Monday, July 26, 2010

When Fiction and History Collide

History and historical fiction appear to go hand-in-hand; without the former, certainly there couldn't be the latter. Yet in some cases, these two apparent inseparable allies make for uneasy bedfellows. The truth is, not everyone who loves history is going to love historical fiction and vice versa. Some people are best disposed to the history itself, such as original documents, erudite biographies etc. This is the arena where scholars most often dwell; it's a hallowed place yet not one necessarily conducive to reading historical fiction, which, in the final say, remains a form of entertainment.

While historical fiction can inform and inspire an interest in history, and should of course refrain from blatant disrespect, it was never intended to substitute or even augument history itself. Historical fiction is a form of creative interpretation; it utilizes historical framework to relate a fictionalized story based on the past. The most informed readers will often find anacronisms in a novel that others might never notice and find this disillusioning, even off-putting; but we should remember that to be a working historical fiction writer in today's publishing climate, by and large it's often required to steamline characterizations, simplify complex political, social, and religious situations, modernize dialogue, keep the cast small and the pacing crisp. In sum, most commercial editors at major houses want writers whose books can be enjoyed by all potential readers, regardless of their particular background.

History is not an easy subject; historical fiction, when done well, can help to relieve the most intimidating aspects of history and make it accessible to those who believe the past can't be exciting or fun, with all those pesky dates and titles to remember. A scholar approaches history from an extremely detailed perspective; while such knowledge can inform the reading of historical fiction and even make it enjoyable, it can also by contrast curtail the ability to suspend disbelief, which is an essential requirement for fiction, regardless of the genre.

We read novels because we want to be entertained; we read nonfiction because we want to learn. And while the two may cross and, in the best of cases, even blend, the distinction still exists.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Loaded Questions is Back!

After a long hiatus, Kelly Hewitt's fabulous Loaded Questions is back. If you haven't followed it before, Kelly features marvelous interviews with authors, as well as insider scoop on publishing news and other book-related features. Welcome back, Kelly! We missed you.

You can find my own interview with Kelly here.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Amazing Jean Taggart

On July 18, Jean Taggart, a fourth-generation Californian and writer, left this world. She was 91 years old and though very well-traveled (she took a cruise to Guatemala in her 80s) she had spent most of her life in San Francisco, a city she revered.

I first met Jean 16 years ago; I was working on my first historical novel and looking for a group to join in the area. I saw an ad in the Noe Valley Voice for a group called the Sunset Writers and called; Jean answered the phone. She had a rough, sexy voice - she was in her 70s at this time but she sounded decades younger and we had almost instant rapport. She told me the group had openings and to come to their next meeting. "They'll have to audition you," she said, "but don't worry. I'm sure you'll do just fine."

That first meeting, I was a bundle of nerves. It was my first live encounter with other writers; I didn't know what to expect. I'd brought a few chapters of my opus-in-progress; as I walked up the steps to Jean's cozy home, shaded by trees on a sunny hillside corner near Noe Valley, I heard laughter coming from within. Jean opened the door, a tall, slightly stoop-shouldered, white haired woman with sparkling blue eyes and an infectious grin. "Good, you're young," she said, motioning me in. "We need young blood here." She offered me coffee - she always had coffee and cookies available at every meeting - in a crowded kitchen where her cats languidly inspected my shoes and over which presided a framed poster of a faerie-like woman holding a broom and the words: F*#K Housework.

Over the next years, myriad group members came and went; we had our internal dramas, controversies, even fights, but Jean remained a constant, her house a place of refuge where we gathered to read aloud from our work and receive criticism and advice. Jean was a gifted writer with a knack for the cut-to-the-chase critique; like many intelligent, quick-witted people she did not suffer fools gladly. She loved youth, and though our younger members arrived like whirlwinds of enthusiasm and invariably moved on, several kept in contact with Jean after they left our group.

Her own writing tended to reflect her chief passion: her love for California. Raised in the Sacramento area, Jean had been through the war and lost a brother overseas; her other brother, also gone by the time I met her, had been a talented novelist whose life had often been difficult. She'd traveled abroad many times; she loved to discover new places and never complained about the hardships that travel must have imposed on a woman of her years, but home was San Francisco - the City by the Bay whose history she had experienced firsthand and was chronicled in her marvelous unpublished series of stories, Taylor Street Tales. Though Jean was married for only a short time, when she spoke of past beaus and of her glamorous, heady life in San Francisco in the 1940s and '50s, you could see in her eyes the secret joy of a woman who had loved often and loved well. Men and cats: each had felt the magnetic pull of her ardor for life. Though men faded eventually, cats remained. Jean always had a cat, or two, frightened creatures she rescued and nurtured back to trust.

Jean dabbled in painting, as well - her splashy watercolors were often haphazardly arranged about her house, with and without frames. Her eclectic sense of decor carried over to her taste in books; she was attracted to literary works, but also loved a good mystery. One of the highest compliments she ever paid me was that I'd made her appreciate historical fiction, a genre she'd always associated with "big gowns and hair." When I finally managed to get published after years of disappointments and perseverance, Jean took immense pleasure in my success and rallied her neighborhood bookseller to order in my books.

Some of my favorite moments with Jean were spent at her kitchen table, in the half-hour before the rest of our writing group arrived; over coffee and the occasional furtive cigarette, she'd share with me stories of San Francisco; of the speak-eases in the Tenderloin where she used to go dancing; the clatter of cable cars on Nob Hill where she lived; the busy downtown office where she worked; and of the aura of endless promise shimmering over a time when the end of the war had heralded a burst of optimism in America. Jean lived through it all: the penciled seam up-the-leg stocking of the 40s; the ice-cream crinolines of the 50s; the hedonistic smoky rebellion of the Beat Generation; the sexual napalm of Flower Power; the bra burning and glitter balls of the 70s; the Me-Me 80s, Woe-is-Me 90s, and into the uncertain early years of a troubled new century. She had experienced more history than most of us will ever see and lost most of her contemporaries in the process. Her face would sometimes turn distant as she recalled everyone she had loved and said goodbye to during her remarkable long life; though Jean rarely indulged in self-pity or regret, I could tell that all those goodbyes lived inside her. We had a term for it: 'The Price of Longevity.' She herself had narrowly escaped the shadow of her mortality on various occasions; a breast cancer survivor, she was proud of her scars and matter-of-fact about the horrors she'd undergone as a result of her mastectomies and implants. Still, Jean never wasted time on looking back; she reveled in the present, in the thrill of opportunity, and even took up blogging.

Toward the last few years of her life, after a series of serious health setbacks that curtailed her independence, she expressed to me her aversion to reaching the 100-year mark. She didn't mind being old, she said; she just didn't want to fall apart. The last time I saw her was at our group; though frail, she still chuckled with me in the kitchen as I boiled water for tea and mentioned how much she had enjoyed coming to my book party - a haul for her, which she had insisted on making. I said goodbye at the night's end and told her I'd see her at our next meeting, but I ended up not making it due to conflicts in my schedule. I never saw her again.

Jean Taggart wanted us to say of her that she was a fourth-generation Californian and proud of it. As the song says, 'I know when I die, I will breath my last sigh for sunny California,' but Jean always said, she planned to go out laughing.

I can hear her now.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

New This Week: Recommended Fiction

This week, I heartily recommend two books which I endorsed and which captured me from beginning to end.

FOR THE KING by Catherine Delors
Catherine Delors blazed onto the historical fiction scene with her riveting Mistress of the Revolution, about a young woman swept up into the vagaries and savagery of the French Revolution, and her struggle to survive. In FOR THE KING, Ms Delors turns her keen eye for characterization and impeccable sense of period detail to the tumultuous world of Napoleonic Paris, offering us a fascinating account of a conflicted man determined to uncover the truth behind a spectacular crime. With consummate skill, she guides us into a world that is glamorous, barbaric and deceitful, where privilege often trumps guilt and betrayal can exact an unimaginable price. This was one of my favorite endorsement reads of 2010; masterfully written, FOR THE KING offers a vivid portrait of a city caught between its violent past and treacherous present, combining the pulse-pounding suspense of a thriller with the glamour of superbly researched historical fiction.

Forget everything you thought you know about the Crusades. In this gorgeously wrought tale, following his sublime Mother of the Believers, Kamran Pasha depicts the epic struggle for Jerusalem between Christians and Muslims with startling modern relevance. His unexpected portrayal of charismatic Saladin, whose gift for leadership harbors a secret weakness for a woman forbidden to him; tortured Richard the Lionheart, whose blind ambition to conquer the East turns him into a ruthless, fallible foe; and Miriam, the proud healer haunted by the past, is timely and deeply moving. Mr Kamran's vision is rooted in both sensual detail and a sage appreciation for irony; passionate, gilded with the scents of a vanished time, and steeped in the blood and thunder of two antagonistic faiths, SHADOW OF THE SWORDS is a triumph from start to finish.