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?