Gilfillan, Ross 1956-

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GILFILLAN, Ross 1956-

PERSONAL: Born February 24, 1956, in Sheffield, England; son of Alan Eastwood (a manager) and Anne Julie (a physiotherapist) Gilfillan; married Lisa Ann (a nurse), December 15, 1984; children: Fae Victoria, Thomas Ethan, Alice Dorothea. Education: Polytechnic of North London, B.A. (with honors). Hobbies and other interests: Vernacular architecture, architecture, walking, literature.

ADDRESSES: Office—P.O. Box 312, Witham, Essex CM8 352, England. E-mail[email protected].

CAREER: Writer. Galaxy Publications, editor in chief.

MEMBER: National Union of Journalists.


The Snake-Oil Dickens Man (novel), Fourth Estate (London, England), 1998.

The Edge of the Crowd (novel), Fourth Estate (London, England), 2001.

Book reviewer for Daily Mail.

WORK IN PROGRESS: The Last of the Revolution, a novel.

SIDELIGHTS: Ross Gilfillan's first novel The Snake-Oil Dickens Man was described by Times Literary Supplement reviewer Jonathan Bate as "a fantasy woven around the American Notes of Charles Dickens," but said "its real debt is to Mark Twain. Ross Gilfillan is haunted by the figure of Huck Finn 'lighting out for the territory…. And the plot takes off from those famous Twainian tricksters, the Duke and the Dauphin, who travel round small-town America gulling folk into thinking that they are witnessing 'the world-renowned Shakespearean tragedian, Garrick the Younger, of Drury Lane, London.'" Christine Barker wrote in the Birmingham Post that the novel "is one of those compulsive, quirky, beautifully constructed easy reads that has you wondering why no one ever tried it before."

The story is set in 1867. Young Billy Talbot was born in Hayes, Missouri, to a prostitute and an unknown father. He works for Merriweather, the man who had enslaved his mother, at the Particular Hotel and has visions of running away with P.T. Barnum's circus. Blind Elijah Putnam, who lives in the hotel, has schooled Billy on the works of Dickens, encouraging him to learn the great novels. Putnam knows Billy's origins, which are related to the stop Dickens made in Hayes during his first American tour in 1842. Dickens is back, and Putnam gives Billy his savings and sends him off to New York, where Dickens is to have a reading, to claim his heritage. Along the way, Billy's mother and her boyfriend relieve him of his money, but the boy is rescued by Hope Scattergood, a snake oil salesman whose new scheme is traveling from town to town, impersonating Dickens. Hope puts up posters, sells tickets, performs readings, and then disappears with the money before he is found out. Billy meets Hope in Kentucky, where the imposter's performance is marred by his intoxication. Billy is the only one in the audience who seems to see the flaws in Hope's Great Expectations, which reveal him to be the fake he is. Still, Billy is impressed with the well-dressed hustler and willingly goes into business with him. Billy learns the tricks of the trade, and prospers. Hope and Billy head east to further exploit the Dickens legend. The story is narrated from the point of view of Billy's future self, Senator William Talbot. Gilfillan said that Snake-Oil "is concerned with a boy's search for his father and with the importance of mentors. The influence of Billy's mentor, Hope Scattergood, is not a wholly good one, and yet I would argue that Billy has, in the end, become a fuller person for his association with the con man."

Spectator reviewer Byron Rogers noted that while Hope and Billy were pulling off the Dickens scam, others were impersonating Hawthorne and Melville. "It is the beginning of a love affair with the American public," said Rogers. "For, as Billy observes, they are happy to be taken in and the con man genuinely loves them for this. After a long apprenticeship of lies, deceit and the peddling of dreams, he ends up a great public figure, and this, curiously, becomes a book for our times." In a Times review, Dave Thomas said that The Snake-Oil Dickens Man is "rich in its authenticity" and will "keep the reader enthralled and believing to the end."

Gilfillan once told CA that his motivation for writing is "personal fulfillment. I'm not sure that I actually like the writing process—it's dangerously hard work, but I can't imagine myself doing anything else with quite the same dedication.

"I'm not particularly influenced by any single author, but along with various Victorian fictions, I've recently enjoyed Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong, William Boyd's the New Confessions, Pat Barker's Regeneration series, Richard Ford's The Sportswriter and Independence Day, and William Maxwell's Time Will Darken It. I think the Australian author Patrick White is sadly neglected at present. I think I was inspired by reading too many novels by Charles Dickens.

"I carry a slim digital voice recorder into which I gabble notes, and the actual writing was mainly done on Friday nights and Saturday mornings and whenever I could snatch ten minutes or a half hour for myself. I find the best time to write is early morning, before the family is awake and while my mind is still clear. The novel was written in eight months, the first two given over to research. Most of my research was already done—I had spent the previous twenty years immersed in Victorian fiction, and Snake-Oil owes a lot to my reading of Mark Twain, Dickens, and a number of their contemporaries. I used Internet forums to settle various points of topography, geography, and linguistic nuance.

"I wrote stories as a child and made one or two false starts in my twenties. At thirty-nine I wrote a 128,000-word mess called Annie and the Big Gas Birds, which was rejected by all but served to give me confidence to write The Snake-Oil Dickens Man, which sold very quickly to Fourth Estate. This was followed by The Edge of the Crowd, a novel set in London in the middle of the nineteenth century, but I don't intend that all future novels will be set in the past."

In The Last of the Revolution, evolutionary guerrilla Alfredo Ortega and his legendary commandant, Cristo, overthrew a corrupt, U.S.-backed regime to bring left-wing, revolutionary politics to the Caribbean. Forty years later, aging radical journalist Anthony Carver visits the island nation of San Joaquin to interview Ortega upon his deathbed. By the time of his arrival, Ortega has already died and a new leader is in place. America is waiting with bated breath to learn which political path the nation will follow next. Gilfillan told CA "The new president is showing signs of leaning toward the west. The revolution, however, lives on, not only in the hearts of those who fought it, but also in the preparations for a new insurrection to be led by Consuela Ramirez, the one-time girlfriend of revolutionary icon Cristo, who is supposed to have died. Carver proclaims this second revolution to the world, but is soon in danger of losing his objectivity when his investigations throw up a startling possibility: could Cristo, long thought to have been murdered in the South American jungle, be alive and ready to join the new fight? Questions of fidelity and betrayal underpin this adventure set in a crucible of world politics, a place on the cusp of changes that will have seismic consequences."



Birmingham Post, August 22, 1998, Christine Barker, review of The Snake-Oil Dickens Man, p. 37.

Observer, August 1, 1999, review of The Snake-Oil Dickens Man, p. 14.

Spectator, October 10, 1998, Byron Rogers, review of The Snake-Oil Dickens Man, p. 40.

Times (London, England), July 18, 1998, Dave Thomas, review of The Snake-Oil Dickens Man; January 20, 2001, review of The Edge of the Crowd, p. 23.

Times Literary Supplement, August 7, 1998, review of The Snake-Oil Dickens Man, p. 21; June 29, 2001, review of The Edge of the Crowd, p. 23.