July 27, 2017

Turning Myself Into The Past

(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.

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Writing an Epic Family Saga

(This post was written for the blog – Book Country)

Every family is an epic. Even a single generation has so many stories tucked away that ten thousand pages would be required to tell them all. A family is the perfect proof of chaos theory – the one where a butterfly causes a blizzard in Florida or an airplane crash in the arctic. Your mother tickles you on your left foot while you snooze in your cradle and you develop an allergy to walking barefoot on grass in your middle age.

So… how do we go about this epic task of writing an epic family saga? One of the things I like best about writing is coming upon strange facts. 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. I read a book about superstitions and another about herbal medicine and another about African religion. I read all the old Foxfire magazines I could get my hands on. But the most surprising source was Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. It amazes me to think a man as hugely busy as Jefferson could have the time and patience to learn about and then write about every weed and flower and animal and tree and river in his state along with all the laws and the factories and the public revenues and expenses and the minerals and the aborigines, as he called them.

The hardest thing for me, because I am the most disorganized of writers, was keeping the timelines straight. If Daniel made the trip in 1798 and Mary was thirteen, how old was she when she married Wiley and how does that affect her relationship with Bett? I kept making notes in the margins, but things never seemed to match up properly. How long does a horse live? How long did a horse live in the nineteenth century? Every time I changed a date, the whole stack of cards fell apart.

And of course there was the problem of mixing fictional characters with real, historical people and fictional events with real ones. Two murders, for example. And there are lots of stories about Daniel Boone in that place at that time, even one that has him visiting the real Daniel for chats. How could I use that wonderful story without making it sound pretentious? How could I make the historical people feel as real as they must have been and as real as the fictional characters I could freely invent?  And those murders… they must ring true. Of course, there was fact-checking involved. I was horrified to learn that cotton didn’t grow in southwestern Virginia, after writing several chapters about it. Then I found a source that revised that fact, explaining that short grain cotton was planted there after the invention of the gin. Thank heavens! I thought, since I was attached to that part of my story. In fact, without the cotton gin, slavery might have disappeared long before the Civil War, but the new machine caused a great demand for more and more slaves to  grow more and more cotton for the British mills. That was another surprise – another strange fact I learned along the way.

But facts can weigh a story right down to the level of bog. Careful, careful we must be with our use of those nifty things we learn, like the bit about not wearing coats, or the old way of topping corn or the fun of turning sap into sugar in a fireplace on a cold, cold night. I tried to keep a light touch, remembering that while human beliefs have changed radically, our feelings are not very different from those of our ancestors. The minute we move away from home, we find ourselves overwhelmed by uncertainties: new customs, new expectations, new social signals we don’t understand. Daniel was no exception. He and his new, unloved wife and five children were determined to build some kind of life in the wilderness, where there was no town, no Quaker neighbor, no one who understood their habits and concerns. The decisions he made, for better and for worse, affected my family for generations. Which is why THE PURCHASE is an epic any way you look at it. The ripples in Daniel’s little pond travel on and on.

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U.S. Tour, Maryann Acker and a New Novel

Of course I’ve been remiss. I’m a writer! And I’ve been a busy one for many months past, traveling the US on a book tour and gearing up for work on a new novel. The best news I can offer at the moment is that Maryann Acker, the subject of Who Named the Knife, is out on furlough, living in Honolulu and working at one of the jobs she has always coveted. Yes, she is a barista at a posh hotel in Waikiki. We hope she will soon be working with service dogs, as well. Maryann, who has been in prison for 35 years, is absolutely alive with the world’s possibilities. It is wonderful to hear her reactions to all the things we take for granted. She is the Rip van Winkle of our time.

I’ve left Toronto for two months after an ice storm that shut us right down, even the airport. Fuel lines were frozen in the planes and tarmac workers refused to show up to work in minus 30 degree temperatures. The radio kept blaring: skin freezes in four minutes at this temperature. Scary. So I’m in northern California, which is too dry for the season, making everyone nervous. I usually bring bad weather or rain wherever I go, so we’ll wait and see if I can turn things around. Including my work habits…..

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