Drinking Like Dickens (a “conversation” with Adam Selzer)

As part of the events surrounding the release of The Edwin Drood Murders, I have been making contact with several Dickens-related bloggers. One of the cheekiest is Adam Selzer, a Renaissance Man and YA author (Sparks—Flux Books, 2011, and Play Me Backwards, forthcoming from Simon and Schuster in 2014), a Chicago “Ghost Tour” guide, and enthusiastic amateur Dickensian, who likes to replicate drinks found in Dickens’s novels.

I found him through his charming blog, “Drink Like the Dickens,” which had a flurry of activity in early 2013, but has been on hiatus temporarily while Adam attends to his book contracts and other responsibilities. But Adam made time for an online “conversation” with me, and we are posting our discussion on our respective websites.

Christopher:  Adam, so great to “meet” you in cyberspace. I’ve been a fan of “Drink Like the Dickens” since I discovered it while researching Our Mutual Friend for a seminar I conducted earlier this year.  I served Purl, one of the favorite drinks at The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters, to help my participants get into Dickens’s high-octane world. You are a man of catholic tastes. How did you first get into Dickens?

Adam:  I was working as a pizza delivery man, and after a while listening to music started to seem like a chore, so I downloaded a bunch of old radio shows. I particularly liked the mystery shows, like Inner Sanctum. One night I listened to a two-parter of The Mystery of Edwin Drood that Suspense did in the early ’50s, and I enjoyed it so much that I thought I’d read the real thing. SO that winter I ended up reading Drood, Great Expectations, and Bleak House. After that I was hooked.

Last year I started up the Drink Like the Dickens blog, in which I try to make smoking bishop, athol brose, Micawber’s punch, and all those other odd drinks that pop up in the works. It’s stalled for the moment, and I’m actually running low on topics for it; most of time when they’re drinking in those books, it’s just brandy and water or something plain, like claret. I did pick up some Paul Masson madeira, which tastes like raisins and gives you a great excuse to impersonate those videos of Orson Welles drunk off his ass and trying to film a Paul Masson commercial.

Christopher: You must try a true Madeira, my dear. A solera that contains a teaspoon of a Madeira from the 18th century. One of my favorite wines….but back to the interview. How do you blend your talent for writing contemporary young adult literature with a love of the putatively (not so putative in my book) greatest novelist of the nineteenth century?

Adam: There are Dickens shout-outs all over my books, though very few people ever notice them. Sparks was very, very loosely based on The Old Curiosity Shop, and you can also see a lot of Quilp in the villain in Extraordinary. For I Put a Spell On You I named a teacher Mrs. Boffin, and another character “Mutual” whose mother is always talking about tricks and manners. Not a lot of grade school kids are going to pick up references to Our Mutual Friend, but I always hold out hope that their teachers will get a kick out of it.

Christopher: I’m reading “around” Dickens these days—books he loved as a child (Smollett, Fielding, etc.) and his contemporaries (particularly Thackeray). You responded to a tweet I made about something that delighted me in Smollett’s Humphry Clinker, a book I read this summer, but one that had been in my library since I was a teenager (I’m sure glad I didn’t read it when I was young). Besides Dickens and Smollett, who are other writers you admire (not all of them have to be “classic” writers)?

Adam:  Yeah, I have a really prissy guidance counselor who shows up in a bunch of my books; I thought it would be funny to name her Mrs. Smollett, because Clinker taught me a couple of words for excrement that I didn’t know yet. Stercoraceous effluvia. There should be a punk band called the Stercoraceans.

Daniel Pinkwater wrote The Snarkout Boys and The Avocado of Death in the 1970s, and I’ve sort of based my life around the teachings therein. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Phillip Roth; his latest, Nemesis, knocked me on my ass.

I, uh,  don’t really read much, though. Reading is for squares, isn’t it?

Christopher: Well, I can’t quite agree with you there, Adam. I’ve been a lifelong reader since I discovered Dickens (Our Mutual Friend, particularly) at age 14. But I’ve probably lived a more sedate life than you…I love that you do ghost tours (although I’m not certain that I’m a believer). I’ve read some paranormal novels (those pesky YA vampire books that sold a gazillion copies), and my protagonist, who only stocks books in his bookstore that he has actually read, even sells them, along with The Scarlet Letter: A Pop-up Book, which is a creation of my twisted imagination. How does the tour guiding fit in with your overall vocational plans?

Adam: Less than people would think! So far there’s been very little overlap between the novels and the tours. I get a lot of gigs doing Chicago history and ghostlore books, though, and I probably have about as many nonfiction books as novels out by now.  I do a lot of research to find primary sources for the ghost stories (I’d never confirm for anyone that a ghost is “real,” but we can at least try to get the history right). I did a couple of vampire satires back when paranormal romance was the thing to do (having Mrs. Smollett be a vampire who was born about 1850 explained a lot), but even then, the ghostlore and Chicago history stuff didn’t really fit into it.

We’ve got one Dickens site of interest here in Chicago; his no-good brother Augustus is buried in a north-side cemetery, along with his wife (who overdosed on morphine one bleak Christmas) and three kids, one of whom was named Lincoln. It was unmarked until recently. Surviving relatives in the area say they grew up thinking that if anyone found out they were related to Charles Dickens, they’d have to go sit on the porch with a bag over their heads. Charles never came here on his 1867-8 tour, and boy was the Tribune mad! It’s something I like to do when I travel, though; every time I’m in a city where he read, I try to figure out where the theatre was. It usually turns out to be an alley or something now, but I love that kind of scavenger hunt.

Christopher: I hadn’t thought of seeking out Dickens haunts from his US visits; I like that.

I’ve already finished the next book in my Dickens Junction series, The Our Mutual Friend Murders, which I hope will be published before year-end 2014. What else are you working on?

Adam: Actually, I’m working on a Dickens project of my own. The working title is I Beat Up Charles Dickens. I can only imagine what Harold Bloom would say about this.  I also have a couple more non-fiction projects in the hopper, including The Ghosts of Chicago, which was just released on September 10, and one about Abraham Lincoln ghostlore that’s been a lot of fun to research.  The next novel to be released is called Play Me Backwards; I’ve been joking that it’s a novel for young adults who worship the devil. It has a sort of Moby Dick theme running throughout it. Now that’s a weird book. I’m never sure if I’m supposed to take Ishmael seriously or not. Not unlike Esther in Bleak House, who I like a lot better than most people seem to, but whose “goody goody” thing is largely an act, I think.

Christopher: I did a six-week discussion group on Bleak House. The group was sharply divided about whether Esther’s persona is natural or feigned. One of the great things about Bleak House is that a book so complex lends itself to lengthy and impassioned discussion, proof (at least to me) that Dickens is still relevant in the 21st century…

Adam, I hope we’ll meet someday. I think we should celebrate over a bowl of one of the most famous alcoholic concoctions in all literature, “furmity” (or frumenty), which serves as the catalyst for the disastrous events in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. Doesn’t that sound like fun?

Adam: I am always down for some disastrous events. I’ve come pretty close to setting my apartment on fire a couple of times making Micawber’s punch. It’s much easier to get it to ignite indoors, so…

Christopher: Well, on that happy note…Check out Adam’s blog, “Drink Like the Dickens” at http://dickensdrinks.blogspot.com. Look for Play Me Backwards by Adam Selzer next year but, in the meantime, check out The Edwin Drood Murders by yours truly, out now from Harrison Thurman Books. Buy it at your local independent bookstore, or online, available both in a trade paperback edition and ebook (Amazon.com only).

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