Wednesday 2 March 2016

On Truth in Historical Fiction by Gillian Polack

Writers have many reasons why we write historical fiction. Today I want to explore just one aspect of just one reason.

Some writers write historical fiction because they have a profound need to tell truths and to expose important matters they feel ought to be known. I've known for a long time that writers expose truth through fiction, partly because I like to do this and partly because the novels that most resonate for me as a reader often explore deep truths. I didn’t know that this was such an important part of writing for historical fiction writers in particular until I interviewed many writers about why they use history in their fiction and how they use history in their fiction. My complete study will be out in just a few weeks. I was going to talk about truth and history in May, reflecting on my work. 

Something has happened in Australia, however, that brought it home to me just how important it is to identify important truths and to tell them. These truths can save our whole society when it faces difficult times. Right now, we are living in such times. The work of fiction writers becomes more and more important to help us understand ourselves in relation to current events, and the telling of truth is critical to this. Stories about the past help us safely navigate the present.

My example of this is a distressing one. Truths are not always comfortable. Because it’s a distressing one and it was tearing Australia to bits, let me show you what has (at the time of reading) united many Australians: the truth told through art that help us understand ourselves. Before you watch the clip, you need to know that there are some people to whom this is offensive. It’s meant to be offensive. And sarcastic. And deeply, darkly funny. It also states truth in the form of a story, just as historical fiction writers do. It brings light, even as it offends, and it’s this light that gave Australia this February a path through the mess of child abuse in various religious organisations. We’re not through the woods, but we have a torch and we can see a path.

It’s not easy to write truth into novels. Writers often face those truths first themselves to do it well. We have to find a way into the substance behind the story so that we can tell it well, but without hurting ourselves. My next novel has a section about the Canberra firestorms, for example.  When I went to write this section, I planned a dramatic hair-raising narrow escape. I couldn’t write it. I just couldn’t write it. I was there, at the time, trapped by the fire: it was too close to home for me to tell as that kind of story. I was, in fact, confined to one room in my flat, because I couldn’t breathe the air. 

After the fire (in the next valley along from mine)

I had to find another way to tell the truth about the fire and about people who lived through it. I learned a lot from other Canberrans over the weeks following that fire and I still couldn’t tell the truth directly. Story after story they told me and all the stories burned the fire deeper into my brain. It was too close, too raw. 

I was in trouble. Eventually, I found a way. I had a character tell another about what they’d been through. I kept it small and I kept it safe. Those horrendous fires still weren’t small and that day still wasn’t safe, but I was able to write about it. I had to tell the story about what it was like to live at that moment, in that place. It’s such an important truth, that our lives don’t grow into the stuff of glory and epic, but that we remain ourselves.

Fiction set further into the past can be easier. Our own experience of life is often one step removed. There is less likelihood of confronting personal demons.This means we, as writers, can tell the stories of how individuals have overcome suffering or been drowned in the horrors of a terrible world. We can show how power is abused or people forgotten. We can lay bare truths and allow our readers to see them through our eyes and to find paths to understanding.

There are many different types of truth in fiction. Today is all about personal truths for me, because Cardinal Pell is speaking to the Royal Commission as I write, and because there is the scent of bushfire in the air. It may be the last evening of summer, but my windows are resolutely closed. The news triggers those truths and the air around me means I breathe them in. 

The fire 2003. Picture courtesy ABC.

They are not, however, the only truths. One of my favourite themes in historical fiction is discovering the lives of people who are invisible. I love reading books that expose these truths. I love writing them and I love telling stories about women’s lives and Jewish lives and about the interstices of society. 

Because the truths I tell as a writer often have this personal link, about half my novels use recent history. I also use the Middle Ages, and other worlds and, in my current research, the seventeenth century, but wherever I set my stories, those stories tell close, personal truths. 

I love reading novels set a few years ago and I enjoy using those settings myself. Setting a book in the very near past allows me to read and write about current problems without getting too sucked in emotionally. 

The distance of time gives us enough space so that we can reach a deeper understanding without drowning. This is one reason why historical fiction writers are often drawn to telling important truths about life, about society, about humankind. This is one of the reasons historical novels are so successful as writing, however, for deep truths can be told without readers hurting as much as when we face the same truth in our everyday lives. 

Personal truths can be terrifyingly unsafe. Writing historically helps. Reading historically helps. It’s a lifeboat when we voyage on perilous shores. Even when we know that these are truths we’re reading, even when what we’re reading is terrible, we can say “It’s gone, it’s past” and we can weather the sea storm.

There is no distancing in Tim Minchin’s song. Most Australians have met victims of the abuse, even if we don’t know what they have suffered. It’s home. It’s here. It’s now. There is a strength in this and there is a very nasty edge. 

Time and distance help. This is one of the powers of historical fiction. 

Facing abuse and murder and disaster and all the foulness of human existence are not the only truths. We can think about the roles that husbands and wives play with each other and how their outside responsibilities intervene and wreck their lives when we read a fine story about the Tudors. We can discover that, no matter how far in the past we go, there are still human beings and that they can be like us and that we are not alone.

One of the reasons why the greatest works of historical fiction resonate so very deeply is because they don’t just touch truth lightly, they pull truth from the darkness and give us the framework of story to comfort us. Like Minchin’s satire, historical fiction helps us understand what we face and it gives us story to interpret our world.

As readers, we take up these truths. I’ve talked to writers, but I haven’t talked to nearly enough readers. I’d love to know what your favourite novels are, what truths they tell, and your feelings about them.


Sue Bursztynski said...

When I was first asked to write historical fiction, in the form of a short story for a YA anthology, I wanted personal history too. My story was set on the day the Apollo 11 astronauts walked the moon. It was a joyous event and one I remembered, although my story ended up being about a boy who had missed watching it. The second story I wrote was set even earlier, but still in my lifetime, during the Beatles' visit to Melbourne. I could still speak to people who were old enough to remember both events properly. My brother in law was one of those fans who stood outside the hotel when the Beatles arrived. A friend and workmate remembered attending a protest rally outside the U.S. consulate I'd mentioned in my first story. I did my research in the newspapers of the time, read letters to the editor, checked what was on TV and at the movies at the time, what was being advertised... Even though I'd been there, as a child, it was like reading about a different world.

But my most recent piece of historical fiction was set in the 1860s, since I was gently asked to do something with bushrangers in it. I felt much more distanced from this period. I enjoyed doing it, but it wasn't quite the same.

Gillian Polack said...

I so remember the Apollo landing. I cursed my shortness of vision, for at that second I wanted to be an astronaut.

Susan Price said...

A very moving blog - thank you. And that song from Minchin is brilliant!

Gillian Polack said...

The biggest drawback with the Minchin song is that I can't get it out of my head!

Becky G said...

I think you are right, but then again that is kind of why I read these novels. I like to think I know a lot of the legit history so the fiction needs to fit just right. But I have found a few things that I didn't know and that to me is a good thing. For instance my current read by K. Willow called Ice Whispers. It's set in the south during slavery and I find myself going to my history books because I didn't know about the things that were happening. It's like studying, I guess I am one of those people that loves to learn all the time. So if someone is trying to tell a truth whether it be theirs or something more actual, I am going to study to find out.

Gillian Polack said...

Becky, me too. I punctuate my reading with checks and spot research and I'm pleased as punch when I gain new insights and understanding. What makes me happy beyond almost anything is when I learn something deeper from the novel and I get to see the world with different eyes.