Wednesday 29 August 2012

Getting lost in historical fiction by Marcus Sedgwick

Photo by Kate Christer

Another real treat as our August guest: Marcus Sedgwick.

Marcus Sedgwick was born and raised in East Kent in the South-east of England. He now divides his time between a small village near Cambridge and the mountains of Switzerland.

Alongside a 16 year career in publishing he established himself as a widely-admired writer of YA fiction; he is the winner of many prizes, most notably the Branford-Boase Award for a debut novel (Floodland), and the Booktrust Teenage Prize (My Swordhand is Singing). His books have been shortlisted for over thirty other awards, including the Carnegie Medal (four times), the Edgar Allan Poe Award (twice) and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize (four times).

Welcome, Marcus, and over to you:

Of all the books I've had published, I would say maybe two or three of them are what I would classify as historical fiction: Revolver, set in the Arctic in 1910; The Foreshadowing, set in the run up to the Battle of the Somme, and Blood Red, Snow White, the true story of Arthur Ransome's experiences as a spy during the Russian Revolution.

Arthur Ransome during his time in revolutionary Russia - photo Public Domain

Then I have a few books that are probably better placed towards the Fantasy shelves, but which contain aspects derived from various historical delvings, I'm thinking here of books like The Book of Dead Days or the Dark Horse, the latter inspired by The Sagas of the Icelanders.

As for my most recent book, Midwinterblood, I have no idea how it should be classified, being seven stories in one book, which link to form a larger eighth story, about love and sacrifice. The seven stories are set in seven different times, from the future to the place in the past where myth and history are inseparable. Unlike some of my earlier books, it did not require large amounts of research.

With the three first named books above, I spent months on reading and travelling and delving into libraries: the stack of books I read to write The Foreshadowing was taller than I am; for Revolver I travelled in the Arctic and learned how to fire a live revolver, for Blood Red I spent longer than I can remember in various archives putting together Ransome's life story. I didn't do this because I felt I had to, or because I think I was doing my homework properly that way or because I wanted to be able to show off about it afterwards, but because it was fun. I love research, and the great thing about being a writer (as opposed to my friends who are academics) is this: you only have to do as much research as you need and/or want. You can stop when you have enough, you don't have to read everything on the subject ever written, you don't have to back anything up with references and footnotes, and best of all, if you don't like the facts you've uncovered, you can change them to something you like better. So you get all the fun of being a historian without the dreary bits.

You might ask if that holds true for a book like Blood Red, Snow White, which, being based on a true story, someone's life story, needs to stick to the facts. Well, my answer to that is "sort of" but I'll come back to that in a bit.

So why didn't I do so much research for Midwinterblood, if I love it so much? Well, partly because the times I chose to write about in the book were areas I feel fairly comfortable with already. Partially it was because being short stories, each of them required fewer bits of historical fact, for example, I did a spot of research into Spitfires and their bases of operation in the war because it came up as I was writing that section of the book. But finally, and I think more importantly, I think it's because my attitude to historical fiction has changed over the years.

Spitfire photo Public Domain

I'll be completely honest and say I'm still not sure what I intend to do when I write, and I'm still not sure about my relationship to historical fiction, but I feel that at the moment, I see historical fiction slightly differently from how I once did. I used to think that you needed to immerse yourself in the subject in order to be as true to that period as you could be, and that if you were true to that period, you would write a good historical book. But I'm not so sure anymore. Now I think all that's important is that you are true to what it is to be human.

It's a truism (I think) to say that that's what storytelling is about: saying something real about living. I'm not for one second saying that I think historical writers who go for total accuracy are wasting their time, far from it. I'm saying that I think I have drifted away from this belief to a position where I see the study of history as something to get me excited about or interested in an event, or moment, or action that I can use in a book, because it says something true about living.

I think that all writing is a fiction, even the most accurate historical fiction (there's a clue in its name). Even a true life story is fiction: how could I ever pretend to know what was in Arthur Ransome's head minute by minute, day by day? I can't, of course. But I was touched by his life and felt it made a good fictional story, so I decided to tell it. Ransome, like many, many authors, fictionalised certain parts of his own autobiography, something which I found liberated me from the fear of not "being true" to his life 100% accurately. People often have criticised authors when they do this, and now I'm thinking of Ernest Hemingway, because whatever else you think about him, he was at least very honest and explicit about this process: the merging of fact and fiction.

Hemingway in Africa - Photofest

Truth, for Hemingway, was something a little different from how the word usually gets used. Truth for him was to say something accurate and real about what it is to be human, and if that meant using a "lie", then so be it. And that's the way I see historical fiction now, because it's the way I see all fiction: we use lies to tell the truth.


Mark Burgess said...

Great post Marcus, thank you, and it's good to see The Girls relax their rules enough to allow you to contribute. On truth and whatnot, I like this quote from Thomas Berger's rollicking take on Arthurian legend, 'Arthur Rex': "who was never historical but everything he did was true".

Linda B-A said...

Really enjoyable post. And I absolutely agree with your final comment. Not so long ago I was interviewing (with some trepidation ) an eminent historian to do with a particular character in my current work in progress. I asked him if it would be useful for him to go back in a time machine so that he could get some first-hand information out of him. To my surprise, he said no, this character would almost certainly not have been in the right place at the right time and – even if he had – human nature being what it is, he would have come out with a different version of the truth with each telling. He would prefer to rely on contemporary documents - wills, legal papers, ledgers, etc. than first-hand accounts every time. With historical fiction can, at least, as you say, aspire to a 'human truth' and a coherent narrative.

Penny Dolan said...

What a heartening approach,Marcus, especially the comments and thoughts about fictional aspects within autobiographies.

"A skill that was well worth having, I tell you, when I set off alone with only a lighted candle stub to climb the Matterhorn on the last day of December 20-- in the worst ice-storm . . . etc etc."
Yes, think I can go with that kind of thing as a new biographical angle.

Seriously, this post was greatly useful and it was interesting to find that you managed historical facts differently for each of your novels and that it's an ongoing process each time. Many thanks.

Leslie Wilson said...

A lie, or using the imagination?