That One Time Lauren Oliver Interviewed H.C. Chester About Curiosity House
Lauren Oliver & H.C. Chester | The Children’s Book Review | September 30
Bestselling author Lauren Oliver and notorious relics collector H.C. Chester interview each other about Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head (HarperCollins, 2015), a book about, among other things: the strongest boy in the world, a talking cockatoo, a faulty mind reader, a beautiful bearded lady and a nervous magician, an old museum, and a shrunken head.
Lauren Oliver: You’ve not had a visitor in twenty-five years. Why did you decide to let me in to check out your collection from Dumfrey’s Dime Museum?
H.C. Chester: I do not wish to give the impression that I have been totally cut off from human contact in all that time. In November of 1983, for example, I was visited by a repairman who came to replace a vacuum tube in my Motorola radio, which had ceased to operate in the middle of my favorite program, Rhode Island Public Radio’s splendid weekly broadcast, “The Wonderful World of Pre-Colonial Antiquities.”
Still, it is largely true that, for at least a decade prior to your own visit, I lived in a state of more-or-less complete isolation. My sole companion was my faithful canine, Trudy. I had, in fact, begun to wonder whether such extreme seclusion was healthy. Not for me but for Trudy. When I received your letter of inquiry, I was so impressed with your obvious intelligence and fine manners that I thought you were the perfect person for Trudy to spend some time with. Specifically, the time between noon and 12:45 PM, normally reserved for her after-lunch rest period. As it happened, you exhibited such a winning personality and such sincere curiosity about my own interests that I permitted you the rare, indeed unique, privilege of viewing my collection of one-of-kind artifacts. And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Tell us about your collection of artifacts. What are some of your favorites?
A very difficult question, since my collection includes so many extraordinary items. There is, for example, the stem from the actual apple that struck Sir Isaac Newton on the head, leading him to formulate the Law of Universal Gravitation. There is Albert Einstein’s third grade report card with his math teacher’s handwritten comments (“Needs to try harder”). There is the hatchet with which young George Washington cut down his father’s cherry tree.
One of my favorites was the fossilized leg-bone of a prehistoric pterodactyl. Unfortunately, Trudy recently managed to get hold of it and buried it somewhere in our backyard, where I have yet to locate it. I also own the shovel with which, according to legend, the famed pirate Long John Silver interred his hoard on Treasure Island. Now that I think of it, I might be able to use it to dig up the fossilized pterodactyl bone!
How do you feel about all the attention publishing a book will bring to you? How are you preparing to encounter the outside world after all this time?
Your question implies that the “outside World,” as you refer to it, is oblivious of H. C. Chester’s existence. Nothing could be further from the truth. Among the many members of the New England Society of Ancient Pottery Shard Collectors, for example—numbering well over a dozen!—I am held in the highest esteem, having contributed a groundbreaking article on Mesopotamian ceramic cookware to their annual 1998 newsletter.
Still, it is true that, with the publication of our Curiosity House series, I am bound to find myself in the public limelight to an unaccustomed extent. I have prepared myself for this eventuality by composing a lecture about my life as the world’s foremost collector of one-of-a-kind historic (and prehistoric!) relics. I have been rehearsing this presentation for several weeks, and, I must say, the audience response has been highly gratifying. Indeed, I have never heard Trudy bark so enthusiastically!
H.C. Chester: Now it is time, Ms. Oliver, to “turn the tables” as they say, and for me to pose some questions to you:
Like myself (the author of, among other works, the classic volume, The Complete Collector’s Guide to Early American Pencil Sharpeners), you’ve had great success writing books on your own. What prompted you to enter into a collaborative project with me?
Lauren Oliver: Well, Mr. Chester, as no one could dispute after spending any amount of time with you or taking even a cursory glance at your wardrobe, you are indeed one-of-a-kind. And I was immensely impressed—blown away, actually—by the artifacts you’ve managed to gather over the years and by your commensurate knowledge of New York City’s past.
What, from your point of view, was the collaboration process like? How did it differ from your usual mode of composition? Did working with another famous writer make your task easier or harder?
I have to say, it was pretty intimidating. Who wouldn’t be intimidated by the challenge of working under the intellect known for producing such staggering works of genius as The Complete Collector’s Guide to Early American Pencil Sharpeners) and The Definitive List of All North American Toad Species? But I was actually surprised that, despite or perhaps because of our respective strengths, styles, and expertise, the working process was pretty fluid. I think we had only one serious dispute, and that was related to my having accidentally forgotten to feed Trudy her afternoon biscuit.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about the time and place in which our series is set: the long-vanished world of 1930s New York City dime museums?
I think it’s difficult for a modern person to grasp the way in which curiosity about the natural world, its endless varieties and strangeness, was entwined with the entertainment of the time. I suppose in some ways dime museums were the precursor to the kind of reality TV shows that make you goggle over the fact that people exist who look, speak, and behave the way they do on TV. Dime Museums were all about celebrating the strange and unexplained phenomena of the scientific and natural world—since, of course, so much that we now treat, cure, or can explain remained at the time a mystery.
About the Authors
Lauren Oliver is the author of the YA bestselling novels Before I Fall, Panic,and Vanishing Girls and the Delirium trilogy: Delirium, Pandemonium, and Requiem, which have been translated into more than thirty languages and are New York Times and international bestselling novels. She is also the author of three novels for middle grade readers: The Spindlers; Liesl & Po, which was an E. B. White Read Aloud Award nominee; and Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head, co-written with H. C. Chester, and a novel for adults, Rooms. A graduate of the University of Chicago and NYU’s MFA program, Lauren Oliver is also the cofounder of the boutique literary development company Paper Lantern Lit.
More curious things have happened, however, we have no bio for H.C. Chester. If you know anything about him, please let us know!
Written by Lauren Oliver and H.C. Chester
Publisher’s Synopsis: The book is about, among other things: the strongest boy in the world, a talking cockatoo, a faulty mind reader, a beautiful bearded lady and a nervous magician, an old museum, and a shrunken head.
Blessed with extraordinary abilities, orphans Philippa, Sam, and Thomas have grown up happily in Dumfrey’s Dime Museum of Freaks, Oddities, and Wonders. But when a fourth child, Max, a knife-thrower, joins the group, it sets off an unforgettable chain of events.
When the museum’s Amazonian shrunken head is stolen, the four are determined to get it back. But their search leads them to a series of murders and an explosive secret about their pasts. This sensational new series combines the unparalleled storytelling gifts of Lauren Oliver with the rich knowledge of the notorious relics collector H. C. Chester.
What you will find in this book:
A rather attractive bearded lady
Several scandalous murders
A deliciously disgusting Amazonian shrunken head
Four extraordinary children with equally extraordinary abilities
A quite loquacious talking bird
What you will NOT find in this book:
An accountant named Seymour
A never-ending line at the post office
Brussels sprouts (shudder)
A lecture on finishing all your homework on time
A sweet, gooey story for nice little girls and boys
Learn more about the series online at www.thecuriosityhouse.com.
Ages 8-12 | Publisher: HarperCollins | 2015 | ISBN-13: 978-0062270818
This interview with Lauren Oliver and H.C. Chester about Curiosity House was conducted by themselves. Follow along with our content tagged with Lauren Oliver, Magic, and Mysteries to discover more great books.