Wednesday, September 28, 2022

On Why We Write Historical Fiction...and Why I Do

Way back when, from first to fifth grade, I attended St. David’s School in New York City. (In fact, St. David’s is the school featured in my little book Beastie.) The alumni magazine recently asked me to contribute a piece on the topic of writing historical fiction. 
The result is here (pp. 36-39), but for the less digitally dexterous, the full text of the piece is offered below:


Most historical fiction isn't really about history. It's about the exact opposite, in fact.


This has always been my official explanation for why, despite having spent the last three decades writing stories set so squarely in the past, I've never really considered myself an honest scholar of it. For the record, these stories have included one novel about Napoleon's exile on St. Helena, another about the life John the Baptist, a few more set during the turn-of-the century -in South Africa, London, and Finland, respectively, and then again in my most recent book, The Unknown Woman of the Seine, which takes place during the last three days of the World's Fair in Paris, 1889.


And yet for all of the years of research that these efforts have entailed, all the library stacks and diaries and codices, correspondences and maps, all the trips and interviews and twisted, bottomless rabbit holes, I've never felt like much more than an amateur when it comes to history.


Why would this be?


Well because, as I say, there is a dirty little secret hiding behind the whole idea of historical fiction, and that is that -- at least from the perspective of the writer -- setting your sites upon remote times and places is less about discovering other worlds, more about disciplining yourself. It's kind of like traveling abroad in real life, or camping in the wilderness: the decision to deliberately install yourself in unfamiliar and maybe even inhospitable environments forces you to keep it simple. To rely upon essentials. And in the case of storytelling, those essentials have nothing to do with research or expertise. They have to do with what makes your characters tick --what they want, what they fear, what drives them to make the choices they do. These are what get you through the rough terrain. Not snuff boxes and wig powder.


To give an example: If you wanted to write a novel about Cain and Abel, say, set in the time of Cain and Abel, you would be wise to do some research on agrarian practices in the 4th millennium BC. And animal husbandry, for that matter. You'd pretty much have to. In the course of doing so, however, you would soon come to recognize just how vanishingly little you know, or can ever really know, about the lived experience of this time and place, and therefore just how vain it is -- in every sense of the word -- trying to capture that experience in contemporary and parochial language. No matter how descriptive you are, no matter how exhaustively you do your homework, each scene will be an exercise in smoke and mirrors. A deliberate deception. A narcissistic fantasy –


That is unless…


...Unless maybe you can find one of those driving forces I mentioned before, some common thread of human experience that connects us to them -- which in the case of Cain and Abel is clear enough:


Cain envies his brother.


Cain feels less loved by their father than Abel.


THAT is what the scene is about, and that is what you must make clear. Not the proper way of loading a shepherd's slingshot in the era before interesting as that may be.


This, then, is the hidden value of choosing the far-flung subject. It sets you out upon the open sea -- or strands you in the desert, if you prefer -- and the only canteen it provides (or the only life raft) is the humanity of your character. Which is as it should be.


It is from that perspective that the apparent function of this thing we call "historical fiction" -- to transport the reader into the past, and to show them just how much the world has changed since then -- is revealed to be a pretext. The deeper and more meaningful objective is to render in the clearest relief imaginable the presence of those things that never change. Envy, for instance. The ever-thus. 

This has always been my party line anyway -- the official, public explanation for why I keep playing this trick. And it's not untrue. However, there is another equally good answer, which I would normally only share with those in the know. But since the reader of this might actually be in that "know," I will make an exception.


The other answer is Mr. Bill Ryan.


It does seem to be the case that in the life of every remotely happy and/or well-adjusted person, one is bound to find one or two transformative teachers who manage somehow to align you to your core – by seeing what’s good in you and encouraging it; by infecting you with their passion for a given subject; and by simply being someone you want to do well for.


Mr. Ryan was my Fourth Grade homeroom teacher at Saint David's School back in 1973-74. I have written about him elsewhere, in fictional guise that I kept thin to make the point that he was not obviously cast in the role of beacon. Fig-shaped, bounded in the middle by thin black belt, black shod, horn-rimmed, Elvis-haired but hardly Elvis-featured. The eyes were a little squinty, the nose a little pointy, the chin most definitely doubled. But none of that mattered because, to me, he glowed -- imbued as he was by a vast intelligence and curiosity, humor, kindness, patience, principle, and an evident love of things that should be loved. Baseball, for instance. And history, of course. But most of all...story.


Boy, did Mr. Ryan love a good story, and man-o-man, could he tell one.


I can see him in class, striding the aisles between our desks, reading aloud to us from a book of his choosing -- The Hobbit, Robin Hood -- but he could expound extemporaneously and with equal flair about Ancient Greece, gods and goddesses. Sophocles. Odysseys. Arthurian legend. Gregorian chants. Thomas More. The Mighty Casey.


I don't recall if any of this was actual curriculum, or if this was just him treating us to the things he most enjoyed. (He enjoyed saying the name 'Uther Pendragon'.) I do remember, though, that for any assignment of sufficient heft, he would as he was handing back our graded papers, declare the authors of the most distinguished efforts -- the 'A's, I'm guessing -- to be members of the 'Commendabi League' (pronounced KAHM-en-DAH-bee), holding up that paper like a torch before setting it down on your desk. To be as consistent a member of the Commendabi League as one was able -- maybe a resident even -- was clearly the goal.


As inspiring a presence as Mr. Ryan was in the classroom, his most natural setting was the school chapel. On the days he was tapped to speak, there was always a special energy in the room. The sight of him seated up in the front row, consulting an index card, would start a murmur among the boys. That murmur would soon become a buzz and leave the room as word went out. "It's Mr. Ryan." The message traveled all throughout the building, and the heavy door would remain open a little longer on such days, for anyone whose calendars were clear, other teachers and administrators who wanted to come and listen.


The excitement was deserved. Mr. Ryan was as gifted a public speaker as I have ever heard -- or seen -- striding comfortably in front of the lectern. Left hand in pocket, rubbing his chin with the other, leaning back, sweeping with his arm as he spoke. Painted really. Stories from memory. Poems. Anecdotes passed down, with maybe a little O'Henry sprinkled over top. All parables, though, and not so many that a few favorites didn't emerge over the Lower School years. "The family jewels." Recollections of war. Mr. Ryan had served in Korea. There was one story of a troopship, I think, downed at sea, and of sailors clinging to jetsam in the eerily quiet Pacific as the blanket of night fell all around.


I can still hear the silence in the room, borne of Mr. Ryan's pauses, and sustained by his reflection, accented here and there by the splintering groan of chapel pews. He was a captivating man, and there can be no question that while I sat in those creaky benches, in those suspended breathless moments, a path appeared before me -- not one that I'd have presumed to recognize at the time, being a bit shy, but that I would eventually take up in my way, in my own language, and for reasons likewise of my own.


Still, not a day goes by that I don't close the office door and follow that path just a little further, writing and rewriting my scenes, trying to distinguish the things that change from the things that don't. And so not a day goes by that I don't on some level think of Mr. Ryan, and hope my effort finds me in the Commendabi League again. I've yet to come across a higher honor.

Monday, August 22, 2022

Some Book recommendations

Upstart start-up booksite asked me to recommend five books on the basis of my choosing. So I did. Give them a looksee and browse about.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Much gratitude to the folks at The New York Times for including The Unknown Woman of the Seine on its year-end list of top historical novels. Ho-ho-ho...

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

In recognition of the pub date of my new book, The Unknown Woman of the Seine, here's a link to a podcast I recently guested on, hosted by author/colleague/teacher/friend Mari Talkin.

We spoke of many things -- not just about the book, but about teaching in these times and places. Many thanks to Mari. Give her click!

Tuesday, October 19, 2021


It brings me great pleasure to announce the publication of my latest novel, The Unknown Woman of the Seine (Delphinium, Nov 2021). What follows is an excerpt from the blogpost I wrote for Delphinium, and offers a good quick breakdown of the what and why of the whole undertaking. My everlasting thanks go out to all who helped in the making of the book, but especially my editor Joe Olshan and Delphinium's publisher, Lori Milken, without whom none of this: 

“The Unknown Woman of the Seine” is one of those images, one of those phrases, one of those characters you can go most of your life never encountering – or never noticing, at least – until you do, and once you do, you start seeing her everywhere.

Hers is the tale – or two tales really – the first about the young woman whose body washed up on the banks of the Seine some time in the late 1880s, was taken to the city morgue, publicly displayed, never claimed, but whose face bore such a lovely and beatific expression that a caste was made – and this becomes the second tale: of the plaster mask that went from being an artist’s study tool to a poet’s muse, to the subject of short stories, novels, movies, and photographic essays, before eventually winding up as the template for the first CPR dummy, Resusci Anne, thus rounding these two narratives into a singular, circular whole – of the drowning victim whose surviving image served to teach us all how to save each other from, among other things, drowning.

For me, the discovery of this diptych – of woman and mask – took place about a decade ago, maybe a year or so before I started writing the book, which I did for the same reason I write any book: because my mind keeps returning to it, and to the questions it poses. In this case (and a
ssuming any part of the origin story is true), what life could account for the expression we encounter on that mask? Maybe more to the point, what death?

Without entering too much into process, research followed. And surmise. Certain resemblances asserted themselves, and by their lead, the beginnings of an answer started to take shape around other secondary questions having to do with the acute effects of longstanding physical and psychological trauma, the Sino-French War, the recurrence of certain specific bodhisattvas, the annals of 19th century French (and Swiss) crime, the fin-de-siecle anti-absinthe movement, and the World’s Fair of 1889, of course, whose final three days serve as the story’s squarest frame.

Inevitably, as I grew more familiar with the history, the place, and the various available characters, the book began to take on the romantic, ornate, gas-lit atmosphere of its setting. At the same time, and just as inevitably, I became aware that my actual storyline – that is, the investigation into the life and death of the Unknown Woman — was leading me down some very dark alleys, and that lurking in the shadows of this world were more sinister elements, specific exhibits of racism and acts of violence that were as grotesque and disturbing as anything the human imagination could conjure. Only they were true, indelibly etched into the record of the period.

I cannot say that this dissuaded me. For a writer, the knowledge that your present course is liable, at certain turns, to shock the conscience of an empathetic reader isn’t necessarily bad news. It means you may be on to something, in fact, and especially these days, when the ways we talk about our deepest communal faults and fault-lines have begun to feel so pitched and so prescribed, there’s value, I believe, to opening the mind’s eye and seeing these demons in action. And in effect. That’s what novels do.

So I proceeded, aware that certain crucial questions were out in the open now and would hover for the remainder of my effort – questions not just about how I should address the more upsetting features of this landscape, but about whether I should. And why.

Now in addition to being a writer, I am also a teacher, which means that I currently find myself in a moment of upheaval, wrought by the confluence of a digital revolution and a socio-political reckoning that calls upon us – happily and necessarily – to revisit the most basic questions about what we think we’re doing, which in my case means teaching literature. In the brave new world of boundless bandwidth and vanishing attention spans, what does it even mean to be a reader, or ‘culturally literate’? Is this an idea we want to preserve? Is reading novels, say, a behavior we want to continue encouraging? And if the answer is yes, then on what basis do I choose to model that behavior on this book here as opposed to that one there?

I’d like to think that all English teachers are wrestling with such questions, and I expect that our answers will vary, depending upon the paths that led us to the classroom, and the paths that led our students there as well. Obviously. But for me, and for now, my own answer to that last question in particular – what makes me most excited to share a text with my students, and to read it with them – is this, and if this sheds light on my creative m.o. or why I feel not just emboldened but obliged to take the hazardous trail when it presents itself…fine.

First, I should admit that I’ve never considered it to be the purpose of a novel – or a song, a painting, or any work of art for that matter – to offer remedies, solutions, or instructions. I’m aware of the counterarguments, but it’s my experience that ideology flattens art, and I’m not interested in agendas. I can get those easily enough online. When I smell one in something someone has created, my tendency is to think it kinda stinks.

What doesn’t stink – what stays fresh, that is, and what I therefore trust in most — is the Particular. The Singular. The One-and-Only-ness of whatever the writer has set their sights on. And that quality can apply to any aspect of the work – to the situation, a feeling, or to a character, of course; that’s always the best. The effect is the same no matter where you find it, and harkens to the old idea that the more precise the detail – or focus of our attention — the more universal the resonance will be. So it doesn’t matter that I’m reading about a Chinese farmer in a rice field 2500 years ago. If the language captures that moment, the moment will capture me, and in so doing, expose all those boundaries that supposedly divide that farmer and me for what they are: the real fiction.

But I’ll go a step further and admit that my favorite of these moments, the ones that really make me sit up in my chair, or maybe even put the book down and take a quick walk of gratitude – are those in which an author manages not only to distill the essence of the thing, but the antidote as well.

What do I mean?

I mean that passage where, even as the protagonist appears to be having their grand epiphany – is actually pronouncing the truth inside their head (and an admirable truth at that!) – the author manages to tilt it just a fraction, just enough to let us see that this too is vanity, of course, it is (e.g., Tolstoy, Woolf, Wilson). Equally as stirring is the lunatic’s street corner rant, which for all its frustrating loops and arbitrary digressions, still glimmers with moments of divine light. This makes me very happy (e.g., Nizami, Nijinsky, Morrison, Kanye). That glance in the mirror that reveals the villainy of the hero or the heroism of the villain. Anything, really, that challenges or confounds the reader’s reflex to make an easy sense of what just happened here, or to relax into obvious assumptions about who’s reliable and who isn’t, or what the moral of this story surely must be (e.g., Shakespeare). I like a good kōan. I like the parable that makes no sense (e.g., Buddha, Jesus). I like the
 author who for some reason saves her clearest, tenderest prose for the most gruesome image in the book (e.g., Allende). Or the composer who, having written the most beautiful melody he can think of, can’t resist smearing it just a little with his thumb (e.g., Prokofiev, Waits).

These are my heroes, my mentors and masters, who teach me not to be so quick, or ever to think I know. All meaning is a double-edged sword. Ego cloaks itself in noble deeds every day. The lotus grows from garbage heaps. And literature is never more vital – or more consoling, it seems to me – than when it reminds us of this, the gorgeous moral ambiguity of human being.

Do I say all this to suggest that The Unknown Woman of the Seine actually achieves such an effect? Or to justify the paths I finally chose in trying to solve the mystery of that young woman’s face? Hardly. Not my place. Not my interest really. But I will happily admit that this is why I read; this is why I teach; and that by implication, sure, this is why I write.

This post can also be found at the Delphinium Blog

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Thursday, October 6, 2016

BEASTIE: Lord of the Lamp Post

You guessed it. Time for a new book from Star Pine!

Well, new in a sense. A generous excerpt from Beastie appeared in Andrew Blauner’s anthology Central Park a few years back, but the new Star Pine edition marks the first time the story has been available in its entirety. With pictures, no less.

To be brief and (I hope) enticing, Beastie is the story of my first encounter with the eponymous creature that lives in Central Park, who sleeps through the day in his little den at the bottom of Belvedere Castle, and only comes out at night “to forage in the trees for midnight luncheon” as the poem says, and to awaken the various statues who call the park home.

But I may already have said too much…

The account, set in the long-ago of my own fourth-grade year, has been written for everyone, but I would in particular recommend it to the young at heart, especially those whose hearts are, oh, eight years old and up, but especially especially to those hearts familiar with the park and its most crawl-able statuary. An admitted gluttony for baseball and baseball gloves wouldn’t hurt neither, but is not required.

I will below attach some of the drawings that have made their way onto the pages, along with a taste of the aforementioned poem - but only a taste - all by way of inviting you and yours to come and, at the proper hour, meet His Pointy-eared and Finger-nailed and Sharp-toothéd Majesty the Beastie, shaggy Beastie, Lord of the Lamp Post!

It’s only when the moon eludes the cloud-bank,
and every peering bedroom light goes dim,
when darkness looms in quiet rooms,
and closets stand like mummy’s tombs,
and the last child’s dream is finally entered in,

that’s when the shadow slips out from its dungeon,
and tumbles down to fetch itself a drink,
to forage in the trees for midnight luncheon,
and just like that make chiseled eyelids blink,
and fingers twitch, and noses itch
and round bronze shoulders sink.
From meer to lake, they’ll all awake,
From bridle path, to reservoir, to rink…

                                    (from the poem “Beastie: Lord or the Lamp Post,” by Anonymous

(full poem here)
and now, a few drawrings from inside...