Idle hands are the tools of the devil—unless you keep them occupied by writing an award-nominated book.
Paul Collins, an associate professor for the English department at Portland State, is a writer of history who specializes in antiquarian literature. You may know him as the Literary Detective on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, but he also freelances for The New York Times, Slate and New Scientist. Collins has published eight books that have been translated into 11 languages.
Collins’ latest book, Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery, has been selected as a finalist for the 2014 Oregon Book Awards: Frances Fuller Victor Award for General Nonfiction.
The Oregon Book Awards and Fellowships is the annual celebration of the state’s most accomplished writers in the genres of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, young readers and graphic literature. The program also produces the Oregon Book Awards Author Tour, which connects writers and readers throughout the state with readings, classroom visits and workshops.
The awards are part of Literary Arts, a Portland-based nonprofit literary center with a focus on community.
“The Oregon Book Awards bring more attention to the writing of Oregon authors. The judges are asked to make their selections based on literary merit, but it is up to them how they interpret that,” said Susan Denning, director of programs and events for Literary Arts.
‘Duel with the Devil’
“Criminal trials are like catnip because you’ve got so much to work with,” Collins said.
In Duel with the Devil, this narrative nonfiction involves readers in the true account of a fascinating early 19th-century murder and the trial that follows.
“The trial has a couple of things to make it notable besides from Hamilton and Burr being a defense team. It was the first murder trial that had a full transcript, so you could actually read through. [It is] technically the first fully recorded murder trial in U.S. history,” Collins said.
“This book highlights what rofessor Collins does best, which is to discover a fascinating hidden story and bring it to light,” said Hildy Miller, professor and chair of the English Department at PSU.
Collins stumbled across the antique transcript of the trial when finishing his previous book, The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked The Tabloid Wars. Duel with the Devil enlightens the first substantial break in over 200 years of our nation’s longest running cold case, in which Levi Weeks was wrongfully accused.
“When I was reading through the transcript, I had a hunch, which was, ‘I wonder if anyone else in that boarding house Weeks was in had a criminal record,’ because at that time you could just move to a different city or state and no one would know who you were. They couldn’t look you up on Facebook. Criminals could just change towns and commit the same kind of crimes all over again,” Collins said.
“Historical crime for the same reason that it is interesting to write it, to read it gives a really specific sense of the time. The crime itself in a weird way is only an eighth of the iceberg that is showing, and the rest of it is getting a sense of what it is like to actually live day to day in a very sort of ordinary life and what happens when that gets disrupted,” Collins said.
Collins’ work and experience in the realm of literature also translates into the classroom. “I am constantly drawing on my own experience while teaching,” he said. “Going over magazine or essay writing with students, I mention something I just worked on with an editor myself. It informs and gives a very pragmatic kind of emphasis to my classes that also demystifies it a bit, not some great secret process involved, just people working and thinking about how to make a piece of art work. Something students can learn to do themselves.”
“He has a national reputation for his writing, but what many people don’t know is that his students also praise his work highly. And for good reason—he brings the same passion to his teaching that he does his writing,” Miller said.
Down the line
Winners will be announced at the Oregon Book Awards Ceremony at the Gerding Theater on March 17. The awards will be hosted by the award-winning author Luis Alberto Urrea.
In the meantime, Collins is hard at work on his next projects. Collins’ next book, a biography called Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living, is due to release Aug. 26.
“The next one after that is tentatively titled Blood and Ivy, about a professor at Harvard Medical School in mid-19th century that murdered one of their biggest donors and hid it. A very different scene from the rough-and-tumble of 1800s New York, but the same idea [as Duel with the Devil], trying to really put the reader into that place and time,” Collins said.
Published by Crown Publishing, Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery is available for purchase online and in bookstores now.