Inventing Scrooge – An Interview with Author Carlo DeVito
By Theresa MacNaughton, Community Engagement Associate
“I think the toughest thing to understand was that Dickens himself was Scrooge.” – Carlo DeVito
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a beloved holiday classic. More than likely, you’ve seen one of the countless film or television versions, the treasured stage adaptation here at Hartford Stage, or read the tale to your children, grandchildren or students. Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, Jacob Marley, and Ebenezer Scrooge are names we are all familiar with. But have you ever stopped to wonder how and why Charles Dickens created these iconic characters? Wonder no more – Carlo DeVito, a longtime publishing executive and author of more than 15 popular non-fiction books, unravels many questions about Dickens and his “ghostly little book” with Inventing Scrooge. In Inventing Scrooge – an extensively researched and fact-filled book released in September, DeVito explores the parallels between Charles Dickens’ life and his most famous tale. DeVito recently spoke with Hartford Stage about his literary career and shares some fascinating details about Charles Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge, and more.
Tell us about your career in publishing and what first interested you in becoming a writer.
I have worked for Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, McGraw-Hill, Running Press, Penguin USA, and Sterling Publishing. And I have published books with Stephen Hawking, E.O. Wilson, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Dan Rather, Philip Caputo, Michael Lewis, James McPherson, Gilbert King, Thomas Hoving, Stanley Crouch, John Edgar Wideman, Dee Brown, Julia Alvarez, Jane Goodall, Budd Schulberg, Haynes Johnson, Dr. Howard Shapiro, Bo Dietl, Malachy McCourt, David Quammen, Peter Golenbock, The Fabulous Beekman Boys, Barton Seaver, Terry Walters, and many others. I also published the highly-acclaimed book Strange Fruit by Vanity Fair Contributing Editor David Margolick.
I wanted to be a writer for as long as I could remember. I wanted to be an editor/publisher/writer –whatever it was. I started writing novels and plays and poetry in college and took a job in publishing. I have been an executive assistant, associate editor, editor, associate publisher, publisher, and vice president-editorial director. I have acquired and edited many famous and accomplished writers. I have always loved stories and telling stories, whether they were fiction or non-fiction.
You also own the Hudson-Chatham Winery in Ghent, NY. What prompted you to pursue a career in the wine industry?
Stupidity – just joking. My great grand-father made wine in the basement of his house; and my parents always had wine with meals. When I was in high school, I would ride my bike from Trenton toward the Jersey Shore. I would pass this little winery named Cream Ridge, and I loved going there. By the time I was 18—the legal drinking age back then—I was buying Cream Ridge wines. By college, I was a red wine lover and always had a mixed case of sparkling under my bed. I was hooked and determined to visit as many wineries as I could. I started driving far and wide and went on trips through Connecticut – visiting Haight, Hopkins and Di-Grazia wineries. By the mid-1980s, I was building a publishing career but wishing to put one foot in the wine world, too.
One day in Cape May in 2004 or 2005, everything clicked. We pulled into Turdo Winery – a small, five-acre estate winery. And there was this couple, these beautiful people, who owned this small Italian-style winery. The owners were Sal and Sarah Turdo, who were commuting to day jobs in Paramus. They were our age; they also had two kids and two dogs. We both thought, ‘See? We can do this.’ And that was it. We explored becoming the Turdos’ neighbors in southern New Jersey but were ultimately drawn north to the Hudson Valley. We literally bought the proverbial farm in 2006.
New York State was making great wine already – way ahead of the other eastern states. We liked the Hudson Valley with its rich farming history, spectacular homes, and places to visit; and it was absolutely stunning to drive through.
What specifically inspired you to write a book about Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol?
I’ve always been a fan of Dickens and Christmas, and especially of A Christmas Carol. My initial research into the topic was solely for myself. I wanted to see where certain things came from. I kind of got hooked; the more I found out, the more fascinated I was.
Inventing Scrooge is more of an exploration into the process of how Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol as opposed to a traditional biography. Why did you choose to take this direction with your book?
Well, for two reasons. Firstly, this is one of the most famous stories ever told and has been retold and rehashed more than any other story. And secondly, I wasn’t interested in writing a biography as much as I was in watching how the story was written. I wanted to be able to go through the creative process with Dickens himself – from where did he draw these ideas? How did he concoct this soup of a story? It’s always fascinating watching the creative process in action, and even with Dickens, he kept reinventing the story after he wrote it by giving a series of readings and giving it yet another life unto its own.
How much of Charles Dickens’ real life was represented in A Christmas Carol?
Much of the story comes from Dickens’ own life. The characters, the names, the situations, and the settings all came from places throughout his life. From the Cratchits’ home to Covent Garden to the pawnbroker’s shop – every setting and character came from his life. The other end of it, like any other writer, was that each character was somewhat himself – Dickens argued with his brother Fred (Fred was a spendthrift like his father); Dickens’ favorite sibling was his sister Fanny (like Scrooge); Dickens’ future wife Catherine had threatened to withdraw her affections as he became engrossed in making money and suggested he was more interested in work than a relationship; his mornings spent in Covent Garden were some of the happiest in his childhood (despite the fact that he was working at a boot black factory at the time); the fireplace wherein Scrooge sees Marley’s face was the fireplace of his childhood; and Marley’s door knocker was a neighbor of a good friend of his.
In conducting your research for Inventing Scrooge, what was the most interesting discovery you personally made about Charles Dickens?
I think the toughest thing to understand was that Dickens himself was Scrooge. And nowhere had he experienced the pain of life more than he did at the pawnbroker’s shop. His father was in debtor’s prison; and as the oldest child, his mother sent him off each day with another piece of the family’s valuables to be sold to pay for food and heat until they were forced to sell their furniture and their beddings. There is no question as to the pain he must have suffered watching strangers sift through the possessions of his family, to be hemmed and hawed at. A bracing enough experience for an adult, let alone a child of 10 or so.
The other interesting thing is that Dickens was not brought up a gentleman and could not dance, yet he loved it so. Every Christmas he had his own children taught a new dance. While he pretended to go along with it as well, inevitably he liked to do his own self-taught dance. He would dance with his family at home, acting somewhat like Fezziwig; but he never danced at balls in public because he did not want his family’s lack of wherewithal while he was growing up to be discovered.
What do you feel is the biggest misconception people have about Ebenezer Scrooge?
Well, in real life, Ebenezer Scroggie – the man upon whom Scrooge was partly based – was not a covetous old sinner, except for the fact that he coveted young women. He was a reprobate and a lecherous old man. He was also something of a party animal of his day and extremely well off and extremely popular – despite his lack of propriety. He was caught in several lewd acts but also had one of the first warrants to the king of England to make whiskey. While Scroggie and Scrooge might both end up in the nether regions – it would have been for very different trespasses.
What is the one fact that readers of your book will be most surprised to learn about the creation of A Christmas Carol?
Dickens thought it up on a train ride to see his sister Fanny; and it was indeed a very personal story. It was the novel that saved his flagging career at the time and his fortunes several times over. And it was the first story he read aloud to others. It was the first he performed in the UK and the US, and the last he performed anywhere. The story – one of his most personal creations – was with him the rest of his life; and he relived his triumphs and its private agonies for many, many years.
You are also the author of A Mark Twain Christmas. What commonalities did you find between Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) and Charles Dickens?
Both lived lavishly beyond their means. Both were incredibly driven men. Both made more money on the stage as personalities than they did from their books. And both were absolutely fond of Christmas. Dickens was more outward about it. Twain was a closet Christmas fanatic. And both absolutely LOVED spending Christmas with their children.
What is your fondest personal holiday memory from “Christmas Past?” What are your plans for “Christmas Present” and hopes for “Christmas Future?”
Christmas Past – Easy. When my boys were very young, we left out a tape recorder on Christmas Eve, hidden near the Christmas tree. The next morning – after opening presents –we pulled out the recorder and played it while we ate pancakes. Just near the end of the tape, we heard Santa’s ho-ho-ho and some bells jingling; and my boys were absolutely floored! I will never forget it.
Christmas Present – To see family. I love Christmas, and I love seeing my family and friends during the holiday season. I run myself ragged during the holidays, trying to see as many people as I can. I absolutely love it. Food. Wine. Family. Friends. Is there anything better?
Christmas Future – I would love to celebrate Christmas at my son’s houses someday, when they are older and have children of their own. And to drink lots of our own wine…
Carlo DeVito will discuss his book at Hartford Stage on Sunday, December 14, after the matinee performance of A Christmas Carol. Copies of Inventing Scrooge will be available for purchase and personalization from the author.