16-15 Segment 1: Getting it Right: The art of writing historical fiction

 

Synopsis: Historical fiction is very popular these days, but why? And how do authors weave a fictional story around actual people, places and events? We talk to three best-selling authors of the genre about how they write their books and why.

Host: Gary Price. Guests: Ruta Sepetys, author of Salt to the Sea; Kristina McMorris, author of The Edge of Lost; Michelle Gable, author of I’ll See You in Paris.

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Getting it Right: The art of writing historical fiction

Gary Price: Historical fiction is all the rage these days. It’s a big part of what made Downton Abbey and its depiction of the aristocracy and their servants during England’s Edwardian period so popular. How do screenwriters and authors create these stories and characters? How do they balance the fictional plot against the history of the times? And why are we so enthralled with a story that delves back in time? To find out, we talked to three best-selling authors of the genre. First, Ruta Sepetys author of Salt to the Sea, the story of a ship – the Wilhelm Gustloff – that was sunk by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea during World War Two. Among its passengers were Nazi officers, other military personnel, and civilian refugees being evacuated to Germany as Russian troops advanced. She says she was drawn to the topic because of family ties to the incident — her father’s cousin had passage on the ship – and because she likes to bring forth those “forgotten” incidents of history and the overlooked people who lived through them…

Ruta Supetys: Somehow they slipped through the cracks. You know they all have a story. And I tell people I write the books but truly history writes the story. And I’m so drawn to these underrepresented parts of history because they make me question what determines how history is preserved and recalled. And why is it that some parts of history penetrate our collective consciousness, but yet others remain hidden? So I am looking for those hidden stories.

Price: The story of the Wilhelm Gustloff truly is hidden, despite it being the largest loss of life in naval history – about 9,400 dead or missing in 1945 – while we all know the story of the more famous Titanic whose death rolls counted 15-hundred  in 1912. Supetys tells the story of courage, friendship and survival through four fictional characters: a Lithuanian nurse, a young Polish girl, a German sailor and an East Prussian art thief whose fates converge as the story progresses. But how does she blend the fiction with the history?

Supetys: It’s definitely a challenge and the way I approach it is I try to interview as many people as I can. And, inevitably, I will begin hearing some of the same stories or similar threads over and over. And so I will take those threads from various people and weave them together. I wrap fictional characters around these experiences and by interviewing, let’s say, 25 people to create one character I’m hoping that I can represent a larger human experience instead of just focusing on, say, the story of one family.

Price: Supetys travelled extensively to the region where survivors and their families lived to conduct these interviews, consulted government agencies, and studied historical and personal documents from the time to depict the people and events as faithfully as possible. It’s also important to convey through her fictional characters the terror and the sadness of a story like this. And Supetys says that she heard heartbreaking stories from survivors like this brother and sister…

Supetys: His mother lost sight of him on the stairs. And when she got up to the top deck she had her daughter but she was missing her younger son. And she put her daughter in the last remaining lifeboat and her daughter was saying, “Mama, get in the boat!” And she was looking for her son, and the ship went down and she was standing on deck looking for her son. And miraculously he had come up through another stairway and was also put onto a rescue raft and both he and his sister survived, and they’re still alive.

Price: Supetys story was about a nearly forgotten event, but some historical fiction deals not with true events but with real places. That’s the case with Kristina McMorris’s novel The Edge of Lost. It’s about a young Irish boy named Shan who lived in poverty in Ireland with his abusive uncle. He eventually makes his way to America and is taken in by an Italian family in New York City in the 1920s. Shan ends up involved in a bank robbery and is sent to the prison on Alcatraz Island. The story of that prison fascinated McMorris, and as she delved into its history she was surprised to find out about the lives of the non-criminals who lived there…

Kristina McMorris: There were 300 civilians that lived on The Rock at one time. They were all family of the prison staff and as I researched it more, there was a documentary I came across called Children of Alcatraz and about these kids that had grown up there, some of them claiming to have secretly befriended the inmates even though they were strictly not supposed to, and that was the nugget of my entire novel. That’s where it started, where I thought, “Oh, my gosh! This is a story right here.” From there, what I learned about those kids was that it was really, strangely enough, an idyllic childhood.

Price: McMorris says she tried to stay faithful to the lives that real people – including the inmates at Alcatraz – would have lived in those days. She also wove in stories of real people whose names you’ll recognize to balance the history of the times with the story of her fictional characters…

McMorris: When you find out Machine Gun Kelly was an altar boy, for example, at Alcatraz; about Pretty Boy Floyd who was the getaway driver for Bonnie and Clyde, when you find out about his escape attempts, you know crawling down into the caves underneath Alcatraz Island, and actually turning himself in eventually, even after they declared him “presumed drowned,” because he just couldn’t take the freezing cold and snapping crabs that kept him awake all night. These are the things that you think, “Oh, my gosh, I’ve got to incorporate them into the story somehow.” So those are fun to include, and yet I think that it is really important – the way that I write my stories anyway – of trying to keep those pages turning and hopefully add enough suspense and questions that make the reader want to rush through, is to be able to share those pieces of history and yet, always making sure that you don’t give so much that it doesn’t serve the story anymore.

Price: Our third guest focused her story not on an historical event or an actual place but on a real person. Michelle Gable’s historical novel, I’ll See You in Paris, is the story of the great Edwardian beauty, Gladys Deacon, an American who became Gladys Spencer-Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough. She says that she came across Gladys when she was doing research for another book and found that the Duchess was a very unusual and eccentric woman for her time…

Michelle Gable: She struck me as so interesting, between the paraffin wax, Winston Churchill was her husband’s best friend and his cousin, and they did not get along, they would harass each other endlessly. She would bring a gun to the dinner table to keep her husband in line. She had all these crazy antics and she was known to be, in her day, the most beautiful and intelligent woman of her era. So she was not only very beautiful, but very, very smart, always looking to better herself trying to learn calculus, physics; and then try to learn more about the art world and theater. And she was just into wanting to better herself. And when her husband, the Duke, died, he died in the 30s, she left her palace, Blenheim Palace, and then turned up in the English countryside in the 70s, in this dilapidated, Grey Gardens-style manse, and she’s almost 100 years old at this point.

Price: The story of Gable’s novel revolves around Annie, a modern young American woman who is searching for clues about her real father. In the process, she comes upon the story of the Duchess in an old book. This lets Gable begin to tell Gladys’s story which, she found out, was full of conflicting stories…

Gable: The paraffin wax was one of the main conflicts I found, and it was actually one of the things that first interested me in her, because I read about how she had as a pretty young woman in her early 20s, she went around to all these statues in Italy and measured the distance between eyes, and she wanted to get this perfect profile, and she thought studying these statues would be the way to do it. And then (she) had paraffin wax injected into her, like the bridge of her nose, to achieve that. And they say after she did that it kind of distorted her face, it slid around, especially by the time she was much older – she died at almost 100. But then I read other accounts where there didn’t really happen.

Price: One thing that was real, and that Gable did use in her story was the relationship between Gladys and the Duke’s family. It was a contentious one, especially with her husband’s cousin, Winston Churchill…

Gable: I try to be fair to the documentation of the day, and just as much, for example, Gladys much maligned Winston Churchill, she did not like him. But I very much make clear that it was a mutual sort of antagonistic relationship: She poked at him, he poked at her, and if you read his biography, he says the same things. So, I try to stay true to what’s out there and what’s known.

Price: Why is it that we’re drawn to these types of novels? What is it about historical fiction that captivates us so much? McMorris says that for her, it’s learning about an era in history while enjoying a rip-roaring good story…

McMorris: I love reading about that myself, as a reader, you know coming across fantastic nuggets of history in other people’s novels, then I feel like I gained something and I want to go talk to someone about it when I finish. And so I think I’ve tried to convey the same thing as the writer: try to write a book that I would enjoy reading myself.

Price: Keeping true to the history of the time is important to McMorris, and she says that she tries to keep from going too far off the path of truth…

McMorris: I try to do justice, really, to history and the fact that keeping in mind that people actually went through all of these things that I write about, whether it be World War II, or internment camps, in this case, obviously, it was Alcatraz or the immigrant experience, Prohibition and speakeasies, and sometimes including real characters from history. So, because of that, I really tried to do my homework as much as possible, take very few liberties, and I love people being able to walk away from my stories, if possible, thinking of it, I often joke, like “literary Advil,” so that you get the sugar coating of a story on the outside and, hopefully, don’t realize how much history that you’re getting inside until you finish the story and look back and say, “Wow, I really learned a lot.” And that’s such a gift, I think, for a historical fiction author.

Price: Sepetys says that she writes historical fiction rather than just history because it allows her to broaden the experience of an event for the audience and, hopefully, encourage them to delve further into the times. She says that this is why she thinks many people are drawn to the genre…

Supetys: Through writing fiction I am able to take elements from, let’s say, the experience of 50 separate people and when I weave them together, then I hope I can represent a greater human experience. And when readers are reading the novel, perhaps they will be able to say, “Oh, my goodness! This is my grandmother’s story.” And suddenly, when we find ourselves and our experience in a novel and we relate to a character, the world is less lonely. So that’s why I fictionalize it: To represent a broader experience. However, I really hope that my historical fiction is a door. That people read it and they say, “Oh my gosh. I never heard that there was this ship that sank, nine times the size of the Titanic, and about this refugee crisis,” and that it encourages them and inspires them to pursue the real story. Because historical fiction sits on the shoulders of non-fiction, of memoir, of personal testimony, of diaries, and those are the real stories and those are what really matter and what’s important.

Price: You can read all about the biggest disaster ever on the high seas in Ruta Sepetys novel, Salt to the Sea, available now in stores and online at her website at RutaSepetys.com. For a mystery wrapped up in the history of Alcatraz and Prohibition-era America, pick up Kristina McMorris’s The Edge of Lost and visit her site at KristinaMcMorris.com. You can find Michelle Gable’s book, I’ll See You in Paris in stores and on her site at MichelleGable.com. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.

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