One of our Best Books of the Month for September, The Black Count is the remarkable true story of novelist Alexandre Dumas' father, the son of a Haitian slave who rose to become one of the most feared and revered soldiers in the French army--the inspiration for the Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Muskateers. We spoke with Tom about the origins of the book and his writing habits.
I've always had a special spot in my heart for The Count of Monte Cristo. It's got a
personal family history with me: my French-born mother was given the book in an
orphanage after WWII and brought it to the United States in her suitcase. When
I was about 10 years old I found that tattered copy along with the novelist's
memoirs in our basement, and reading the memoir I learned that the Count was
not just a fictional creation but an homage to the novelist's father. This was the great mixed-race hero of the
French Revolution, Gen. Alex Dumas, who had faced down all enemies but was
betrayed by his own side. Alexandre Dumas succeeded in infusing his father's
spirit into some of his greatest fictional heroes, but the real life and legacy
of this soldier was completely forgotten. I wanted to bring him back into the
light of history, at the center of the French Revolution, where he belongs.
On my wall: An advertising poster showing Napoleon at
Waterloo, put out by the maker of Lithobid, a brand of Lithium (my mother is a
retired psychiatrist). The caption reads, "Napoleon Bonaparte was eventually
defeated by manic-depressive disorder." There are also French lobby cards for
Woody Allen's "Guerre et Amour" (Love and Death), Mexican lobby cards
from Louis Malle's movie Viva Maria!
showing Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau shouldering rifles in the Mexican
Revolution. Also, the iconic poster of Steve McQueen on his motorcycle from The Great Escape, which I've had since I
was 17. The famous image of Cary Grant being chased by the crop duster (from North by Northwest)--the way I feel
when the writing is not going well. Yes,
I love old movies. And of course, there
are images of my subject, too, on his white horse--General Dumas. I write facing a window and this one looks
out on a pretty typical Manhattan residential street, but what I always focus
on is this tiny Carnegie library in the middle of the block--I have a weak spot
for those, there was one in Springfield, Mass, when I was growing up there. I
see that next to my window, I've taped a photo of another desk where I wrote a
different book, nearly 20 years ago--it's a view of a lake in Sweden and the
desk is in this little cabin, a kind of safe house, where I was interviewing a
neo-Nazi leader on the run. When I don't feeling like writing at my desk, I
write in cafÃ©s. One thing, though: I write standing up, so I always go for a
spot at the counter or bar.
A Macbook Pro. No special software for writing, just Word.
But I'm a fanatical devotee of Dropbox--thousands of jpg photographs of 18th
century documents are up there, the entire archive of The Black Count is up
there in the cloud, and it has been since 2008.
I have this strange rule I try to impose on myself that,
while writing a book, I will listen to no music composed after the time period
of my story. In the case of General
Dumas, I couldn't keep to this religiously--I couldn't give up blues and jazz,
and in fact I got a lot of inspiration from Herbie Hancock and, as always,
Miles Davis--but I did surround myself with all the music that was popular in
the 18th century. Lots of Boccherini and
Mozart--and the Chevalier de Saint Georges!--but also French military music, a
bunch of which I was given by these Napoleonic military reenactors who I met in
Northern Italy. Also, when I have
trouble writing, my standby is Ennio Morricone.
You can face down anything listening to his music.
Insanely spicy Szechuan food. Spicy food of all kinds. Lots
of dark chocolate. Enough coffee to send
a man to the moon--prepared in every possible way, at every possible hour.
What's the first line
and what does it say about the book?
"It was nearly midnight on the night of February 26, 1806,
and Alexandre Dumas, the future author of The
Count of Monte Cristo and The Three
Musketeers, was asleep at his uncle's house." That was the night that the
future novelist, still a small child, would lose his father. I began the book
that way because I wanted to frame the story in terms of that tremendous loss--and because it was the memory of reading about that night, which always brings
a tear to my eye, that caused me to take on this project.
>See all of Tom Reiss' books.