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Interview: Ian Creasey on “A Melancholy Apparition”

Tell us a bit about “A Melancholy Apparition.”

It’s set in the 18th century and is about Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, who are historical personages here in the UK.  In his day, Johnson was well known as a writer and conversationalist; he wrote an acclaimed dictionary of the English language.  Nowadays he is best remembered as the subject of a biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, written by James Boswell.  This biography was hugely influential for its scope and the way it preserved many of Johnson’s conversations, based on notes Boswell had made at the time.

The speculative element of “A Melancholy Apparition” is that it’s a ghost story.  I won’t give too much away, but I will mention that the way the characters discuss the issue is drawn from the source material.  In my edition of The Life of Samuel Johnson, “ghosts” has eleven entries in the index.  It’s definitely something that people thought about and talked about, and I’ve tried to be as authentic as possible in conveying that.


What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

Very occasionally, I like to try my hand at a story set in the past.  It’s always an intriguing challenge because you have a solid base of known facts to start from, but then you have to weave a fictional tale that departs from the known facts, yet stays true to the personality of the characters involved.  My previous historical effort was “The Report of a Doubtful Creature”, which starred Charles Darwin.  After that was published, I decided that my next historical story would be about Johnson and Boswell, mainly because I’d recently read The Life of Samuel Johnson and been fascinated by it.  It always helps when you’ve already done some of the research!


Was “A Melancholy Apparition” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

No, it’s not personal, except in the sense that I was writing about things I was genuinely interested in, without concern for marketability.  After I finished it, I did wonder whether Johnson and Boswell were sufficiently famous, especially outside Britain, for the story to get picked up.  I don’t think the story needs the reader to already know who they are, but name recognition generally helps to get people interested.  Historical fiction can be a hard sell if it’s about someone you’ve never heard of.


What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?

I’d already read The Life of Samuel Johnson, but I needed to know more about Boswell himself, so I bought The Journals of James Boswell 1762-1795, edited by John Wain.  This is a single-volume selection of the highlights from Boswell’s vast archive of private journals, which he wrote throughout his life.  Because he never intended them for publication, they’re very frank, and they give a great picture of his personality.  They describe his travels, his encounters with famous people, his sexual adventures, his depressive temperament, and so on. Some of the story’s colourful details were taken directly from Boswell’s journals, and simply compressed a little to fit in the narrative.


What are you working on now?

I’ve just received editorial notes on a story, after I was invited to submit something to a theme anthology.  I need to decide if, and how, I can rewrite the story to address the feedback.  I won’t go into any more detail, since the story hasn’t been accepted yet, and it would be slightly embarrassing if I mentioned the anthology and then it turned out I wasn’t in it!


“A Melancholy Apparition” appears in the September/October 2016 Special David Gerrold issue of F&SF.

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