Andrew Pessin talks with Book Glow about the writing of The Irrationalist. The historical murder mystery is available from Amazon and Open Books Direct.
BG: Describe the book in one sentence.
AP: The Irrationalist is an historical murder based closely on real events: the difficult life and very mysterious death of the famous philosopher, René Descartes.
BG: What led you to write it?
AP: I am a philosophy professor, and Descartes has been a primary focus of my professional research for many years. He was a brilliant, groundbreaking thinker and one of the world’s greatest mathematicians, too. Some years back I read an exquisite biography by philosopher Richard Watson, written with a literary flair, which revealed just how complex and moving Descartes’s personal life was and convinced me that a novel about Descartes was necessary. But just which novel? That answer was inspired by a recent book by German philosopher Theodor Ebert. Descartes’s death shortly after the Swedish Queen brought him to Stockholm indeed was mysterious, and since he had many enemies, credible rumors swirled at the time that it was no mere case of pneumonia. Ebert argues compellingly that those rumors weren’t merely credible but actually true, and makes the case for who he thinks did the evil deed. Though The Irrationalist’s specific conclusions diverge from Ebert’s, it was the combination of Watson’s and Ebert’s books that led to this historical murder mystery based closely on real events ….
BG: How long did it take to write?
AP: The historical research was extensive, as the events of Descartes’s life were intimately entangled with what was going on throughout Europe at the time, including the frighteningly brutal Thirty Years War. That research alone took about two years, and then writing of the novel itself was spread over several years. All told, then, something like five years.
BG: Do you prefer writing in one genre over another?
AP: That’s an interesting question! The Irrationalist is my second novel, and is in a very different genre from my first. It’s an historical murder mystery set in Europe almost five centuries ago, while my first novel, The Second Daughter, is a dysfunctional family drama/comedy set in North America in the 1960s-1980s. I had an equal blast writing both novels. I have some ideas about my next novel brewing too, including one set in ancient times, another in the future (though not science fiction), and a couple of contemporaneous ideas—not to mention a possible sequel to The Irrationalist. So the short answer is: no preference so far, and I’m open to trying new genres next time! (I should also mention here that I’ve written a number of non-fiction books, too, works of philosophy aimed at the general reader.)
BG: Where do you write?
AP: Happily I have a little study—a man cave, sort of—in my house, where when I’m writing my family members are forbidden to enter. Ha! I wish. I have the man cave, but my kids are in and out of it constantly, no matter how much I yell at them.
BG: Is there any one thing that especially frustrates you about the writing process?
AP: Time … writing takes time, so much time … and requires so much mental energy and dedication. The reason it takes so much time (at least for me) is that it requires endless rethinking, rewriting, revision. For me, even when I’ve had a good outline of the overall plot line before I started, I discover so much in the process of writing the first draft that almost everything gets rethought, reinvented, which requires going back to the beginning and starting over. I should mention that that is also fun, because I’m constantly discovering or inventing all sorts of new things I hadn’t anticipated when I set out to write the novel. But what’s “frustrating” about all this isn’t actually how hard and time-consuming the writing is: it’s the fact that I have other obligations and responsibilities that conflict with the writing.
BG: Any advice for novice writers?
AP: Two pieces of advice:
(1) Write. That’s it. Put words on the page. You can always fix them, change them, rewrite them later. I’ve never suffered from serious writer’s block, at least so far, because of that advice. Too many people don’t want to put down the words because they feel a compulsion that what they write has to be perfect, or even just good. Get the words on the page without worrying if they’re any good, then come back later and make them better.
(2) Write because you love it, because it’s fun, because it’s rewarding, and then you will actually find it fun and rewarding and love it. But if you write because you desire to be famous or rich or renowned, then you are asking to be miserable. (Not that being famous or rich or renowned is so bad, but they’re more likely to come if you write because you love it ….)
BG: What’s next?
AP: As mentioned above I have a bunch of ideas about my next novel. But I’m currently working on another non-fiction book first, a book about how philosophers have thought about God and other religious matters. This book will be accessible to the general reader, so if it interests you, keep an eye on my website for its publication: www.andrewpessin.com ….
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