Former Knopf and New Yorker editor–in-chief Robert Gottlieb illuminates Charles Dickens’s family life in Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens.
How does your career as an editor inform your writing process?
I write, and then I edit it into writing, if you know what I mean. I keep going back, whether it’s a sentence or a paragraph or a page, making it more fluent, more lively, more organized. Many people say to me, particularly about my dance writing, “It sounds just like you.” But it sounds just like me after I’ve made it sound like me.
What draws you to biographies, and how do you choose your subjects?
I’m somebody who drifted into writing very late, having spent my life dealing with writing. For me, the real pleasure in writing is in having an excuse to pursue my curiosity about people who have meant something to me. I’ve been interested in Dickens since I was a kid, and three years ago the New York Review of Books asked me to write a piece about a new Dickens biography, so that gave me the excuse to start reading everything I could about him. By coincidence, three years before that, I had found in a secondhand bookstore a modest collection of his letters. Many of them were either to or about his children. I wanted to understand what he was like as a father, and what they were like as his children.
What did you discover?
In many ways he was a wonderful, inspiring father. But then there came a point when—and I hate to use as vulgar a phrase as the “mid-life crisis,” but he really had one. His anger, his disappointment, his meanness rose to the surface and erupted. He dismissed his wife, and, for the most part, his children.
Dickens designed tragic ends for several of his literary children. Can the same be said about his actual children?
Obviously, the ones who died very young were tragic. But the others weren’t tragic; they were just ordinary. The question is, why do we see that as tragic? Was he a good father? There’s no definitive answer, but that’s what’s interesting. I was the only child, and I know my father had certain thoughts about me. He was a lawyer and extremely literary, but he would have been much happier if I had wanted to be a lawyer, a scientist, an engineer. But what I wanted to do was read. He was proud of me, and lived long enough to see me be successful at what I was doing, but that wasn’t until I was in my 30s. But the Dickens children were not allowed to reach their 30s before their fates were announced. So, off they went. Little did they know. But there you are.