It's been a week since I returned from the AWP conference in Denver, but my head is still buzzing with questions stemming from the very last session I attended, one on historical fiction (the only one on historical fiction), featuring Ron Hansen, Cynthia Mahamdi, and Philip Gerard. It was a good session, one of the best I attended this year, just unfortunately placed in the very last time slot of a three day conference. Ron Hansen is a terrific novelist, someone who never writes a bad book. He's also someone who has a considerable track record in writing crisp, illuminating, perfectly delivered, historical novels. His book Hitler's Niece is one of the finest novels I've ever read in any genre. (I think I might have said that on this blog before.) In the session, Hansen elucidated twelve "rules" for writers of literary historical fiction, and I was gratified to realize that in composing my Van Gogh novel Yellow, I've followed almost every one of them. In fact, most of his rules seemed like good, plain common sense for any conscionable writer aspiring to write something that has value. I like to count myself in that camp. However, I instinctively parted ways with Hansen at one of his rules. Hansen said that the fiction writer should not knowingly part from fact. This is a disservice to the reader, he suggested, who is trusting the writer to render a realistic, even if imagined, picture of the subject. The reader is trusting the writer to get the details right even as the writer is developing his or her story. It is a disservice to both the reader and the subject, Hansen suggested, to put a character in Rio in 1932, for instance, when according to the historical record the character never went near Rio until 1940.
I understand Hansen's point, and I also understand that almost all of the fictive work of historical fiction is not in developing the basic story but in imagining what real historical events looked like, sounded like, smelled like, and felt like for the real participants. To bring alive in scene what is a mere sentence in the historical record. This will mean making arbitrary decisions sometimes as to what someone is wearing, or what diction they use, or how tightly wound they seem, decisions that are virtually identical to the myriad decisions we make when writing a purely imagined, non-historical work of fiction. It's also true that some subjects are so barely sketched in the historical record that a writer has immense leeway in imagining what really did or didn't happen; the writer can wander off in all sorts of interesting directions without "knowingly departing from the facts." (William Styron noted, in his preface to The Confessions of Nat Turner, that it was exactly because so little was known about Nat Turner that he enjoyed taking him up as a subject.) All of this is to say that I understand how a writer can follow Hansen's maxim to the letter and still be free to write a richly felt, deeply imagined work.
But we can never depart from known fact? Never? And for the reason that we might give false ideas to the poor reader, who will mistake our books for biography? Wait a minute. I'm a writer of fiction. That Yellow is novel--not a biography--I have made, and will continue to make, perfectly clear. In fact, it's impossible not to read it without realizing that it sounds nothing like a biography of Van Gogh, just like Hitler's Niece sounds nothing like a biography of Geli Raubal. And if my book is ever published, it will have one of those big, fat, legalistic warnings labels inside proclaiming it to be a work of fiction. So I'm at fault if a reader mistakes it for straight history? No. Sorry. No way. If a reader is reading a novel, the reader should know what the definition of a novel is. If he or she doesn't, that's not the author's fault. Second, and more importantly, sometimes the writer of a historical fiction must depart from fact in order to make his novel work dramatically. There are a couple times I did this in Yellow, and I think of them as some of the most necessary scenes. Without them, I don't know how I could have held my book together as a novel. A novel certainly can't just be a dramatized version of every notable fact in a subject's biography. If you just starting writing ever inch of a person's life you end up with hundreds, if not thousands, of unusable pages. What you have to do is find a way to coordinate a person's life story into a compelling and credible fiction. And fiction--as we all know--counts on having a plot.
I don't want to sound glib here. I understand a commitment to the facts. It was because I was so interested in the specific facts of Van Gogh's life, because those facts so sparked my imagination to action, that I quickly abandoned my original plan, which was to write a novel about a Van Gogh-like painter. I found that so many of the scenes I wanted in the book were so drawn directly from, and depended upon, the man's real life that to use anything else than the his real name would have been ludicrous. And dishonest. And transparent. But by deciding to write a novel about Van Gogh, and not just pen yet another biography of him, I've made a decision that allows me, by definition, to "knowingly part from fact." I will fight to my last breath for my right, as a fiction writer, to do that; and not just my right, but my responsibility too.