I returned to my boarding school recently to spend a day as visiting writer, talking with boys about the writing process, the writing business, and my novel The Bookman’s Tale, which some of the classes had read. The imminent trip made me go digging through a file of old high school English papers and I found that I still have a paper to which I frequently refer when talking to groups about The Bookman’s Tale.
At Woodberry Forest I was talking to people who had read the book, but often—whether at bookstores, libraries, or schools—I’m talking to folks who have not (yet) read it and I have to be careful about spoilers. For this reason I usually read and discuss the opening scene, in which Peter Byerly discovers in an old book a Victorian watercolor that looks just like his dead wife. In the context of discussing this opening, I usually mention the assignment that led to this recently unearthed paper. We had to choose a work of literature and show how the opening passage encapsulated the entire work. I chose Twelfth Night (and I was pleased to find that I got an A).
It turns out that the opening of The Bookman’s Tale fits this assignment nicely. All the main elements of the novel make an appearance in this four-page scene: the broken and grieving protagonist, the world of old and rare books, William Shakespeare, forgery, love, mystery, and crime. Furthermore The Bookman’s Tale is told in three timelines spanning over four centuries, and even this multiplicity of time is hinted at in the opening. Peter makes reference to the death of his wife nine months earlier and his binding a book ten years earlier, he picks up a book printed in 1796, and he recalls reading another printed in 1623.
Of course the students asked me if I did this on purpose and the honest answer is ‘No.’ When I started The Bookman’s Tale, though I had a general idea where I was going, I was feeling my way. But it’s nice to know that the opening is, in a sense, honest. If you like the things you encounter on the first four pages, there’s a good chance you’ll like the book. And if you don’t . . . well, at least you read my blog.