As promised, today I’m thrilled to be interviewing Charles Finch, author of The Last Enchantments, which will be published in just a couple short weeks! A few lucky people will be receiving a FREE copy of The Last Enchantments, but you can also pre-order it at Powell’s here.
1. The whole book feels very autobiographical, probably because it’s written in the first person, but also because the details you share about Oxford are so intimate. Is any part of the plot autobiographical?
In some ways it’s pure autobiography – it’s about someone studying at Oxford, where I studied, and it’s about a guy in his mid-twenties trying to figure out the direction of his life. But there are also more general experiences that aren’t based on me. I really wanted to write about the several different kinds of love you can experience at that age, from stable committed love to wild new love to just hooking up and not caring to long-term go-nowhere flirtation. Not all of them happened at once for me, the way they do in the book. But it’s more dramatic that way I hope!
2. How did you come up with the title The Last Enchantments?
There’s a beautiful quote from Matthew Arnold that you’re likely to end up seeing or hearing if you live in Oxford long enough, about the city “spreading her gardens to the moonlight, and whispering from her towers the last enchantments of the Middle Ages.” The moment I saw the quote it just felt right, because this is a book about the final run of youth before adulthood sets in, when you’re still a little bit more raw to love and new experience – to enchantment.
3. In the article you wrote for The Millions, you share that you’re worried The Last Enchantments is not “new enough.” Do you have any ideas about what “new enough” would look like?
That’s such a hard question! I dislike formal innovation for its own sake – and I think a lot of it has been taken to its logical conclusion in the 20th century, like B.S. Johnson publishing a novel in loose leaf for a reader to organize, or the French journal Tel Quel publishing purposefully nonsensical fiction. Now writers are back to big Victorian-style novels, albeit with postmodernist twists – look at Donna Tartt or Eleanor Catton, just to name two writers whose names are out there at the moment.
So what I meant in that piece by newness wasn’t so much structural or formal as in terms of thought. That is, I think that it’s important for a novelist to reconceive the world with every new book. It’s not enough to read a lot and think about your feelings. You have to ask: how does the world actually look to me, what are the people in it actually like? It takes a lot of solitude and focus to find out what you actually think, rather than just talking. I think because The Last Enchantments is autobiographical it might not be engaged enough with that question.
But this is all pretty abstract. The Last Enchantments is a book I’m proud of and that has a lot to say – I just am always pushing toward the next height I can see.
4. Do you have a favorite place in Oxford?
So many! When my friends visit I weigh them down with places they have to see, until I’m sure it’s a chore. I love to stand in the middle of the courtyard of the Bodleian Library, with its intricate carved stone walls flying up into the sky; I love so many of the colleges – Merton, All Souls’, LMH, Oriel, on and on. I love the kebab vans. I love the Purple Turtle. I love walking up the curve of the High Street.
I think if I had twenty minutes of solitude in Oxford I might choose to wander around the Radcliffe Camera and up Broad Street, and maybe stop into Blackwell’s, the bookshop where I spent most of my time, or the King’s Arms for a pint. But it would be a hard choice! I know it would be fall, though. That was my favorite season in England – the leaves were so beautiful, there was some lingering warmth in the air, it was very romantic.
5. What is your favorite memory of Oxford?
A lot of my favorite memories are personal, and the book describes them. In terms of more common Oxford memories – I loved the evensongs in the college chapels, I loved May Day, when a choir sings at dawn from Magdalen tower. Maybe my favorite quintessential Oxford memory is of punting – riding in one of the flat riverboats along the Isis, with the trees along the banks and a drink in hand.
6. For those of us who aren’t familiar with the Charles Lenox series, could you share a little bit about that series?
Yes! The Last Enchantments is my first contemporary novel, but I’ve actually published seven mysteries in a series about a Victorian detective named Lenox. They’re a bit like Sherlock Holmes. The first one is called A Beautiful Blue Death and the most recent is An Old Betrayal. But my favorite is A Burial at Sea, which is about a murder on board a ship.
7. Can you give us a hint about your next writing project?
I’m working on a new Lenox book – and I also have another novel in its early stages. All I’ll say is that it’s set in the future, slightly, which I enjoy because it gives me a chance to predict and forecast what life will be like. It’s also my first book set in America rather than England.
8. From Carolyn: What’s your favorite novel that takes place at Oxford?
There are a bunch I love. Jill, by Phillip Larkin, is beautiful but a little bleak. Gaudy Night is a great mystery by Dorothy Sayers. And I love the alternative-world Oxford in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. But really—it has to be Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, unoriginal as that is. That book captures the Edenic, timeless quality of being a student in England, which I think Americans especially have fallen in love with in their minds ever since that book came out.
9. From Katie: If you were to go back to Oxford for 24 hours tomorrow, what would be on your to-do list?
Terrific question! A lot of it would definitely be spent at the Bear, which has been a pub in Oxford since 1242—one of the oldest inns or public houses in England. I’d love to walk around the Bodleian Library, with its old gargoyles and beautiful quiet reading rooms, and I would probably wander through a few of the really beautiful colleges, like Christ Church, Merton, New, and Magdalen. I would want to get chips and cheese (a disgusting but delicious British delicacy) from one of the vans that line up on the High Street. I would want to go to the Ashmolean museum for a few hours. Really I would want more than 24 hours—another three years, maybe.
10. From Beth: What kind of books did you like to read as a child?
I’ve always loved English books, which might explain why I’ve written so many of them! When I was really young, The Wind in the Willows, the Narnia series…when I was a teenager and really developing my first taste for grown-up books, Arthur Conan Doyle (who wrote Sherlock Holmes), PG Wodehouse, Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, the Brontes. I think a lot of our taste is actually set very early on, and for me that meant English authors. Even when I go away from them now, I always come back. I’ve probably re-read Harry Potter six times.
Thank you, Charlie, for visiting One Little Library! And thank you so much, everyone who submitted a question. After a random drawing, here are our winners:
Congratulations! Hope you enjoy The Last Enchantments as much as I did.