Senior Spring Whim Becomes New Novel

On the brink of decoding a five hundred year old secret, one violent campus murder throws two college seniors into a whirlwind of mystery, betrayal and discovery. Set on Princeton’s campus, The Rule of Four, by Princeton alum Ian Caldwell and Dustin E. Thomason ’98, blends fact and fiction around one of the most rare, yet least understood books of the Renaissance period, the Hynerotomachia Poliphili.

Caldwell and Thomason have been writing together since they were eight years-old. Their collective efforts include plays, one-acts and even Thomason’s high school graduation speech.

The idea for a college mystery, however, came to the pair during their senior year of college. “When Ian discovered the Hynerotomachia Poliphili in a class at Princeton, we thought what kind of story can we connect around this, and how can we use it to generate an interesting piece of fiction,” Thomason said in a phone interview.

The Hynerotomachia, known for its perverse sexuality and violence, has enchanted scholars for hundreds of years because of its encrypted messages, unknown author and bizarre history. The Rule of Four opens with senior Paul Harris racing to complete the last stages of research for his thesis on the work.

Helping Paul is his friend Tom Sullivan. Deciphering the Hynerotomachia consumed Tom’s father until his sudden death, and has fascinated the boys since their freshman year.

However, when news of the murder of a longtime student of the book spreads, Tom and Paul find themselves torn between the past and the present as they move closer to discovering a translation, amidst Princeton’s world of exclusive eating clubs, campus rituals and a costume ball.

Caldwell and Thomason began writing the novel just a week after their own graduations in 1998. They had originally intending to take a road trip across country after the book’s completion, but “little did we know what it takes to write a novel,” Thomason said.

Six years later, using mostly the phone and Internet to communicate, the pair finished the novel, a combinatiaon of mystery, suspense and a little romance. When asked about how they managed to write the novel as a team, Thomason responded, “We had that advantage of knowing each other and each other’s writing styles… It was easy to find a unified voice more quickly.”

As to the actual process, Thomason said, “we would brainstorm ideas and scene structures and characters, and then one of us would take a stab at writing a first draft of a chapter, and then the other one would rewrite/edit and shape, and ultimately that was the process that we kept with.” He adds that “it’s changed so much over the past six years over who was doing the initial writing and who’s been doing the rewriting.”

Thomason said the biggest challenge of the novel was in fact, trying to blend in all the different themes. He described it as “a many-headed monster. It’s a thriller, it’s a mystery or its somewhere in between, it’s a book about books, it’s a book about friendship, love and obsession and about fathers and sons.”

Thomason said the book’s genre was something that the two struggled with. “If you write the novel in a certain way it’s a historical novel, and if you write it in another way it’s a romance, or another way it’s a thriller,” he says. “Because there was so much we wanted to accomplish in the novel, inevitably the most difficult challenge was balancing in 380 pages a novel which is about 100 different things.”

The two managed to include all these components in a style reminiscent of Dan Brown, combining fact and fiction with such ease that the reader becomes enthralled in the story, and loses all sense of what is historically true, and what’s not.

Thomason said they had to give some thought to using history as a backbone for a fictional story. “Basically, you have to make decisions about what you feel comfortable fictionalizing and to what extent you feel indebted to the truth,” he said. “Especially in a book like this where we were bending history to create really captivating story, and the question you have to constantly have to ask yourself is if you are bending history too far?”

Thomason does not discourage using history as the basis for stories though. “There are already a ton of interesting stories that exist that you can mine for drama,” he said. An author’s note gives specific details of historical accuracy, but in general Thomason said they kept as truthful to the Italian Renaissance as possible.

Fans of The Rule of Four will be happy to learn that the pair are already well into their second novel. Although the characters are ne w, Thomason said it will fall in the same genre. “We found a lot of exciting opportunities in writing a book that mixed the present with the past, so that’s a direction we’re definitely planning to head.”

The Rule of Four will be released next Tuesday.