Real-life, research, and a healthy dose of imagination—those were the key ingredients in Hannah Tinti's novel The Good Thief. On Monday, the author and NYU creative writing professor spoke to an audience of GA and Brunswick Upper School students who had read her novel over the summer; she shared insights into the story and its characters, writing tips, and her own path to becoming an author.
Set in 19th century New England, The Good Thief is the story of an orphan boy, Ren, adopted by Benjamin, a charismatic grifter claiming to be his long-lost brother. Hoping for stability and a good home, Ren instead finds himself living with an itinerant band of con artists and misfits who take up stealing fresh corpses from the cemetery and selling them to a local hospital.
Real-life certainly played a role in this novel that Ms. Tinti admitted was a bit creepy. "I'm from Salem, Massachusetts," she explained to the students, "where it's Halloween 365 days a year ... My first job was at Salem's Witch Dungeon Museum." One of Ren's defining characteristics is that he is missing his left hand. Ren's missing hand has its origins in a serious injury Ms. Tinti suffered playing in the cemetery behind the church where she went to Kindergarten. (She still has a significant scar on her wrist, but did not lose her hand.)
There was also a great deal of research that went into the book, particularly on the topic of resurrection men, those who steal corpses from cemeteries for medical training or study. While she was horrified at the practice, she couldn't help but acknowledge the benefits of making cadavers accessible for the purpose of advancing medical science. "I'm interested in things that are morally murky," she said.
Weaving together the characters and plot points she had formulated, Ms. Tinti let her imagination take over and began writing. What she wrote, however, wasn't the beginning of the book. Rather, she began by writing what would ultimately become chapter 15 of The Good Thief, the first time Ren finds himself in the cemetery for a "resurrection."
During the question and answer portion of the presentation, Ms. Tinti was asked if she had any writing advice for the students. "Write something you would like to read yourself," she said versus trying to imitate someone else's writing style. She also emphasized the importance of creating characters that people will care about and noted that she has her creative writing students write obituaries for the characters in their stories before they begin writing the stories themselves.
For high school students who are beginning to contemplate their professional aspirations, Ms. Tinti offered insight into her own career path. Though her mother was a librarian and her house was full of books, Ms. Tinti never planned on becoming an author. In fact, she went to college as a biology major. But as luck would have it, she took a writing class that showed her being an author would allow her to combine all her loves—books, science, and Halloween! It's an unusual combination to be sure, but the end result is a career that has been deeply gratifying, and in the case of The Good Thief, a novel with broad appeal.