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How 'A Christmas Carol' was born

Charles Dickens' best-known and most beloved book almost didn't happen.

In 1843, Dickens, then 31, was already dealing with the downside of international success. He had followed bestsellers like Oliver Twist with several flops and was struggling to support a large family and break through writer's block.

When he came up with the idea of a ghost-story novella about Christmas, then a minor holiday, his publishers said, in effect, "Humbug."

But Dickens was so passionate about the tale that he wrote it in six weeks and paid to have it published himself.

His instincts were good. A Christmas Carol was an immediate success — its 6,000-copy first printing sold out in four days — and a long-term one, staying in print continuously for 174 years and inspiring countless plays, movies, radio and TV versions, cartoons, comic books and more.

As Les Standiford wrote in his 2008 book, The Man Who Invented Christmas, "And of everything that he had written to that point, nothing would prove more persistent and pervasive and powerful than A Christmas Carol."

Now Standiford's book about how Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol is a movie starring Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer and Jonathan Pryce.

Earlier this month, Standiford, 72, traveled from his home in the Miami area, where he is the longtime director of the creative writing program at Florida International University, to New York City to attend the movie's premiere.

"It was awesome, as you might imagine," Standiford says of his red-carpet moment. "Standing up there beside some of those guys was amazing, thrilling. I admit I patted myself on the back a little — if I hadn't written the book, none of this would have happened."

Standiford has ties to the Tampa Bay area — he has been a faculty member at the Writers in Paradise conference at Eckerd College since it was founded 14 years ago by bestselling author Dennis Lehane and Eckerd creative writing professor Sterling Watson. Standiford is now the director of the highly regarded intensive workshop program.

He's also the author of 10 mystery novels and seven narrative nonfiction books on subjects ranging from Henry Flagler's Florida railroad to the Adam Walsh murder case.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is his only book about a writer, and one he identifies with. "I was so taken with Dickens' belief in his own material, his refusal to be turned away. It was the same when I took my book to my publisher. They said, everybody's heard everything about A Christmas Carol, no, no, no.

"Then it took nine or 10 years to get a movie made about a guy who wrote a book."

Directed by Bharat Nalluri (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day), the movie is a warm, lively tale that layers Dickens' own life as a popular author and young husband and father with the story line from A Christmas Carol.

As he grapples with writer's block and mounting financial worries, Dickens (Stevens) gathers the inspirations that lead to his best-known book — and has energetic conversations with his characters as they come to life around him, including Plummer as Ebenezer Scrooge.

Standiford talked to the Tampa Bay Times by phone from Miami.

Are you satisfied with how the movie translates The Man Who Invented Christmas?

The real aim for me was showing how close we came to not having one of the most important books of our time. Millions of people still do read it every Christmas, or they watch the movies. It's still a very meaningful story.

Had it not been for Dickens and his absolute doggedness, the lengths he went to as a writer, it might never have been published. All these people were telling him, you ought to let it go. How miraculous is it that he said, by George, I'm going to see this book in print.

I saw the movie at a critics screening and really enjoyed it. And, as I've been telling everyone, Dan Stevens is the cutest Dickens ever.

Apparently he was literally (cute) at that time. We see these portraits and author cards and so on and Dickens looks like this dour old guy. But at the time (he wrote A Christmas Carol, at age 31) he was just about as attractive as Dan Stevens.

Your book The Man Who Invented Christmas is in part about what inspired Dickens to write A Christmas Carol. What inspired your book?

I was sitting at my desk on Dec. 19, 2006, and I got one of those forwarded emails. The subject line was something like "Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol: Did you know ...?"

Uncharacteristically, I opened it. It was a series of questions, like, did you know that within a couple of hours of when the book was published every copy was sold? I knew that. But it went on. Did you know that Dickens self-published A Christmas Carol? Did you know he was broke, and overextended financially, and his career was in the dumper, that he had proposed he quit writing novels and go off and become a travel writer?

I didn't know any of that, and I was intrigued. Those emails are usually cribbed from a book, and I thought, that's a book I'd like to read. So I went looking for it, and there was no book. I thought doggone it, that's a book I ought to write.

Your book also explored the impact of A Christmas Carol on how the holiday is celebrated today. Were you concerned that the movie doesn't include much of that?

One of the other questions (in the email) was, did you know that Christmas was at the time a pretty minor holiday? The sociological stuff is mentioned in the movie, but that's very difficult to dramatize. In a movie you have to have one major thrust. I'm very happy with the choices they made to focus on Dickens' creative process.

What did you think of how they depicted that, which is different from how writers are often portrayed in movies? This one shows Dickens noting names and faces and scraps of conversations that find their way into the book.

What are you going to show, a guy wadding up sheets of paper and throwing them away? I think it's very inventive how the screenwriter (Susan Coyne) went about dramatizing the process. Every writer does that — taking the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life and arranging it into a constellation that appeals to people.

I've heard many writers say their characters talk to them. How did you feel about the movie actually bringing them to life, with the Fezziwigs and Marley and Scrooge and the rest following Dickens around and even arguing with him?

It's very funny at times. And it's quite true — they do (talk to you)! They found a nice balance between that and the pressures of his real life.

Were you pleased that Christopher Plummer was cast as Scrooge?

I was on the set one day in Dublin, and we watched the dailies of that scene where he first appears. Dickens says he's glad to see him and he says, "Sorry I can't say the same."

I told him, "You were born to play Ebenezer Scrooge," and he said, "I don't know how I feel about that." But it is one of those roles he was meant to play.

There is one character I don't recall appearing in your book, a young Irish maid named Tara (played by Anna Murphy), whom Dickens befriends after he overhears her telling his children a ghost story. Was she real?

She is pure fancy. In the movie, Dickens needs someone to talk to. We know he was a fan of folklore, lore of the supernatural. He'd write ghost stories. In fact, he'd written a ghost story about Christmas before A Christmas Carol.

Were you directly involved in the making of the movie?

No, I have not quit my day job (at FIU). I was a consultant. They would send me the script and ask me questions.

One of the producers of the movie is your friend Mitchell Kaplan, who owns the Books & Books stores in South Florida. Is this his first foray into feature films?

At about the same time, I think there was some overlap, they were producing the movie of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (based on Annie Barrows' novel). That movie's in the can. I'm not sure if it's coming out in the summer or the fall.

I don't want to put words in Mitch's mouth, but I think (making those movies) comes from the same impulse that made him sell books that he loved.

Are you working on other books?

I have a book coming in April from University Press of Florida, Center of Dreams. It's a history of how the performing arts center in Miami was built, but it's really about the political history of modern Miami. There was a lot of politicking — it took 30 years.

Then I have two other books under contract. One is a history of Mar-a-Lago, about how Palm Beach grew to become the center of high society in Florida. The other is a history of the battle for control of the circus in America. It's Barnum versus Bailey versus Ringling.

Were you a longtime Dickens fan?

Oh, yes. He was such a great storyteller, great character maker. The books can be a little sentimental, but I read right over that. When I decided to write the book I thought, what if I re-read A Christmas Carol and it doesn't hold up? But it does. The writing is very modern, the humor is often sarcastic and very witty in a modern way. As they say, the proof is in the pudding.

Do you think A Christmas Carol has the reputation it deserves?

I studied Dickens in my graduate school days, and of course almost no attention was paid to A Christmas Carol. The attitude was, if it's that popular, how can it be any good?

I think the proper study of that should be: What makes it timeless?

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

By Les Standiford

Broadway Books, 337 pages, $17

The movie tie-in edition includes the full text of Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

By Les Standiford

Broadway Books, 337 pages, $17

This movie tie-in edition includes the full text of Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

How 'A Christmas Carol' was born 11/22/17 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 21, 2017 11:40pm]
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