Thursday, March 1, 2012

Writing Historical Fiction (AWP12 Panel)

Thinking with Your Own Apparatus: Fiction Writers and History (Thursday 3/1)
·         Joyce Hinnefeld: Henry James quote, “thinking with your own apparatus”. Much historical fiction like science fiction facing backwards.
·         JH: “a more profound sense of the ‘real’” in novels. 

·         JH: What is the apparatus? Experiences (a huge spiderweb in the conscience, the very atmosphere of the mind), body

·         Nalini Jones: Fiction as a way to discover the Other. She recommends Carol Philips, esp “The Nature of Blood”. Fiction is unlimited. Delilio says “fiction…is our second chance.” We understand character through setting and place.

·         NJ: Experience is firmly rooted in setting/place/historical context. Loses meaning without it. All individual, noteworthy events impact entire life (ripples in a pond). Always Presumptuous to enter into a character, not just in historical fiction.

·         NJ: Research is key—begin with sensory detail. Field research to get tone. History enters into the work through character; the fabric of their daily lives.

·         Eugenia Kim: Two greatest challenges: writing true family story as fiction, depict a historical period and write about a foreign country/culture/language.

·         EK: how authentic is your cultural identity? Imposter syndrome: She looks Korean, has some background through her family, but really isn’t Korean at all. Is frequently asked, "Why don’t you speak your language?”

·         EK: Driven to be a writer by the small crushed pearl of anger (Delillo) Only way to access truth is through fiction. Non-Fiction was limited by apparatus—constant doubt challenged because of her feelings of self adequacy. Needed to be fiction, not non-fiction to be emotionally deeper. Once believed that “Fiction was the illegitimate child of truth” Confusious: our goal is “not to relive the past, but recreate it into a new reality”.

·         EK: Specifics on Writing: Used a more formal syntax than natural to reflect deeply imbedded morals and culture. Language eases up as the Japanese occupation changes Korea. You have to be aware of the norms in both cultures to be able to express that culture. Understand etymology. Was that word part of English vernacular when the narrator is alive? Know rhythms in the native language, they come out in your writing.

·         EK: Two things happened w editor: Included a glossary for words and conventions, and included a historical note.

·         Dolen Perkins-Valdez: How much historical detail to include? Very easy to get sidetracked with researching details. Detail should be the last thing you think about. The central concern is the emotional core of the story. The reader has to care. If they don’t care about the story the details will clunk regardless. How do you know how that person felt? Take yourself out of your modern apparatus—outside your contemporary self.

·         DPV: Best resources are primary documents. Avoid newspaper accounts and secondary sources if primary ones are available. Are pictures or paintings available? Looking in their eyes sparked an emotional connection.

·         DPV: Historical fiction not just capturing the right picture, but capture the feeling.
                                        The Question and Answer session:

·         Q/A: How do you fight the personal feelings of emotional connection that lures you to the time period in the first place? DPV: Embrace the personal feelings, turn it into passion. Don’t ignore the emotion, harness it and integrate it into the novel.

·         Q/A: Issues with reader backlash/commentary from people about whom you’re writing. NJ: If you’re faithful to the original passion and need to say something, you won’t go too far wrong. Her collection of stories was received well in India, but in America there was more controversy.

·         Q/A: How much of reality do you bring in when research washes away your story? DPV: You don’t need a million tiny details, only what’s directly relevant to your story. EK: History requires certain truths that have to happen. The big, major things. The rest of it, it’s about the Character. What impacts your character’s life?

·         Q/A: Problem with editors/agents imposing 21st century mores on the literature? EK: In her story, the characters are very Christian, part of their daily life. Agent said too much religion. Took out. Editor said not enough religion. Put it back. Readers come with apparatus too.

·         Q/A: How much straying/tweaking details can you do without losing Truth. JH: You can’t, really. Not so much the details but the emotion that is the challenge. You want to be as accurate as possible, but don’t obsess and lose the emotion. NJ: Made a fictional suburb in a real city. All books create their own world. If it’s real, or fiction, you’re still recreating it for that exact moment. Be true to the spell you’re creating. EK: Built this whole city in her imagination, then viewed through power viewers across the border into North Korea. The topography of the city was exactly the way she’d imagined. Something about the genetic roots of history will help inform that.

·         Q/A: Have you had to face emotion relating to racial hatred in the story? DPV: Not Hate, but Rage. Tar Baby by Toni Morrison is a good example of racial rage, and proves it is possible to write a high caliber book with the subject of Rage. The question is how, but as a writer, you have to have some fearlessness, don’t worry about being published but don’t shut people down.

·         Q/A: What point in the writing process did you focus on historical sensory details? NJ: Not just “historical details” to drop in the text, but character building. “Sensory details” means being in the moment, understanding how it feels, smells, etc. Not for those details to be in the novel, but so that she can have a point of entry to understand the characters. EK: Found fascinating details, but who cares? A whole book about food is distilled to “the meal was balanced in the traditional way”. Plot character’s details to timeline (woman who was pregnant for three years in one of her early drafts). JH: Even writing about the 80s and 90s is difficult now. “If I write about yesterday it’s historical fiction now.”

1 comment:

  1. For some light relief here is a funny about procrastination