I’m deeply grateful to the organizers for making this possible for me. Fellow panelists Laura Fitzgerald, Kristina Mcmorris, Christina Baker Kline, and Nancy Horan used their recent novels to shine a light on subjects ranging from internment, immigration and acculturation, the depression-era “orphan train” migration, various aspects of World War II, and the romantic lives of beloved figures in the arts.
While I’d stop short of suggesting that any of us put a social agenda ahead of the desire to write a deeply affecting story, it was clear to me that each author sees the value of fiction as a means to education. Kristina, author of THE PIECES WE KEEP, calls this her “Advil” trick – the sugar coating on the outside means you’re not even aware of the medicine on the inside.
There are those who take to the study of history like ducks to water, and are quite happy to lose themselves in non-fiction accounts and biographies. I’m not one of those people, and judging from the enthusiastic response of audience members to Kristina’s explanation, many of us absorb history best when it’s wrapped in fiction. We story-learners, as I’ve come to think of myself, need a character to serve as an axis – a character we can love or identify with or despise, but one who causes an emotional response in us – before we can begin absorbing historic details as a background task.
My first memory of reaching the end of the book without really noticing that I’d received an education probably harkens back to THE OLDEST LIVING CONFEDERATE WIDOW TELLS ALL. Until that book, I was extremely vague about what went on in that wretched time. And certainly, the book didn’t paint a broad picture, but focused on the experiences of a single family in a specific location. Still, certain details of that book will never leave me (the wedding ring on the charred finger, anyone remember that?) and each brings with it a host of background information.
Like the best historic nonfiction, I think we must allow the details to draw readers to their own conclusions. But novelists do that automatically, I think, because we are coached to “show don’t tell” from the start. In one panel, Nancy Horan was asked if she actually liked Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the subjects of her novel LOVING FRANK. She answered charmingly, but what struck me was that this reader (who loved the book, incidentally) had arrived at the end without really knowing how the author felt about her character. It’s this very ambiguity that tells me that Nancy did her job, because she provided all the pieces—the conversations, the details of setting, the event narrative—without ever intruding her own biases.
This isn’t a bad goal for any novelist, of course, but I think it’s especially important in historical fiction. When I think back to my novel GARDEN OF STONES, I may have aspired to this automatically, because character is so overwhelmingly more important to my imagination than any other aspect of the story. Meaning that my dearest wish as the words unfurl on the page is that my reader truly knows my characters, that their actions and reactions always ring true.
One other observation from this weekend: it occurred to me at one point that my upcoming book, THE MISSING PLACE (October 2014), which is set in the contemporary North Dakota oil boom, was deeply informed by my experience of writing historical fiction. It is impossible to consider the current boom outside of the context of those that preceded it, and—for me, at least—impossible to visit the boom towns without the sense that you are immersed in history in the making. The acts of today – whether at the individual or collective level – are reactions to and predicators of our living history. What I mean is that those who come to work in the camps are prompted by historic events, often the economic downturn; and their experiences will have a lasting effect on their lives and those of their families, on the values and practices of their communities. Likewise, the events precipitating the boom—a voracious hunger for domestic energy and the technological advances to obtain it—will undoubtedly have consequences that we can only guess at today, and which will be scrutinized and judged by future generations.
I never anticipated that I, ignorant of history to an embarrassing degree, might become its chronicler. But it feels like an exciting privilege, and I loved spending the weekend in the company of others who practice it.