Interview with Christina E. Pilz

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

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, take him back to the life he thought he’d left behind.

1. What is it about Oliver Twist that made you want to take on Dickens and continue Oliver's story?
When I was around 7 years old and my Dad was in the Air Force, we were stationed in Germany. I went to a German kindergarten, and spoke German, and everywhere there was the German culture. One summer we took a vacation in England, and for some reason, my brain became affected to the English culture, which, at the time, was the opposite of the Germany I’d been living in.

During the middle of this vacation, we were in London, and my parents dropped their daughters off at the movie theater to see Oliver! We were placed in the charge of a kindly bobby, and in those days, they escorted you to your seat. My brain was on alert (we were in England, where things felt different) and I cannot forget the moment during the opening credits when we finally sat down. (It was the graphical image of two pugilists.)

Long, long story short (too late!), I remember connecting with the character of Oliver Twist so hard, it was like a blow. He was alone and adrift from anyone who had his interests in mind. People were mean to him, he went through a lot of hard times, and yet, in the end, he found a home in the world. Plus, Mark Lester was so cute, I adored him, simply adored him. I wanted to marry him!

The other characters in that movie were vividly painted in my mind, as well, Jack, and Nancy, and Bill, and Fagin. I thought that the actors who portrayed them all did an excellent job; they definitely left a colorful legacy for me to work with. When Jack Wild passed away, I really came apart; I couldn’t explain to anyone what the trouble was, because, of course, I didn’t know Jack Wild, and had never met him, so why on earth would I be upset about it? But part of my childhood had died, you see.

After seeing that movie, a few years passed until I realized that the movie Oliver! was based on an actual book, so in Junior High, I checked out a copy from the school library, and boy, was I surprised. To a 7th grader, Dickens is a bit of a slog; the writing style is different, for one thing, and Dickens tended to dwell, dwell, dwell on the most uninteresting things. Plus 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 again.

For years, these ideas chased each other in my brain: Why had the story ended the way that it did? Why did Dickens write so many chapters about characters who were not Oliver? 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 on what a two-dimensional milksop of a character Oliver was?

That made me mad, and, yes, I thought Dickens was sloppy with his character development; Oliver has no kind upbringing, yet he’s a thoughtful, gentle boy who has perfect diction. But to say that Oliver was two-dimensional and a milksop character? Red flags, man, red flags. As I read the book, and re-read the book, I began to understand that the milksop description of Oliver was somewhat off the mark than you might think.

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. And then, afterwards, 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 funeral parlor), 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.

Subsequently, while I honed my writing skills (waiting till the day when I’d be brave enough to write a sequel to something that Charles Dickens wrote), any story I wrote, any character I invented or thought about during those days, had elements of Oliver in them, and, by association, Jack. The two characters were a foil for each other; not that I used the word foil, but I felt, even in my young brain, that the actions of one character went nicely (comfortably) with the actions of the other character. Oliver and Jack were like salt and pepper, peaches and cream, and all my variations on that theme (Mark and Peter, Shadow and Pascal, etc.) were really, Olive rand Jack in different guises. Only the names and circumstances changed.

2. Which character was more fun to write: Oliver or Jack?

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!

I will tell you this, 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.

I also 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. I don’t know what it’s going to be called yet, but 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 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.

3. You've said, "Being a writer is not just what I do, it's who I am." Explain this.

There are jobs you do, in your life, that are just jobs. You can leave them behind when you go home for the night, even jobs that you enjoy. But with writing, it is a job that I cannot leave it behind.

I think because I was an invisible child, when I determined to become a writer, I really, truly, became a writer. There’s not an interaction I have, a meal I eat, a drive that I take, where I’m not taking notes about character and motivation. These are dry sounding, academic words that are an inadequate attempt to explain what’s going on in my head, and certainly do very little to describe the emotional rush I get when writing. Writing, thinking about writing, is how I attend to the details of my life.

4. I love continuations of my favorite stories. Is there another book you'd like to write a continuation of?

There are several continuations I’d like to write about, books I’d like to continue. I’m interested in Jane Austen, of course, but I’m more interested in the secondary characters like Maggie (Sense and Sensibility) or Mary (Pride and Prejudice). I think it’s because these characters are underdeveloped and have so much potential. But I’ve seen so many Jane Austen sequels, that I’m not sure I want to go there right now.

I’d like to give a shout out to some inspiration I had for Fagin’s Boy. Louis Bayard wrote a continuation of The Christmas Carol in a book called Mr. Timothy.

I was only just toying around with the idea of my sequel to Oliver Twist, when I came across Mr. Timothy. The book was well written, and I loved the parts of the story where Bayard works with Tiny Tim’s character, and why he turned out the way he did. To me, the part of the book was more compelling when it was about the character, and not about the murder mystery that is the setting of the book. I re-read it several times and determined that when I wrote Fagin’s Boy, that I would concentrate on character, and I would not have a Victorian mystery.

5. On your blog you mentioned some of the people that helped with your publishing journey. You've also compared publishing to prostitution. What is some of the best/worst advice you've received about writing and publishing?

I’ve had a few good cornerstones of support while writing Fagin’s Boy.

My editor, Kathy Resch, was invaluable with her input and advice, early on. Jenny Q did such a good job on my copy edit as well as my cover. Also, the people I met at the Historical Novel Societies’ Writer’s Convention were so helpful. I needed a cover designer and I reached out to them; they’d only met me the one time, and yet they were prompt and helpful, for which I’m extremely grateful. And then there was Amy who went to coffee shops for weeks and weeks over the summer and listened to me complain and explain.

I didn’t mean to compare publishing directly with selling your sexual favors for money; prostitution is more a metaphor for going the traditional publishing route in that you sell what’s yours to someone else and they profit by it. Especially those prostitutes who have pimps and have to give them 60%, 80%, if not all of their money. If you go the direct, traditional publishing route, you basically are working for a pimp. The publishing house gets to say who, and when and where and how. Your writing becomes (as far as I can see) somewhat diluted from its original intent.

With self-publishing, or even indie publishing, your writing is more your own, and what you created stays. It doesn’t have some guy in New York with coffee stains on his tie standing over it, telling it what to be because he’s got to fit it into some slot in order to make the market pay off.

In Pretty Woman, Kit (Laura San Giacomo) and Vivian (Julia Roberts) agree that they will make their own decisions about who and when and how. Doing that, following those guidelines, they maintain their self-respect, even while engaging in the oldest profession. I think that’s a metaphor for living. We all have to work; we trade our time, our precious, valuable, irreplaceable time for money, so that we can live. Everyone does. The question is, how do you maintain your self-respect?

Everyone likes to give advice apropos of you never having asked for said advice.  
Usually well-meaning (but bad) advice starts out with “you should,” or “you shouldn’t,” or “why are you doing this?”
Here are some great examples.
“No one will read a book about that. No one will read the book that is self-published.”
“You should get an agent! Why aren’t you getting an agent?”
“You should write happier stories. Here. Here’s a happy story; you should write something like this.”
 “You should write about <insert topic of their choice here>. Everyone is writing about <chosen topic>.”
 “Why are you writing a book about two guys who fall in love? That’s disgusting!”
“Can’t you just take the sex out?”
“You should warn people what your book is about. How are you going to warn them about what you did to those characters?”  
Here’s the other one people like to say: “You can’t do that.”
At a writer’s convention I went to, I had my first 15 pages critiqued by a very obliging agent. I explained the premise of the story (“It’s a sequel to Oliver Twist.”) and then handed her the 15 pages. She scanned it, and then said, “You can’t have a table of contents in a work of fiction. No one has a table of contents in a work of fiction these days….”
I simply looked at her, and was about to open my mouth and explain that I was going to have a table of contents in my story, because Charles Dickens did, and I wanted something in my book to be a paean to this great master. Plus the table of contents was a nifty way to create a sense of feeling and purpose to each chapter. Plus each chapter title was loads of fun to write!
Then, as if to emphasize how wrong I was to do this crazy thing, the agent added “… unless you are trying for an old-timey feel.”
So then I’m about to say well, it is a sequel to Oliver Twist and I’m not really sure how much more old-timey you can get than that, when the agent, somewhat defensively, said, “I’ve been doing this for a long time.” And no doubt she had.
Here’s another two tidbits that I was told at the same convention:
“You should have dialog in the first paragraph of your book, otherwise no one will read it.”
“You have to have dialog, action, you have to pick up the pace of your story right away, from the first sentence, or you will fail as a writer!”
They were really adamant about the dialog thing, but I guess everyone has forgotten Cold Mountain, then. Or Gone With the Wind. Or pretty much ANY Charles Dickens novel you’d care to name. There are so many books out there that don’t start with fast-paced dialog or action; where on earth did this rule come from? You should (there I go, using that word!) use the device that the story needs; forget about everything else.
The best advice I’ve ever gotten is no advice. I don’t need no advice.
That’s not to say I don’t need help; and I do tend to get that when I ask for it.
I have a friend in Alaska, Sharon. She’s my go-to gal for good ideas, which are about plot or character or whathaveyou; any help she gives me is about the story I’m writing, not about what I should do with my writing career. I’ll ask her, “What do mental patients do with their free time in asylums?” She’s fabulous. She’ll sputter how she’s not got a single idea in her head, and get irritated with me, and tell me to ask someone else, and then, after trying not to answer me for a bit, she’ll say, “Oh, I don’t know, how about art therapy, but I really don’t know!” And of course, art therapy is the perfect answer.
I used to have a friend, Nik, who would soothe my questions with general responses that had more to do with how I felt about the writing than with what was actually going on. “That’s a powerful idea, Harpy,” she’d say. “What part in there, what’s the part that sets you on fire? Which direction makes you feel alive? Go that way.”
The there’s my friend Amy, who made her mark in Fagin’s Boy, by waving her arms around, Kermit-style, sputtering and saying, “What’s with this scarf? Why do you have this scarf? It’s red, and it’s in so many scenes in the beginning, and yet, by the end, the scarf is gone? Either tie it in or get rid of it, but I think you should keep it because it’s got to mean something!”

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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.

Virtual Book Tour Schedule

Monday, March 10
Review & Giveaway at Broken Teepee
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Guest Post at Historical Fiction Connection
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Interview at Let Them Read Books
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Review at Impressions in Ink
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