What historical fiction means to me: a groundling's perspective
'The best historical fiction authors walk a tightrope: while their writing must illuminate the past through an illusion of authenticity, it must also make emotional and psychological connections with contemporary readers. Finding and keeping that balance is no mean feat.'
Recently, I've been compiling and editing a number of Interviews for the Historical Novel Society of Australasia and I couldn't help but have a go at answering some of the questions myself. I was asked to include my thoughts on the HNSA website, which felt slightly contrived and awkward, but I nevertheless agreed. Here is what I wrote:
We've enjoyed some fascinating interviews from the top tiers in this 'What historical fiction means to me' series of interviews, but what about the view from the pits. As a keen reader of historical fiction, as an aspiring author and the person compiling and editing these HNSA interviews, I couldn’t help but ponder the questions myself - so please indulge me and forgive me for hijacking the stage and waxing lyrical (I hope) about what historical fiction means to this groundling.
In your experience as a writer and reader of historical fiction what is its particular appeal?
For me, the appeal of historical fiction is threefold: in part, the appeal is comfort and escapism (no time like the current Covid-induced anxiety). I was introduced at an early age to historical fiction by my father, a historical novelist himself. Growing up on a diet of Georgette Heyer and Daphne du Maurier, my father and I often had enthusiastic discussions about the latest historical novel we were reading. So, to some degree, reading historical fiction is a nostalgic indulgence, the equivalent of comfort reading. But (and here's the second point) for the historian in me, the person who loves to delve into the past, I'm always hoping that a historical novel will shed new light and teach me something I never knew about the past. Thirdly, unlike historical non-fiction, the appeal lies in the notion that I might connect on a personal level through shared experiences and emotions of people from the past and in so-doing understand myself a little better. As Simon Schama put it, ‘History is … the secret of who we are.’
Putting aside the reality that people in previous centuries (be they Elizabethan or even from the last century) would have radically different mindsets and perspectives to us today (perspectives on race, punishment or homosexuality for example), the act of reading, perhaps unconsciously, is often not merely escapism, but also a quest to know ourselves better, or at the very least to find something of ourselves in what we read. For that reason, novels need to resonate on a personal level. The best historical fiction authors walk a tightrope: while their writing must illuminate the past through an illusion of authenticity, it must also make emotional and psychological connections with contemporary readers. Finding and keeping that balance is no mean feat.
How do you think a prize such as the ARA Historical Novel Prize helps to raise the profile of historical fiction in general?
From what I've read and heard, literary prizes are of great value not only monetarily, but because they attract attention - and isn't that what every person in the bookselling chain from author to retailer seeks? When I go to select a book from a bookshop or the library, I take into consideration recommendations of family and friends, book reviews and puff quotes, but I'm frequently drawn to prize-winning and short-listed novels. What I excites me about the ARA Historical Prize is that literary prizes for historical fiction are few and far between. How wonderful that we now have a literary award which recognises the talent of authors of the historical fiction genre in Australasia!
What difference would it make to an author’s creative life to win a significant sum of prize money?
The easy question. Money makes all the difference in the world to any writer, especially those authors who are not big sellers, but have an equally important and compelling story to tell. Money equals time, tools and research. Keeping the focus on historical fiction, money means having the means to carry out research which often entails travelling to the location where a historical event occurred, or engaging the help of a specialist. Money greases the wheels of the writing to publication process.
What do you think makes a standout historical fiction novel?
Ah, well this is a question I've been trying to unwrap and it's taken me a while to get to grips with personally. My ASA mentor, the very lovely and knowledgeable Julia Stiles, made it very clear that when it comes to historical fiction, the history has to serve the story and not the other way around. Historical detail needs to be relevant and interwoven in a light-handed and subtle way; readers do not want to be slapped in the face with it. Like any novel, there have to be compelling characters readers want to follow into the fog of the past. The reader has to care about or be fascinated by them, even though they lived a hundred or more years ago.
With my own writing, this was something I spent a long time grappling with. Initially I was so set on getting the historical details correct that the story threads began to unravel, and my character got lost. Yes, it’s essential to create fiction which feels and smells authentic, but sometimes the history does not fit the story you want to write. The story is the beating heart of a book. As long as historical deviations are acknowledged, I think pretty much anything goes - for instance, I love imagined and alternative historical fiction, such as ‘Fatherland’ by Robert Harris.
In a historical novel, I don’t want to be drowned in a deluge of historical facts, but on the other hand, I really struggle when a so-called historical novel does not sufficiently reflect the world and worldview of the period. I recently read Maggie O’ Farrell’s ‘Hamlet’. Although her writing is superb, perhaps it was unfortunate that this is my favourite period of history because I was left feeling disappointed: to my mind she failed to embrace many of the pivotal and essential motivators of the day. For example, there was only a very light dusting with regards religion, and therefore I began to doubt the depth of her knowledge of the period. In Elizabethan England religion would have been foremost on everyone's mind, even atheists, framing their thoughts, words and deeds. For me, nailing this sort of authenticity - the worldview - not just the details such as clothing and food, is essential. Fiction is inevitably about characters from the past, but in my opinion, an author needs to show a deep understanding of the mindsets and worldview of those characters in order to convey them convincingly.
Standout historical novels are the ones that make the historical detail appear effortless: the background music to the story if you like. I want to be led along the dusty corridors of history by people who fascinate me. I want to feel the compulsion to race to the end of a book, but force myself to slow down to savour the moment. I want to be convinced that I am in the hands of someone who has actually time-travelled!
Which sub-genre of historical fiction are you pleased to see is eligible, and why do you feel it’s important?
As far as sub-genres go, I love something with a twist, and for that reason, I’m pleased to see ‘alternative’ histories included. I think it is a triumph of knowledge and imagination when an author can create what feels like a very true and credible historical world, but then take us on an alternative journey, somewhere unexpected that explores the 'what ifs'.
I recently listened to Tom Keneally espouse on this. He said, 'The gaps in history is where an author can go bonkers.' How true! Fortunately for us, history is full of gaps and even so-called factual accounts are often flawed (because of bias and the political orientation of the day). There are a lot of gaps in history... so historical fiction authors are absolutely entitled to go bonkers. But, here’s the rub … at the same time, we have to convince the readers that we, the trusty and trustworthy storytellers, are infallible and totally sane.
And that coming from someone who has just interviewed herself…