by Matthew Pearl
Did bookaneers really exist? A few years ago, I stumbled on a stray detail indicating that nineteenth-century publishers would hire agents to obtain valuable manuscripts that were fair game under the laws. Because of their shadowy place in history, I could not find much else about this group, but I was intrigued.
Building on this fragment of legal and publishing history, I tried imagining more fully these freelance literary bounty hunters — the history of their profession, what they might be called on to do, who they were, their backgrounds, how their lives would bring them to this unusual profession and how the profession would shape their personal lives. As far as historical fiction goes, it fit one of my ideals: a bit of gray-area history that cannot be explored very far without the help of fiction.
In this case, it seemed to me to call for informed speculation — what I’d refer to as research-based fiction — plus plenty of imagination. I applied the term bookaneer, one I had noticed had been used in a generic sense in the nineteenth century about literary piracy (the earliest use I find is in 1837 by poet Thomas Hood).
I cast a few bookaneers in supporting roles in an earlier novel, The Last Dickens, in which we encounter Pen’s mentor-lover, Kitten, and hear about Whiskey Bill.
I realized I wanted to see more of these and other bookaneers, and reader feedback on this front encouraged me. This led me to create Pen Davenport and his assistant Edgar C. Fergins, whom I decided to follow on a journey that would test them professionally and personally. I envisioned my fictional characters crossing paths with a number of prominent authors in history, but my compass pointed them to Stevenson. I had been fascinated by Stevenson’s time in Samoa.
It was intriguing and mysterious to his contemporaries to think of a European author at the far reaches of the known world, and I had to imagine it would have been an irresistible quest for my bookaneers — a kind of moment of destiny for both sides in the (still raging) battle over creative property.