Facts and Imagination: Evie Woolmore and Jane Davis discuss writing historical fiction

This week, allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore interviews Daily Mail award-winning novelist Jane Davis, whose novel These Fragile Things she recently reviewed.

“…I’ve never seen the point in historical drama. Or historical fiction for that matter. I once thought about writing a novel of that kind, but then I began to wonder, what possible patience could the public have for a young man arrogant enough to believe he has anything new to say about an epoch with which his only acquaintance is flipping listlessly through history books on train journeys?” (The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman)
Evie Woolmore: When we were chatting about doing this interview, Jane, you said this quote had caught your eye.
Jane Davis: I should probably start my answer by explaining that Beauman has one of his characters speak the words, and all too soon it becomes plain that they are spoken precisely because his novel is historical fiction with a twist. He is giving himself licence to play with the theme. The blurb describes The Teleportation Accident as ‘historical fiction that doesn’t know what year it is’. That said, one of the things he acheives so successfully is that his characters are very modern, as they would have been, and are obsessed by all of the same things that plague us – one whose obsession while the Nazi party is growing is not political uprising but whether he will ever have sex again, for example – which provides an instant connection.
To some, the idea of writing any novel may seem like a fairly arrogant and self-indulgent idea to entertain. In an age when we are told that life expectancy will increase to 100, and fiction is classified as ‘historicial’ if the setting is over 30 years ago, we can all expect to dabble with history in our characters’ back stories. Since we’ll find their motivation there, it can’t be ignored. My intention when writing I Stopped Time was to pay tribute to men and women (like my grandmother, who lived to the age of 99), who experienced an enormous period of change. I could have done so by simply reading a history book (although my preference would always be a biography), but I chose to do both. It’s said that reading novels allows a person to live thousands of lives. The same can be said of authors. To explore a period of history through one character – or perhaps a small cast – brings history down to a very personal level, making it easier to digest. For me, reading non-fiction can be a passive experience. When I am writing, I am actually inside the story. Through my characters, I have to confront sights and sounds and react to them in the moment. In that sense, unless you are writing comedy, I don’t think it is possible to take historical fiction ‘lightly’. I’m afraid to say that I found The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window, which was intended to be comedy, deeply offensive. Recent history is too raw and sensitive to be messed with.
EW: That’s an interesting point about recent history. Two reviews of my novel Rising Up reflected in different ways on the challenges of writing about the Holocaust: the novel is set simultaneously in the present and in the Warsaw Ghetto of 1942. While I had not intended to write ‘a Holocaust’ novel as such, the book does explore how our knowledge of the past might affect us were we actually to engage with the past. The city of Warsaw presents us with that question all the time. So should the present day character Tom tell the Ghetto character Ela what he knows of the fate of the Jewish people or not?

JD: Reviewers’ reactions to novels is always very interesting. One review described I Stopped Time as a feminist novel. I have yet to read Rising Up but can imagine that Tom’s dilemma provides a very interesting conflict.
EW: How do you perceive the temptation to superimpose our own contemporary values on historical fiction? It’s an issue that has reared its head again very recently with verbal anachronisms being spotted in Downton Abbey.
JD: I watched my first episode of Downton Abbey last week, not because I wanted to, but because my father-in-law assumed that I would have been tuned in from the beginning. No matter how many times I insisted that I didn’t usually watch it, he was equally keen to ensure that no-one spoke during ‘Jane’s programme’. That said, I do appreciate the difficulty of striking a balance between getting the ‘feel’ of the language right and borrowing directly from the language of the day. Ripper Street is another example of televised crime drama with a historical setting where it might be argued that the language was not absolutely authentic. I have to say that I particularly liked how one of your characters in Equilibrium exclaimed, ‘Mrs Keppel’s knickers.’ The knickers reference probably sounds far more risqué now than it was at the time. I have just found the extraordinary line: ‘Richer than the Keppel girls, Bertie was their godfather and their knickers were edged with lace,’ quite a leap in terms of subject-matter!
Taking the mid-twenties as an example, there were trends of speech – such as ‘sick-making’ – among the Bright Young Things that would just sound wrong to today’s ears. I have encountered the same difficulty writing accurate dialogue for contemporary teenagers. If you were include use of the word ‘like’ as often as it actually makes an appearance, all sense of meaning would be lost.
The issue of dialogue is one thing, but changing values is another. Here, an early editorial review of I Stopped Time criticised the apparent ease with which my main character deserted her young son. ‘Part of the problem, I know, is different mindsets. Today, we feel that a mother should always put her child above a husband or partner. A hundred years ago, children were seen as being relatively less important, and society structures and viewpoints placed the woman’s role as being with her husband – this is reflected in the fact that Lottie feels excluded from the raising of her child. I’m not suggesting that you traduce historical truth, but the whole thing should be much more of a crisis in which we in the twenty-first century can feel Lottie’s terrible suffering.’ In Equilibrium, one of your characters faces as similar dilemma, handing her child over to someone else when she knows that she cannot take care of her. It is not that I don’t understand how a nineteenth or twentieth century mother might seem ‘cold’ by today’s standards, but I do feel that writers have a duty to provide an insight into how things were and to illustrate how rapidly attitudes have changed. I recently found a picture on a historical photographic board on Pinterest of a Brooklyn mother who had put three of her children up for sale during the 1930’s depression. Far from receiving criticism, she was applauded for her practical solution of how to feed the other five. No-one felt the need to ask if her decision was heart-breaking. It had to be done. And presumably she had been forced to choose which of the eight to sell – the eldest, I’d imagine.

EW: And isn’t it interesting that the picture makes us do the work in thinking about the subject’s experience and probably makes us understand it more directly, whereas in a novel we have done that work for the reader, often only to be told that we’ve got it wrong, that we weren’t being realistic!
JD: Have you had a similar experience of having being asked to make a character’s decisions more understandable to a modern reader and, if so, what was your reaction?

EW: Not exactly, but it is the central dilemma of my novel Rising Up, in that because Tom and Ela are in different times, Tom (in particular) must decide that for himself. Are the actions taken by Ela and her sisters understandable to him in absolute early C21st terms of right and wrong, or are they understandable because he is applying the filter of hindsight? He must decide not only how much of Ela’s possible future he can or should share with her, but also how to respond when she begins to reveal how strikingly different her sisters’ behaviour is. Without giving too much away, her sisters have very different experiences of the Jewish Ghetto and the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, but even then, all is not what it seems. I think in a way – without necessarily intending to – I was writing about how difficult it is to understand the past without judging it – just as you describe in the photograph of the Brooklyn mother.
A criticism I have heard of Tom is that he is too passive and too focused on his own goal of finding out what happened to his grandfather. But that narrow-mindedness is an expression of his paralysis about the enormous burden the past can put upon us, that same paralysis that perhaps we have as writers of historical fiction at times, in how best to revisit and re-express the past. Is it possible for us to write a story that meets the demands of the way we read as sophisticated, worldy-wise C21st century citizens, while also doing justice to the fact that the values, attitudes and behaviour of the past are different? Are those two reconcilable? Does historical fiction require a different kind of reading mindset? I have wondered for a while if there are perhaps broadly three kinds of ‘historical novelists’: those who write in order to accurately reconstruct history in fictional or quasi fictional terms (Philippa Gregory or Hilary Mantel); those who write stories whose plot is reliant on and infused with the historical setting and thus which are historically very precise and well-researched (such as Harriet Steel’s novel Salvation, which I recently reviewed); and those (like me) who write novels which are not principally historical but work effectively in historical settings. Do you share that view?
JD: I think that is a fair breakdown, and, like your novels, I Stopped Time falls into the latter category. That said, I don’t think that readers or publishers are nearly so analytical. Hilary Mantel has raised the game for anyone writing in the broad historical genre. Her masterstroke in Wolf Hall was focusing on Cromwell, who was once hailed a hero but has been demonised by more recent historians, and humanising him again by starting with a scene in which his father beats him to a pulp and then showing the reader his love for his wife. Philippa Gregory is a historian who has chosen fiction as the medium through which she will make it more accessible, in particular to women, whose lives she concentrates on and who are so often left out of the history books.
The expectation once a story is given a historical setting is that the author will have researched that era thoroughly. You might think that going back further in time would give the author more licence, but readers are now so well-informed that there is no such thing as ‘getting away with it.’ I was very pleased to receive a book review from a historian who said that the historical detail in I Stopped Time was accurate, without being overpowering or slowing down the plot. I see that your review of Harriet Steel’s novel Salvation talks about the reader being overloaded with historical information at times. The real challenge is how to transport the reader to another time and place without doing this. So how much detail is too much?
EW: Perhaps it’s not a question of how much is too much, but rather how much is useful and how much is identifiable by the reader? I agree that readers are now better informed or can at least check out information more easily, but my concern is about giving them information that they can’t use or doesn’t enhance their imaginative interpretation. A writer I find challenging from that point of view is Nicola Upson, whose historical crime novels use the novelist Josephine Tey as their central character. The plotlines are always interesting and well-crafted but at times I feel overwhelmed by the authenticity, for the novels feel absolutely jammed with more detail than I feel I can process as a reader. I feel as if I am made too aware of the research, too aware of the historical markers as I read. And maybe this is the central conundrum of historical fiction: in our lives we don’t take as much notice of the signs which mark our world for the age it is, but when writers craft historical fiction, they seem to put in more detail than the average person would take notice of as they live their daily lives. What happens if a detail I’m given doesn’t mean anything to me, if I can’t use it to enhance my experience of the novel? I don’t read much futuristic science fiction, but I wonder if it is a similar conundrum there: how much detail do you need to make it feel authentic without slowing things down and cluttering the reader’s experience?
JD: Returning to the most recent ‘historical’ fiction I have read, what I particularly liked about the central character in Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident was his complete lack of political awareness. Although Egon Loeser’s unswerving obsession over when he last had sex is an extreme example of self-absorption, happening as the action does in Germany in the 1930s. It is very interesting how the reader’s knowledge of the era is largely assumed and how the author uses this to his advantage. Although I hope that I am a little more aware than Loeser about what is happening in the world, I find it very interesting to look back at a decade I have lived through and think about what I now consider the most pivotal events were and how all of the pieces of the jigsaw fit together. You simply don’t see them at the time, at least not with a God’s eye view. With historical fiction, the benefit of hindsight that the reader brings to the book informs the way that the central character is judged. In the case of Loeser, Beauman’s skill is that, despite his many flaws, he remains likable. Rather than a simple obsession with lust, Loeser has convinced himself that he is in love, and the pursuit of love to the exclusion of all other activities somehow seems noble. At the same time, I love a good re-telling of a historical event from an unusual viewpoint, woven richly with historical detail, such as fiction by historian Alison Weir. In fact, Alison Weir’s non-fiction is also so beautifully written that reading it is a sensory experience. I am instantly transported to era with all of its colour, sound and smells. As with any writing, subtlety is key. The point at which fiction begins to feel like a history lesson is the point at which the author needs to pull back. The way to create an authentic experience is not by finding ways to shoe-horn in every fact you have uncovered. The same applies to any form of writing, whether it has a contemporary or a historical setting. The writer must know the character’s complete back story. They must then judge what the reader needs to know.

EW: The last question I’d like to ask you (though frankly we could go on all day!) is about how historical fiction can be a home to other genres. Crime is commonly set in historical contexts these days, but I blogged recently about how a historical setting can be an interesting frame for magical realist and supernatural novels. What’s your view on that?

JD: I agree completely. I am not widely read on magical realist and supernatural novels, but I particularly enjoyed Barbara Ewing’s The Mesmerist, set in London in 1838. Miss Cordelia Preston, an ageing out-of-work actress, terrified of returning to the poverty of her childhood, who emerges in the guise of a Mesmerist. One of the things that this book illustrates so clearly is how limited options were for women, and, save for the workhouse, how little welfare and support was available. The relatively recent past is a very valuable era to explore through fiction. Nostalgia is a very powerful force to draw on. Historical fiction is a tool by which we can measure the speed of change. I never fail to read fiction set the Victorian and Edwardian eras without thanking my lucky stars that I was born in the 1960s, post-war, with equality on the agenda and a right to vote. In his recent speech to graduating university students, Tim Minchin mentioned that the current generation will have a life expectancy and riches that their grandparents and great-grandparents would never have dreamed of. As the popularity of the series Who Do You Think You Are? demonstrates, there is a resurgence of interest in genealogy and a feeling of loss for all of those true stories that were never shared between the generations, of lost opportunities. With the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War fast approaching we are going to see more and more war dramas. The clever ones will challenge readers’ – or, in the case of the recent televised drama, The Wipers Times – viewers’ perception of what they thought they knew. The telling of a story through the eyes of one character, allowing the reader to live another life, makes it real. It brings history to life.
EW: Jane, this has been so interesting, thank you so much. I thoroughly enjoyed reading These Fragile Things, and this discussion has given me a fascinating insight into your ideas and motivations as a writer. I have I Stopped Time already installed on my Kindle and am thoroughly looking forward to reading it!
You can find out more about Jane Davis and her novels on her website, and about Evie Woolmore and her novels here at allonymbooks.