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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 history.
What's the pull of the 20th Century for so many contemporary writers?
Four 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 Flood.
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.
Last 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.
Similarly, Andrea Levy, in writing The Long Song, found a void to fill. There are no accounts, written by slaves, recording the slave experience in Jamaica. Like Mantel, she had to read between the lines of other sources.
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 right.
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 character."
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 look."
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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 real house.
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 connection?
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?
SM: 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.
PJ: You've just done a reading tour of the Czech Republic - how did that go?
SM: It 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...PJ: 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 worthwhile.
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 moment?
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 any more.PJ: You've talked about the advantages of setting fiction in the recent past - what about the pitfalls?
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.
Find out more about Simon Mawer on his website. Get a copy of The Glass Room, here, or at your local bookshop. See more of the Vila, including historical photographs, at the Tugendhat website. Information on the Walter Scott Prize, here.
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 re-imagining it.
Other writers in the Faber Podcast series include: Peter Carey, PD James, Kazuo Ishiguro, Sebastian Barry, Junot Diaz and Hanif Kureishi.
For poets, there is Emma Jones talking about her Forward Prize-winning collection, The Striped World.
Worth a listen, here.