Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Watching Lust, Part Two


In my last entry, I discussed some of my reactions to the 1956 movie Lust for Life, an adaptation of the 1934 Irving Stone novel of the same name. I ended on a note about the film's bloodless interpretation of Theo, Vincent's brother. How the film depicts Paul Gauguin is far more interesting and far more successful. Played with a fierce, commanding self-composure by Anthony Quinn, Quinn's Gauguin is arrogant, commanding, and clear-eyed, an obvious foil to Kirk Douglas's more emotional and, toward the end of film, even raging Vincent. The different depictions of the two men certainly do point to real differences in their personalities. Vincent indeed was a far more emotionally based individual than Paul Gauguin, who could fairly be called calculating, even scheming. Gauguin should also be called a liar and a weasel, an aspect of his personality that the movie doesn't quite explore. Arguably, in the standoff between the two Yellow House roommates, in the vortex of their deteriorating relationship, the film suggests that Gauguin is the sane and reliable, even if he is also rather cold personally. (The film also suggests that Van Gogh was the much heavier drinker of the two men. Nothing factual points to that conclusion. Nothing factual even points to a great fondness for absinthe on Vincent's part, despite his reputation to the contrary. And Gauguin was the more frequent visitor to brothels--an aspect of 19th century male life, and Van Gogh's life too, that the movie simply declines to explore.)

The real Gauguin certainly was sane and cold, but never reliable. There's every indication that his famous account of Vincent's 1888 breakdown--when Vincent cut his ear off--is a network of self-serving lies, none of them verified by any other source. Unfortunately, the movie seems to rely on Gauguin's account for its lurid depiction of the event. The myth of the Tragically Mad Vincent, something I've complained about in other posts, is fully on display. But it gets only worse when the movie moves on to Vincent's last months in the quiet northern village of Auvers-sur-Oise. Without question, these were not happy months in Vincent's life. He had come to the realization that he would never be truly cured. The power of his painting had self-evidently diminished. The predicted friendship with Paul Gachet--a physician in the village who was both an art lover and had an interest in mental illness--a friendship Theo was counting on to provide support and counsel for Vincent in Auvers, turned sour rather quickly. So it is no great surprise, really, that Vincent would have decided his life and energy was all but spent, that there was no reason for him to continue on. All that said, the movie tries to portray him as not depressed but deranged. In one striking scene, a band plays in the street outside of a bar where Vincent sits desperately clinging to a drink. The music literally drives Vincent crazy as he winces and wiggles and clutches his ears trying to keep out the sound. It is the kind of scene that was likely deeply affecting to audiences when the film was released but which seems pathetically overdone now.

There is more of this Tragically Mad mythmaking in the movie's final minutes. Vincent is painting in a field, at work on what is widely--and erroneously--called his "final painting": Wheat Field with Crows. While Wheat Field with Crows is one of his last paintings, by no means was it his absolute last. In fact, art historians date it as having been completed weeks before Van Gogh died. Viewers of the painting simply would like to believe it was his last because of the strong note of foreboding in it: the threatening blue-black sky and the low-hanging bodies of crows that look like harbingers of death. Of course, people think, just before he died he painted a painting about death. It's too poetically perfect not to believe; but it's also simply wrong. The movie goes one step further. In the movie, this isn't merely Vincent's last painting but Vincent kills himself while painting it. He tries to work, but is struck by another fit similar to what is shown in the bar scene. In the anxiety of the moment, he pulls out a gun and shoots himself. "Now where would he have gotten the gun?" my sister smartly commented. Well, in fact, plenty of frenchmen owned guns in the 19th century, but Vincent was not in the habit of carrying one when he went painting. If, as is commonly held, Vincent shot himself in a field on July 27, 1890--a new biography disputes this notion and claims he was accidentally shot by someone else--he surely took the gun out with him just for this purpose. And by no means was he in the middle of painting Wheat Field with Crows, a controlled and striking painting. This shooting scene is nothing more than melodramatic Hollywood blather.

But to be fair, it's no less blather than most films of the day would have shown you. Or that most films show you now. Is Lust for Life worth watching? Yes, it still is. But please don't think that it transmits an accurate, or even sensitive, interpretation of the life of the artist. The real Van Gogh was far more complicated than the writhing, raging, movie cut up. The real Van Gogh was both more lucid and, for those who knew him best, more maddening a man.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Watching Lust, Part One


Recently, I spent a week at my mother's house in Cobb Island, Maryland helping her out as she recovers from a rather serious surgical procedure. One of my sisters, who also lives on Cobb Island, felt it was about time I watch Lust for Life--the 1956 movie based on Irving Stone's bestselling Van Gogh novel--so she ordered it off Netflix for us. As I've mentioned in a past entry, I purposefully avoided Lust for Life, in both its novel and film versions, when I composed my novel Days on Fire. I firmly believed that a 21st century rendition of Van Gogh's life needed to be imagined and crafted independent of an early 20th century one. (Stone's novel appeared in 1934.) But having more or less completed my project, there seemed no point in hesitating any longer, so I watched the film with my mother and sister, quite curious about what aspects of Van Gogh's life and character the moviemakers--including Kirk Douglas, who plays Van Gogh--would choose to emphasize.

It should come as no surprise that Lust for Life the movie is very much a piece of its time. (This is true of just about any work of art, and is surely true too of my own novel. It's just hard to see that when something is both so new and so close to you.) The movie engages in just the kind of bowdlerization and heroic mythmaking that we've come to expect from the 1950s. And of course it takes several shortcuts in order to tell its story in 122 minutes. It completely ignores Vincent's childhood years in Brabant (a rural region of south Holland) as well as the crucially important, formative years as an art dealer in The Hague and in London. (Arguably, everything that came from his life, both good and bad, was a reaction to the disappointments of that time. Certainly, this is when his sarcastic ideas about the art business were formed.) Instead the movie picks up when Vincent is about to go off to the Borinage, a mining region in southern Belgium, where he tried to make a go as a lay preacher. I suppose this is as good of a place to start as any if you want to introduce tension into a movie. And I certainly understand having to cut something out to get your movie down to size. But, still, I felt the inherent absences caused by the moviemaker's choice. Don't get me wrong. Some aspects of the movie I admired but others I chuckled at. Some I thought were ridiculous. There are undeniably lovely scenic shots of Arles and other locations in southern France. And some of the testy artistic debates with which Gauguin and Vincent (repeatedly) engaged is fairly suggested by the movie, which does an admirable job summarizing the contrasting principles upon which each man based his work.

However, a good deal of what is depicted is terribly contorted and finally plain wrong. Sien, the prostitute who Van Gogh met (probably on a street corner) in The Hague and lived with for over a year, enters the movie not in The Hague but in an Amsterdam bar, the very night after Vincent is rejected by his cousin K and her family. While this makes for an efficient segue from one romantic interest to the next, it's a serious distortion of the facts of Van Gogh's life. He met Sien not only in a different city but after several months had passed, months that gave him necessary time to get over his fierce--and blunted--passion for his cousin. Moreover, in the movie Sien is portrayed as a distraught, underemployed cleaning woman, rather than what she really and infamously was.

While such a tidying up of history is to be expected in a 50s movie--or any movie--I was more surprised by how diminished are the roles of Theo and of Vincent's father. Vincent's father, the Reverend Theodorus Van Gogh, appears in exactly one scene, a drastic diminishment of the man who, in both positive and negative ways, was perhaps the most important influence in Vincent's life, at least until he met Gauguin. Theo appears in many more of the movie's scenes, but it's a fairly bloodless, antiseptic interpretation, as Theo's function seems to be simply to tell Vincent what to do--i.e., where to live, whom to meet--without seeming all that engaged in his brother's existence. In the movie, Theo is always smooth and always right. Vincent does what Theo says and thereafter thanks Theo for his advice. In reality, the brothers disagreed often, especially as to where Vincent should move, and what he should do, next. One of the most fascinating aspects of reading the Collected Letters is to watch the push and pull of their relationship, to see not just the affection Vincent felt for Theo but also the bouts of anger and disillusionment. To see Vincent openly bullying Theo or attempting to manipulate him. At the same time, Theo was Vincent's most reliable and informed sounding board on all things artistic. And Theo was hardly the impeccably cool, uninvolved customer. The nearly two years they lived together in Paris severely tested the young brother's patience and almost exhausted him; yet at the same time he was as dependent on Vincent as Vincent was on him. It is no accident that he died shortly after Vincent did.

(Next post: More mythmaking--and Vincent dies!)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Is it really a new Van Gogh?


If you read this blog you probably know that there's a new Van Gogh biography out just now, by authors Gregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh. Not surprisingly for a book with the blunt, comprehensive title Van Gogh: The Life (not "a" life, but "the" life), the volume spans some 900 pages. (And I thought the previous draft of my novel was long!) If nothing else, the publication of yet another Van Gogh biography demonstrates the continuing cultural fascination with this man who during his life was so ignored, suspected, pitied, or detested. While of course one fears an overload of Van Gogh material on the market, I have to think this demonstration of interest in Van Gogh is a promising sign for the eventual appearance and success of my novel Days On Fire.

Smith and Naifeh's book is grabbing headlines for their contention that Van Gogh did not actually commit suicide but was accidentally shot by two gun-toting, playacting kids. This certainly is a provocative argument, although of course one has to wonder why, if true, these facts were not widely known before. Also, as one BBC reporter notes, by insisting on this interpretation of events, the two authors "pay little heed to the one person who was definitely there - Vincent van Gogh - when he quite clearly said: 'Do not accuse anyone... it is I who wanted to kill myself.'" Truth be told, I did not carefully research Van Gogh's death when I consulted secondary sources for my novel, the reason being that I knew I did not want to take my novel all the way to Van Gogh's death. Instead I wanted to focus the ending of my book on Van Gogh's triumph over his own limitations and his subsequent artistic breakthrough in that crucial, singular summer in Arles. The only contrasting opinion I came across about Van Gogh's death was the opinion put forth by one author that while Van Gogh did shoot himself he did so not with suicide in mind but to punish himself for his failures as a man and a brother. Given Van Gogh's melancholic state of mind near the end, after he realized he would never truly be through with his illness, and given his acute awareness of how much he owed Theo, of how great the burden was he placed upon that man, I can almost accept that author's opinion. But, as I said, not one other source--until now--ever suggested his suicide was anything other than what it looked like.

Some of Smith and Naifeh's other claims interest me even more. For instance, that Vincent's family tried repeatedly to have him installed in an insane asylum before he went there voluntarily on his own in 1889. Also that some in his family suspected Vincent of killing his own father. While I am not familiar with the former claim, I suppose it could be credible, although by the time Vincent moved to Arles--really as soon as he moved to Antwerp from Nuenen (where his father, mother, and sister Wil were living at the time of his father's death)--he was well out of his family's hair, and clearly committed to a life as an artist. As I've repeated to many a soul, and a few times on this blog, Van Gogh's famous mental breakdown in Arles came several years after he had devoted himself to the life of the artist and only after he had created many if not most of his greatest pictures. Up until that point there was every reason for his family to continue their patient--or let's say resigned--acceptance of his eccentricities. I'm simply stunned, however, that anyone, much less a family member, could suspect that Vincent killed his father. Smith and Naifeh will truly have to prove this one to me. There is no doubt Vincent's relationship with his father was an emotinally fraught one, but it was also arguably the most important relationship of his life, even more significant than his relationship with Theo, at least until he formed an obsessive and dangerous friendship with Gauguin late in his life. Vincent's frustration with his father was the flip side of his love and respect for the man. After all, he had once wanted to follow his father's steps into the ministry. And in some crucial ways, albeit after severe doubts, his father--in his fashion--finally supported Vincent's call to painting. Of course, Smith and Naifeh don't say that Vincent actually did kill his father, only that some in the family suspected this. Who the "some" are is a key question. Even so, I have my doubts. Unlike the famous/infamous biopic Lust for Life (more on that movie in a later post)--in which Vincent's father appears in exactly one scene--Theodorus Van Gogh the father is one of the central and most interesting characters in my novel. How sad to think that a family member could not appreciate how intertwined Vincent's life was with his father's, even long after Vincent had rejected his father's profession and way of life. In my opinion, Vincent needed his father even more then--as a whipping boy, as a convex mirror, and as a measuring stick. If it's true that some members of his family could think him capable of ending Theodorus's life, or anyone's life besides his own, that only shows how badly they misunderstood their painterly relative.

And that's hardly news at all.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Babbits and more babbits


Last spring in one of my creative writing classes, a student wrote a curious short story in which she made reference to "babbitry." When the story was workshopped, many of her classmates asked about the phrase, an allusion that none of them caught, and not surprisingly. Prior to this class, I don't think that Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis's 1922 novel--or the book's title character--had come up in any discussion I've ever had in a ficiton writing class. The novel, as famous as it was in its day, simply isn't taught or read anymore. Even I, who caught the reference and explained it to the class, knew the book only by its reputation. I'd read and enjoyed Main Street (1920) a long long time ago; and for several years I've intended to read Arrowsmith (1925), which is actually on my book shelf. But I'd never gotten around to reading Babbitt. Well, as you know if you've followed this blog, I'm a fan of the audiobook. I "read" a lot of things that way, during my morning run. So recently I went to Audible.com to find and download Babbitt. Turns out I had several different audio versions of the novel to choose from. Even more interesting, many of the versions were released only recently. This surprised me--such new life from an old book--but then I realized it made perfect sense. What better statement about our current political doldrums, and what better dunderhead to represent them than George F. Babbit?

I'm about three-quarters of the way through right now, and the book still seems to be an elongated, satiric character sketch. Lewis is not completely without sympathy for his title character, and it's not as if nothing of interest ever happens to the man, but the clear point of the novel is to hold up the Babbitt type for critical scrutiny. And what exactly is the Babbitt type? In short, someone who assumes that any place or anything not American must necessarily be inferior, who sticks doggedly to a low/middlebrow notion of what art means and sees little use for art outside of generating ad copy and cowboy movies, who believes that only businessmen are doing America's business, that fundamentally no one else contributes, who believes that any idea of shared community needs and community interests is akin to socialism, who walks around determined to see himself as kind, civic, progressive in spirit, and even moral while all the while acting dishonestly in his real estate business, attending church purely for appearance's sake, looking to cheat on his wife, and despising every public-concerned political initiative. In short, someone with no self-awareness. An obvious hypocrite, and--as the book goes on to show--a very sad case.

And I wonder why the novel might be ready for a comeback? Indeed, as I listen to it, what strikes me over and over is how relevant the ninety year old story is. Sometimes scarily so. Nothing depresses and infuriates me more than those who see any and all government investment as simply a matter of taking from the deserving and giving to the nondeserving. That idea is so trite, so mean spirited, and so factually wrong that I almost can't believe it survives. Oh, but how it does. In all this Tea Party zealotry about lowering taxes for the rich, and cutting government services to the bone, what gets utterly overlooked is how mutual so many of the concerns are that lie behind the threatened programs. We all benefit from an educated public; we all benefit from a good health care system; we all benefit from a sustainable environment; we all benefit from an active arts culture; we all benefit from a solid infrastructure and a well-supported military and the opportunity for our children to go to college and accurate scientific data on how our planet is changing. How is any of that a matter of taking from the deserving and giving to the none deserving? So many Babbitts flourish today, trying to convince the public, as they've managed to convince themselves, by masking their motivations in civic and/or religious language, that cutting their taxes is all that should matter to anyone, despite the inevitable resulting fallout to our government, our economy, and our society. Despite all that we could lose. (If you doubt my word, just take a gander at the vital federal programs that have already been cut or are likely to be cut soon--and in several cases with only a microscopic effect to the budget deficit. Meanwhile, the one thing that would significantly lower the deficit--a serious tax hike--seems impossible to pass.)

I used to think that we as a people thought greed was a sin; I used to think that our houses of religion preached against it and our systems of government worked against it. I used to be sure of a lot of things, but with the Babbitts in control of the discourse, nothing--certainly not our economy--is certain anymore.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Factually Fanatic, a Followup


I ran into technical difficulties yesterday. Blogger was refusing to let me respond to a comment posted on my own blog! Apparently, my account "did not have access" to that blog. Oh yeah?

Anyway, in the comment a reader named Shannon raised some hard questions about what amounts to "going over the line" when one departs from known fact. (Check yesterday's post for Shannon's comment.) As I would have told Shannon if Blogger let me, my own opinion is that one can and should depart from fact when it's necessary to do so to tell one's story. But finally what's "over the line" is in the eye of the beholder.

I'll always remember a story a teacher of mine in graduate school told. A friend of his had a fictional story accepted by a major national glossy, one wealthy enough to employ a horde of "fact checkers." In the short story, the writer made mention of a "kidney shaped pool" in a backyard in the town where the story was set. The magazine's fact checkers told the writer that they could not publish her story unless she could prove that a kidney shaped pool actually existed in the town in question in the year in which the story was set. Can you believe that? If the writer had submitted her story as nonfiction, then sure go ahead and do the fact checking; insist on the literal pool. But for a short story? I'm afraid some people need to be reminded as to why fiction is called fiction.

Monday, August 29, 2011

What's alternative?


Recently I finished You Remind Me of Me (2004), Dan Chaon's terrific first novel. (In 2009 he published his second novel, Await Your Reply). When I read novels and story collections I like to browse the acknowledgements pages for curious pieces of information, e.g., where a certain quotation comes from or where a piece first appeared in print or to whom in the author feels particularly indebted. And of course also included in every book of fiction is a reminder to the reader that the book is made up, that the reader should not assume the characters are based on real people or the plot drawn from real world situations. Sometimes this claim is more accurate than others, but it's an unavoidable legal necessity. No author or publisher wants to get sued by a private individual who believes he or she was unjustly represented in the author's novel. And most of the time the statement follows a standard, canned, legalistc pattern. In fact, in many books the statement is exactly the same. But some fiction writers actually compose the statement themselves and take care with it. I was delighted and intrigued when I read the following statement on Chaon's acknowledgements page: "No characters in this novel are based on real people, and I have taken some poetic license with the facts of law, history, medicine, geography, and weather. While there is, in reality, a city named Chicago, the Chicago of this novel, as well as the towns of St. Bonaventure, Nebraksa, Little Bow, South Dakota, and others, exist wholly in an alternate universe of the author's imagination."

Fascinating! That's the first time I've ever seen an author apologize for his treatment of the weather. And of course I ask myself what Chaon means. The novel jumps in time rather energetically, with a total span of four decades. Is it possible that Chaon knows the weather conditions in a given month and year in Nebraska thirty years ago, say, or Chicago, and felt he had to admit that he broke from literal fact? If he actually does know, I admire how carefully he researched his novel. But I also wonder who in the world would criticize him if he took small liberties with recorded weather data. Similarly I wonder what exactly the liberties were that he took with medicine and law and geography. I must say that nothing seems unusual about the geography of the book; nor do the various legal entanglements his characters get themselves into strike me as implausible. Whatever liberties Chaon took, the book is a resoundingly believable work of realistic fiction. Whatever liberties he took, and despite his note on the acknowledgements page, no one would--or should--label You Remind Me of Me as an alternate history.

That label is usually applied to science fiction or historical fiction books in which history has been dramatically and obviously altered. But Chaon's note makes me wonder: Isn't all fiction, given its nature as fiction, an alternate history? Even if one is writing a novel set in the present day, even if the novel is set in one's own home town, when one is writing what one sees inside one's head is the hometown as it exists in one's imagination. That is what's transferred to the page. Of course this remains true--not truer, but equally true--if one's novel is set 30 years ago or 50 or 400. And if all novel writing is a form of alternate history, why then is historical fiction held under such a factually driven microscope? Don't get me wrong. I'm all in favor of historical fictionists carrying out as much research as possible and using the facts of history to dramatic advantage in their works. Or simply as useful, necessary imagery. I am bothered as much as anyone when a writer makes glaring errors, or employs anachronisms, especially if those errors or anachronisms aren't dramatically necessary but the result of writerly sloppiness. But finally we all need to be reminded that the historical novel is a subset not of history writing but of novel writing.

This seems obvious when you set it down--by the way, if you want to get a historian upset, tell him that historical fiction is the same thing as history--but in point of fact many readers and writers expect historical novels to function as history not as storytelling. These readers and writers do not reserve the lable alternate history only for those books that alter history dramatically. I've heard it opined in various conference sessions and blogs that if a historical novel knowingly departs, even a little, from the historical record, the writer can't call it a historical novel but must call it an alternate history. (And clearly this is understood to be the the lesser distinction.) As if the writer doesn't really understand history, or hasn't done her homework or is guilty of being selfish or less than rigorous. This attitude strikes me not only as a little dumb but also unfair. The writer may know her history perfectly well. She may be deeply indebted to that history for not only originating but sustaining and girding her book. She may stick to the "known facts" substantially if incompletely. Just because she departs from known history a bit does not automatically move her novel into some other category. It just means she's writing a novel. It just means she's doing what all fiction writers do: writing from the world of her imagination. Get real, folks. If it's understood that writers of realistic novels set in the present day often need to adjust details of the real world in order for their novels to work structurally and dramatically, there's no reason why we can't allow the same leeway for historical fiction writers.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Triangle of history


In packing for my recent family excursion to the east coast I packed reading material, of course. (And before I go on, I must congratulate myself on not packing, for perhaps the first time in my adult life, ridiculously too much reading material.) One of the books I read was Katherine Weber's Triangle, a novel that explores--in sort of a mystery novel approach--the long term effects of the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York in 1911. I've been curious about this novel for several years, ever since I heard book reviewer Maureen Corrigan raving about it on NPR's Fresh Air program. I had tried to "read" it via audio book earlier this summer after downloading the title from Audible.com to my iTunes library. Turns out I hadn't downloaded Weber's novel, but a nonfiction account of the fire and its effect on New York and national politics. I was quite disappointed by my mistake, but then I quckly found the book I downloaded--Triangle: The Fire that Changed America (2003) by David Von Drehle--to be engrossing and thoroughly informative.

When I turned to Weber's novel I wondered how different her fictional account of the fire would be fron Von Drehle's nonfiction study. I hoped that what I learned from Von Drehle would not color how I responded to Weber's imaginative recreations. Well, I need not have worried. As I quickly discovered, Weber's novel is almost entirely different from Von Drehle's straightforward narrative account. In fact, it took quite some time for the fire to play a central role in the novel, although increasingly it does, especially after one passes the halfway point. The novel is actually not at all what I expected it to be, but that's my fault more than Weber's. Triangle is fundamentally a contemporary novel rather than an historical one; yet it's a novel that tries to show how a single event in history can still affect individuals decades later, and in completely unexpected ways. The novel's main character is not the fire, nor is it even Esther Gottesfield, a fictional survivor of the Triangle factory tragedy who lives to be over a 100. The main characters are Rebecca Gottesfield, Esther's granddaughter, and George Botkin, Rebecca's significant other and a richly successful musical composer, best known for his musical portraits of famous individuals, compositions derived from studying those individuals' DNA. (A genuinely curious idea but one that Weber explores ad infinitum before she truly lets her novel start.) Over the course of the novel, Esther dies, Rebecca and George discover secrets about Esther's past, and finally they decide that for Esther's "protection" they will not reveal what they know.

I'm not terribly sympathetic with Rebecca and George's urge for, and rationalization of, this secrecy; nor is the "secret" all that difficult to figure out given the hints Weber provides. George, not Rebecca, realizes the truth--many many pages after the reader does. This was a bit disconcerting; also disconcerting was how much of the novel, a great big early chunk of it, Weber gives over to describing George's career as a composer before she finally gets down to the business of telling her story, and highlighting the fire. Weber does, however, show terrific familiarity with the facts of the fire--Weber's grandmother actually worked in the factory for a time--and appears to slip up only once, when she has Esther Gottesfield relate that a fireman helped her onto the roof of the Asch building (the building that housed the Triangle factory) when she made her escape from the fire. As I learned from Von Drehle, back in 1911 there was no way for firemen to get to the roof of a building as tall as the Asch building without climbing up through the inside. And to do that they had to put out the fire. This they did, but not before 146 people lost their lives, many as a result of jumping out of windows. The firemen arrived at the upper floors only minutes too late to help those trapped there, but those minutes meant everything. If they had been able to make it to the roof to help Esther Gottesfield, they also could and would have saved many more people. Now, Esther proves to be an unreliable historian when it comes to the fire, so perhaps this little error is meant by Weber to be a tip off. If true, then I say fair enough. Because I should credit Weber for how carefully she uses known facts about the fire, including real people from history, as well as facts about the trial that followed as a result, and how she uses these facts to help create a mystery that George and Rebecca (or at least George) finally crack. Once history becomes relevant to the novel, it becomes engaging and a very worthwhile read, with an interesting and admirable structure. But boy did it take a while for history to get there.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Where past is present


This past Saturday evening I returned from an extended tour of the east coast visiting family from both sides of our marriage. The trip included a week spent on Nantucket Island, a place I've visited several times with my wife, but not for many years. This year I was struck again, as I always am, by how vivid the past feels as you walk around Nantucket. Or, said another way, you seem to walk at once in two different centuries: the 21st and the 19th. Historian Nathaniel Philbrick says this most eloquently in a film I recently saw about the island. Philbrick says--and I'm paraphrasing here--that on Nantucket ones feels that one is living an imaginary life that has somehow been given body. (The film, written and directed by Ric Burns, the brother of celebrated documentarian Ken Burns, is currently being shown at the Nantucket Whaling Museum.) There's an obvious reason why the past seems so present on the island--the place barely ever changes. In part this stasis is an accident of history, but in large measure it is due to design. I learned from Burns's film that Nantucket, for being such a small location, has a remarkable number of extant pre-civil war houses. These number in the hundreds. The reason being that after the civil war--when in so much of the country industries boomed, populations spread, and old buildings had to be scrapped to make room for new--Nantucket's economy went into a decades-long depression after the collapse of the whaling industry. There was little economic incentive to destroy the old houses; so they just sat there. And when Nantucket's economy revived via a new concentration on tourism, there was every incentive to repair and preserve these old houses.

But this is only part of the story. Just as important, if not more important, are the strict regulations that govern development on the island. A great deal of habitable space on Nantucket is owned by a public trust. This trust buys up land for the express purpose of making sure the land cannot be developed. With extremely few exceptions, no chain stores are allowed on the island. There are no traffic lights--anywhere. The cobblestone streets of Nantucket town center cannot and will not be replaced. Last but not least, any new constructions must be built to fit specific aesthetic standards, with the result being that at least 90% of homes on the island are of similar design and covered with wooden shingles that in the sea air quickly darken to the distinctive deep gray shade that one sees everywhere. In other words, any new building on Nantucket invariably looks old.

I realize that for some this must sound awfully claustrophobic, even socialistic, certainly in contrast with the wooly, no-holds-barred, slash-and-burn state of development in nearly every other part of the United States. But the beautiful result of these various regulations is immediately apparent, even before you step on the island. You can see it from the ferry as you approach. Except for the skyline of Manhattan, I can't think of a more distinctive and recognizable "city" view in America than that of Nantucket town center seen from a ferry in Nantucket Sound.

Finally too there is the fact that Nantucketers have never forgotten the famously vigorous and profitable years of the late 18th to mid 19th century, when the whaling industry reigned supreme on the island and Nantucketers ruled the whaling industry. Reminders of that maritime past are everywhere on Nantucket, not just in the Whaling Museum. It seems to ooze up through the fabric of the streets, through shingles of the houses, and even into the sand at your feet. (Perhaps it is no accident that Nantucket has been called, by various authors and ghost tour guides, "the most haunted place in America.") And given that one cannot escape the past on Nantucket; that at times one feels that one is literally walking through it--in an immediate, real way that places like colonial Williamsburg can only hope to mimic--it should come as no surprise that the island provides, at least for me, excellent stimlation for historical stories. I know of several histories of the island. And I know of one bestselling historical novel--Ahab's Wife--set there. But to date I am not aware of many historical short fictions set on Nantucket. (Suggestions anyone?) Years ago, on a weeklong visit, I started five or six separate short stories, eager to get my characters down and plots started before I left the island. Over the course of the following six or eight months, I finished, revised, and edited each of the stories, many of which subsequently found their way into publication. I loved, and still love, that little group of fictions, and tried to make them the second half of a collection of short stories that never found its way into print. On this last trip I decided that the failure of the collection was a good thing. Because the Nantucket stories--none of which were strictly historical but were certainly informed by history--never quite matched up with the stories in the first half of the collection. And I think now that a smarter choice would be to compose a group of historical stories set on Nantucket and then combine them with my earlier stories to create a full fictional treatment of the place--a mixture of past and present--fitting for an island where former centuries seem to breathe on you in every footstep and around every corner is another imagined life.

Monday, August 8, 2011

A Krauss House


As I think I've reported on this blog before, I have a tendency to discover new writers long after most of the rest of the country does. This is certainly the case with Nicole Krauss, author of three novels--Man Walks Into a Room, The History of Love, and Great House--each more successful than the last. Great House, a National Book Award finalist, came recommended by my wife. In fact, she practically forced the book on me. One of those Oh-my-gosh-you-have-to-read-this moments. Well, I didn't right away. (I usually have too many other books I'm trying to get through.) But I have now, and I can't urge it strongly enough to anyone interested in literary historical fiction. The book is so carefully crafted, each sentence a model of clarity and incision, and yet too brimming with subtle--and sometimes not so subtle-- feeling. It's a book that is both small and vast at the same time. Similar to Erika Dreifus's superb short story collection Quiet Americans, Great House doesn't merely dramatize historical events but explores the very nature and force of history itself, revealing how seemingly insignifcant decisions and actions can affect the lives of those who live decades further on and in entirely different continents. It's the old "If a butterfly flaps its wings . . . " adage brilliantly rendered.

The novel is broken into two parts and each part into four sections. Each of the four sections is rendered in a different first person voice and details the lives of very different characters. We are shown New York, London, Oxford, and Israel, with quick stopovers in a host of various European cities. Meanwhile, we move back and forth in time, from the 1930s up until the present day. By design, for the longest time the different sections remain vastly separate from one another, so much so that a reader might ask himself what some of them are doing in the same novel. But, ah, you must trust the book. The connections gradually and unerringly and even tragically come into focus. If there's any theme the book demonstrates it is the Law of Unintended Consequences. One of the central characters, a Jewish novelist named Lotte Berg who was forced to flee her hometown of Nuremberg for England in the 30s, long ago accepted the gift of a desk from a gentleman lover (exactly who the lover was is one of the few matters left unclarified by Krauss). Lotte later gave the desk away to a fan of her books, an action that, with fatalistic inevitabilty, acts as the catalyst for much of the disappointment, rancor, and literal devastation dramatized later in the book. Great House comes to its realizations and its climaxes indirectly--that is, through its seemingly disparate four fold structure and its back and forth movement in time and space--but come to them it does. And the reader is not left unaffected. It is a masterfully, pristinely rendered work, a novel that has been carved rather than shot out, one that will dwell inside you long after you stop reading. Of all the many lessons I took from the book, one is this: In a world in which you can never completely control the consequences of your actions, a world in which finally you can't control anything but yourself, the very least you can do, maybe the only thing you can do, is Tell the Truth. Whatever comes after that, let come.

Personal Note: As you read this--if you're reading it on or near the day it's posted--my family travels along the east coast of the United States visiting our relatives. And it happens to be the birthday of my oldest son. Happy 15th, bud. I can't believe you're that old. You still seem like a kid to your mom and me. But I know that you know you certainly aren't.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Going Big


My wife, who recently completed a historical novel of her own, has been looking at what agents and publishers have to say about the form. One opinion she has come across goes like this: If you want to convince potential readers to leave their own present century and take a journey with you into the past, you ought to choose for a subject someone who is already familiar to those readers, somebody about whom they might have built-in curiosity. Readers will be much more likely, these commentators say, to grab for a novel featuring George Washington, let's say, than a heretofore unheard of organ grinder working the Jersey shore. This makes a good deal of sense, as do most generalizations, but as with most generalizations it must also be accompanied by several caveats. On reading the above idea, my wife thought it meant good news for my Van Gogh novel. Nowadays who hasn't heard of Vincent Van Gogh? And who isn't at least a little bit curious about him? I certainly was curious enough to begin the whole process of researching his life, and then imagining it in fictional form. Why shouldn't readers be equally curious? In fact, I hope they are and expect they will be. And I think anyone who reads my novel will enjoy it on its own terms, whether they care much about Van Gogh or not.

But there is at least one potential drawback in Going Big. Your subject, because he/she is so well known, may have been explored in fiction before. (As Van Gogh has.) Does this mean your subject is out of bounds? In literature studies students are typically advised against researching familiar subjects. Because in carrying out your research survey you will inevitably, or at least possibly, find that someone has taken up your idea already. And at that point, you are morally and professionally obliged to stand down. This is the reason why literary scholars always seem to be discovering "lost greats" from the past. They need fertile territory for the books and articles required by their jobs and their professions. They need untrammeled ground. They need to find someone about whom they can be the first to say something. But this same law doesn't seem to--and shouldn't--apply to novels. How one novelist envisions a historical character might be entirely different from how another novelist does, thus making their two novels entirely different reading experiences. Besides, in a creative work it's not so much the idea behind it that moves the reader, but how the writer gives lungs and tissue to that idea. How engrossing is the flesh of the story. So while there surely isn't an inexhaustible market for novels about any particular historical person, there is certainly room for several.

That said, you certainly don't want to seem redundant. One way of avoiding that while at the same time "going big" is by narrowing your focus to a single, specific, perhaps lesser known, aspect of your subject's life. Hemingway's childhood. D. H. Lawrence's time in New Mexico. Lincoln's years as a young lawyer. By doing this, you avoid rehashing overly familiar aspects of your character's life. (I suppose this instinct was behind one agent's advice that I limit my novel to Van Gogh's later years in Saint-Remy.) Another way to reenvision a Big Subject is to present him or her from the point of view of someone else. This is the strategy Sena Jeter Naslund employed very successfully in Ahab's Wife. But, in the end, I think, you need to tell the story you are moved to tell. And in my case this meant, more or less, Van Gogh's life from his time in London as a art dealer to his release from St. Paul's hospital. (I never had a lot of interest in the few months he spent at Auvers-sur-Oise or the fact of his suicide. Perhaps because my book is more about triumph than about ruin.) While I have trimmed my book considerably over the past year or two, its span remains the same. I'm telling the story I want to tell.

But what if, I hear someone asking, the story you want to tell doesn't involve anyone famous, and yet it's still a good story? (This is the case with my wife's novel.) Does that mean there's no hope for my book? Can't my book in fact shine light on a little known story that needs to be heard? Clearly the answer here is yes. And, besides, I like to believe that any book written well enough will, once it's published, win an audience for itself. (Getting published is, admittedly, the tricky part in the equation.) Plenty of nonfiction books are first imagined, then written, then published just because they do take on under known or virtually unknown subject matter. That appears to be their whole raison d'etre. But, again, that is the realm of nonfiction, in which the originality of one's facts and ideas carry a greater importance than in fiction, the final effect of which is so dependent on structure and style. Even so, if a great story needs telling, it can't not make an audience for itself, as long as it is told superbly. How else to explain the success of Katharine Weber's Triangle, a novel about an event (an early 20th century factory fire) that had been almost entirely forgotten by the time she wrote her book, the major players in its story practically and in some cases literally lost from history?

I feel like I'm talking around my subject with this post. Perhaps a reader would like to share his or her opinion on Going Big. Does this explain your choice for the subject of your historical novel? Or, conversely, are you instead trying to bring a hidden story to light? And what has been the reaction so far to your attempt?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Is historical fiction intimidating?


Part of the mix of classes I teach in the Writing Department at the University of Central Arkansas is one called Forms of Fiction. It sounds like a literature class, but it isn't. It's a writing workshop, albeit one that requires more reading than your typical workshop--and one in which I make the students draft stories in specific fictional forms, whether they want to or not. "Learning by doing," as I tell them. For each of the forms we cover, we spend a whole class beginning stories in our journals. Four of these journal entries the students later type up, polish, and turn in as one of their formal assignments. I taught two sections of Forms during the spring semester, and for the first time I included historical fiction in the mix of forms we covered. You might be wondering what took me so long to include it, especially if you know that I've been teaching the course since 2005. I can hear you thinking: "You're the historical fiction, guy. It's the subject of your blog. Why avoid it in your Forms class?" Why, indeed. Exactly what I said to myself while planning last spring's classes.

Interesting outcome. As with the other forms, we read and discussed example stories, and we talked about the challenges and excitements of the form. But then I gave them something else to do. I asked them to select a specific century or period in a specific country's history. Then I gave them a list of very practical questions to answer about that period. A few were broad questions, such as "What type of government was in place at the time?" But most were purposefully more specific and more quotidian, e.g., name a popular hair style, describe a popular hat, list three food items that would typically have been eaten for dinner during this period. I told them this wasn't supposed to be a major research project. They should just go on the internet and track down answers that they could express in a few sentences. The point of this quicky research was not to just arm them with some political and sociological facts about the period, but to generate pictures in their heads. Because from pictures come stories. And because I knew there was no way they could have ideas for stories set during the American Revolution, let's say, or the Ming Dynasty, or World War II Germany, without some grounding in the period first. The sheet of questions was homework. In class, we started stories in our journals, my hope being that once they decided on a protagonist and course of action some of the information they came up with through their research would be of creative use to them.

The results? They all, more or less, carried out the required fact-finding. And they all, more or less, dutifully started stories in their journals on our journal writing day. (Although there did seem to be more huffing and groaning and sighing than usual.) But when it came time to turn in their next formal assignment, almost none of them chose to do historical fiction. Out of two Forms sections--30 students in all--only two students finished their historical stories. This was quite disappointing. I had hoped they would find themselves newly engrossed in some fascinating historical period and driven to compose a story set in that period. What happened? You might think their disinclination stemmed from a lack of interest in history generally. But that isn't true. A number of students, whether due to work in other classes or simple personal interest, were very curious about the time periods they researched, which ranged from ancient Egypt to medieval Japan to 20th century Guatemala to footballer culture in 60s England. And on journal writing day, when I went around the room asking them what they had started, many of the stories sounded marvelous to me. When I expressed my disappointment that so few of them had gone on to finish their historical fiction pieces, the only response I got was that the form seemed "too hard." A bit more illumination came in their end of the semester statements in which a few of them admitted to being intimidated by the challenge of researching history and then accurately reflecting that history in an imagined story. It seemed like more than they cared to take on in the middle of a busy semester.

Okay, fair enough. I'm glad that's cleared up. (Perhaps the fear of hearing comments like these is why I dragged my feet on including historical fiction in this course.) But the results do make me wonder, How many people who might want to write historical fiction are simply scared off by it? A colleague of mine at UCA has a terrific idea for a historical novel set in early 20th century Italy. But he says he's not sure he has the wherewithal to see his way through the research and then the writing that would come out of that research. (Actually, I'm sure he does have the wherewithal.) At the risk of sounding naive, I find the idea of historical fiction being intimidating mildly surprising. For me, the challenge of bringing alive history in all its sights, sounds, smells, and attitudes is the fun of historical fiction. And, really, once one has found one's story, and is locked into it, the whole process isn't much different from writing any story. You just want to make it as engaging and concrete as you can. (Okay, so might find yourself doing a bit more fact checking everyday. But that's part of the fun.) I worry now that my students thought I was expecting them to become historical experts, and their stories to be flawlessly researched tomes exemplifying the periods in question. No. Not at all. If that's what they thought, I must do a better job of explaining myself in the fall. Because what any historical story is finally about is never the period of history but the person at the center of the story. And exploring people is exactly what should warm the hearts of storytellers all the world over. Even 19 year old ones.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

I'm back! And with titular news


I know. It's been so so long since I added a new entry to this blog. Readers probably suspected that Creating Van Gogh had gone belly up. Not to worry. CVG is alive and well. But certainly much has happened out there since last I posted five months ago. Where to begin: NWP is still up in the air; Republicans are still angling to blow up the federal government figuring that Obama will be blamed for it; the last space shuttle flight is over and done (are you really sure you want to do that NASA?); March Madness happened and the College World Series, the French Open and Wimbledon; and the annual Tour de France--I hope to see it live someday--is almost finished. But what about me you ask? Well, not surprisingly, I've been busy as well. I finished a novel I started last fall; I traveled with my colleague Garry Craig Powell and five UCA students to Lawrence, KS to participate in a faculty and student readings exchange with the University of Kansas; I successfully completed a French 1320 class that I sat in on during the spring semester (much thanks to instructor Veronique Odekirk); I started and finished a great summer 1 Forms of Fiction class at UCA; I wrote a proposal for a Forms of Fiction textbook; I drove my oldest son to Durham, NC so he can participate once again in the wonderful Duke-TIP program; I've taken up some duties as the new Associate Editor of the journal Toad Suck Review (formerly The Exquisite Corpse); I've listened to Await Your Reply (Dan Chaon) and Miss New India (Bharati Mukherjee) and Selected Shorts (NPR) and Coffee Break French Season 3 (members version) on my iPod during my daily sweatfests, and I've spent the last week trying to endure the mind-numbing Arkansas summer heat with my youngest son--i.e., fighting with him to get off my computer and take the dog out to pee--while my wife is away at the Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow finishing up the novel she has worked on for so long. (Congrats, sweetie.)

Of more interest to readers of this blog, however, will be some quiet but important developments in the life of my Van Gogh novel Yellow. No earth-shattering announcements yet. But there has been progress. I've been working closely with a kind and wise literary agent who has pushed me to sharpen and improve the book in important ways. What in its first typed form was 1250 ungainly manuscript pages is now a tight, focused 550 and includes some relevant and hopefully useful appendices, namely a chronology of the life of the real Van Gogh (my Van Gogh sure feels real to me, of course) and a detailed explanation of what sources I used and how I used them. The most obvious change is that my book now has a new title. I have to admit that this decision was a hard one for me. Since I first conceived of the book some ten years ago, I've only ever had one title in mind: Yellow. Not only is that the color most typically associated with Van Gogh's paintings, especially the paintings he created during what I consider his finest, most luminous period--when he worked in Arles, France--and not only did color and colors become a crucial stylistic element and organizing principle to the novel, but "yellow" seemed to speak to an important psychological tendency in Van Gogh: his eager pursuit of extremes. And I must say that I also like the title's directness. Easy to say; easy to remember. Long story short, it was actually quite hard to think of any other title being attached to my novel. Literally for months I remained stymied--and stumped. What else could I call this thing? Finally, at the end of May, after much sturm und drang, I came up with something: Days on Fire. The agent I'm working with likes it, and I must say that I do too. I like it a lot, actually. It keeps some of the same associations as Yellow, but with more linguistic and imagistic energy. What do you think, dear readers? How does the new title work for you? Does anyone out there have title-changing stories of their own?

From this date forward I will now refer to my novel as Days on Fire. Yellow is now officially kaput. And I promise not to be so long in updating the blog next time. I am going away on vacation at the end of next week, but I have a few entries in mind to put up before then or even while I travel!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

An end to literacy?


I know I've been away from this blog awhile, and I hope to rectify that soon with more updates about my Van Gogh novel and historical fiction generally. For today's post, I feel obliged to return to a subject I've written about before and that should strike the hearts of every reader and writer in America whether his or her taste runs to historical fiction or not. As many of you probably know, our Congress, in a fit of pique about the deficit--a pique that for some strange reason went unstated while former President Bush ran up monstrous deficits during his eight year tenure--has taken some rather drastic steps to reduce the federal debt. Apparently, raising additional revenue cannot even be considered, so the Congress is attempting to balance the federal budget by cutting spending alone--an effort that is not just misguided but impossible. And as a result, Congress is making devastatingly bad choices, one of which is to cut all funding for literacy programs, including Reading is Fundamental (RIF), Teach for America, and the National Writing Project (NWP). This despite the fact that these programs have been in existence for decades and are doing beautiful, demonstrably useful work. Apparently, maintaining tax cuts for already wealthy individuals is a sacred cow that cannot be touched, but literacy programs that help foster a passion for reading and writing up and down the economic scale can be cut with no problem at all. I don't know how else to define this state of affairs except as a pure, grotesque sickness. And such an example of horrifically skewed priorities that our country cannot help but to feel the longterm effects of it.

Of the many crazy aspects to this terrible decision is that these programs are not just a drop in the bucket of the federal budget but a microscopically small portion of one drop. For example, the entire budget for the National Writing Project, a nationwide organization with sites in every state, is only 25 million dollars. 25 million dollars amounts to part of a downpayment on one airplane flown by our military. And to save that pittance an entire organization that for decades has worked for better teaching of writing may be put out of business. I hope you agree that literacy is simply too important a matter to be disrespected and defunded like this. Let's put aside the hope of all authors everywhere that in the future an audience will still exist for our books; literacy cuts a lot closer to home than that. Literacy is all about providing people--all people--more opportunity. It's about making the American dream possible. It's about growing our nation in all ways, including economically. It's about creating incentives to try for more out of life and not falling into traps like a life of crime. If you scoff at that statement as inflated rhetoric you should know that one of the factors that experts look at to predict the need for future prisons is 3rd grade literacy. If you care about the basic fabric of our nation holding together, if you care about creating opportunity, if you care at all about education and specifically education in literacy, these cuts should disgust and frighten you. What kind of country are we, anyway?

That really sad thing is that in disparaging so many government programs as "earmarks," conservatives have attacked some truly wonderful, and successful, initiatives. My wife happens to be affiliated with the National Writing Project. She has been quite depressed lately about the cuts and has said repeatedly that the people involved in NWP are the best people she has ever met. The most committed, the most selfless people. People doing great work on behalf of teachers and students. And yet Congress decides to defund them. And our president, inexplicably, signs the bill into law. As I write this, my wife is headed to Washington, along with others associated with NWP, to lobby Congress on behalf of the organization. This is something the organization does every year, but never inside an atmosphere like it faces this year. The little piece of good news is that there's an outside chance that funding for NWP and other literacy programs could be restored for 2012. It's a very small chance, however, unless Congress and the president hear from all of us about how important funding literacy is. Please take a moment and hit this link. It will lead you to a page where you can very quickly and easily--honestly, it will only take a second--express to your congressman and senators your support for NWP. If you would rather send an independent email to your representatives expressing your concern about literacy funding generally or about funding for some other literacy organization, please do so with my blessings. Congress--and the President--needs to hear from as many of us as possible. I never in my life thought I would live to see a Democratic president and a congress that is half-Democratic cut all funding for literacy. It is deeply deeply disheartening. More than that, if finalized, it amounts to a national tragedy. Please do something. Let's shout while we still can.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Interview avec moi


As readers of this blog know, on Monday I shared with you a great interview I conducted with historical fiction writer Erika Dreifus. I thought today I should pass along word that I've been interviewed on another writer's blog. Her name is Cathy Day and the blog is titled The Big Thing. It's a fantastic resource for anyone who teaches, or who is concerned about the teaching of, creative writing in the academy. I actually blogged about The Big Thing a couple weeks ago. Cathy has long been interested in the issue of how to make the creative writing workshop useful to students who want to work in longer forms (like the historical novel). After reading a couple of my December posts about a novel writing class I taught, Cathy contacted me and later decided to interview me for The Big Thing, asking me to explain how and why I structured the class as I did. She divided the interview into multiple parts, the first of which debued yesterday. Check it out!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Interview with Erika Dreifus


Erika Dreifus—fiction writer, reviewer, blogger, and self-described “resource maven”—recently published a short story collection called Quiet Americans (Last Light Studio, paperback, $13.95) that is profoundly historical in nature. Borrowing in part from her own family’s history, the book demonstrates the long term effects of the holocaust, not only on those who lived through it but on those later generations who find themselves in the United States only because in the 1930s an ancestor escaped Nazi Germany. For a fuller description of Quiet Americans, see my review of it on this blog.

Given that Erika is an experienced writer of historical fiction, and someone who has even taught classes on the subject, I wanted to interview her and capture her thoughts on some sticky questions related to this popular—but sometimes contentious—genre.

First, a simple, or maybe not so simple, question. How do you define historical fiction?

It's not so simple!

The Historical Novel Society offers a definition that I have found useful in launching these discussions (in a past life, I taught writing workshops for historical fiction writers):

"To be deemed historical (in our sense), a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research)."

The organization goes on to say:

"We also consider the following styles of novel to be historical fiction for our purposes: alternate histories (e.g. Robert Harris' Fatherland), pseudo-histories (e.g. Umberto Eco's Island of the Day Before), time-slip novels (e.g. Barbara Erskine's Lady of Hay), historical fantasies (e.g. Bernard Cornwell's King Arthur trilogy) and multiple-time novels (e.g. Michael Cunningham's The Hours)."

Thank you. These are very useful distinctions, and, as the Society points out, all are legitimate, if varied, examples of historical fiction. How would you apply the definitions to your own book?

My work, as reflected in my new collection, Quiet Americans, is definitely more in keeping with the first, more "realist" part of the HNS definition. Three of the seven stories take place before my lifetime; a fourth is set during my very early lifetime (and was therefore depended entirely on research for the historical setting).

But while we’re on this topic, let me go a bit further on the issue of definition: I've long been intrigued by the way in which certain fictions written close to the time of the events they describe become "historical fiction" for the readers they reach many years later. For their authors, they may most accurately be considered "contemporary" or "political" fictions, but for the reader generations later, they exude historicity. For example, the first section of Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française provides what was a contemporary account of Paris in 1940, but today's readers may perceive it as "historical" fiction. When does the contemporary become historical? Some of the later stories in my book incorporate events that were "contemporary" when I was writing about them in 2004 or 2006. Are those stories already "historical" for the reader? Will they be more "historical" for a reader fifty years from now? These are tantalizing questions.

Yes, I think this is important. It gets at the idea of a fiction’s historicity stemming from the uniquely interesting/important time period in which it is set, be that far from the writer’s own time or close to it. I agree completely with your example of Suite Française. It’s impossible not to feel that a big part of the book’s intrigue is in how it portrays that crucial period in French and world history. I think too of Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel. No one would have called that book historical fiction when it first came out, but how can we not read it now with one eye on what it shows about the history of leftist politics in America?

Back to Quiet Americans. The book spans a wide stretch of time, from the early 20th century almost up to the present. Yet there is an obvious thematic connection between the stories. At what point did you know that you were composing a linked collection as opposed to separate stories? Did you ever consider turning the material into a novel?

Well, the stories certainly are linked thematically, and a few of them are linked further by characters and families who reappear from story to story, but some might argue against characterizing the book as a "linked collection," simply because not all of the stories involve the same characters/families. Which is all a prelude to saying that I'm not certain that I ever knew I was composing a linked collection, and I never seriously considered turning the material into a novel (perhaps because I had already written one unpublished, Holocaust/World War II-focused novel manuscript).

It seems important to note that the "oldest" of the stories in this book dates from a fall 2001 draft; three of the seven originated as submissions for MFA program deadlines. One of my program's strengths was its emphasis on generating new work: We were required to submit 8-25 pages of fiction twice during each semiannual residency and four times each semester. Revisions were acceptable, but even so, I wrote a lot of new stories in those years. Which means that I wrote a lot of stories that do not appear in this book. And shaping a collection was a process that took many years. At some point, I became certain that I had sufficient stories that cohered in some way to compose a collection—it just took me a long time to develop the particular content and sequence of Quiet Americans.

Wow, that’s a lot of composing over a very compressed time. The way in which it paid off for you is a good lesson for any writer. In several important ways, Quiet Americans draws directly from your own family's history of emigration to this country. Does exploring and utilizing one's own family's history affect the nature of writing historical fiction? Does it become harder or easier to insert oneself into past periods? Are there any extra burdens that you carry?

What great questions. I'm not sure that I can answer them right now. I'll want to think about them for quite awhile.

Overall, I've considered it an immense privilege to write these stories. The one pattern I'm noticing now that the book is out—I wouldn't call it a burden—is that I'm being asked by readers-who-are-family-members what, exactly, I've made up and what is "real" when it comes to the characters who most closely resemble my grandparents.

Yes, how often do we get asked that by our relatives, no matter what kind of fiction we’re writing? And the maddening thing is that they’ll never believe your explanations, because no one can who hasn’t immersed herself in the creative process. How much research did you carry out before starting the stories in Quiet Americans? How about other historical fictions you've written? How much of that research finds its way into the stories? And does your background as a historian give you an advantage?

In general, I've found that most of my historical fiction springs from some sort of osmosis, whether from having listened to and thought about various pieces of family history or having stumbled on a document or historical tidbit quite unintentionally. As I write, the research becomes increasingly important, but it's not usually the spark. And, like pretty much any other historical-fiction writer, I've uncovered plenty of material that ultimately doesn't make its way into the work.

I'd say that my background as a historian helps in several ways. For starters, I have a love for research and I'm not afraid to go looking for what I need. I'd also like to think that my training helps me approach and evaluate sources knowledgeably.

When you write a historical fiction are there any aspects of the past period that you feel are especially important to reproduce? For instance, settings or costume or diction? Are there any aspects you pay less attention to?

Another great set of questions. I do want everything to be plausible, but I probably pay less attention to settings, costume, and diction than others do. Some examples of historical details I've attended to quite carefully are the legal constraints that faced Jewish doctors in Nazi Germany (and then refugee doctors in the United States) in "For Services Rendered," the chronology of the Munich Olympics and the murder of Israeli athletes in 1972 for "Homecomings," and, in my unpublished novel, the medical protocols for managing the care of infants born prematurely around 1940.

I heard Ron Hansen say at one AWP session on historical fiction that when a writer is portraying an actual figure from history, he should not “knowingly depart from fact.” Do you accept this proscription?

I wish that I'd been there to hear Hansen say that, hear what prompted him to say that, and hear any responses. The use of "real people" in fiction is such a complicated issue. It always came up in my workshops on historical fiction, and some of the discussion always took place around an assigned reading of an edited transcript of a 1968 panel discussion that had taken place among Ralph Ellison, William Styron, Robert Penn Warren, and C. Vann Woodward.

And I always liked to quote Ellison, who argued that because "the work of fiction comes alive through a collaboration between the reader and writer," the dilemmas become more acute when fictionalizing individuals from more recent history. In contrast to an historical figure in a Shakespeare play, for instance, he suggested, "[I]f I were to write a fiction based upon a great hero, a military man, whose name is Robert E. Lee, I'd damn well be very careful about what I fed my reader, in order for him to recreate in his imagination and through his sense of history what that gentleman was. Because Lee is no longer simply an historical figure. He is a figure who lives within us. He is a figure which shapes ideal of conduct and of forebearance and of skill, military and so on. This is inside, and not something that writers can merely be arbitrary about. The freedom of the fiction writer, the novelist, is one of the great freedoms possible for the individual to exercise. But it is not absolute. Thus, one, without hedging his bets, has to be aware that he does operate within an area dense with prior assumptions."

And I also liked to quote Styron (who, it should be noted, was quite the center of attention at the time for his Confessions of Nat Turner), who presented this view: "[A] novelist dealing with history has to be able to say that such and such a fact is totally irrelevant, and to Hell with the person who insists that it has any real, utmost relevance. It's not to say that, in any bland or even dishonest way, a novelist is free to go about his task of rendering history with a complete shrugging off of the facts....It is simply that certain facts which history presents us with are, on the one hand, either unimportant, or else they can be dispensed with out of hand, because to yield to them would be to yield or to compromise the novelist's own aesthetic honesty. Certain things won't fit into a novel, won't go in simply because the story won't tell itself if such a fact is there....The primary thing is the free use and the bold use of the liberating imagination which, dispensing with useless fact, will clear the cobwebs away and will show how it really was."

It really is complicated. It really does depend. Did I depart knowingly from fact in "For Services Rendered"? I'm not sure. According to the facts, as I knew and researched them, "For Services Rendered" is entirely plausible. Is it factual? Most unlikely. On the other hand, the only words I put in Golda Meir's mouth in "Homecomings" are words that I am sure, from research, that she really said.

Thanks for the great quotes, and the insights. I can see how both Ellison and Styron, from their different perspectives, were responding to Nat Turner. I tend to lean toward Styron's view. Finally, of course, an adherence to fact is a very personal decision by the author, as your answer suggests. I don't like or want to just disregard facts, as Styron allows, but neither do I want to feel chained by them. Writing a novel is writing a novel, not writing a biography. There has to be a difference. As long as the author is open about what he's doing, and doesn't pretend to be strictly factual. Styron never did. Anyway, what you said about "For Services Rendered" gets to the heart of the matter for me. Even if a writer doesn't knowingly depart from fact, what she writes can still be extremely speculative and even implausible, fully a creation of her imagination. For the most part, that describes my Van Gogh novel, although I did depart from fact on occasion.

A different question. I know that some writers of historical fiction operate from the premise—or feel that have to—that while modes of external behavior (how people dress, how they talk, how they vote can change drastically over time) humanity remains essentially the same on the inside. Is that a premise you accept?

For the most part, yes, I have accepted that premise. Back in 2001, I read a wonderful essay by Geraldine Brooks on this topic, and I embraced what Brooks had to say wholeheartedly. But now, watching so many changes in the way we live and interact with each other—yes, technology has a lot to do with this—I have a few more doubts.

And before I sign off, please let me thank you, John, for inviting me to answer these questions, and for maintaining such a wonderful resource here at Creating Van Gogh for those of us who write historical fiction.

Thanks, Erika. Your comments were really useful. Good luck with your book!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The dream killers


Spike Lee came to our campus this week, and I was very glad to see him here. The Writing Department, all by itself, tried to bring him in many years ago but just couldn't afford it. I'm excited that someone higher up the food chain at UCA had the same idea. Lee gave a good if not exactly scintillating talk, recounting his days as a college student, telling the story of how, with the support of some key people, he became a filmmaker. While it was mostly a standard fare talk for a visiting artist, Lee did say one thing that really struck me. He felt so strongly about this that he repeated the statement twice: "Parents kill more dreams than anyone." I'm not sure I'd ever heard the sentiment formed so succinctly before. As a former dreamy young person and a parent of two young people now, the statement resonated with me, probably more than most people in the audience. This is a subject of vital importance, one that my wife and I have discussed in detail recently in regards to our own children. It's also something that our creative writing students run up against constantly with their own "well-meaning" parents (or girlfriends or professors or bosses or . . .). And I'm betting that if you are a fiction writer, maybe a budding historical novelist, you've come up against a Dream Killer once or twice; and if you've not had your dreams killed, they have at least been smirked at. Perhaps by the very people who ought to be even more concerned than you that your dreams be allowed to breathe.

Let's be honest, this is almost always about money. More accurately, it's about what jobs parents think will make the most money for their children and therefore what jobs the parents insist their children pursue in order to get at that mythical pot of green. Sometimes, less often, it's about respectability, about what jobs the parents think will make their children--or themselves, really--look good in the eyes of friends and relatives. And that may be an even more pathetic equation. Talk about trying to live through your kids. Look Johnny, I know you want to be a composer, but I think Aunt Alice will be really impressed if you become a lawyer, so let's just toss that silly sheet music aside, shall we? As exaggerated a formation as that sentence sounds, I know someone who actually thinks this way. Who actually thinks like that exactly.

The fallacies surrounding all this dream murder are so numerous it's hard to know where to begin. First, it is very difficult to imagine someone succeeding, monetarily or otherwise, in a career in which he or she isn't interested. Because if the person isn't interested in it, it probably means they are no good at it. We tend to pursue what we like, and what we like tends to be what we're good at. It's not as if you can plop a would-be marine biologist into a surgical career and just say, "Okay, now succeed!" Second, if it's money parents are interested in, then what they should want is for their children to choose careers they're interested enough in to stick with and build a life around. No one gets rich (or happy) moving from job to job to job, or--worse--from career to career to career. Choose something you like and stick with it, throw yourself into it, watch the fruits of your choice with time. (Remember that book from a couple decades ago? Do What you Love and the Money Will Follow.)

But the great sin of killing a young person's dreams, telling him or her what they can't do, has nothing to do with money. It has to do with abusing someone's soul. After all, parents are the caretakers, not the autocrats, of the souls of their children. It is precisely not their job to tell the children what career choice to make, but to provide a way for their children to make their own choices, and then support those choices enthusiastically. After all, your children, like you, only live once; they have one opportunity to realize dreams. Who the hell are you to rob them of their one opportunity? I was lucky. Both of my parents were scientists, but when I realized in high school that my talents lay elsewhere, when I decided I would be headed to college not to study physics or chemisty but literature and creative writing, my parents supported me unhesistantly. They knew that to truly "make it" I had to fully approve of, and be passionate about, my own choice of a major. I really could not have asked for wiser parents. (Spike Lee, fortunately, had a similar experience.)

Like I said, some of our students are not so lucky, especially our students who are first generation college students. Their parents don't seem to understand college at all, much less pursuing a major one is fascinated by. (The most absurd example I've heard yet: A student in our department is only a semester away from graduating with a degree in creative writing, and her family is now pressuring her to quit college, return home, and start work in the local factory. In other words, to throw her college education out the window and aspire to be just like them. Huh? The pressure is getting so intense she may be robbed of the financial support necessary to finish.) The saddest aspect, finally, about this style of parenting--top down, unimaginative, proscriptive and prescriptive--is that it leads to hollowed out people, to adults who aren't really. 65 year olds who are mentally 16 and emotionally 7. (And don't we have enough of those already?) Adults who can't make decisions for themselves, or never trust the decisions they do make, because they've been allowed to make life's most crucial decisions, or because their own decisions have never been respected. People who have never known the satisfaction of putting themselves on a certain, self-directed course--come hell or high water--and seeing the benefits of that choice come to fruition as years and decades go by. My children are going to have every opportunity to see their dreams set in motion. And no one is going to play the role of Dream Killer. I simply cannot allow it. As a parent, I've got no bigger charge.