A former student interviewed me via email for a graduate school assignment last week. She was supposed to contact three working writers and ask them questions about their processes. It's an interesting idea for an assignment, and I was honored to be asked. Since this student reads my blog, she focused her questions--and they were good ones--on the making of my Van Gogh novel. Inevitably I found myself not only talking about my own specific work habits but discussing the ontology of historical fiction. What is it about this form that makes everyone so eager to define and proscribe? Maybe it's the notion that history is beyond one's own self--that no individual owns history-- or at least one shouldn't be allowed to, even for the sake of writing a novel. History, some argue, must remain unassailable. I know this is the approach that Hilary Mantel takes. She's spoken quite scornfully of those who would dare play with historical fact for the sake of dramatized presentation. (For example, she detested The Tudors. More than detested. She mocked it. Having never seen the thing, I can't argue with her.) For Mantel, a fond reader of history, someone indeed who came to writing because of her love for reading history, the first and abiding requirement for the writer of historical fiction is to get the history precisely right. Every fact that is presented in a novel must be verifiably drawn from history. In Mantel's mind--and about this she's right--the real facts of history often suggest colorful possibilites and intriguing personal quirks that writers can exploit. So why abandon them? Okay, fair enough. But finally I've decided that her approach sounds a bit too much like a straitjacket. Doesn't it force a writer to choose as his subjects highly chronicled personages, like Henry VIII and his court, because those are exactly the kinds of people about which facts are readily available? Surely other kinds of people are worthy of treatment in historical novels, yes? Not to knock the achievement of Wolf Hall, but I'm not sure the world really needed another book about Henry VIII, did it? (For the uninitiated, Wolf Hall is a serious and brilliant novel that details Henry's attempts to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. The point of view character in the novel, Thomas Cromwell, is quite an intriguing man. But I suggest not reading Wolf Hall over a stretch of weeks. It's rather coldly narrated, and there is a dizzying number of characters to keep track of. Put it down, and you might not remember who they are the next time you pick it up. It's absolutely worth sticking with until the end, but it will try your patience.)
I guess here's my fundamental issue with the "facts only" approach: "Facts only" is the approach biographers must necessarily take. But writing a historical novel is nothing like writing a biography. I was about to write off Mantel as a schoolmarmish guadian of the literal until I heard her interviewed recently on the radio. She said something that caught my attention. Historical fiction must be based on the factual she said once again, but then she added that it was between the facts that the novel really happens. No matter how many facts an author assembles there will be "squishy" areas in which the writer's imagination can and must operate. Well, hallelujah, I thought. That's exactly it. That's the business of dramatization. You enter with your imagination what can only be explored with the imagination--namely the inner person--and you do your best to make him or her real. And that's true of any kind of fiction. And it's also why the protagonists of well-writtten historical novels feel more vivid to me than the subjects of biographies. Biographies too often strike me as being nothing but an assemby of data, as if a record of jobs held, books produced, and places lived is enough to capture a person's identity, the real him or her. But it's not. It never will be. I've waded through thick biographies, traversed a whole life, and come out the other end not feeling as if I knew the subject any better than before I started reading. And so here in essence is what I told my former student: The reseach I carried out on the Van Gogh book, substantial as it was, certainly suggested many scenes to me and a variety of people to depict, but the actual writing of the scenes was the same act of the imagination as with any of my other fictions, because I had to not just report but see through. I had to be a bit of a mind reader. I had to know my protagonist not from the outside in but the inside out. And that means entering countless "squishy" areas and making my own decisions, from the details of what a room looked like, to what was precisely said (and how) in a given conversation to how badly a moment of betrayal stung.
And here's the other "secret" about the historical fiction process that I shared with my student. While you do as much research as possible, enough to feel like you "know" your subject, to see through his eyes in the immediacy of a dramatized moment part of yourself has to be inside that subject. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that in my novel I merely pose myself in nineteenth century dress. I certainly was trying to capture what it felt like to be the actual Vincent Van Gogh, to live that actual life. But it's impossible to really feel grounded inside another character, to bring to him the right amount of empathy, without extending some of yourself into the character. So, yes, there's a piece of undercover me in the Van Gogh of my novel. How much? That is something you can't really quantify. And, here's my point, it's part of the normal alchemy of fiction writing. It is in no way unique to historical fiction writing. After all, writers say constantly that there is a piece of themselves in every character they write. And that's all I'm saying here. The same is true if one's character is a world famous man about whom scores of biographies and several novels have already been written. It's still the same process. You have to enter a squishy, indeterminate space; then you exploit the freedom of that space by forging a kind of union between yourself and the historical person. The result of the union is the protagonist of a novel. I'm confident this is just as much true of Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell as it is of my Vincent Van Gogh. And because that protagonist is a character--and not just an array of facts--he breathes and moves and affects people in way no subject of any bigography ever can. And so maybe that means he's actually more real.