In Williams’s The Liar’s Dictionary (Doubleday, Jan.), a contemporary lexicographer gets caught up in the legacy of a Victorian coiner of fake words.
What was the inspiration for your novel?
The idea of a lexicographer “going rogue,” even if in a very small way, seemed so counter to the abiding notions I had regarding dictionaries and the process for their creation. I think dictionaries are often regarded as dependable, irreproachable, unimpeachable texts. To imagine some individual whose work undermines those qualities, by acting surreptitiously or scurrilously and making some form of mischief, seemed very appealing.
Have you always been fascinated by dictionaries and encyclopedias?
I’m certainly somebody who enjoys being lost in a dictionary, and I’m fascinated by the ambition of dictionaries, by their limitations as much as by their triumphs: an attempt to register or fix or arrange or index so supple and mutable a thing as language is extraordinary, a desire I suspect is often tinged with hubris.
Did you have a much-loved dictionary or encyclopedia while you were growing up?
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is a marvelous rattle-bag of information surrounding folklore, idioms, slang, and urban legend. Every page offers just the right mix of definition, trivia and insight into an idiosyncratic method of collating and displaying information.
Why did you locate the period part of your story in 1899?
My curiosity was inspired by the fact that it was the time period of some of my favorite real-life hoaxes—post-Chatterton’s fake medieval poems, the Berners Street Hoax, the Great Moon Hoax. It’s also the same time that such leaps and bounds were being made in terms of recording the world, as well as the dissemination of knowledge—for example, the invention of the microscope, typewriter, Dictaphone, etc. It’s an enjoyable irony to set a story at a time that was being understood or defined through new technologies so quickly, in which an errant lexicographer could be in the midst of recording “facts” and undermining that project. Setting the novel just as the world was readying itself for a new year, a new century, with all its promise for fresh starts and better intentions also seemed apposite for many of the characters.
Your book artfully juggles literary past and present in a way that calls to mind A.S. Byatt’s Possession.
I am a huge admirer of the way Byatt combines timelines, framing narratives, and intertextuality is a triumph of writing. In many ways my novel adds banana skins and comedy trombones to that juggling act.