His latest book is The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine, which I asked him to put to the "page 69 test." Here is his reply:
Page 69 happens to start with the central narrative question of the whole book: Where are the bones of Tom Paine? William Cobbett, a hostile biographer of Paine's, had a change of heart years later after... well, actually reading Paine. (Political discourse hasn't changed much, it seems.) Cobbett was always one for odd schemes, and so he dug up Paine and brought him back to England with the notion that the bones would be a great political fundraiser, and that he could erect a grand monument to Tom.Many thanks to Paul for the input.
Human remains, it turns out, are not a great fundraising gimmick.
So they sat in Cobbett's attic and were eventually lost at an estate sale. Throughout the 19th century the Times and just about everybody else asked what happened to them, until eventually most people forgot that Paine was even lost. But it was just one of those inquiries that got me started.
Years ago I was browsing an old Victorian magazine and came across a typical letter inquiring about Paine's bones; I didn't think much about the letter until the following week another reader replied saying that he'd seen them... and then named the owner. It was, of all people, a grain merchant in the town of Guildford.
Some had claimed that Paine had been turned into commemorative coat buttons, scattered and roaming the world. The truth was scarcely less weird. Paine's path took me all over both sides of the Atlantic -- I discovered a whole succession of radical reformers had kept the bones (and lost them through death or bankruptcy) -- people involved in everything from abolitionism and birth control to medical reform and voting rights. And so the bones became the maguffin for a journey into forgotten history. Paine's only alive for 30 pages of the book -- it's really about the extraordinary radical freethinkers that he inspired.
As for page 69 itself -- well, as an example of schemes gone awry, colorful figures like Cobbett, and "seemed like a good idea at the time" moments, it's pretty representative of my work. Failure holds a fascination for me as a writer, because it's only inevitable in retrospect, and it often requires just as much ingenuity and effort as success.
Still, I'd rather not be a failure myself -- the irony would be just so exasperating.
Read an excerpt from The Trouble With Tom at Amazon.
Paul did this radio interview about The Trouble With Tom.
Alex Butterworth's review in the Observer concluded that "there is much joyous wit and dizzying eclecticism in this playful reminder of Paine's enduring relevance."
"[T]he charm of [Collins'] manner and the originality of his critical intelligence mark this sensitive rendering of Paine's afterlife," wrote Jenny Davidson in the Village Voice review.
The Telegraph (UK) ran two reviews of The Trouble With Tom, one by Brian Dillon and the other by Philip Hoare.
While it has nothing to do with Collins' book, readers interested in Thomas Paine might be interested in John Barrel's savaging review of Christopher Hitchens' Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’: A Biography.
Paul Collins appears frequently on National Public Radio for segments including "Clement Moore, Anti-Jefferson Pamphleteer," "True Crime from the 1820s: Shades of Capote," and "'Rock Bands' of the Nineteenth Century."
Learn "how a Harvard professor sought signs from ghost world" in this book review by Paul.
His articles for Slate include "Dead Plagiarists Society" and "Rock 'n' Roll Schmuck."
Paul is one of the authors of Presidential Doodles. (So is David Greenberg.)
Keep up with the latest by the prolific Paul Collins at the blog, Weekend Stubble.
Previous "page 69 tests:"
John McFetridge, Dirty Sweet
Michael Kazin, A Godly Hero
Bill Crider, Murder Among the OWLS
Zachary Shore, Breeding Bin Ladens
Rolf Potts, Vagabonding
Matt Haig, The Dead Fathers Club
Lawrence Light, Fear & Greed
Simon Read, In The Dark
Sandra Ruttan, Suspicious Circumstances
Henry Ansgar Kelly, Satan: A Biography
Alison Gaylin, You Kill Me
Gayle Lynds, The Last Spymaster
Jim Lehrer, The Phony Marine
Julie Phillips, James Tiptree, Jr.
Debra Ginsberg, Blind Submission
Sarah Katherine Lewis, Indecent
Peter Orner, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo
William Easterly, The White Man's Burden
Danielle Trussoni, Falling Through the Earth
Andrew Blechman, Pigeons
Anne Perry, A Christmas Secret
Elaine Showalter, Faculty Towers
Kat Richardson, Greywalker
Michael Bess, Choices Under Fire
Masha Hamilton, The Camel Bookmobile
Alex Beam, Gracefully Insane
Nicholas Lemann, Redemption
Jason Sokol, There Goes My Everything
Wendy Steiner, Venus in Exile
Josh Chafetz, Democracy’s Privileged Few
Anne Frasier, Pale Immortal
Michael Lewis, The Blind Side
David A. Bell, The First Total War
Brett Ellen Block, The Lightning Rule
Rosanna Hertz, Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice
Jason Starr, Lights Out
Robert Vitalis, America's Kingdom
Stephen Elliott, My Girlfriend Comes To The City And Beats Me Up
Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies
Sean Chercover, Big City, Bad Blood
Sigrid Nunez, The Last of Her Kind
Stanley Fish, How Milton Works
James Longenbach, The Resistance to Poetry
Margaret Lowrie Robertson, Season of Betrayal
Sy Montgomery, The Good Good Pig
Allison Burnett, The House Beautiful
Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History
Ed Lynskey, The Dirt-Brown Derby
Cindy Dyson, And She Was
Simon Blackburn, Truth
Brian Freeman, Stripped
Alyson M. Cole, The Cult of True Victimhood
Jeff Biggers, In the Sierra Madre
Jeff Broadwater, George Mason, Forgotten Founder
Alicia Steimberg, Andrea Labinger (trans.), The Rainforest
Michael Grunwald, The Swamp
Darrin McMahon, Happiness: A History
Leo Braudy, From Chivalry to Terrorism
David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie
Leah Hager Cohen, Train Go Sorry
Chris Grabenstein, Slay Ride
David Helvarg, Blue Frontier
Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria
Bill Crider, A Mammoth Murder
Robert W. Bennett, Taming the Electoral College
Nicholas Stern et al, Stern Review Report
Kerry Emanuel, Divine Wind
Adam Langer, The Washington Story
Michael Scott Moore, Too Much of Nothing
Frank Schaeffer, Baby Jack
Wyn Cooper, Postcards from the Interior
Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov
Maureen Ogle, Ambitious Brew
Cass Sunstein, Infotopia
Paul W. Kahn, Out of Eden
Paul Lewis, Cracking Up
Pagan Kennedy, Confessions of a Memory Eater
David Greenberg, Nixon's Shadow
Duane Swierczynski, The Wheelman
George Levine, Darwin Loves You
John Barlow, Intoxicated
Alicia Steimberg, The Rainforest
Alan Wolfe, Does American Democracy Still Work?
John Dickerson, On Her Trail
Marcus Sakey, The Blade Itself
Randy Boyagoda, Governor of the Northern Province
John Gittings, The Changing Face of China
Rachel Kadish, Tolstoy Lied
Eric Rauchway, Blessed Among Nations
Tim Brookes, Guitar and other books
Ruth Padel, Tigers in Red Weather
William Haywood Henderson, Augusta Locke
Jed Horne, Breach of Faith
Robert Greer, The Fourth Perspective
David Plotz, The Genius Factory
Michael Allen Dymmoch, White Tiger
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy
Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing
Libby Fischer Hellmann, A Shot To Die For
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale