Thursday, 26 August 2010

Historical Fiction gets academic

I must thank US blogger Sarah Johnson for highlighting 2 interesting articles in the recent UK press which discuss Historical Fiction. Pages Ago is all about finding links between factual and fiction books, so seeing a current debate in the press is rewarding.

In the Independent Saul David illustrates the potential difficulty academic historians such as himself face when trying to turn to writing fiction. His particular struggle seems to focus on the amount of accurate detail it is appropriate to include and what sorts of detail bring fictional writing to life.
Historical facts are the vital framework around which non-fiction writers construct their narratives; they are, quite simply, indispensable. Yet now I was being told that if I wanted to write decent historical fiction I had to avoid being constrained by events as they actually happened.

Eventually I saw the sense of this. I wasn't being asked to sacrifice historical accuracy per se. Just to accept that a historical novel, or any novel for that matter, stands or falls on plot and characterisation; period detail is important, but only in so far as it gives a sense of authenticity. It must remain in the background and never be allowed to dominate the story.

It was gratifying to see that 2 of the authors he quotes have both appeared in NW libraries recently. Kate Williams- see blog entry for 15th July and Harry Sidebottom- see blog entry 5th August. Both these writers are academic historians who discovered that they needed to research new aspects of history to animate their fictions- essentially in both cases, the domestic detail, sights, sounds, smells of the periods they are imagining.

We must read Saul David's book Zulu Hart for ourselves to see whether or not his cross-over from academia has been successful.

The other article was from A.N Wilson in The Financial Times
He takes Wolf Hall as his starting point but also points us towards other recently published novels such as Sacred Treason by James Forrester (aka Dr Ian Mortimer) and The Courier's Tale by Peter Walker. He highlights the same issue as Saul David above, saying
If reading a work of history is like being guided round an old house by an expert, reading a good historical novel offers the illusion that we have stepped back in time to inhabit that house with its original residents.

He is less convinced by Phillipa Gregory's The Red Queen but seems in sympathy with her approach to challenging accepted historical fact. In a lengthy article which points us towards a number of older books and writers, Wilson celebrates Historical Fiction for its imaginative and creative use of historical fact.

These books surely contribute not merely to our enjoyment but to our historical understanding. Mantel, too, has shown that the phenomenon of genuine historical understanding conveyed by art still has effectiveness. Perhaps, then, the ideal holiday reading would be one history book for every historical novel – David Starkey’s volumes on Henry VIII, alongside Wolf Hall. Or you might decide that you have had enough of “Enerey the Eighth” for one summer and turn back to War and Peace.

I think A.N Wilson might like our Pages Ago promotion!

Monday, 23 August 2010

Holidays are over, the future is almost here

My re-awakened interest in history was indulged on a trip to The Trossachs last week. As well as lots of fresh air on some not-too steep hill walks, we also visited Stirling and Doune castles which couldn't have been more different from each other, as well as the towering Wallace Monument which can be seen across a huge area. We used the very informative audio-guides on visits, but still came away with questions which need to be followed up., so Neil Oliver's History of Scotland should be a good starting point. If I still want more, Christopher Winn's I Never Knew That About Scotland, sounds entertaining and Nigel Tranter's The Wallace, though old now, sounds as if it would satisfy my need for fiction.

I was delighted to find a copy of the brochure for Manchester Literature Festival on my desk this morning. Saturday 16th October is going to be a very indulgent day for anyone who loves reading history. You can find full details of the readers' day, the historical & literary pub walk and the visit by Bernard Cornwell here. Book now to be sure of your places.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Warrior of Rome

Harry Sidebottom isn't the most glamorous name a best selling novelist or senior academic classicist could have, but Harry is proud of his name and was determined that it was the one he wanted on the cover of his books, when offered a 3 book deal by Penguin.

This was just one of the personal asides offered during 2 talks given yesterday on a visit to Macclesfield and Bury Libraries to launch no 3 in the Warrior of Rome series Lion of the Sun. Harry spoke with honesty and humour about the apparent ease with which he got published, the downsides of academic life (yes, even at Oxford), some of the plotting and character decisions he took in planning this series and some of his literary heroes ( Patrick O'Brian and Mary Renault are top of his tree). All of this underplayed his expert scholarship and facility with language, which has so obviously contributed to making his books into the best sellers they are. Lion in the Sun has gone straight into the top five best seller rankings and is the current Waterstone's book of the week.

The Warrior of Rome novels are set during the great crisis of the Roman empire in the mid-Third Century AD and Harry admitted that this period has not had much written about it. Easy therefore to write what he wants without fear of contradiction. However, Harry is a serious historian and gets deeply annoyed if he discovers that he has made a factual error, as he did in No 2 King of Kings with some Eucalyptus Trees which he has since been told would never have been found anywhere but the Antipodes at this time.

In Lion of the Sun, the series' central character Ballista is facing up to threats to the survival of the Roman Empire- from an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman! Yet, while Harry can't resist these moments of playfulness, these are hard-hitting books tackling serious subject matter, such as how far can the west go to protect its freedom before it destroys the very thing it is defending? He says on his own website All the novels seek to raise big questions, but each is driven by suspense and action.

Both audiences seemed enthralled by Harry's talks and had plenty of questions for him. While there were some existing fans in the audiences I think many people will have been introduced to this writer for the first time and inspired to go away and read his work.

Read this with Robin Lane Fox The Classical World: an Epic History of Greece and Rome

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The Lacuna

I took The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, winner of this year's Orange Prize, away with me on holiday. I have enjoyed this writer's books before so was optimistic that this would be an engrossing read.

I must admit to being a bit disappointed at first; the swimming scenes at the start did not grip me and I struggled to keep reading, but once the central character Harrison Shepherd grew up and found his independence in Mexico, in the home of Diego Rivera the book really took off for me. The real historical background observing some of the life of artists Rivera and Frida Kahlo, followed by the arrival of Trotsky, opened up a colourful and eccentric world. Kingsolver's gift lies in not over-burdening us with fact, but in allowing us to know just enough of this real history to ground the story in reality, describing it through the eyes of an unusual and engaging fictional narrator.

This Mexican section of the book was satisfying in itself and at the end (roughly half way through the total length) I wondered how Kingsolver would keep my interest. I need not have worried. Now set in the USA, the narrative focused on the quiet writing life of the old-fashioned but very perceptive secretary, Violet Brown, who protects him from the outside world. Alongside this the relentless surveillance by the FBI seemed bizarre but full of suspense.

The novel is all about the mismatch between reality and public perception and
the constant shifts in tone as it unfolds through letters, reports and diaries, as well as vividly illustrating this 'lacuna', keep testing your own reactions as a reader. It forced me to think how important it is to read newspapers critically and never to take reports of events at face value. What would I have thought of this writer if I had lived through this period of extreme nervousness and political anxiety?

Its a long time since I felt I didn't want a book to end, but I certainly felt it with this one. Kingsolver has been criticised for being too didactic and she certainly came in for criticism for comments she made after the events of 9/11. But for me, the quality of her writing and the sympathy she has for her characters override any sense of being lectured. Reading this has also made me want to see some of the work of both artsists, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo as well as read more factual history about Mexico at this time. It has opened my eyes. It is a perfect read for Pages Ago.

Image shows cover of American edition of The Lacuna which is more interesting than the UK cover, in my view