Friday, June 25, 2021

The Women of Chateau Lafayette by Stephanie Dray, an inspiring saga of French history across 150 years

This ambitious saga follows three distinctive women across 150 years and four different wars: the American and French Revolutions and World Wars I and II. Each would have been impressive on its own, but braided together, they create a multifaceted anthem of Franco-American relations and feminine courage. The tales are united across time by a common theme – the tireless pursuit of liberty – and a special place which comes to symbolize it: the Chateau de Chavaniac, a large manor house in the Auvergne region of central France where the Marquis de Lafayette was born.

Marthe Simone had grown up at the orphanage at Chavaniac, and now, in 1940, she teaches the children recuperating from illness at the preventorium there. A talented artist, she accepts a commission to paint portraits of the chateau’s best-known mistress, Adrienne Lafayette, since the Vichy regime may find the 18th-century marquise less objectionable than her famous husband. As times grow darker, and Marthe’s interpersonal relationships shift in surprising ways, she must decide what risks to take, and who to trust.

In July 1914, colorful American socialite Beatrice Chanler debates separating from her estranged millionaire husband as war erupts in Europe. A caring mother who’s aghast at seeing wounded children while traveling through Amiens, Beatrice determines to back the war effort despite President Wilson’s declaration of neutrality. Over a century earlier, Adrienne de Noailles, only a teenager when she marries Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, makes innumerable sacrifices to support her husband while he fights for the American colonists, but her husband’s principles imperil the couple as tides turn during their country’s own revolution.

Based on original research, as explained in the wonderful author’s note, this novel provides satisfying, deep immersion into all three timelines. All three heroines (two are real, one fictional) feel dimensionally real, and their actions are truly inspiring.

The Women of Chateau Lafayette was published by Berkley in March; I'd reviewed it via NetGalley for May's Historical Novels Review.

If you're curious about some of the amazing discoveries the author made about one of her heroines, read this article in the New York Post, which began with her contacting one of her subject's living descendants for more information (I'm not listing the title in case of possible spoilers).  If you've already read the novel, please click away to learn more.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Rereading Anya Seton's Katherine after 35 years

This past week, I found myself in the rare situation of having no pressing review deadlines. I had just purchased a Kindle copy of Anya Seton's Katherine after seeing it on BookBub, figuring it would be easier to read than the small-print paperback I'd bought at a used bookstore as a teenager. So the timing worked all around to dive back into this medieval epic, which had been a favorite read long ago, and which I hadn't read in full since writing about it for a high school book report.  (Though I had skimmed it, back in 2004, in order to include it in Historical Fiction: A Guide to the Genre.)

Some aspects of Katherine have remained with me all this time, in particular the emotional impact of the unlikely-but-true love story between Katherine Swynford, born a herald's daughter in Picardy, and John of Gaunt, third son of England's Edward III. Their numerous royal descendants include the Tudors, Stuarts, and current members of Britain's royal family.

Multiple scenes and specific lines have stuck with me. I was especially pleased to see that the same family tree from my 1950s-era paperback was reproduced in the Kindle edition, which was published by Seton's original publisher, Houghton Mifflin (now also Harcourt). Sadly, this venerable publishing name will soon cease to exist for fiction.

Family tree from Anya Seton's Katherine

Novels with genealogical charts have always interested me, since they reveal a story in themselves. In the case of Katherine, its presence at the very beginning means that a good part of the storyline is given away ahead of time, a fact which concerned Seton. After finishing Katherine, I flipped through Lucinda H. MacKethan's recent biography of the author, Anya Seton: A Writing Life (Chicago Review Press, 2020), and avidly read the excerpts from Seton's personal journals at the time, including her words: "There's no suspense, how can there be when the genealogical table shows Katherine gets her duke in the end."

Seton also worried her prose was insufficiently polished and that her adherence to historical fact made her story less dramatic than it could have been. None of these concerns held true in the final product, in my view. Knowing the outcome in advance doesn't lessen the power of the story at all. Her portrait of 14th-century England simply glows, like light through a stained-glass window, bringing alive the colors and personalities of this centuries-old era.  

Scene from Jean Froissart's Chronicles
Richard II meets the rebels on 14 June 1381, from illustrations
in a miniature from a 1470s copy of Jean Froissart's Chronicles.
(public domain: Wikipedia)

What I hadn't remembered about Katherine is its detailed presentation of the Black Death and its deadly effects, and its socioeconomic repercussions years later, culminating with the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Neither Katherine nor her John are present in many of these scenes, which serve to provide an overarching picture of the English fourteenth century. Julian of Norwich plays a prominent role toward the end, providing Katherine with religious advice, and I look forward to meeting her again in Mary Sharratt's new novel Revelations (coincidentally, another Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publication).

If a classic is a novel that stands the test of time, Anya Seton's Katherine is certainly that. It's never been out of print, and is worth discovering, and rediscovering, by many generations of readers.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

It Started with a Druid and a Nun Having a Conversation, an essay by A. M. Linden, author of The Oath

The setting of early medieval Britain has always interested me, and so does the topic of A. M. Linden's guest post, which discusses how she conceptualized and researched her novel The Oath, which is out today from She Writes Press.


It Started with a Druid and a Nun Having a Conversation
A. M. Linden

The Oath
is the first book of the Druid Chronicles, a quasi-historical fiction series set in Anglo-Saxon Britain and based on the premise that a secretive and secluded Druid cult has persisted into the eighth century despite the otherwise inexorable spread of Christianity. The start of the story that turned into a saga—and one which took over more of my life than I ever intended it to—was an image that came to me when I was toying with the idea of writing a medieval murder mystery.

I did not have a particular plot or an exact time in mind, but pictured a tall, dark-haired Druid and a short, nervous nun having a conversation in a small underground chamber. While I didn’t yet have any idea why they were there or what they were talking about, I was certain that the nun was Saxon and that the chamber was underneath a Christian shrine. Those “facts” set the story’s timeframe, fixing it between the completion of the Saxon conversion to Christianity in the late 600s and the Viking invasions that began a century later—something I can say now, although I will also say that I began this work with what was at best a sketchy understanding of early British history.

Rather than being taken up with the big picture of characters contending with ethnic and religious conflicts in the Middle Ages, I was curious about who these two people were, why they were in the chamber, and what happened to them after that. Somehow it seemed that the only way to find out was to start writing, so I spent the next several months dashing off what was to become the Druid Chronicle’s first draft and didn’t begin any serious research into the period until I knew how things came out.

At that point I put the manuscript’s draft aside, and started to read whatever I could find at the library, in my local bookstore and on-line about Celts and Saxons, life in monasteries and convents, medieval farming and folktales, cooking over firepits and treating medical problems with herbs and incantations, as well as accounts of the Anglo-Saxon takeover of what is now England by writers on both sides of that struggle.

While the Anglo-Saxon period is generally counted as starting with the withdrawal of Roman forces at the end of the fourth century and ending with the Norman invasion in 1066, it quickly became apparent that to understand the people I envisioned as living in a hidden valley and continuing to practice a pre-Christian, polytheistic religion, I had to go back to the European Iron Age, a period during which our understanding of Celtic culture relies on a mix of archaeology, linguistics, and a limited number of accounts by foreign commentators. Then, in order to have a plausible explanation for how the small outcast cult could have sustained itself over the eight centuries between the last report of a Druidic center in the first century AD and the time of my “chronicles,” I needed to gain a reasonable grasp on the subsequent Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon periods, including the conversion first of the native Britons and later of the Saxon kingdoms to Christianity.

It was during this phase of my research that I traveled to the United Kingdom with my husband and the Ordnance Survey map of ancient monuments in Great Britain, Scotland and Wales. Already entranced by the early history and archeology of the British Isles, we started each of three trips at the British Museum. Then we rented a car, unfolded our map, and set out across country, taking in several of the well-maintained and highly informative heritage sites—including the awe-inspiring Stonehenge—but also following back roads, stopping at local museums in small towns with amazing displays of finds from nearby excavations, and taking advantage of the UK’s system of public access walkways to visit the vestiges of iron age hill forts or secluded standing stones in the company of grazing sheep. Beyond the wealth of knowledge gained from those trips, we had the experience of sitting in a pub in northern Wales and hearing teenagers in a nearby booth talking to each other in one of the oldest extant languages in Europe.

The reason that I didn’t do the historical research before I wrote the first draft was fear that the vibrancy I sensed in those two characters might not survive the rigors of dry documents and academic controversies. While I still think I made the right decision, the opportunity to immerse myself in the richness of a past age accounts for whatever depth and color I have been able to instill in their story.

About the book: The Oath opens a few months after Caelym, the youngest of his shrine’s remaining priests, has left their hidden sanctuary in search of their chief priestess’s sister, who’d been abducted by a Saxon war band fifteen years earlier. With only a rudimentary grasp of English and the ambiguous guidance of an oracle’s prophecy, Caelym manages to find Annwr living in a hut on the grounds of a Christian convent. Annwr has spent her years of captivity caring for the timid Aleswina, a Saxon princess consigned to the cloistered convent by her cousin, King Gilberth, after he assumed her father’s throne. Just as Caelym and Annwr are about to leave together, Aleswina learns that Gilberth, a tyrant known for his cruelty and vicious temper, means to take her out of the convent and marry her. Terrified, she flees with the two Druids, beginning an adventure that unfolds in ways none of them could have anticipated.

More information about this series can be found on the website

About the author: A. M. (Ann Margaret) Linden is currently completing the final book in the Druid Chronicles. Retired from a career as a nurse practitioner, she lives with her husband, two dogs and a cat. Books that have been influential in her research are included on her Goodreads Author page.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Giveaway winners, and other historical fiction news

Thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway of four books for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month at the end of May. I've been delinquent in announcing the winners, who have all been notified, and the prizes have been ordered.

Janie Chang's The Library of Legends - Michelle M.
Charmaine Craig's Miss Burma - Annette K.
Min Jin Lee's Pachinko - Nancy R.
Sujata Massey's The Widows of Malabar Hill - Donna I.

Congrats to all the winners!

In other news from the literary world:

Louise Erdrich's The Night Watchman, set in 1950s rural North Dakota and based on her grandfather's life, has won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Continuing on the subject of literary fiction: for the Sunday Book Review in the NY Times, Jonathan Lee, author of The Great Mistake, contributed an essay, "For Literary Novelists, the Past Is Pressing." Thanks to C. for the heads-up on the article.  Every so often, an author of literary fiction will discover the relevance of historical novels to today's world (usually because they've decided to write one) and produce such an essay, which will also trot out the same tired stereotypes.  I wrote about the revival of historical fiction in literary circles in my speech for the Associated Writing Programs conference in 2002, so this is all familiar ground, and it does make me wonder why the "fellow writers and editors" he spoke with haven't gotten over their aversion by now. In Lee's examination of historical novels that won the Booker and Pulitzer in recent years, it's also curious to see the criteria used:

In the 15 years before “Wolf Hall” earned Mantel her first Man Booker Prize, in 2009, only one novel set before the 20th century had been given the prize. The history of the Pulitzer is similar: In 2017, “The Underground Railroad,” Colson Whitehead’s novel about an enslaved woman in the antebellum South, became the first fiction set before World War II to win the award in more than a decade.

Why look at just those novels set before the 20th century and those set before WWII?  Doesn't Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See (Pulitzer Prize, 2015) count as historical fiction?  As we all know, WWII settings have been prevalent lately.  How about Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin (Booker Prize, 2000), set in the '30s?  In addition to this cherry-picking, there's no mention of the Walter Scott Prize, now in its twelfth year.

It is encouraging to see more writers getting an appreciation for the power of historical fiction, though, and I like the examples Lee provides in demonstrating how historical novels can grapple with today's themes while evoking times past, such as Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing.  I found this aspect especially on point:

The last few years have not been short of events that might legitimately break our faith in the readability and writability of our “now.” At the same time, they have also not been short of reminders — systemic racism, rising hate crimes, mass incarceration and the shootings of unarmed Black citizens by the police — that in America the past continues to erupt into the present and remains key to understanding it.

The piece is worth reading, both for examining the continuing perceptions about historical fiction in some literary circles, and for book recommendations.

In today's Washington Post, historical novelist Vanessa Riley, whose biographical novel Island Queen is published next month, has an important article about the importance of author's notes in historical novels written by women.  From the first paragraph:

Women-centered historical novels are having a moment, particularly when uncovering little-known histories. Resistance to these narratives, which cast heroines with agency, hidden talents and extraordinary achievements, has declined, but only after a hard-fought battle. Perhaps women have won the war and we can pen stories of our ancestors without the dreaded attack of the old guard — a patriarchy accustomed to controlling the narrative and wielding the term “historical accuracy” like a weapon.

This particularly affects, I should add, novels written by women of color, who have met with accusations of inaccuracy in depicting their characters' lives. Riley also interviews some of her author colleagues about their approach to author's notes and why they include them.

Back on May 27th, the New York Times, again, had an article from Alida Becker on new historical fiction to read this summer.  The works mentioned here aren't, generally speaking, relaxing summer reads but serious literary works exploring profound subjects.  Lots of WWII here.  I've read two of these novels myself, so far: Samantha Silva's Love and Fury and Pip Williams' The Dictionary of Lost Words. I also agree with one commenter's remarks: "Also, this list is very white and northern, isn’t it?" 

Finally, Nekesa Afia, author of the historical mystery Dead Dead Girls, her debut set in the 1920s, recommends six novels to "immerse yourself in the vibes of the past" in a piece for CrimeReads. Her selections are a mix of new books and classics.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Women from Greek mythology have their say in these new historical novels

Myths are made new and relevant in these six historical novels, which should appeal to readers interested in ancient Greek settings. The Trojan War is the common event shared by many of these titles, with writers departing from Homer's Iliad to examine women's viewpoints, but other tales are used as scaffolding as well. Benchmark novels include Madeline Miller's Circe and Margaret George's The Memoirs of Helen of Troy, and there are plenty of other older novels that fit, too. The original classic stories never get old.

The Women of Troy, Pat Barker's sequel to the acclaimed The Silence of the Girls, follows the story of Briseis, a former queen who was enslaved by Achilles, beginning after Troy's defeat by the Greeks. Doubleday, August 2021.

In A Thousand Ships, her feminist retelling of the Iliad, Haynes uses the perspectives of nearly all the women in the myth (except Helen) to provide new angles on familiar events. Harper, January 2021.

The daughters of Sparta in Heywood's debut novel are Helen and her sister, Clytemnestra, princesses who are wed to powerful foreign kings and fight for the power to control their own fates. Dutton, June 2021.

Though the title of Andrews' young adult fantasy novel, Daughter of Sparta, sounds similar to the previous book, its subject is different.  The myth of Daphne and Apollo is cast into a story of female power and adventure.  Little Brown Books for Young Readers, June 2021.

Jennifer Saint's debut is the first of two reimaginings of the story of Ariadne, a Cretan princess who meets Theseus, Prince of Athens, when he visits the land of her father, King Minos, to slay the Minotaur, her half-brother. Flatiron, May 2021.

In Ariadne Unraveled, a "mythic retelling" of Ariadne, High Princess of Crete, Zenobia Neil follows the story of her romance with Dionysus, the god of wine, amid interference from the goddess Artemis, who Ariadne was bound to serve. Hypatia, July 2021. 

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Wild Women and the Blues by Denny S. Bryce, an exciting multi-period story of Jazz Age Chicago

With her first novel, Denny S. Bryce emerges as an exciting new writer of historical fiction. The two timelines in this multi-period story are both gripping. In Chicago in 1925, “The Stroll”—a section of State Street—blazes with the sights and sounds of Black nightlife: live jazz from talented performers, speakeasies with illicit booze, and showgirls with sparkling costumes and hot dance moves.

Honoree Dalcour, a sharecropper’s daughter from Mississippi, has a regular gig dancing at Miss Hattie’s but dreams of performing at the Dreamland CafĂ©, a prestigious black-and-tan club. When her first love, Ezekiel Bailey, returns to town after a long absence, and her audition at the Dreamland turns unexpectedly risky, Honoree is plunged into dangerous waters in more ways than one.

In 2015, film student Sawyer Hayes pays a visit to Honoree, a supercentenarian in a nursing home whose fragile body holds a still-feisty spirit. In pursuit of his doctorate, Sawyer hopes Honoree can authenticate a possible lost film by pioneering Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux showing Honoree dancing in her younger years. His conversations with Honoree, though, are hardly straightforward since she seems unusually guarded about events from 1925.

The stories dance together marvelously: the plot is in constant motion, and the interplay between them results in surprising twists. Bryce skillfully evokes place and period with vibrant descriptions of the glamorous and treacherous sides of Jazz Age Chicago and fun period slang.

The subtle characterizations are a high point as well, such as Honoree’s interactions with pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong, whose upscale society party has Honoree seeing herself in a new light, and Sawyer’s slow emergence from intense grief over his sister’s death. An especially impressive debut with a strong voice and very cool historical vibe.

Wild Women and the Blues was published by Kensington in May; thanks to the publisher for granting me access via NetGalley. I wrote this review for the Historical Novels Review's May issue.

In February, Publishers Marketplace announced deals for two new novels by the author: The Other Princess, focusing on African Egbado princess Sarah Forbes Bonetta and her life in Victorian England as the queen's goddaughter, acquired by William Morrow and out in fall/winter 2022; and A Beautiful Love Affair, about Alice Jones Rhinelander, whose Black heritage was at the center of a 1925 divorce case, to be published in 2023 by Kensington. I look forward to reading both!

Monday, June 07, 2021

When the Past Begins To Sing, an essay by Lee Zacharias, author of What a Wonderful World This Could Be

Yes, new novels set in the 1960s are considered historical fiction these days. I'm welcoming back Lee Zacharias to the blog; she has an essay about researching What a Wonderful World This Could Be, which involved visiting sites that imprint their memories on people's lives today.


When the Past Begins To Sing
Lee Zacharias

We live in history. Today becomes yesterday, last week, last year, and then, before you know it, half a century has passed. There is a challenge to writing about events that have happened in your lifetime. When are they day-old news? When do they become history?

I began What a Wonderful World This Could Be in 1981, the year after Cathy Wilkerson turned herself in. The headline caught my eye. My life had changed so much in the decade since she'd escaped the accidental bombing of her family's Greenwich Village townhouse and disappeared into the Weather Underground. I'd spent the late 1960s working in an office to support my student husband. Instead of participating in the story of my generation, I felt as if I watched it on the nightly TV news. But by the time she surrendered, I had left my first husband, earned two graduate degrees, published a book of stories, had a novel coming out, and was directing a graduate writing program. During the years I spent writing What a Wonderful World, I married my second husband and had a baby. I didn't finish a first draft until January, 1990, and after the media blitz of the '60s revisited in 1988 and 1989, the "twenty years ago today" during which much of my book took place had circled back from history to yesterday's news.

I read about the events I'd missed in that momentous decade, from journalistic reports, to histories of the New Left, to analyses, to more subjective accounts. I kept researching even after I'd finished several drafts, as more and more memoirs by participants came out. If the novel—and the creation of the main character, Alex—came from my sense of having missed out, the other characters and events required an inside feel for the seismic political and cultural changes that took place over the late 1960s. It's an over-simplification to say that the townhouse explosion on March 6, 1970 and massacre of student protestors at Kent State University less than two months later marked the end of an era; yet in a symbolic way they did. By the time I began to write the era felt long past.

Lee Zacharias, 1970
In college I'd briefly had a boyfriend who went to the 1965 Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery. I couldn't join him. You had to have money—you had to be able to make bail. (Later it would become an inside joke that your father had to be a millionaire for you to join Weatherman, the radical offspring of the New Left's Students for a Democratic Society.) It wasn't until 2002 that I went to Selma. I visited Brown's Chapel, walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and retraced the route of the march. In Montgomery I visited Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, at the foot of the Capitol. Every day that George Wallace served as Governor of Alabama, he looked out his window at Martin Luther King's church, a fact I might have discovered from a city map, but a map lacks the impact that standing there imparts. Just across the Pettus Bridge from Selma, I discovered a brand new Voting Rights Park. As I descended the steps, the names of the martyrs I knew so well from news I'd lived through and relived in research seemed to float up out of the darkness. 

Jimmy Lee Jackson under the Pettus Bridge, Selma, AL (2002)

It could have been a frightening experience—a lone woman who has left her car in an empty parking lot walking by herself beneath a bridge at dusk, but I felt no alarm. The plaques nailed to the trees and stuck into the ground hadn't had time to weather. They were a pale blond, the names burned so deep into the wood it felt as if the spirits they evoked were rising from their graves. That is the other side of research, when the past begins to speak. It's no longer information, but a feeling, no longer yesterday, fifty, or one hundred years ago, but now. The past becomes a chorus, lifting its voice in an everlasting song.

Fannie Lou Hamer under the Pettus Bridge, Selma, AL (2002)

About the Book:
What Alex, illegitimate daughter of an alcoholic novelist and an artist, has always wanted is family. At 15, she falls in love with a 27-year-old photographer, whom she will leave when she comes under the spell of Ted Neal, a charismatic activist on his way to Mississippi for 1964’s Freedom Summer. That fall Ted organizes a collective that turns to the growing antiwar movement. Ultimately the radical group Weatherman destroys the “family” Alex and Ted have created, and in 1971 Ted disappears while under FBI investigation. When Ted surfaces eleven years later, Alex must put her life back together in order to discover what true family means.

About the author:
Lee Zacharias is the author of four novels, a collection of essays, and a collection of short stories. She has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council, has twice won the North Carolina Sir Walter Raleigh Award for a book of fiction, and has received many other prizes, including two silver medals from the Independent Publisher Book Awards and the Phillip H. McMath Book Award. Her previous novel Across the Great Lake was named a 2019 Notable Michigan Book, and her essays, which have appeared in numerous journals, have been cited and reprinted in The Best American Essays. She co-edited an anthology of short fiction titled Runaway and has taught at Princeton University and the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where she is Emerita Professor of English. A native of the Midwest, she lives in Greensboro, North Carolina. Learn more at

Saturday, June 05, 2021

Eternal by Lisa Scottoline, her first historical novel, set in WWII-era Rome

Readers will emerge informed and moved from Lisa Scottoline’s first historical novel, which dramatizes WWII-era Rome via three best friends and their families. Known for her bestselling legal thrillers, Scottoline describes Eternal as “the book she was born to write.” Her passion shows in the carefully depicted setting and her compassion for her characters, whose ties are repeatedly tested.

In 1937, Sandro Simone, a Jewish mathematics student, and Marco Terrizzi, a popular, outgoing cyclist, both recognize that their longtime friendship with Elisabetta D’Orfeo has turned to love, turning them into unintended rivals. Pretty and strong-willed, but shy about romance, Elisabetta weighs a possible relationship against her desire to become a journalist.

As the trio work out their feelings, the political situation deteriorates. Sandro’s and Marco’s fathers are longtime Fascists, optimistic about the positive change they see Mussolini bringing to their country. Their futures diverge once Il Duce strengthens Italy’s bond with Nazi Germany and starts promulgating anti-Semitic race laws.

Scottoline does an exceptional job placing readers in the moment as people’s worlds are upended, and Rome, with its storied architecture and vibrant culture, grows unrecognizably dark in spirit. Sandro’s father, a lawyer so entrenched in the Fascists that his beliefs essentially define him, has difficulty comprehending this betrayal of the Jews, while Marco, employed by a rising Party official, is blind to how his loyalties affect his friendships.

These and other heartbreaking moments are juxtaposed against scenes showing the warm heart of the Roman people, including feisty Nonna, crafter of delicious pasta at the restaurant where Elisabetta works. Even Elisabetta’s cat is a delightful personality. Family secrets from decades prior – in this ancient city, the past is never far away – add additional depth to this absorbing epic evoking the worst and very best of humanity.

Eternal was published in April by Putnam (I'd reviewed it for May's Historical Novels Review). Lisa Scottoline has been enthusiastic about sharing the research she did for the novel, and you can read and view lots more via her website, which has an interactive map of Rome and eighteen episodes in her Behind the Book series. These short videos cover topics ranging from her trio of main characters to prominent Roman landmarks to food customs to the Stolpersteine, brass plaques memorializing Holocaust victims which were placed into the pavement at their last residence.

Thursday, June 03, 2021

Fidelity to the Truth in Biographical Fiction, an essay by Maryka Biaggio, author of The Point of Vanishing

Novelist Maryka Biaggio, who writes historical fiction about real-life people, is visiting today with an essay about an issue that all writers of biographical novels must address.  Welcome, Maryka!


Fidelity to the Truth in Biographical Fiction
Maryka Biaggio

“The historian serves the truth of his subject. The novelist serves the truth of his tale. As a novelist, I have tools no historian should touch: I can manipulate time and space, extrapolate from the written record to invent dialogue and incident, create fictional characters to bring you close to the historical figures, and fall back on my imagination when the research runs out.”  --William Martin

Historical fiction based on real people is not unusual, and many readers love to eavesdrop on the lives of royals, celebrities, and notorious persons. Although biographies can satisfy some of that yen, fiction does something biography can’t always do—bring us inside these people’s worlds and show us their doubts, their fears, and the words they might have spoken.

But what of the importance of honesty in rendering these lives? Does the novelist owe it to his or her subjects to tell the tale true? If not, why would an author base a fictional account on an actual person in the first place? If it’s wild storytelling an author is after, why would he or she not steer clear of even insinuating that the subject of the novel is an actual person? And don’t readers expect a certain fidelity to the truth in biographical fiction? If they are led to believe a novel is based on the life of an actual person, don’t they have the right to expect they will find some resemblance to the life of that person?

I think most readers and writers would agree that, yes, novelists who base their stories on actual persons should adhere to the generally established truths about that person. And readers can reasonably expect that stories about real people not deviate wildly from the facts (unless they are labeled as alternative history).

But the “truth” and “facts” are not always easy to agree on, even among historians and biographers who aim for a high degree of accuracy. We can probably agree on the dates and certain facts about well-known events—say the particulars of a Civil War battle. But when it comes to the generals commanding their troops, we may dispute the motives behind their battle strategies. So what can readers reasonably expect and how can authors more or less hew to those expectations?

Joyce Carol Oates takes an interesting approach to this issue in her novel Blonde, which is certainly about Marilyn Monroe. Oates never refers to her subject by that name, but rather as Norma Jean Baker. Although Monroe’s affair with John F. Kennedy is a fairly well-established fact, she refers to him only as The President. Oates is not purporting to write a biography of Marilyn Monroe. She says in her Author’s Note that “Blonde is a radically distilled ‘life’ in the form of fiction, and, for all its length, synecdoche is the principle of appropriation.” She goes on to explain ways in which her account differed from her subject’s real life, and she also notes the many biographies and books on related topics she consulted. But this novel is a masterful work, portraying the inner world of its protagonist more richly than any biography ever could. In fact, I consider it Oates’ masterpiece, and she herself told me in 2009 that it is a particular favorite of hers.

Of course, there are many authors who are not shy about using their subjects’ actual names, sometimes in the titles, including Burr by Gore Vidal (about Aaron Burr) and I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon. In the case of Lawhon’s book, the central question is whether the protagonist, Anna Anderson, actually was Anastasia Romanov. Lawhon explains in her Author’s Note that “it will come as no surprise . . . that I had to take liberties with this story. I did so primarily because the historical record contains a cast of hundreds, and that is simply untenable for a novel of any sort, much less one that is already complex and nonlinear.” She, like Oates, goes on to list authoritative sources and to articulate some of the ways that her novel deviates from the historical record--“all of them necessary for the sake of clarity and narrative drive.” So, again, both Oates and Lawhon are striving for a certain narrative authenticity, which sometimes necessitates deviations from the complex truth or from potentially confusing twists and turns.

I write novels about actual people, and I have had to confront questions about fidelity to the truth over and over in the telling. If I’m going to recount a story about an actual person, I believe I owe it to the reader to render the story in a way that doesn’t completely obscure that person’s actual life. But stories must make sense, they must adhere to an arc, they must take a person from one point to the next in a way that makes sense. Real life isn’t always this “logical,” but we expect a certain logic in novels. We realize Hamlet must pay a price for his indecision, we expect insight into some of the consequential decisions Marilyn Monroe made in her tragic life, and we want to know if Anna Anderson was a fraud or royalty. In the words of Iain M. Banks, “The trouble with writing fiction is that it has to make sense, whereas real life doesn't.”

So biographical fiction about historical figures has a tall order to fill—to show us the inner worlds of the character, to bring a certain fidelity to the story of their life, and to satisfy our curiosity about the meaning of their existence. Done well, biographical fiction can do all this and more—it can captivate and entertain.

About the Author: 

Maryka Biaggio is a psychology professor turned novelist who specializes in historical fiction based on real people. She enjoys the challenge of starting with actual historical figures and dramatizing their lives–figuring out what motivated them to behave as they did, studying how the cultural and historical context may have influenced them, and recreating some sense of their emotional world through dialogue and action. Doubleday published her debut novel, Parlor Games, in January 2013. She lives in Portland, Oregon, that edgy green gem of the Pacific Northwest.

About The Point of Vanishing

The Point of Vanishing is based on the true story of child prodigy writer, Barbara Follett. In 1939, at the age of 25, she vanished, never to be heard from again. Now historical novelist Maryka Biaggio brings her enigmatic story—and mysterious disappearance—to life.

Intrigued?  Check out the author's book trailer below.