place in your heart?
A. I visited my first medieval English Cathedral in 1980 when I was a seventeen-year-old school-boy on a study abroad program. (I just looked up in my journal and discovered it was Ely Cathedral on January 23). Since then I have been a frequent visitor to medieval ecclesiastical buildings of all kinds in the UK. In 2000 I wrote a book called Sparrow Through the Hall, about a pilgrimage I took from Iona to Canterbury, visiting many cathedrals along the way. I never ceased to be impressed by the majesty of these buildings. I have many favorites—Durham, Salisbury, Wells, Norwich—but the one most closely connected to my novels is Winchester. Jane Austen (who features in First Impressions) is buried there, as is William of Wykeham, whose grave is robbed in an early scene in The Bookman’s Tale. I even wrote a parody of a monument in Winchester as part Arthur’s attempt to write a guidebook to Barchester in The Lost Book of the Grail.
Q. What’s next for Charlie Lovett?
A. I’ve been working on a book for children ages about 8–14. This past summer my wife and I accompanied a group of children from our church who were singing with the choir in residence at Canterbury Cathedral for a week. Each night after Evensong and dinner, we would read aloud to them from this work in progress. Their excitement motivated me to finish the book when we returned home and they insisted on hearing the ending.