Oliver Tearle isn’t just an incredible lecturer in literature at England’s Loughborough University, he’s also founder of Interesting Literature; a blog with a following that includes J. K. Rowling and the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s the go-to site for all the quirky knowledge that you need to know about your literary heroes.
1) What ignited the idea for this book?
The book began life as a blog, Interesting Literature, which I started one rainy Saturday afternoon back in 2012. And the blog began life as a sort of online repository for interesting literary snippets that I came across during the course of my reading, my academic research, and my university teaching (my day job is as a lecturer in English at Loughborough University). Eventually, patterns began to emerge as one fact linked to another, and I thought it would be a nice idea to knit them together into a short history of 3,000 years of Western civilization. A hubristic thought, but then I like a challenge.
2) Which piece of information blew your mind away?
Probably the most amazing fact I discovered while researching the book was that there’s a joke book from 1,500 years ago which has come down to us pretty intact, and many of the jokes still (sort of) work. Indeed, a fair few of them were doing the rounds in comedy clubs until well into the 1970s! But there were lots of surprising discoveries along the way. The first Darwin to propose a theory of evolution wasn’t Charles Darwin but his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin – who put forward his theory in a poem in 1803. The first female English dramatist was a woman named Joanna Lumley who was born in 1537! When you learn things like that you just have to share them.
3) For the future author in us, could you offer practical advice on how you went about researching and creating this masterpiece?
I think you’re the first person to call it a ‘masterpiece’! Thank you, very kind. André Gide once said, ‘The book I am writing will not be good unless my first thought, my involuntary thought on awakening, is for it.’ I think the main thing with a book like this is you have to have a genuine interest in the subject you’re researching. Then the research becomes fun, and the desire to share what you find out makes the writing process fun too (though it’s still often eye-wateringly hard work). And in terms of finding a publisher and getting the book into print, persistence and patience are essential. I’d also say don’t be afraid to put yourself out there: get in touch with potential publishers if you can. Pitch an idea, try your luck. You might find they like what you have to offer.
4) Did you find any information so ‘out there’ you weren’t able to publish it? If not, something you weren’t able to squeeze into the book that you could share now?
I tried to load every rift with ore, to borrow from Keats, and ensure there was at least one really interesting fact on every page – or at any rate, something I found truly fascinating. But because I arranged The Secret Library so that each entry would be linked to the next, sometimes I had to cut material from the final draft, even though it was interesting. Probably the hardest decision I made was cutting a section on Trilby, which was a popular novel in the 1890s (by George du Maurier) before it became a stage adaptation, then a jocular term for the foot, then a word for a pair of shoes, then finally, and most familiarly, the name for a type of hat. But for a while your ‘trilby’ was your foot, because in the novel the heroine, Trilby, has a pair of delectable feet. At the Broadway production of the novel in 1894, you could even buy ice cream in the shape of Trilby’s feet, bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘put one’s foot in one’s mouth’. (Oddly enough, du Maurier, the book’s author, was something of a foot fetishist.)
5) Can you offer advice for us mere mortals on how you retain such fascinating knowledge? Brain training?! Meditation?!
I think it’s true what they say: if you’re interested in something, you remember it more easily. That’s why the best teachers are the ones who make an effort to enthuse their students about the subject. But I’ve always had a talent for remembering dates. As for the rest, I either remember it instantly or I have to train myself. That’s where memory techniques come in – though meditation could possibly work too…
6) My favourite part in The Secret Library is the insight we get into Beware the Cat. I cried with laughter when a “hapless Catholic priest slips on the poor cat and goes hurtling into a crowd of people, landing with his face in the ‘bare arse’ of a boy who has just ‘beshit himself’”. Never, in my 20 years of being able to read, have I laughed so hard, or shared a passage so heartily with my friends and colleagues.
What was your favourite part, and why?
Actually, that would be a close contender for my favourite, too. It was a joy to write because the material, as they say, wrote itself. Beware the Cat is a remarkable book: a novel written over a century-and-a-half before the ‘official’ beginning of the English novel, with Gothic overtones, postmodern touches, and (perhaps most astoundingly of all) still genuinely funny nearly half a millennium later. I’m astonished it isn’t better known – and that it’s impossible to find a cheap edition of it anywhere.
After Beware the Cat probably my favourite bit is the section on ‘the Newburyport Nut’, Timothy Dexter, an eccentric American who published a book, A Pickle for the Knowing Ones, with no punctuation. He later advised readers to add their own. He also claimed to his neighbours that his wife had died and her ghost could be seen roaming the house. This would’ve come as a shock to his wife, since she was still very much alive.
7) Do you have another book in the pipeline that we can look forward to?
I’ve just finished a new book, which takes the form of a travelogue rather than a historical tour. Titled Britain by the Book, it takes in numerous places around the country, seeking out the interesting literary stories relating to certain landscapes, houses, streets, and locales. As with The Secret Library, the most rewarding part of it was learning a raft of surprising new things about writers and books I thought I already knew. I hope readers feel the same! It’s out in November with John Murray.
8) Out of the 9 time periods that you ventured through in The Secret Library, which one are you most fascinated by and why?
I should probably say the Victorian or the modern as they’re the historical periods where my academic research is focused! But actually the most fascinating was the classical world. In some ways the Greeks and Romans were extremely remote from us; in others, unbelievably like us. A ‘novel’ like Petronius’ Satyricon makes that clear. In The Secret Library I call it ‘the Roman Great Gatsby’, but it might also be described as the Roman version of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Above all, it’s fun. ‘Fun’ is an underrated aspect of reading where Literature (with the capital ‘L’) is concerned. But I hope that my book succeeds in capturing some of the fun of it all.
9) As a literature expert, what 3 books should everybody read before they die?
My choices would have to be terribly selective and personal! Only 3? Well, assuming Desert Island Discs-style that Shakespeare is already taken care of … everyone should read a Dickens novel, and it’s probably got to be Bleak House. Homer is where Western literature began, so either the Iliad or the Odyssey (the latter gets my vote). And the third? It’s another doorstop I’m afraid, but George Eliot’s Middlemarch is full of wisdom and penetrating analysis of human nature, and that’s what people tend to look for in ‘books everybody should read before they die’. But as I remark in The Secret Library, it’s not as much fun as Beware the Cat.