AWP Reportage: Research and the Novel
(Third and last in a series of posts detailing panels I attended–and in which I took relatively decent notes–at last week’s AWP conference in Atlanta. Click here for the previous post.)
By Friday afternoon at 4:30 I was already pretty wiped out, but since historical fiction has long been one of my major writerly interests I rallied for a session titled “What Really Happened: Research and the Novel.” This is another case where the panelist list also really drew me in. Since reading Justin Cronin’s Mary and O’Neil I’ve become a Cronin fan, and I was eager to hear what he had to say.
Unfortunately, one of Cronin’s fellow panelists was unable to attend (Julianna Baggott’s doctor proscribed travel to AWP so late in pregnancy). But I did also enjoy hearing from the rest of the crew–Tom Franklin, Jennifer Vanderbes, and Mark Winegardner, and I hope to read their work soon.
Here’s the panel description as printed in the AWP conference program:
Research manhandles plot and character while enriching setting, voice, and authenticity. Writers who have published novels set decades before their own births reveal the role of research in the creation of their fiction, sharing opinions on the perils of fact-cramming. They discuss what to look for and how to look for it, negotiating between historic fact and story-truth, portraying historic figures in fiction, approximating what can’t be looked up, what’s better made-up, and everybody’s favorite: what really happened.
To be honest, I can’t remember (and unfortunately the notes I thought were so promising don’t throw adequate light here) if they really did cover every aspect of that ambitious list. But here’s what stood out for me from the discussion:
Vanderbes warned against “the danger of treating the time period as a subject.” The time period is not your subject in historical fiction–the story is. This reminded me of something I once heard Allen Ballard say when presenting his historical novel, to the effect that such a work “has to fly as fiction first.” One must always resist the temptation to stuff in all those delightful “true” facts that may be historically fascinating but not necessarily relevant in storytelling’s service.
And yet sometimes those historical “facts,” in the form of story-enriching details, are irresistible. Franklin (whose humor really charmed me) told us how much a Sears Roebuck catalog from the time helped him in writing a novel set in Alabama during the 1890s, Hell at the Beach (click here for an interview in which Franklin addresses the work of creating that atmosphere).
When it comes to other facts–whether it rained on a certain day of a certain month in a certain year, for example–Cronin argued that a writer should not be “tyrannized by the facts.” Winegardner disagreed, leading to an interesting exchange. (I was reminded of a related essay on the topic by Thomas Mallon in his nonfiction collection, In Fact, which of course I’d love to read again right now but left stored in Massachusetts.)
Well into the session, Vanderbes raised one of the most intriguing (and, to my mind, most challenging) aspects of writing outside one’s own time: keeping characters within their own contemporary moral frameworks. Attitudes about social and cultural issues–race, gender, etc., in particular–have by no means remained constant over time. Here I thought immediately about a superb new novel I recently had the pleasure to read. Written by my friend Natalie Wexler, it’s set in the early national period of the United States and titled A More Obedient Wife: A Novel of the Early Supreme Court.
One of this novel’s strengths is its author’s careful control of her chief protagonist’s mindset (that character is a “real” North Carolina woman, Hannah Iredell). Reading the novel, I imagined how challenging it must have been for Natalie to put herself in Hannah Iredell’s frame of reference, which could also very well render the slaveholding Hannah considerably less likeable to readers in 2007. (Look for much more about Natalie’s new book in an author interview forthcoming in the April issue of the “Practicing Writer” newsletter.)
OK, now I’ll return to the panel account with a final, side note: I’ve long had an interest in how work/worklife is depicted in fiction, I was intrigued when that topic emerged in the discussion, perhaps more related to the topic of “research” in fiction than to researching historical novels more specifically. Vanderbes alluded to remarks from the late Frederick Busch to the effect that he could not start a work until he knew what his character’s job was. Cronin shared tales of adding texture to his fiction through talking to people from various fields.
So it was a lively discussion. After it ended I introduced myself to Cronin and told him how much I’d enjoyed Mary and O’Neil. That’s the kind of opportunity I love–the chance to tell an author in person how much his/her work impressed me–and of course it’s something AWP always affords, many times over.