The Good Thief is an exciting adventure story in which twelve year-old Ren, a one-handed orphan who has grown up in a Catholic monastery, is rescued by Benjamin Nab, a thief who at first presents himself as the young boy's brother. The story that follows is, as many reviewers and fans of the book have noted, quite Dickensian. Young Ren and Benjamin, along with a cast of frightening friends, encounter graver robbers, silver-tounged salesmen, murderers and outright thieves. Taking place in 19th century New England the novel is part Victorian drama, part Oliver Twist. The end result is a fun and fast paced debut novel that guides Ren, who the reader can't help but root for, through a world of equal parts danger and wonder.
In addition to The Good Thief, Hannah Tinti is the author of a short story collection Animal Crackers.
Kelly Hewitt: I've noticed that several reviewers of The Good Thief have mentioned fantastic elements in the book but are most surprised by the stealing of the teeth of corpses for denture making. When I was reading the book, though, this seemed somewhat plausible especially considering that body snatching for surgical practice certainly was taking place at the time the novel was set in. I wonder, where did you get the inspiration for this particular part of the book? Did you find some historical precedence for stealing teeth from the dead?
Hannah Tinti: I read many books about resurrection men and grave-robbing. Two that were particularly helpful were The Italian Boy by Sarah Wise, a non-fiction account of a trial of two resurrection men in London, and The Knife Man by Wendy Moore, a biography of John Hunter, who was a famous surgeon and resurrectionist. I knew that grave-robbers would often take the teeth as well as the jewelry of the dead and sell them to dentists. Sometimes resurrection men would also separate the teeth and sell them separately, to make more money. There is a great ghost story that I remember reading as a child, about a man who has just buried his young wife, and then hears her that night, calling for him and sees her coming down the road, covered with blood. He locks the door against her, but soon realizes that his wife was actually buried while she was in a deep sleep, and when the grave robbers were pulling out her teeth, it woke her up. So that ghost story, combined with the historical information I found, started the idea, and then Mister Bowers the dentist truly came into being when I came across a photograph of George Washington’s teeth, and I became fascinated by early dentures, and discovered that they were made from all different kinds of materials.
Kelly: In reading many interviews and reviews in preparation for our chat I was perplexed when I ran into, again and again, readers and reviewers who felt a need to designate The Good Thief as either young adult (YA) or adult fiction. You've said that you had neither in mind when writing the novel. Why do you think that there is a tendency to want to fit the story into one category or another?
Hannah: I’m not sure. Perhaps they just want to know where it should be shelved. Personally, I don’t think there should be such hard divisions in literature. Adults should be more open to the fantastic books that are being written for younger audiences, and children should be encouraged to read beyond their level.
Kelly: Ren, poor Ren. This poor kid goes through a lot in the course of The Good Thief. Was there a particular hardship, setback, ordeal or crime that you found particularly hard to put your one-handed orphan through as an author?
Hannah: Ren goes through quite a lot in the book, but I think he is the kind of child that can withstand a great deal. The hardest scenes to write were the more emotional ones—Dolly’s death, and Ren’s separation from Benjamin—because I knew they hit Ren’s most vulnerable spot: his heart.
Kelly: What kind of research goes into writing a novel like The Good Thief? It is fiction and sometimes fantastical fiction but there are some aspects of early New England that you write about that are historically accurate. Are there any particular texts you would point readers to who are interested in this period?
Hannah: I read many books, including those mentioned above, and I also spent time in the library, reading newspapers from the 1800s, which gave me a real feel for the time period. But I mainly drew on my own experience growing up in Salem, Massachusetts. Many houses in Salem are from the 1700s and 1800s. This helped me to imagine the towns, particularly North Umbrage and Granston. Granston is a combination of Salem and Gloucester, Massachusetts—where I lived briefly after graduating from college. North Umbrage is a combination of Salem and Lowell, Massachusetts, known for its factories. If some of your readers are interested in New England history, particularly shipping and trading, I’d suggest visiting the Peabody Essex museum in Salem, Massachusetts, which has a wonderful collection. If they are interested in medical history, a visit to the Mutter museum in Philadelphia is a real eye-opener.
Kelly: I read in an interview a few months ago that you were working on not a sequel but another novel that would feature a minor character and/or the same setting but that you weren't willing to share anything until you reached a hundred pages. I am wondering, as someone who really enjoyed this novel, have you reached a place that you can tell your readers anything more about this prospective novel?
Hannah: I’m sorry—not yet!
Kelly: Prior to The Good Thief you were a short story writer. You even mentioned in one interview that you had not intended for The Good Thief to be a full novel. With the success of The Good Thief, do you find yourself thinking more about writing novels rather than short stories?
Hannah: I think that in the future I will probably do both, going back and forth between the forms. My decision to write The Good Thief as a novel was driven entirely by the material—I saw rather quickly that it was too big to contain in a short story. I work from images or ideas. Often I don’t know exactly what I’m writing about until it is on the page.
Kelly: I know that you are one of the founders of One Story, a magazine that publishes one story per issue. Are you still working with One Story?
Hannah: Yes. I’m still acting as editor-in-chief at One Story. It’s something I’m very passionate about.