How did you get interested in writing historical fiction? Is there something about building on an underlying “fact” based narrative that you like, or is it just a love of history?
—Kate Klonick, New York City
I’m mulling over the different ways I can answer this question, Kate. I should probably start with my usual caveat. Aside from Suite Harmonic, I don’t really categorize anything I’ve written as historical fiction, though certainly a book like Time Stamp covers such a wide swath of time that parts of it might feel like historical fiction, at least the opening chapter of Will Wheelock as a boy and perhaps the chapters about him and Reeve in the early years of their marriage. But (admission here) setting books in the 70s or 80s still feels a little like current events to me. And, of course, I did the original work on the stories from those periods when they actually were contemporary.
A little more background here. I went to college knowing I wanted to be a writer and thinking that meant I should understand as much about as many different things as I could. When I got to Brown, which was in such a different era than the much later time when you went there, I had chosen it in part because it offered a major in American studies. Being the parochial kid that I was, I assumed that meant American as in United States and that I would be studying U.S. American history and literature and homegrown music and art and anything else related to those fields. Since major requirements were firmly set during that period, which was just before the advent of Brown’s New Curriculum, I soon discovered that American studies meant everything, North and South (particularly South, it seemed), and that I would need to learn Spanish and a lot of South American history for starters. That wasn’t my focus or really even on my radar, though many years later I found myself blown away by Latin American literature and wished I did know much more about that part of the world. With no major option that would give me the combination of courses I wanted, by sophomore year I’d decided on English literature as an obvious default.
At the same time I started the mandatory core courses in literature (confession: I never did finish reading Gawain and the Green Knight), I took a high energy seminar in political science that engaged the political junkie in me. While I also had a couple of literature seminars that introduced me to an idiosyncratic mix of master works, some of them verging on the contemporary and all of them by men, I seemed to find myself writing the same kind of formulaic papers for every literature course, often on work that felt more obligatory than meaningful or live. Given the curriculum of the day, I wasn’t a happy literature major. I felt way too constrained.
It was then I had one of those college conversations with a savvy upper classman that started me in a new direction. I had decided I wanted to major in political science because I’d found the courses exciting at some level, including one on Africa when the continental map seemed to change every week. My friend was a chemistry major with some firm opinions. She looked at me sternly and said, seriously? You’re going to major in one of those pseudo-sciences? Then she added that if I was so interested in politics and how it affects people and their lives, I should go the whole way and major in something solid like history.
At that point, I hadn’t taken even a single history course, so it was a revolutionary idea. But it got my attention and then my commitment. I spent my off-work hours in the summer reading various texts from the introductory European history survey courses so I could test out of that requirement. (And I still feel the lack of the actual courses.) I then loaded my schedule for junior and senior years with history courses, which left only enough room for a couple of creative writing courses, one course on world religions and three courses I can’t remember. It was pretty intense. However, it gave me the course that I realized was what I had been looking for from the time I arrived in Rhode Island: William McLoughlin’s wide-ranging two-semester course on the social and intellectual history of the United States. It was my deepest, early submersion in original texts, as well as in a lot of stimulating secondary works by some very big minds. The course was hard and invigorating, and it made me feel I was starting to understand the country in ways I never had, and also that I’d barely scratched the surface.
That was the academic armor I left college with. I also left with a husband, who continually introduced me to a far wider range of literature than I’d ever read. It meant I had a wide span of interests to draw on in my fledgling attempts at writing fiction, with that particular awareness of political turmoils still very much in the mix. This may sound like a recipe for chaos, and maybe it was to a degree, but it also worked to establish the larger signature of my work, something Patricia Hampl alluded to years later after reading a large group of my short stories—that I always set up the sociological and cultural world of my characters as I start writing about them. Trish was right. I do. And this is the first real answer to your question. It’s not so much that I have a passion for history or writing about it. It’s that I’m infinitely curious about what makes people tick. If I want to know why people are going to act and feel as they do in a certain situation, I need to know the personal and historical factors that have gone into making the situations they’re going to react to. That’s a personal fascination for me. Maybe you could call it an empathy based on an awareness of those factors in life that are deterministic. Is there anything in Lawrence’s life in “In the Land of the Dinosaur” that has prepared him to be comfortable with the changes he’s facing? Not that I can see. But the changes are there nonetheless, discomfiting as they are, and that’s what’s at the heart of the story and what interests me as a writer. Not just the conflicts, but why they’re there in the first place.
What I’m answering here is mostly related to the part of your question about an interest in “building on an underlying ‘fact’ based narrative.” Obviously, even in non-historical fiction, that’s a lot of what I’m doing—setting up the factual reality of lives and showing the cognitive dissonance that results when unexpected facts enter the picture. But it’s also true that I simply get a real kick out of fitting my characters into actual life. I want it to feel as if they belong there, as if they really lived or are living. Suite Harmonic is sui generis in many ways, particularly since the host of characters, large and small, really did live and really are being inserted into actual events that they experienced. You could say that, in that instance, I carried this interest to an extreme.
But Suite Harmonic is the real deal of historical fiction, and this brings me to the other parts of your question. I had a specific desire to tell the Suite Harmonic story before I ever thought of it as historical fiction; my interest was in that one story, not in historical fiction per se. As I’ve said elsewhere, I was fascinated by John Given’s letters from the first I knew of them as a teenager. My mother had told me her mother’s stories about John when I was growing up, and I knew he had had an interesting life that had a lot of historical nexus points. It wasn’t until I read his letters myself (after my dad decided I was old enough!), and even more when I tracked down some of their references, that I realized how amazing those connections were. And that’s the place where the old history student part of me came into play, particularly the researcher from graduate school. I knew the potential excitement in the story needed not only the imaginative work of the fiction writer but a passion to do the research that would unearth the full dimensions of the relevant historical record. It was an exciting prospect at the outset and a driving vision that saw me through the last research trip and the last word of the story. And, yes, in this context, and with this particular set of stirring historical facts from a monumental time in our national history, we are talking love.