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!


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