Saturday, February 5, 2011

Historical Fiction at the AWP Conference

I've spent a good part of the last three days at the annual AWP Conference. AWP is an organization of writers and teachers of writing (the acronym supposedly stands for "Association of Writers & Writing Programs," in which case it should really be "AWWP," but never mind), and I had no idea there were so many writers in the United States. It was completely overwhelming. And exhilarating (look at all these people who care so passionately about writing!). And depressing (look at all these people who so desperately want to get published!).

But what I really want to talk about is, of course, historical fiction. Out of the hundreds of panels on offer, there were only three devoted to historical fiction, all well-attended. (Well, I really only know about two of them, because for some reason two of the three were scheduled to meet at the same time.)Listening to the panelists, I was gratified to hear echoes of many of the thoughts and feelings I've had during my own writing process: the need to find a gap or a mystery in the historical record, so that your imagination has room to play; the necessity of, as one panelist put it, gathering so much information about your period that you "drown" in your research (that was from Jane Alison, author of The Love-Artist, a novel about Ovid); the lingering anxiety that nevertheless you'll get something wrong and be exposed as a fraud.

I certainly know the last feeling well--even though, by the time I started writing A More Obedient Wife, set in the 1790's, I'd been working as a historian in that period for almost seven years. Maybe you can never really shake that anxiety when you're writing about the past. (Although there are those rare birds, like Edward P. Jones, who are immune to it. He wrote his novel The Known World, about black slaveowners in the antebellum South, without doing a lick of research. One of the panelists--Robin Oliveira, who wrote My Name Is Mary Sutter--said she heard him respond once to a question about how he could do that. "It's my book," she quoted him as saying, "and I can do what I damn well please.")

But what I wanted to ask the panelists and didn't get a chance to was this: isn't there also a sense in which we can know the past BETTER than the present? True, we can never be entirely sure of the details of daily life in the way we are of those that surround us now. But the past is not a moving target. It's fixed, static--whatever happened there has already happened.

Maybe more important, we have a perspective on the past that we can never have on the present, because we know--in historical terms--what happened next. In that sense we have an advantage over our characters, who have no idea what lies down the road. We know which institutions and ideas will become discredited in the future. And we know which ones will ultimately win acceptance.

Take, for example, a character in the novel I'm working on, a doctor of the early 19th century whose ideas about the cause of disease anticipated germ theory. His contemporaries ridiculed him--disease caused by tiny invisible animals that somehow entered the body?--and he lost a good deal of his practice. Now, in the 21st century, I can simply present his experience, without authorial comment, and both the reader and I will know something that he doesn't: that he was basically right. Another of my characters is a woman who dared to undertake what was considered a man's job, and who argued, over sometimes fierce opposition, that women had the potential to be the intellectual equals of men if they were only given the same educational opportunities. Someday, she lamented at one point, her ideas would be recognized as valid. And we--the writer and the reader--will know that they were.

That kind of layering--the layer of what the writer and reader know, as compared to what the characters know--is one of the things I love about historical fiction. The closest thing I heard to it at the AWP panels was from a writer named Kelly O'Connor McNees, author of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, which is set before Alcott became a successful writer. "I knew what she would go on to," O'Connor McNees said, "and she didn't know. I had to admire her audacity."

I suppose that's what all of us aspiring writers need: audacity. We need to act like we're all going to end up like Louisa May Alcott, even though we know that can't be true.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you. I have often thought that we can in some sense know the past better than the present because of the perspectives we can bring to bear on it--looking in both directions from the past event--deeper into the past and forward into the future (that is already our past). Sometimes we take for granted the rights and privileges that those before us have labored so hard to achieve. For instance, until about 30-40 years ago, it was assumed that there was "man's work" and "woman's work" and women were incapable of doing the same work as men. Many young women just entering the work force today are astonished at these firmly held convictions that persisted until quite recently. The television series "Mad Men" has reminded me how much the women's movement succeeded in changing these attitudes.