Renaissance Man Charlie Lovett: THE LOST BOOK OF THE GRAIL & More

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I had the privilege of meeting multitalented Renaissance man Charlie Lovett when my first novel came out, at the Bookmarks literary festival in Winston-Salem, NC. Since then, we’ve reconnected at Bookmarks’ fabulous new independent bookstore—where I had my very first reading for THE DREAM KEEPER’S DAUGHTER—as well as on Charlie’s podcast, The Writers’ Studio. Today, we chat about the paperback release of his novel, THE LOST BOOK OF THE GRAIL, his abiding obsession with ALICE IN WONDERLAND, and what’s next (hint: it’s his first book set entirely in the U.S.).

Welcome, Charlie! I’m thrilled to have you on the blog. Congratulations on the paperback release of THE LOST BOOK OF THE GRAIL. For those who aren’t familiar, what’s the book all about, and what was your inspiration for writing it?

THE LOST BOOK OF THE GRAIL is a literary mystery set in an English Cathedral library. The protagonists Arthur Prescott and Bethany Davis—two very different people—are trying to find a lost manuscript that may show a connection between Barchester Cathedral and the Holy Grail. The book is part historical fiction, part mystery, part bibliographic fantasia, part romance, and lots of fun.  I actually began this book with a setting. I had written a novel (THE BOOKMAN’S TALE) partially set in an American academic rare book library and another (FIRST IMPRESSIONS) partly set in two English country house libraries. When I sat down to start the third novel, I thought, what other kind of libraries are there? I had visited English cathedrals regularly all my adult life, and I knew many of them had libraries filled with illuminated manuscripts and other treasures. It seemed like a good place to start. Then I asked myself, “What kind of person would spend all his spare time hanging out in a cathedral library?” and that question led to Arthur Prescott.

You are a man of many talents! In addition to your writing, you’re the president of the board of directors of Bookmarks, Winston-Salem’s newest independent bookstore—which actually hosted the first event for my novel, THE DREAM KEEPER’S DAUGHTER; thank you!—and you’ve recently launched a podcast, Inside the Writer’s Studio. Tell us about the experience of getting Bookmarks off the ground and your decision to start a podcast. Has it been a wild ride?  

Bookmarks is a literary non-profit with the mission of connecting people with books and authors. I’ve been privileged to be associated with the organization as a board member for five years now. We started as a small annual book festival and now have author events year round, including the largest annual book festival in the Carolinas. We reach over 9000 children a year through our author in schools programs and many more at our home in downtown Winston-Salem. Opening a non-profit independent bookstore had been on our wish list for a few years and it took great courage on the part of the board and the staff to take that plunge. But our brilliant staff raised over $500,000, oversaw the renovation of a 1930s building within a couple of hundred yards of our festival site, and has opened a fantastic bookstore and community gathering space where we have events (author appearances, story time, bookclubs, classes, and more) just about every day. It has been an amazing experience to be a part of this successful effort by a great community of the arts. I decided to start a podcast (Inside the Writers Studio) so that I could help Bookmarks reach an even wider audience. I interview authors (sometimes live at Bookmarks) and we talk about the things authors like to talk about—our craft, our business, or lives, and our latest work. It’s been great fun to talk to writers like Robin Sloan and John Grisham here in Winston-Salem and others like Gregory Maguire and Samantha Silva via Skype. I will try to have a mix of new and established authors on the show and cover a wide variety of genres.

All three of your recent novels—THE BOOKMAN’S TALE, FIRST IMPRESSIONS and THE LOST BOOK OF THE GRAIL—have a literary or historical theme. What draws you to these themes, and how do you go about doing the research from your novels?

As a book collector and a former antiquarian bookseller, I have always been fascinated by the way we connect to the past through books—not just their texts, but books as physical, individual objects as well. By extension, that brings a fascination with that past we connect with. Every novel presents its own challenges when it comes to research. In the case of THE LOST BOOK OF THE GRAIL, I already had a lot of experience with daily life in English cathedrals and had already read a lot about English ecclesiastical history, but I did a lot of research about cathedral libraries, chained libraries, the making of vellum codices, and daily life at various points throughout British history. The most enjoyable part of the research was actually visiting some of the cathedral libraries. I had a particularly good experience at Worcester Cathedral where my wife and I were able to arrange a private tour of the library and some of its treasures. I learned more in that hour and a half than in any other ten days of research. Not only did I see all sorts of books and manuscripts, details of which made their way into my narrative, but I had the opportunity to soak up the atmosphere of the place. There’s no replacement for that.

You’re also a collector of all things Lewis Carroll (the author of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, one of my very favorite books). You were the president of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, and you’ve lectured about him all over the world. I’m so curious . . . how did your fascination with Lewis Carroll originate and grow?

My father was a book collector and I became interested in the hobby as a teenager when I used to scout books for him in the days when secondhand bookstores dotted every town. In college, I thought I might like to start my own collection and I started casting about for something to collect. As a child, I had listed to these old LP records of the British actor Cyril Ritchard reading ALICE IN WONDERLAND. I loved his voice and I think that, more than anything else, endeared me to ALICE. So, I began to collect ALICE IN WONDERLAND and only later discovered what a fascinating person Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was. I often wonder how my life might have differed if I had chosen some other subject for my book collection. It’s hard to believe that either the collection or the way it has enriched my life through friendships, would have been quite as substantial. My collection now covers what I think of as “Lewis Carroll and his world,” and includes things like his 1888 Hammond typewriter, books from his library, and even a painting that hung on his walls.

In addition to everything we’ve talked about, you’re also a prolific playwright. How do you feel that writing plays differs from writing novels (other than the obvious) and what do you love best about seeing your plays find their way to the stage?

Writing plays the way I wrote them has more in common with writing sonnets than writing novels. I wrote plays for a specific number of actors, designed to last a specific amount of time, with each character having roughly the same number of lines. Add to that form the fact that a playwright uses mostly dialogue with only a few directions of action and you get the same sort of restriction as: write fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter. But, as in sonnet writing, those restrictions can be paradoxically liberating and often sent me in unexpected directions. While my plays have been performed in thousands of productions around the world, I originally wrote them for Summit School in Winston-Salem. My wife, Janice, directed the premieres and I designed the sets and ran lights and sound. The best thing about seeing my work staged in this way was truly understanding the collaborative nature of writing (which on the surface is a solo activity). When I had the pleasure of seeing an audience laugh at something I wrote, they were reacting not just to my words, but to decisions my wife and her students had made. Theatre is an obviously collaborative art form, but even my novels exist as they do because of the work not just of me but of my agent, my editors, and my wife, all of whom contribute to what you see on the page. And of course the final stage of collaboration is with the reader. Until someone reads my novels, they are just ink and paper. The imagination of the reader is required to make a novel complete.

Is there anything I didn’t ask that I should’ve? Whatever it is, please answer it here!

Now you know all my secrets! I could tell you about the new novel I’ve been working on. It’s my first book set entirely in the United States—in this case in New York City in 2010 and in 1906. Learning about the world of New York in 1906 was great fun and involved a lot of research in collections of digitized photographs, maps, and newspapers. The book is set in the world of early 20th century children’s series books (books like NANCY DREW and the HARDY BOYS)—not great literature, but books that had a huge cultural impact and have a fascinating back story. Since I’ve started working on that novel, I’ve yet to meet anybody who does not have a memory of reading one of those series books as a child. And if that’s not your cup of tea, I’m also working on a biography of Lewis Carroll from the point of view of his religious life. So, something for everyone!

In an English cathedral city, passionate bibliophile and Holy Grail enthusiast Arthur Prescott works to uncover a long-lost secret about the cathedral’s past—and its connections to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table . . .

Arthur Prescott is happiest when surrounded by the ancient books and manuscripts of the Barchester Cathedral Library. He finds little satisfaction in his job teaching English in the concrete buildings of the University of Barchester, where life seems like a never-ending committee meeting. But in the cathedral library, he contentedly nurtures his secret fascination with the Holy Grail and researches his perennially unfinished guidebook to the medieval cathedral.

When a beautiful young American named Bethany Davis arrives in Barchester charged with digitizing the library’s manuscripts, Arthur’s tranquility is broken. Concerned by the threat technology poses to the library he loves, Arthur sets himself in opposition to Bethany, only to find in her a kindred spirit with a similar love for knowledge and books—and a fellow Grail enthusiast. Bethany soon joins Arthur in a quest to find the lost Book of Ewolda, an ancient manuscript telling the story of the cathedral’s founder that was last seen being carried away by a mysterious figure during one of Barchester Cathedral’s most dangerous nights.

As Arthur and Bethany peel back layers of history, the reader is privy to important moments in the story of the Book of Ewolda and its associated treasures—from the earliest days of the English saints to the Norman invasion, the Reformation, the English Civil War, and on to the Victorian era and the bombings of World War II. And when the future of the cathedral itself is threatened, Arthur and Bethany’s search takes on grave importance, leading the pair to discover secrets about the great church, about the Grail, and about themselves that neither expected.

Facebook: charlielovett.author

Twitter and Instagram: CharlieLovett42

Bio

Charlie Lovett is a former antiquarian bookseller, an avid book collector, and a member of The Grolier Club, the oldest and largest club for bibliophiles in North America. He is the author of THE LOST BOOK OF THE GRAIL, The Bookman’s Tale, First Impressions, and The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge. In 2015, Lovett curated Alice Live!, a major exhibition of Lewis Carroll and Alice memorabilia at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, and also wrote a new introduction for Penguin Classics’s 150th anniversary edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. He and his wife split their time between Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Kingham, Oxfordshire, England. 

I had the privilege of meeting multitalented Renaissance man Charlie Lovett when my first novel came out, at the Bookmarks literary festival in Winston-Salem, NC. Since then, we’ve reconnected at Bookmarks’ fabulous new independent bookstore—where I had my very first reading for THE DREAM KEEPER’S DAUGHTER—as well as on Charlie’s podcast, The Writers’ Studio. Today, we chat about the paperback release of his novel, THE LOST BOOK OF THE GRAIL, his abiding obsession with ALICE IN WONDERLAND, and what’s next (hint: it’s his first book set entirely in the U.S.).

Welcome, Charlie! I’m thrilled to have you on the blog. Congratulations on the paperback release of THE LOST BOOK OF THE GRAIL. For those who aren’t familiar, what’s the book all about, and what was your inspiration for writing it?

THE LOST BOOK OF THE GRAIL is a literary mystery set in an English Cathedral library. The protagonists Arthur Prescott and Bethany Davis—two very different people—are trying to find a lost manuscript that may show a connection between Barchester Cathedral and the Holy Grail. The book is part historical fiction, part mystery, part bibliographic fantasia, part romance, and lots of fun.  I actually began this book with a setting. I had written a novel (THE BOOKMAN’S TALE) partially set in an American academic rare book library and another (FIRST IMPRESSIONS) partly set in two English country house libraries. When I sat down to start the third novel, I thought, what other kind of libraries are there? I had visited English cathedrals regularly all my adult life, and I knew many of them had libraries filled with illuminated manuscripts and other treasures. It seemed like a good place to start. Then I asked myself, “What kind of person would spend all his spare time hanging out in a cathedral library?” and that question led to Arthur Prescott.

You are a man of many talents! In addition to your writing, you’re the president of the board of directors of Bookmarks, Winston-Salem’s newest independent bookstore—which actually hosted the first event for my novel, THE DREAM KEEPER’S DAUGHTER; thank you!—and you’ve recently launched a podcast, Inside the Writer’s Studio. Tell us about the experience of getting Bookmarks off the ground and your decision to start a podcast. Has it been a wild ride?  

Bookmarks is a literary non-profit with the mission of connecting people with books and authors. I’ve been privileged to be associated with the organization as a board member for five years now. We started as a small annual book festival and now have author events year round, including the largest annual book festival in the Carolinas. We reach over 9000 children a year through our author in schools programs and many more at our home in downtown Winston-Salem. Opening a non-profit independent bookstore had been on our wish list for a few years and it took great courage on the part of the board and the staff to take that plunge. But our brilliant staff raised over $500,000, oversaw the renovation of a 1930s building within a couple of hundred yards of our festival site, and has opened a fantastic bookstore and community gathering space where we have events (author appearances, story time, bookclubs, classes, and more) just about every day. It has been an amazing experience to be a part of this successful effort by a great community of the arts. I decided to start a podcast (Inside the Writers Studio) so that I could help Bookmarks reach an even wider audience. I interview authors (sometimes live at Bookmarks) and we talk about the things authors like to talk about—our craft, our business, or lives, and our latest work. It’s been great fun to talk to writers like Robin Sloan and John Grisham here in Winston-Salem and others like Gregory Maguire and Samantha Silva via Skype. I will try to have a mix of new and established authors on the show and cover a wide variety of genres.

All three of your recent novels—THE BOOKMAN’S TALE, FIRST IMPRESSIONS and THE LOST BOOK OF THE GRAIL—have a literary or historical theme. What draws you to these themes, and how do you go about doing the research from your novels?

As a book collector and a former antiquarian bookseller, I have always been fascinated by the way we connect to the past through books—not just their texts, but books as physical, individual objects as well. By extension, that brings a fascination with that past we connect with. Every novel presents its own challenges when it comes to research. In the case of THE LOST BOOK OF THE GRAIL, I already had a lot of experience with daily life in English cathedrals and had already read a lot about English ecclesiastical history, but I did a lot of research about cathedral libraries, chained libraries, the making of vellum codices, and daily life at various points throughout British history. The most enjoyable part of the research was actually visiting some of the cathedral libraries. I had a particularly good experience at Worcester Cathedral where my wife and I were able to arrange a private tour of the library and some of its treasures. I learned more in that hour and a half than in any other ten days of research. Not only did I see all sorts of books and manuscripts, details of which made their way into my narrative, but I had the opportunity to soak up the atmosphere of the place. There’s no replacement for that.

You’re also a collector of all things Lewis Carroll (the author of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, one of my very favorite books). You were the president of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, and you’ve lectured about him all over the world. I’m so curious . . . how did your fascination with Lewis Carroll originate and grow?

My father was a book collector and I became interested in the hobby as a teenager when I used to scout books for him in the days when secondhand bookstores dotted every town. In college, I thought I might like to start my own collection and I started casting about for something to collect. As a child, I had listed to these old LP records of the British actor Cyril Ritchard reading ALICE IN WONDERLAND. I loved his voice and I think that, more than anything else, endeared me to ALICE. So, I began to collect ALICE IN WONDERLAND and only later discovered what a fascinating person Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was. I often wonder how my life might have differed if I had chosen some other subject for my book collection. It’s hard to believe that either the collection or the way it has enriched my life through friendships, would have been quite as substantial. My collection now covers what I think of as “Lewis Carroll and his world,” and includes things like his 1888 Hammond typewriter, books from his library, and even a painting that hung on his walls.

In addition to everything we’ve talked about, you’re also a prolific playwright. How do you feel that writing plays differs from writing novels (other than the obvious) and what do you love best about seeing your plays find their way to the stage?

Writing plays the way I wrote them has more in common with writing sonnets than writing novels. I wrote plays for a specific number of actors, designed to last a specific amount of time, with each character having roughly the same number of lines. Add to that form the fact that a playwright uses mostly dialogue with only a few directions of action and you get the same sort of restriction as: write fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter. But, as in sonnet writing, those restrictions can be paradoxically liberating and often sent me in unexpected directions. While my plays have been performed in thousands of productions around the world, I originally wrote them for Summit School in Winston-Salem. My wife, Janice, directed the premieres and I designed the sets and ran lights and sound. The best thing about seeing my work staged in this way was truly understanding the collaborative nature of writing (which on the surface is a solo activity). When I had the pleasure of seeing an audience laugh at something I wrote, they were reacting not just to my words, but to decisions my wife and her students had made. Theatre is an obviously collaborative art form, but even my novels exist as they do because of the work not just of me but of my agent, my editors, and my wife, all of whom contribute to what you see on the page. And of course the final stage of collaboration is with the reader. Until someone reads my novels, they are just ink and paper. The imagination of the reader is required to make a novel complete.

Is there anything I didn’t ask that I should’ve? Whatever it is, please answer it here!

Now you know all my secrets! I could tell you about the new novel I’ve been working on. It’s my first book set entirely in the United States—in this case in New York City in 2010 and in 1906. Learning about the world of New York in 1906 was great fun and involved a lot of research in collections of digitized photographs, maps, and newspapers. The book is set in the world of early 20th century children’s series books (books like NANCY DREW and the HARDY BOYS)—not great literature, but books that had a huge cultural impact and have a fascinating back story. Since I’ve started working on that novel, I’ve yet to meet anybody who does not have a memory of reading one of those series books as a child. And if that’s not your cup of tea, I’m also working on a biography of Lewis Carroll from the point of view of his religious life. So, something for everyone!

In an English cathedral city, passionate bibliophile and Holy Grail enthusiast Arthur Prescott works to uncover a long-lost secret about the cathedral’s past—and its connections to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table . . .

Arthur Prescott is happiest when surrounded by the ancient books and manuscripts of the Barchester Cathedral Library. He finds little satisfaction in his job teaching English in the concrete buildings of the University of Barchester, where life seems like a never-ending committee meeting. But in the cathedral library, he contentedly nurtures his secret fascination with the Holy Grail and researches his perennially unfinished guidebook to the medieval cathedral.

When a beautiful young American named Bethany Davis arrives in Barchester charged with digitizing the library’s manuscripts, Arthur’s tranquility is broken. Concerned by the threat technology poses to the library he loves, Arthur sets himself in opposition to Bethany, only to find in her a kindred spirit with a similar love for knowledge and books—and a fellow Grail enthusiast. Bethany soon joins Arthur in a quest to find the lost Book of Ewolda, an ancient manuscript telling the story of the cathedral’s founder that was last seen being carried away by a mysterious figure during one of Barchester Cathedral’s most dangerous nights.

As Arthur and Bethany peel back layers of history, the reader is privy to important moments in the story of the Book of Ewolda and its associated treasures—from the earliest days of the English saints to the Norman invasion, the Reformation, the English Civil War, and on to the Victorian era and the bombings of World War II. And when the future of the cathedral itself is threatened, Arthur and Bethany’s search takes on grave importance, leading the pair to discover secrets about the great church, about the Grail, and about themselves that neither expected.

Facebook: charlielovett.author

Twitter and Instagram: CharlieLovett42

Bio

Charlie Lovett is a former antiquarian bookseller, an avid book collector, and a member of The Grolier Club, the oldest and largest club for bibliophiles in North America. He is the author of THE LOST BOOK OF THE GRAIL, The Bookman’s Tale, First Impressions, and The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge. In 2015, Lovett curated Alice Live!, a major exhibition of Lewis Carroll and Alice memorabilia at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, and also wrote a new introduction for Penguin Classics’s 150th anniversary edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. He and his wife split their time between Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Kingham, Oxfordshire, England. 

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