Interview: Marvin Kaye and The Last Christmas of Ebenezer Scrooge
Q: Your story is closely connected with A Christmas Carol. Does a reader of your book need familiarity with the Dickens story before reading The Last Christmas of Ebenezer Scrooge? Would you recommend that Dickens’s novella be read first?
A: It is essential to be familiar with the Dickens original. While it is possible to get the gist of Dickens’s tale by watching one of the movies*, even the best of them alter or omit details that are important to The Last Christmas of Ebenezer Scrooge. There is simply no substitute for the joy and privilege of reading the original.
*The film versions I recommend are the Patrick Stewart and George C. Scott versions, and to a lesser extent, the one starring Alastair Sim, which takes too many liberties with Dickens for my taste. I also recommend the surprisingly effective The Muppet Christmas Carol. I’ve long been a fan of the genius of the late Jim Henson and Frank Oz, both of whom I had the joy of meeting when I was an officer of the Sons of the Desert, the international Laurel and Hardy Society. I would have expected their Carol to be parodistic, which, to some extent, it is, but most of the time the gags are a goodnatured filigree woven round the Dickens story, which is rendered faithfully and movingly, thanks in great part to the splendid Scrooge performance of Michael Caine.
Q: Your story is tightly aligned— stylistically, thematically, and linguistically— with A Christmas Carol. How did you achieve this? What kind of research did you do; how long did it take to familiarize yourself well enough with the Dickens classic to begin writing your story?
A: I did not repeat Dickens’s theme, but tried to extend it. Dickens’s highly developed social conscience dominates the Carol’s message: that we are all responsible for one another, and for bettering the fate of those less fortunate. The Last Christmas of Ebenezer Scrooge extends that to a minority question that Dickens did not address.
Stylistic and linguistic alignment is a matter of comprehending the art of pastiche, a literary effect I have often played with, especially in my "Incredible Umbrella" novels, and in two of my Sherlock Holmes anthologies, The Resurrected Holmes and The Confidential Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, where submitters were required to write as closely as possible to the style of Dr. Watson (some would substitute the name of Watson’s agent, A. Conan Doyle). The only way to successfully write pastiche is to immerse oneself in the style of the author one hopes to emulate. I read Dickens copiously; not only the Carol, but many of his novels, essays, and even some of his plays. I did my best to attune myself to the diction and syntax of the Carol – although there are passages and characters in my novel that derive from other Dickens works, such as Barnaby Rudge, Bleak House, The Pickwick Papers – and there is one entire paragraph lifted from The Old Curiosity Shop. Father Macclesfield’s sermon is taken from a piece written for a newspaper; though I condensed it considerably, the speech is otherwise word for word Dickens.
The most difficult thing to decide was how much to modernize the diction and syntax. There are portions of A Christmas Carol that are daunting to many contemporary readers, and I avoided emulating them. Basically I tried to invoke a sense of Dickens’s language and style, but balancing or perhaps intermingling the same with more contemporary pace and dialogue. The model for this is to some extent Dickens’s own developing style, as one especially notes it in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and I suspect it also echoes the impact of Wilkie Collins, both on letters and Dickens himself.
My research into Dickens has been ongoing, ever since I first read A Tale of Two Cities in junior high. Also significant was my admiration for Emlyn Williams; I still have his two-disc LP set of readings from Dickens. Hearing these excerpts sent me to read the originals. Indeed one of my first performances as a New York actor was an evening of solo Dickens readings.
I’ve been to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to research Edwin Drood, as well as Carol. When I visited the Doughty House home, I was struck by a sculpture of Dickens in his later years; the psychic pain it projected deeply moved me. Finally, when I got the idea that led to writing Last Christmas, I reread the Carol several times and made many notes on characters, ideas, various passages to employ and explore.
Q: When did you first read A Christmas Carol? What were the circumstances that led to this first reading? What was your response to it at that time?
A: The only thing I recall is that I tried to read it as a child, but couldn’t get past the first paragraph which seemed to go on way too long about the deadness of doornails and coffin-nails. Now I rather like that paragraph, but I do remember its diction and pace put me off back then. Obviously, then, I first read it when I was older, but how much older I have no recollection, nor do I remember my initial reactions. Certainly, though, I knew and liked the story through the films I’d seen, first the Reginald Owen version, and then in 1954 I remember well the two musical versions that played the same week on TV: the one with Fredric March that I recently acquired – alas! it doesn’t age well – and the one starring Basil Rathbone, which was excellent; it was called The Stingiest Man in Town.
Q: What was the one line that you said you heard in your daughter’s group’s performance that “so captivated” your interest and launched your writing of The Last Christmas of Ebenezer Scrooge?
A: To reveal this would give away too important a clue to my plot. The line appears broken into two parts in the sixth and eight paragraphs of page 150 of The Last Christmas of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Q: You developed the character of an originally nameless Christmas Carol character (the “remarkable” little boy to whom a transformed Scrooge speaks on Christmas morning) into a short story called “The Old Man in the Window.” What was it about the boy that engaged you? How did your short story evolve into a full-blown novella?
A: That story, slightly rewritten, appears as the first section of The Last Christmas of Ebenezer Scrooge. I don’t remember what prompted me to construct a story from the chance meeting between the little boy and Scrooge near the end of A Christmas Carol. I do remember puzzling over the boy’s doubting expression, “Walker!” when Scrooge tells him to go buy the prize turkey. To this day, I have not been able to discover the meaning of that term in the sense the boy uses it, so I decided to gloss over it by writing, “That was utter nonsense and Paulie said as much.”
The one thing I remember vividly on first writing “The Old Man in the Window” is that it is chiefly about a little boy trying and failing to accept his mother’s death. When I first wrote those words, “My mother,” Paulie sobbed. “She – she’s going to die ...” it was with utmost grief as I struggled to accept my own mother's death.
Q: How would you characterize the genre of The Last Christmas…? As a fantasy? If so, what would you say to realism-loving readers who don’t like Harry Potter books or Lord of the Rings-type stories and/or who associate fantasy with children (i.e., fantasy is not their “cup of tea”)?
A: It is both a Dickensian pastiche and a fantasy.
My first impulse is not to say anything at all those who profess not to care for fantasy. In the words of Samuel Beckett, “They are sleeping...let them.”
However, I have taught fantasy writing at NYU and have addressed the issue more than once in print, so here are a few of my thoughts.
Those who profess only to love realism are at best spiritually naive, at worst stunted in their perceptions of the phantasmagoria surrounding them that they define as realism. There is a brilliant passage in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, his angry diatribe against censorship, in which the germs of book burning are traced back to those troglodytic pragmatists who would ban works of imagination. “My God,” one of the characters groans (not an exact quote here), “if I have to read The Sun Also Rises yet again!!” (A book, please note, that I greatly admire.)
Dickens himself is the best spokesperson against the materialistic dullards who would grind out flights of fancy. In Hard Times he introduces an entire school led by the principles of Mr. Gradgrind (!) His system ultimately leads to grief visited on his own children; he ends up a broken, but wiser man.
Gradgrind, incidentally, is excellently evoked (I don’t know if it’s intentional) in the character of Mr. Dursley, Harry Potter’s insufferable uncle who works as director of “Grunnings, a firm that made drills.”
Fantasy is a vital form of literature, from ancient through modern. It is at best a funhouse mirror that by distorting human nature holds it up for comment, derision or even, sometimes, compassion. One of the most powerful post-Holocaust novels ever written was Romain Gary’s The Dance of Genghis Cohn, not only a fantasy but a virtuosic experiment in deconstructing language in a manner distinct from, but quite as impressive as the latter works of James Joyce.
With the possible exceptions of Hemingway and Dos Passos, there is no writer in western literature who has not assayed fantasy at some point in her or his career. The list includes, but is hardly limited to Isaac Asimov, James M. Barrie, Samuel Beckett, Russell Baker, Truman Capote, Wilkie Collins, Theodore Dreiser, William Faulkner, Nikolai Gogol, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Eugene Ionesco, Shirley Jackson, Archibald MacLeish, Arthur Miller, Joyce Carol Oates, Bertrand Russell, Isaac Bashevis Singer, John Steinbeck, Edith Wharton, Thornton Wilder, Emlyn Williams, Tennessee Williams, Herman Wouk...not to mention Dickens himself or the greatest fantasy writer in the history of the English language, William Shakespeare!
Q: In A Christmas Carol, Dickens is cleverly ambiguous about whether Scrooge experiences his three supernatural encounters while awake, or whether all the hauntings are a product of active dreaming. How have you employed this device (ambiguity) and other Dickens literary techniques in your story?
A: I make light fun of it by noting the affectionate indulgence of Scrooge’s nephew Fred, who clearly believes his uncle’s epiphany was a dream. But in the last section of The Last Christmas of Ebenezer Scrooge, the ambiguity is dispensed with. These are events happening in the spiritual world, as well as in Dickensian London.
Other Dickensian techniques? Though the forward thrust of the story is mine, Dickensian language is employed in various places, especially during the passages that begin the “staves.” I refer en passant to other Dickens characters, such as the firm of Chicksey, Veneering and Stobbles from Our Mutual Friend, whereas Scrooge’s physician Dr. Jack Hopkins, though older, is taken from The Pickwick Papers.
Q: What kind of snares did you encounter during the writing of The Last Christmas of Ebenezer Scrooge?
A: The most difficult aspect was the Jewish theme that is so important to the plot. When I first conceived the continuation of the Carol, it had not occurred to me that I would need to address this issue. The original plan did not include beginning with my old story, “The Old Man in the Window,” but the more I thought about it, the more I realized Paulie could be a vital foil for Scrooge (and to a lesser extent, Tiny Tim), so I decided to begin with a revised version of that tale, which first appeared, I believe, in 1981. In it I made a choice not in Dickens, to make Jacob Marley a Jew. A copy editor once cited to me that passage when Marley’s ghost speaks with spiritual commitment to the Christian savior, so I realized I had to turn Marley into a converted Jew. That choice opened up a Pandora’s box of questions I did not know how to answer. I went to a Judaica store on the West Side [Manhattan, New York City] and browsed through its book section in hope of guidance, and was fortunate enough to discover the Yale University Press book, David Feldman’s Englishmen and Jews: Social Relations and Political Culture 1840 – 1914. Without it, I never could have tackled the contemporaneous issues facing Paulie and his mother.
Q: How did being in England, on Dickens’ “old stomping grounds,” affect the writing of your book?
A: Mostly it created a sense of rededication to the project. When I went to Rochester, it was chiefly because of my intense interest in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, since Rochester is the model for that novel’s locale, Cloisterham, but the impact went further than that, for there are places in Rochester that also tie in with Great Expectations, and the Dickens museum is worth the trip in itself.
The most intense experience happened when the tour bus I was on passed a church on a hill in Shrewsbury. The guide said that its churchyard had a tombstone marked Ebenezer Scrooge. I asked them to PLEASE STOP THE BUS! They did...I hurried out and took a photo of the stone. (In the background, the guide said, I could also see the house where Charles Darwin grew up). The tombstone was placed there for the filming of the George C. Scott version of the Carol, and never removed. It didn’t matter; I felt it was a good omen that I’d seen it. When I got to the last scene of The Last Christmas of Ebenezer Scrooge, I made that churchyard the place where Scrooge lays buried.
Q: You’ve said that while writing this story you felt especially close to the spirit (how fitting!) of Charles Dickens. In what ways did you experience this? When was this sense especially keen?
A: At some point I equated Scrooge’s painful memories of the bleak schoolhouse where he spent childhood holidays alone, cut off from his father and sister, with that dreadful time in young Dickens’s life when his family accompanied his father to debtor’s prison while Charles was put to work in a blacking factory – an experience Dickens never really recovered from. Look at the sculpture of him in the house on Doughty Street, London – the pain it projects is so palpable I wanted to comfort him with all the compassion and love I could muster.
I felt especially close to Dickens as I wrote the final “stave” during a week in London. I was staying at the Edward Lear bed and breakfast hotel near Marble Arch, and went out late in the evening to a nearby allegedly haunted pub, I think its name is the Mason’s Arms, where I would sit beside a small stove and write longhand ... something I rarely do because my handwriting is execrable. The final pages, however, I completed in the bar of the Cumberland Hotel just across the street from Marble Arch. I had to go there because the pub closed early (to a New Yorker, that is), but the hotel’s bar remained open till 3.
The final night, as I was writing the last first draft pages over a snifter of single malt, something odd happened that made me feel almost as if Dickens were “channeling” me. A group of attractive young Scandinavian tourists entered. After a few moments, one of the young men approached my table. I thought, oh no, he’s going to interrupt! I was writing the critical “trial” scene and was afraid of impeding the flow. Well, the youth said he and his friends were fascinated by what I was doing, and wondered what I was writing. He was polite and personable, so I answered him at some length.
But the odd thing was that as I talked with him, my hand never stopped writing. I was not laboring to concentrate, most of my attention was directed toward my visitor ... and yet my hand kept moving swiftly, writing, writing at white heat intensity. I looked curiously at my hand, amazed that I was doing two language-related tasks simultaneously. That had never happened to me before (or since). It was almost as if Dickens was writing while I was otherwise employed.
Q: You’ve also said that rather than you trying to create a sequel to Dickens’s work, you felt at times as if you were “transcribing” the follow-up story that Dickens himself might have written, if he’d chosen to do so. Could you explain more about this?
A: On the level of pastiche, this means I was doing my best to think like Dickens, to the extent that I could work that out from wholesale reading of his work, and not just the novels, but his essays, especially those in Household Words and Sketches by Boz.
But thematically, I think Dickens, with his great loving heart and passion for social reform, might well have thought along these lines had he considered the Jewish question. It was very easy at that time not to do so, even if one was educated and successful – the same holds true today, unfortunately. Yet the temper of the times, as David Feldman observes in his Yale University Press study, Englishmen and Jews: Social Relations and Political Culture 1840 – 1914, was of considerable sympathy for the plight of the Jews, whom England welcomed in droves as they fled from Europe and yet another pogrom. The irony was that, once settled, the majority of Jews refused to assimilate, and this irritated the English. This theme is dealt with in The Last Christmas of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Essentially I tried to extrapolate what Dickens’s social conscience might have wrought had it extended to this issue.
A character who felt very Dickensian to me was Surr Alf, the seedy actor-manager; Dickens describes such characters with comedic skill and also considerable affection in Nicholas Nickleby. He was a man of the theatre, and so am I.
Q: You see the central themes of The Last Christmas of Ebenezer Scrooge as especially significant for our era. How so? Has this perspective shifted any since the events of 9/11?
A: To love one neighbour as thyself is an ancient principle that is still as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago. Although I did not realize it till some time after I finished writing The Last Christmas of Ebenezer Scrooge, I wrote my own version of Stephen Vincent Benet’s A Child is Born, a Christmas radio play in which, back in high school, I had played the Good Thief Dismas. He says that it is the duty of every man to hang upon a cross for all those who suffer, starve, or die.
This is the main theme of The Last Christmas of Ebenezer Scrooge, and it is as true as tomorrow's newspaper.
The events of 9/11 prompted me to add this paragraph to the penultimate scene of my book:
“There are times in the life of the spirit when Heaven needs do nothing further. That which is blessed is instantly perceived with the heart’s wisdom, and salvation flows from within. So even as Ebenezer Scrooge’s true prayer flew upward, he knew with the certainty of Enlightenment that he had grasped that great lesson of Love which all mankind must teach its children if we and they are to survive the strife of nations.”
Q: Describe the intended audience for your book. What do you want readers to understand most about The Last Christmas of Ebenezer Scrooge?
A: The Last Christmas of Ebenezer Scrooge is intended for all who read. Its message is equally applicable to Christians, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, and those like myself who embrace no religion whatsoever.
Q: For some who are very familiar with A Christmas Carol, yearly repetitions of the story during the holidays may seem “same-old/same-old.” Has this ever been your experience? What would you suggest to others to help keep this story—and your sequel—new and relevant?
A: I have never tired of watching 1776 on the fourth of July, or A Christmas Carol during the winter solstice. Their messages bear repetition and the fact that there are always new versions of the Carol being produced shows its ongoing importance. To appreciate its applicability and the need to hear its sermon yet again, one only has to recapture that sense of wonder that children have, but we lose all too soon. Whenever I reread or watch again my favorite stories, whether it be the Carol or Peter Jackson’s awesome realization of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, or J. K. Rowling’s amazing Harry Potter series, I pretend it is brand new and guess what? It is!
Q: A Christmas Carol is regarded by some as holiday over-sentimentality (humbug?). How would you respond to this viewpoint? What prevents your book from being regarded similarly?
A: The core of Dickens’ story is not the least bit sentimental. It has the iron ring of truth, and is terrifying in its applicability and warning. When the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the two children Ignorance and Want, only a spiritually undeveloped person – and sadly, there are many Babbits in this fair land of ours – could miss the rage of Dickens’s harsh warning.
It is too soon to be concerned that my book might be similarly regarded; of course I hope it will someday become familiar enough to invite that risk. But I have noticed that those who grumble about over-sentimentality often lack the perception to distinguish between true emotion and what is maudlin. These are the same folk who might scoff at James M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, a so-called children’s play that underneath the whimsy contains a heart like ice.
Q: You’ve said that reading literature has been fundamental to your life (perhaps even life-saving?). How so? When did this passion begin?
A: Language was my tool, my weapon as I grew up. The only sports I was exposed to when I was young were boxing and wrestling. Gym class was hell, so was summer camp. Not only did I retreat to the world of books, I came to cultivate the life of the mind as the one distinguishing skill to set me apart. Which, ironically, it did, or rather, helped divide me further from most of my classmates...but it was a price worth paying, since it opened up vistas of thought and imagination that shaped my life to this day. Certainly my work as a novelist, my former job as coordinator for Mary Stuart of the BookPals school literacy program, and my former position as coordinator of the tutoring staff at the midtown Manhattan campus of Mercy College, were logical extensions of my lifelong love of language in speech, theatre, and literature.
Q: You’ve been involved in volunteering to read to elementary school children, as well as bringing some children’s literature to the stage. How has your own early need for literature influenced your choice of such activities? What are you trying to convey to children about literature and their lives in these activities?
A: What I convey to children depends on the child. When I read to them as a BookPals volunteer, I shared stories that would make them laugh, because every actor loves entertaining her or his audience. But I also predominantly chose stories rich in fantasy, all about dragons, giants, witches and so on, in order to initialize or expand the children’s capacity for imagination – a quality still underprized in our society, greatly to its detriment.
A few years ago, I taught literature to a class of Mercy College freshmen. One young man from The Bronx took time to warm up to what I was trying to get him interested in. Mostly what he liked was football, and considering that it was the one thing he could do well – in his own opinion – it was vital. As the term wound down, I was concerned that he had not handed in all the papers that were due, and since he was one of the better students, I was afraid his grade would suffer. Then one morning he surprised me by asking if in one of his due papers he could write about something that we had not read in class. This was a student who did very little on his own, so I said I needed to know what story he wanted to write about before I could agree. He said A Christmas Carol! He’d seen the Disney animated short, “Mickey’s Christmas Carol,” and that motivated him to find the Dickens original and read it. Of course I said yes, and of course he turned in the best paper he’d written all term.
Language is one of society’s greatest gifts, and I love it.
Q: Many might consider it daunting, if not brazen, to write a sequel to Dickens’s original masterpiece. What is your advice to a writer – either established or would-be – who is contemplating tackling a sequel to a different beloved classic?
A: Pastiche is a demanding exercise in selflessness. There are many examples of unsuccessful pastiche: Ruth Plumly Thompson’s Oz books, John Gardner’s James Bond clones, and countless vitiations of Sherlock Holmes.
Writers who try to carry on the work of authors who have died (though their creations have not) generally fail because they 1) do not sufficiently align themselves with the diction, syntax, style, sensitivity and spirituality of those they wish to emulate, and 2) because they cannot suppress their own writing or/and personal idiosyncrasies.
Q: What’s your best hope about how The Last Christmas of Ebenezer Scrooge will affect readers?
A: I would dearly love it to see it made into a film, starring, who else? Patrick Stewart.
I would hope readers would return to it again and again to reexperience the vital importance of its message and to weep yet again for Scrooge’s tormented spirit. I always do.
Q: What’s the best way for readers to find your book?
A: Steve Allen, when asked this, would sometimes quip, “I would rule out meat markets.” But the next-best way to find The Last Christmas of Ebenezer Scrooge is to log onto www.amazon.com or www.wildsidepress.com and order it on line. The best way is to go to your local Barnes & Noble or other book store and buy it there, and if they have not stocked it, kick and scream until they do. (If it works, please let me know!)