There's been much talk about historical fiction lately -
around the The Orange Prize, at The Hay Festival, on the occasion of the new
Walter Scott Award - this had me chewing on a few questions
Does everyone have
to be dead?
I've always understood that we need a perspective of 50 years
before events can be viewed as 'history.' The Cuban missile crisis, Civil
Rights Movement and the Vietnam War are all now on the GCSE history syllabus.
unsettling to know that the vivid events, the current affairs, which formed the backdrop of one's early years,
are being swotted up and scribbled out as answers in stuffy exam halls. But there
will always come a point where 'history' and living memory overlap.
In that overlap, the category of
'historical fiction' is, perhaps, at its most uncertain.For an era or particular event to count
as 'history' do we feel more comfortable if everyone who lived at the time is already
dead? If so, the First World War would have only have passed into history in
July 2009 when, "last fighting Tommy," Harry Patch died, aged 111.
If a 'true' historical novel requires the writer to move
beyond available living memory, we'll have to wait ever longer as many more
people are living to 100 plus and 90 is the new 80.
All the novels on this
year's Orange Prize shortlist, apart from Lorrie Moore's, A Gate at The Stairs,
were set prior to this century. At the readings on the night before the prize
was announced, chair of the judges, Daisy Goodwin, suggested to Moore that even
her book, set in 2002, was 'historical' since it focused on that troubled year
between 9/11 and the start of Iraq war in 2003. Moore said wryly "it took
me so long to write, it became historical."
Moore set the book in the
Midwest in 2002, she said, in order to show that that part of the USA wasn't
simply "a place you fly over" between New York and Los Angeles.The world events of 2002 form the
anxious background against which her characters make their choices.
Looked at another way, in a 24/7
globalized world, momentous events come at us thick and fast. After ten years
so much has happened that perhaps we need to view these through the lens of
What's the pull of the 20th Century for so many contemporary writers?
of the Orange short-listed authors chose to go back to a point where living
memory is still available, though not always the writer's own.
Barbara Kingsolver, with her book The Lacuna, set out to
look again at the anti-communist activities of 1950s America. However, she soon
found that she needed a character with a personal history in revolutionary
times; she sent him back to Mexico in the 1920s/30s to meet Trotsky. "A
writer is a kind of anti-analyst," said Kingsolver, "you go back
through their lives and give them damage."
Kingsolver said the novel grew out of her curiosity about
how America had gone from being revolutionary to neo-conservative, "How
did we get from your George to our George?"
Rosie Alison's The Very
Thought of You moves between 1939 and 2006 as she explores the consequences, in
the present, of lives disrupted by the Second World War. Her curiosity in
returning to the Second World War was, "to see what was happening on the
Home Front." Ashton Park, the 'big house' to which evacuees are sent and
features large in the book - almost a character - was based on the school in
Yorkshire, which Alison attended. Writing the novel was, in part, "A love
letter to my boarding school."
Monique Roffey, for her novel The White Woman on The Green Bicycle, had
an eye on her family history, going back to Trinidad in the 1950s when the
politics were vibrant, breaking from a colonial past. She'd written the book
because, "I wish I'd been there."
Attica Locke with Black Water
Rising, similarly, went back to the 1980s, to what was, for her, living memory
as a child. Her parents had been activists in the Civil Rights Movement of the
1960s and 1970s. She was curious to explore what happened to that generation as
they moved into the Reagan Era.
There is such a time lag between writing a
novel and getting it into the hands of readers that, given the nature of our
times, a novelist who tries to catch the contemporary moment risks being a
hostage to fortune. Besides, film and TV, with their visual power, can do both
the urgent present and the apocalyptic future so much faster and with more
impact. It's bold writer that speculates on the future these days. Margaret
Atwood managed it in Oryx and Crake, though, for me, less so in The Year of The
Inevitably then, writers will turn to the twentieth century, burrowing
back into personal, family stories where these intersect with history- Andrea Levy's Small Island, Rushdie's
Midnight's Children - or as a way to understand the present crises by glancing
back, as in The Lacuna.
Can You Put Words In Their Mouths?
Of all this year's
Orange Prize authors Hilary Mantel, with Wolf Hall, had gone much further back
to history we all think we know from school, TV costume drama and
documentaries, feature films etc. Having written Beyond Black, about the spaces
in contemporary life that seem devoid of history - shopping centres, housing
estates - she wanted to revisit to a formative period of English history.
week Mantel picked up the Walter Scott Prize for Wolf Hall - a new award to
stimulate debate around historical fiction. At The Hay Festival there was
lively debate about how much license an author can take with real historical
figures.Helen Dunmore was
reported as saying at Hay that, when writing The Betrayal, she was wary of
giving lines to real historical figures. Yet Mantel in Wolf Hall has completely
reanimated Thomas Cromwell. How has she pulled that off? Apparently there are
scant primary sources that record his words and his life; there was plenty of
room to speculate.
Dunmore's novel The Betrayal, set in the 1950s, is too close to events
that are well recorded for her to have such freedom.For a novelist going back into the Twentieth Century there
will be fewer voids. Sources are prolific: public records available on line,
film, TV news and documentary, records, tapes, DVD. As Simon Mawer pointed out
in his recent interview for Words Unlimited, you've got to get it exactly
Kingsolver said the way she got round the problem of
tampering with the thoughts and words of Trotsky, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo
was to think of them less as characters and more as, "the setting for my
A Category Shift?
With the future rather too uncertain and the present too fast
to pin down - other than in visual media - the novel becomes a place to pause and
reflect. The twentieth century is ripe for re-examination as we ask: where did
it all go wrong? Or - How might it have gone better?
Perhaps, as we move into
the next decade of this new century, we need a category shift? Clearly, in the
novels mentioned here, there's more going on than bodices and battles. Whether
they are 'historical' novels is less the point. What's happening is that
history in fiction seems, currently, to be the subject of some of the best of
mainstream literary work.
Hilary Mantel, at the Orange Prize readings,
succinctly summed up the novelist urge to go back: "as a writer you reach
a hand into the universe and say, right, let's stop there, and have another
Simon Mawer's, The Glass Room, short-listed for last
year's Man Booker Prize, is currently short-listed for the Walter Scott Prize
for Historical Fiction, to be announced this month. Here, he talks about how
his fascination with a masterpiece of Modernist architecture led him to write
his eighth novel, the pleasures and pitfalls of setting fiction in the recent
past, and he offers a tantalizing glimpse of his next book.
published fiction and non-fiction. When you came across the Villa Tugendhat,
the Mies van der Rohe house on which you based your fictional house, did it
straight away appeal to the novelist in you?
SM: Really I am only a novelist, so I never feel, "I'd
like to write a non-fiction book about that". Non-fiction - the little
that I have done - I find easy and essentially uninteresting. Fiction is
difficult but gripping. As to the idea of writing a novel about a fictional
Tugendhat House- I first visited
the original house in 1995 and although I was immensely struck by it then, I didn't
immediately start thinking of a novel. That came much later, during a
subsequent visit a decade later. Perhaps the idea had been fermenting in my
subconscious but that is only speculation.
PJ: When you did begin to draft a
novel, did it start with the house?
SM: One of the first things I wrote became
the opening of the published book,Liesel's return. I saw the house from that perspective, coming back
having been away for such a long time. The sensory impact of the house is so
great, I played around with her experience, deliberately making her blind to
remove the visual, which is the most obvious. As she enters the house she has
recourse only to her memory of the place. The history wasn't difficult to find.
I used the historical signposts that were already there in the story of the
PJ: The onyx wall features much in the novel - what effect did the
real thing have on you the first time you saw it?
SM: The onyx wall is the only
deliberately decorative feature of the living area. Its impact is therefore one
of contrast. Almost everything else is rectilinear and functional and here is
this veined and convolute slab of semiprecious stone where a plain partition
ought to do just as well. Mies asserted that less is more, but here you've got
more than you could ever have bargained for! So it is striking because of that
contrast. It also has the wonderful ability to absorb direct sunlight and glow
red. I've never seen that phenomenon but the very idea of it appealed to me as
a novelist - passion out of cold rock? Perfect!
PJ: "Architecture is the
will of the epoch translated into space," said Mies van der Rohe. It seems
there was, for you, an equal necessity to write about the conflicting wills
played out in Czechoslovakia in the middle of the 20th Century. What drew you
to those particular events, that place and time - was there a personal
SM: No personal
connection, no. But a great sense of empathy. I love the forgotten city of Brno,
which is the real city behind the name Mesto used in the book. It has a human
dimension that I appreciate and, unlike Prague, it doesn't have herds of callow
British males wandering round it looking for cheap booze. (Whatever did Prague
do to deserve its current fate?). Then there is the discovery, for me, of
central Europe in general. The Austria-Hungary Empire seems never to be taught
in British schools and of course for most of my life most of that world was
isolated from the West by the Iron Curtain. So when I first visited the Czech
Republic there was this strange sensation of discovery of a whole world within
the confines of Europe, a place that was much less well known than, say India
or South America, yet which had its whole existence rooted in familiar European
culture. And as soon as you find out anything about Central Europe in the 20th
century you come across the brilliant and tragic First Republic of
Czechoslovakia, that "far-away country" with a people "of whom
we know nothing."
"I love the forgotten city of Brno ... the real city behind the name Mesto used in the book."
PJ: It's a
bold move to take a something from recent history and transform it into
fiction. There are parallels between the lives of the Tugendhats and your
fictional Landauers. Did you hesitate or did that come easy? Did you have any
contact with the Tugendhat family?
SM: I have been asked this so many times in
the Czech Republic that I ought to have a standard response printed out! The
parallels with the Tugendhat family are the inevitable ones of history. You
cannot get around those. But the Landauers are entirely creatures of my
imagination. I had no contact with the family during the writing of the book -
why should I? It wasn't about them. However, since the publication I have had
contact with one of Greta Tugendhat's grandsons, who lives in the US. He really
enjoyed the book and we have had a very amicable exchange of e-mails - he
wanted to be sure that no friend of the family had passed on information but
once I had established the fact that the Landauers are complete fictions he was
entirely understanding. He even invited us to stay. I believe that other
members of the family are less happy about the book, but that is only hearsay.
PJ: How do you approach your research and when do you know when to stop and get
on with the story?
SM: I don't treat research as a separate thing from the
writing. The two things are integral. I start writing and during the writing I
discover things that I need to know about. That leads to a bit of research,
which inevitably colours the writing and often enough brings about re-writing.
It's a most inefficient method but it's the only way I know how to do it. I
don't know what I have to say about something until I start to write about it.
PJ: Can you say something about
the sources you used to create your fictional world?
SM: I'm very affected by
photographs - historical photographs are particularly moving. I got hold of
Daniella Tugendhat's book about the Villa. I'm still discovering pictures of
the house. On the Vila Tugendhat website you'll find photographs taken in 1959
and the 1960s - splendidly evocative.
PJ: What was it like to write of sexual
relationships between women?
Intriguing. I find women fascinating as subjects of fiction. I also happen to
find women sexually much more interesting than men. But in reality we are all
blends of the two genders (indeed developmentally we start out as females -
there's the biologist in me talking!) and guess what I'm saying is that I think
the feminine side of us the more interesting. And consider what modern man
reads, if he reads at all. Thrillers. And woman? Well, judging by the
disproportionate numbers of them at my readings, she reads The Glass Room.
You've just done a reading tour of the Czech Republic - how did that go?
was wonderful. Tiring, but wonderful. I enjoyed meeting so many Czech people
and seeing the country again. The highlight of the tour was Brno, where my wife
and I were guests of the City. And the highpoint of the highlight was being
shown round the Tugendhat Vila by Iveta Cerná who is in charge of the house.
The building is currently closed to the public for restoration so it was a
particular thrill to see it stripped down to its original 1930 skeleton. We
were followed round the building by Czech TV and there were lots of press and
for a few minutes I felt very important. I really got the feeling that Brno
appreciates The Glass Room. The city has always played second fiddle, first to
Vienna and more recently to Prague, so I think the people there appreciate the
attention that The Glass Room has brought both within the Czech Republic as
well as abroad. A Czech poet whom I met presented me with an anthology of his
poems, in English translation of course. On the title page he has written,
"with gratitude for reviving Brno's Glass Room"! It's not often that
a novel can have that kind of effect.
PJ: You've also written fiction with a contemporary setting - what is
the attraction for you in writing a historical novel? Are you happier writing
in the past?
SM: The term "historical novel" needs to be clarified
here. The Glass Room is set in a period that is still extremely accessible to
us. That's very different from writing about the sixteenth century or even
worse, ancient Rome. In truly historical novels it is very difficult to
understand how people actually spoke, let alone how they thought. Such a book
is then open to the dangers of the "Gadzooks!" school of writing and
can soon become horribly dated. But there's little danger of that when you are
writing about the twenties or thirties because we know what they thought in
those days and we know the way they talked about it. The advantage of writing
that kind of recent historical novel, as opposed to a contemporary one, is that
you have a perspective on the period. The writer can put things in context and
develop a theme over time. You get that extra frisson when the Landauers are
sliding towards a disaster that they don't see coming but you do. Don't forget
that War and Peace is a historical novel. So is Buddenbrooks. And so is...
You had a career in teaching, publishing your first novel in your late
thirties. How did you manage writing around a demanding day job?
SM: Lots of
holidays. An understanding family. Although my first novel was published when I
was in my late thirties I didn't have a whole series of rejections behind me;
in fact it was the first novel I ever submitted and it was accepted by Hamish
Hamilton on first submission. So all the waiting seems to have been
PJ: You've lived in
Italy for many years. How does being surrounded by another language affect your
SM: Very much. I'm a poor
linguist but I love language. I love the interplay that can exist between two
different languages - both my children are native-speakers in two languages -
and this informs a number of my books, particularly The Glass Room where Czech
and German interact and sometimes collide.
PJ: What are you working on at the
SM: I have about
three-quarters of the next novel completed and I hope to have the first draft
finished by July. It's a very different thing from The Glass Room, although I
am still working in the mid twentieth century, this time between Britain and
France and in the year 1943. The central character is a young girl. I can't say
PJ: You've talked about
the advantages of setting fiction in the recent past - what about the
SM: If you're going to
set a novel in the twentieth century, don't fall into the
saluting-without-a-hat syndrome. Modern British films, both cinema and TV have
hatless soldiers saluting their superiors all the time. Even The English
Patient. The point being that American soldiers do but British soldiers don't.
Ever. So, detail matters. Detail is what gives colour and conviction. Hunt down
the solecisms and the anachronisms mercilessly.At the moment I'm having to get French words right - for
example, would a girl be a gonzesse in 1943? Or would a guy be un mec?
Fortunately there is a brilliant website of the Centre Nationale de Ressources
Textuelles et Lexicales available for free... whereas we benighted Brits have
to pay over £200 per annum to access the full OED.
PJ: Short-listed for the Man Booker and now the Walter Scott
Prize - has this affected your writing? Do you feel under pressure to produce
the next book? Is that a helpful pressure?
SM: The main effect of the Man
Booker shortlist has been very positive: more sales and a raised profile! It is
always gratifying to have people take notice. I don't suppose the Walter Scott
will have quite the same effect but it is pleasing that the book is still
attracting attention. The down side comes when things like book tours interfere
with the actually writing. I certainly have a very busy year ahead of me,
culminating in a trip to New Orleans in November.
PJ: What is a typical writing
session for you when you're beginning a new book?
SM: An initial spurt of
enthusiasm, because the start is often what starts me off; after that, much
staring at a blank screen. Where's everything going? What's it all about? Who
is it all about? Very, very slowly those questions begin to resolve themselves
but I'm never convinced that what I have written is any good until I've
finished the thing and sent it off to my agent or editor for their views. As to
how I work: I work well in the early morning, disastrously badly in the
afternoons, rarely in the evening. But I always try. Hours and hours spent in
front of the computer. Very little achieved. Horribly slow. Sometimes I feel
like those damn monkeys trying to write the works of Shakespeare by hitting
keys at random. And then I find out that I've been at it for six months and,
hey, I've got fifty thousand words written and these people and place and
events have appeared out of nothing more than the firing of my neurones and
PJ: What are
you reading at the moment?
SM: I have recently finished The Kindly Ones (Les
Bienveillantes) by Jonathan Littell. I must mention that because it is a
stunning book. Not perfect, but monumental and a hugely successful achievement.
And the most convincing insight into the Nazi mind that I can conceive of.Right now I'm reading I Served the King
of England by Bohumil Hrabal, which is funny and mad. I'm also reading Alone in
Berlin (Hans Falluda), which is interesting but a little disappointing. It's a
bit mundane, really. But most of my reading is connected to whatever I'm
writing at the time. And at the moment Falluda seems to have lost focus a bit.
PJ: What would you say to someone embarking on a first novel?
SM: Don't. I mean, don't embark on a
first novel. You'll almost certainly not get your work published and that will
almost certainly be because it will not be worth publishing. If you actually
enjoyed writing it, then that's almost a guarantee that it's not publishable!
But if you do write that first novel, then try and get it read by a good
agent... and listen to that person's advice. Fiction writing - effective
fiction writing, I mean - is all about rewriting. Fundamentally, it is a craft;
only in a very few cases - rare and fortuitous and you've probably heard of
them all - does it rise to the level of a pure art.
For fans of Maria McCann and her latest novel, The
Wilding- Words Unlimited author interviewee in May - Faber have produced a podcast of
her talking about the book. Shared with non-fiction writer James Shapiro, the
detailed interview probes further into how McCann makes sense of history by
Other writers in the Faber Podcast series include: Peter
Carey, PD James, Kazuo Ishiguro, Sebastian Barry, Junot Diaz and Hanif
For poets, there is Emma Jones talking about her Forward
Prize-winning collection, The Striped World.