An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Tim Mason
The Darwin Affair (Algonquin Books, 11 June 2019)
Tim Mason is a successful playwright whose work has been produced in New York and throughout the world, for decades. The Darwin Affair is his first adult novel.
When Inspector Charles Field (based on the real London policeman immortalized by Dickens as Inspector Bucket in Bleak House) sets out to find who was behind the failed attempt against Queen Victoria’s life, he comes to believe the plot may have originated with ranking members of the Church of England, the scientific establishment, and highly-placed representatives of the Empire.
Many were alarmed because the Queen had chosen to offer a knighthood to Charles Darwin, author of the newly published – and very controversial – On the Origin of Species, widely viewed as antichurch, anti-Empire, and an act of heresy. That Darwin was indeed on a list of men to be knighted by Queen Victoria is a recorded fact. History also shows that it was an honor he would never receive.
“With many grisly murders and many shocking surprises along the way, the book rockets toward a last dark twist. Careful research, a driving plot, wry wit, and compelling characters make this a most entertaining read.”
– Kirkus Reviews
AUTHORLINK: Mr Mason, welcome to Authorlink. It’s so good to talk to you about The Darwin Affair! Apart from a novelist, you are also a successful playwright. We understand your love of Charles Dickens inspired the story of The Darwin Affair, but as you felt it couldn’t be translated into a play, you wrote it as a novel. Is that correct?
“…I never considered this wide-ranging, many-charactered story to be right for the stage.”
MASON: Yes, I never considered this wide-ranging, many-charactered story to be right for the stage. As Bleak House was the initial inspiration, it only made sense for its offspring to be a Victorian era novel.
AUTHORLINK: Understandable. Yes, it was the character of Inspector Bucket, the private investigator, who glides in and out of chapters in Dickens’ Bleak House, upon whom you based your story. However, we understand you didn’t actually use this fictional character because he was surrounded by real people in your book (historical figures, like Charles Darwin, Robert FitzRoy, Thomas Huxley, Bishop Wilberforce, et alia). So, you did a metaphorical back-flip and named him Charles Frederick Field, who was an actual London police detective thought to be the inspector upon whom Inspector Bucket was based by Dickens. However, your Inspector Field is very human – warm and engaging – but also capable of underhand dealings. Was he fully formed as a character in your mind before you put pen to paper, or did he develop as you went along? Is he somewhat a departure from Dickens’ Inspector Bucket or something close to him, in your opinion?
MASON: I did use Dickens’ Bucket as an initial model for my version of the real-life Inspector Charles Field. But fairly early on in writing the book I realized that my Field was quite different from the Bucket of Bleak House, and from the historical Detective Field. I preferred my fellow over the other two, so I made that a point in the story: my fictional Field objecting to Dickens’ fictional version of the real-life Field. If you follow…
AUTHORLINK: Yes, I do and I really like that. In real life, the real detective Field, boasted about the connection he had with the character of Mr Bucket to such an extent that Dickens denied any connection with him. What other surprising nuggets in this time in history did you discover in your research when formulating The Darwin Affair?
MASON: The nugget that began it all was the very likely possibility that Charles Darwin had appeared on the Queen’s list of those to be honored with a knighthood in 1860 (just a few weeks after the publication of On the Origin of Species), a knighthood he never received. Many other nuggets revealed themselves to me as I continued: Prince Albert’s progressive views, the profound sorrow that shadowed the devoted relationship of Charles and Emma Darwin, the sheer number of assassination attempts against Victoria, et al. Of great importance was the historical coach accident suffered by Prince Albert on a visit with his wife to Coburg, where he grew up.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, it’s all fascinating. On the Origin of Species (1859) became an immediate sensation and less than a month later, Darwin’s name likely appeared on a provisional list of those to be honoured (perhaps suggested to Queen Victoria by the Prime Minister at the time, Viscount Palmerston, or perhaps even Prince Albert). However, it is widely believed that Bishop Samuel Wilberforce intervened to have Darwin’s name struck from the provisional honours list, which led to Sir Charles Darwin not given a knighthood. What else did you discover about this in your research?
“The real reason Darwin never received this honorific may be known to archivists within the Royal Family…”
MASON: The real reason Darwin never received this honorific may be known to archivists within the Royal Family, but as far as I can tell the question remains unanswered, or ambiguously answered. That’s why I sought a fictional answer.
AUTHORLINK: Interesting…We understand Darwin’s theories in On the Origin of Species were received with hostility at the time, in large part because very few reviewers understood his theory. While he was reticent about his religious views, in 1879 he wrote, “I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. – I think that generally… an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind”, yet his theory of evolution was accepted by several liberal Anglican clergymen. This is surprising. Would you kindly comment on this?
MASON: The embrace given Darwin’s Origin by several leading clerics came as a surprise to me, as well, but the way to evolution had perhaps been paved by earlier works and discoveries. For one thing, people were discovering the fossilized bones of gargantuan creatures which no longer existed. Sir Richard Owen gave them a name: dinosaur. Earlier, in the 1830s, Charles Lyell published his geological studies which posited uniformitarianism, a very slow, gradual transformation of the earth from one age to another, versus catastrophism, sudden, violent change (Noah’s Flood, etc.) He argued that the earth was far older than the 6,000 years held by the church. He was the first to use the word “evolution.” The 22-year-old Charles Darwin took the first volume of Lyell’s work with him as he embarked on his 5 year voyage on the HMS Beagle.
AUTHORLINK: Although this is your first novel for adults, you’re an accomplished playwright, your skills evident in the well-structured scenes and riveting dialogue in The Darwin Affair. You have written five plays and one musical (The Grinch Musical) which have been very well received and you have been described as ‘one of the American theatre’s most gifted writers’. What got you started into play writing and writing in general, and do you have any ideas to write any further plays in the future?
MASON: That’s very flattering, I wonder if you got that quote from a member of my family? But thanks. And I have written far more than five produced plays. I have had a wonderful time working in theatre from age 15 to the present day. When I was a kid I wanted to be an actor, so that’s how I started. When I found I was better at writing than acting, I focused on that. When I was still older, I taught myself to write prose fiction with the middle school novel, The Last Synapsid. I still write plays, though, and still try to find productions for them.
“I often think about stories for years before I begin to write …”
AUTHORLINK: Ha ha ha. Not at all. Do you let the books or plays stew – leave them in the drawer for a month and then come back to revisit them later for editing? Do you proofread and edit all your own books? Who formally edits your writing, and how did you select him or her?
MASON: I often think about stories for years before I begin to write – that was the case with The Darwin Affair. I was very lucky to have a highly respected editor read my manuscript and buy my novel for Algonquin, and he – Charles F. Adams – edited it.
AUTHORLINK: Wow, he’s one of the best. One of the main characters in the book ‘the Chorister’ is rather unsettling and has been described as ‘sick and demented’ by a reader. Was he fun to write or difficult? Can you give any advice about how to write a loathsome character?
MASON: Decimus Cobb, known since his youth as the Chorister, was a slow-growing character for me. He certainly was not fun to write, but there were moments of great satisfaction as he came into horrific being. What was driving him? I was well into writing him before the answer came to me, and it came as a real shock. He commits monstrous acts, but it was my fictional Charles Darwin who taught me that there are no monsters – only people. I had to regard him as a human being in order to create him.
AUTHORLINK: What advice would you give to your younger self? What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
MASON: To my younger self: have faith. What do I do when not writing? I try to keep faith alive, and I cook.
AUTHORLINK: And now for some fun with the following question, if you could have any three people over for dinner, living or dead, famous or not, who would it be?
MASON: I would be thrilled if Barack Obama, Michele Obama, and Charles Dickens said Yes! to my dinner invitation.
AUTHORLINK: Intriguing combination. We understand you’re currently working on another book that features Inspector Field, five years before the events of The Darwin Affair, and seven years after. Is that right? Is it still titled The Nightingale Affair and will there be a third in the series? How is it different from writing The Darwin Affair? Do you write by the seat of your pants or do you plot out every chapter? How much writing do you aim for a day?
“…I do write from the seat of my pants to an extent. “
MASON: The Nightingale Affair is progressing. I think it will be a different sort of novel from The Darwin Affair in that it may have a somewhat less breathless pace. (I hope it will prompt readers to turn the pages, nonetheless). I don’t know for sure because, yes, I do write from the seat of my pants to an extent. I know certain points in the story and have some notion of how I might want it to finish, but for the most part I grope my way in the dark. I write daily in the mornings, and then sometimes in late afternoon. I have a vague notion for a third book in this series, one which opens with the funeral of Charles Dickens, and Charles Field acting as one of the pall-bearers. The Dickens Affair, of course…
AUTHORLINK: Oh, that sounds so great! When you visualize through a positive lens, how your writing career will go in the next five years, what do you see?
MASON: I see me trying to keep faith.
AUTHORLINK: Mr Mason, it was an absolute pleasure talking to you today about The Darwin Affair. We wish you the best of luck for all your writing endeavours in the future.
MASON: Thank you!
About the Author: Tim Mason is a successful playwright whose work has been produced in New York City and throughout the world for decades. Among the awards he has received are a Kennedy Center Award, the Hollywood Drama-Logue Award, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Rockefeller Foundation grant. In addition to his dramatic plays, he wrote the book and lyrics for Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical, which had two seasons on Broadway and tours nationally every year.
He is the author of one young adult novel, The Last Synapsid, published in 2009. The Darwin Affair is his first adult novel.
You can find out more about Tim Mason at https://timmasonauthor.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/The-Darwin-Affair-427442587745899/