(This post was written for the blog Fresh Fiction for Today’s Readers)
My latest book, THE PURCHASE, is being called historical fiction. And I suppose it is.
But writing historical fiction is a mug’s game. Are we recreating the past, or creating it? While writing, I am imagining things that never happened, trying to make it seem like they did, like they were part of the actual pageant of history, like they make as much sense as the history we all learned in school, some of which was also a fiction. While writing, I am leaning backward from my 21st century chair and hoping to smell things that no longer even exist, to create medicines and foods and conversations I have never heard or seen or tasted.
So, I am turning myself into the past! I am becoming a way in which it can exist in the present. And if all events are with us forever, as causes and effects, then I am translating something from a language I’ve never heard. As I would translate the work of a stranger who speaks a language I don’t understand – a stranger who provides me with a dictionary.
How can I enter the mind of a slave, male, black, his mother an African captured and raped? How dare I decide to tell his story, or that of a slave girl who has learned to heal, although her methods are foreign to the people around her. My morals, ethics and beliefs were unimaginable in 1800, which is the time I write about in The Purchase. But I begin to understand the values of that time by reading its literature, its diaries, its official reports. Of course, my words will cast shadows of modernity on the story. I will reflect the past with all the distortions lent to me by a contemporary temperament, but I will resist that temperament at every turn and do my best to turn myself inside out, like a sock.
And in the telling, there is so much learning! I learn everything I can about how it feels to have been alive in 1800 in southwestern Virginia, where a human being could be purchased for two hundred dollars. Even when I’m working on fiction, there is research to be done; Locale. Weather. Trees and wildlife. History! And of course, clothes and habits. Writing The Purchase was a special treat in this regard. The story is based on a few facts I knew about my grandfather’s grandfather, a Quaker abolitionist who became a slave owner in 1798. In order to research his time and place, I found myself collecting all kinds of second-hand books. One of the best came from my mother’s library and involved life on a farm in southern Missouri before the Civil War. I figured southern Missouri wasn’t a lot different from south-western Virginia, so I read up on corn husking and winter amusements and what kinds of work children did on farms. It was in that book that I learned that nobody wore coats in the winter! This really surprised me. It was actually shocking to realize how impoverished those ante bellum lives were by our standards.
There was one big, blank page in all my research. Here is what I needed to learn: What was the effect on a person of conscience who bought a human being? It was the question that most haunted me. I believe our society is still reeling from that toxic effect because we all grow out of the soil scraped thin by our grandfathers. That’s another strange, thought-provoking fact and it kept me working on The Purchase until I had fully absorbed it and described it page by page.The lives I was reading about can never be relived but they can be assumed, entered, translated and shared. What a privilege to participate in such a transformation and rebirth.
Literature is not reality, but it reflects reality as seen and felt by the creator and then the beholder. It is the commitment of entering another point of view that I celebrate. On the part of both writer and reader.