Friday 2 September 2016

In Conversation with Alma Alexander, by Gillian Polack

Today I have a guest. Alma Alexander is a US fantasy writer. She has a deep and abiding love of history. I thought it might be interesting to have a conversation with her instead of the regular kind of post.

Alma Alexander, from her author page

Gillian: I've been working on how writers use history in their fiction recently. In your new novel, Empress, you use your historical knowledge in quite a particular way. Maybe we could start off our discussion with what you do and how you do it.

Alma: There is alternative history, historical fantasy, and historical fiction. While the first two are obviously fantasy, you might argue that "straight" historical fiction, the kind that literally takes an event or an era that actually TRANSPIRED in our real-life timeline, is the "true" one out of that pack of otherwise gilded lies.
But is it?
Isn't history always told from the point of view of the victors, isn't it always remembered from what has been told, isn't there a dark and dusty back room where the untold stories go to molder into ashes in silence and solitude? And if you tell THOSE stories - even if you're telling an otherwise absolutely "straight" historical narrative...aren't you already wading into fantasy?
So let's split this into "living memory" and "ancient tales".
With things that might have happened in living memory, you're telling a story which will be remembered by people who were there. Or by their children to whom the stories were told. There are histories that people hide from outsiders simply because the pain is still – will ALWAYS be - too close, too real, too much to share. Should a story be banned, then?
What if it is too important to hide?

I hit a wall similar to this with Embers of Heaven, a novel that takes place some 400 years after its predecessor, Secrets of Jin-shei. That first book was based on an Imperial China, but Embers... took place during the equivalent what we knew as the Cultural Revolution. And one of the characters in my fantasy tale was at the heart of that 'real-world' revolution. I treated that book of living memory history gently. I took the characters whose story I was telling and I focused on them. Without coming out with things that rationalized or justified anything that was ever done by anyone during that time, I had to find a way to tell the story. Tell it straight. Find a way to simply be the messenger, and to let the recent history take care of itself.
And then there's a book like Empress, a story based on a glittering moment in the Byzantine Empire. There was a real love story to end all love stories out there - Emperor Justinian, and his love and soulmate, the Empress Theodora. I grew up with these stories, I cut my teeth on tales of Theodora.
But I didn't want the "historical" Theodora. I wanted the woman underneath the history. And I did not want to tell the straight "historical" story because Justinian was a bookish little clerk who wasn't romantic or manly, nothing like the emperor I called Maxentius. He was all mine. My creation. Someone I wrought so lovingly – flaws and all - that I fell a little in love with him myself. Heh.
My version of the Empress Callidora was likewise grown in the story oyster from the piece of grit that was the historical Theodora. Some of the things Theodora did my girl did too. Other things she did without much input by me. She always knew her own mind.

The world my Maxentius and my Callidora inhabit is NOT the historical Byzantium. It is a place called Visant, which shares some of the same historical touchstones. But my absolute joy in writing these fat historical fantasies is that I can take those touchstones and make them mean something else in my world. I can write the stories I want to write, even those dusty abandoned ones from the forgotten back rooms.
This is what historical fantasy does - it frees me to look at history from above, a high-flying goddess on golden wings, and create a world that is both utterly real and historically grounded, and something rich and strange that I alone had the weaving of.

Gillian: For me, as someone who looks into how writers use history, it seems that you're putting up three categories so that you can argue about inner truth. We can talk about the categories of alternative history, historical fantasy, and historical fiction, however, they're not at the heart of what you're arguing. This is an excellent opening to the sort of fiction you write. Describing people in terms of their relationship to historical counterparts shows the depth of emotion you bring to your fiction and to the history behind it. For me, however, fiction can't actually show us the person behind the story. What it can do (brilliantly) is lead us into different stories from different approaches. It can expand our understanding about the world around us and give us more narratives about history. Most of the time, story is story, and the path you follow to create your characters was purely your path: history in fiction is always a construction by the writer, for the writer and the reader. It's always shaped by our narratives.
Stories are at the core of novels for me, not reality. However, I'm a historian (always and ever) and I always need a bridge from what I see and argue as a historian and the stories I tell as a fiction writer. This is why, in my fiction, I always have one character who sees the story. This is clearest in Langue[dot]doc 1305 and in Illuminations, where I have characters who argue the way historians argue. Artemisia and Rose are both concerned with what's happening in their lives (and, in Illuminations, in the manuscript Rose has found)  and their doubts mean that if there's a reader like me, who sees history as narratives we construct to understand our past and ourselves, that reader has something to hang onto. In my other novels, these characters are less obvious. I always give them a moment, however, and they look at what's happening and say "This can't be real" and often explain why. One of those moments for Ms Cellophane has been quoted by a few people: a character points out that they can't be in a horror novel, and gives reasons. Readers often ask me which character am I in my fiction. I'm none of them. That moment of clarity about narrative, however, that's me peeking in and saying "Boo!" to the reader.

Alma: I remember talking about the writing of battles with someone and what took shape is simply that you cannot WRITE A BATTLE if you've got a POV character in the middle of one. That's because the POV character in question is simply not in a position of knowing what the battle is doing. (S)he isn't IN the whole battle. The only concern of such a character is what is going on *right around them* in the heat of the moment. Their concern - their story - is their own survival. If a battle is won or lost - well, that is a larger question, and one that is decided cumulatively, and not by any single moment. But while a straightforward history might describe such a battle from the perspective of hindsight and of God, looking at it from a dizzy height and discerning tactics (if any) and the shape of the whole battle... if you're in the thick of it you don't see any of that. You're living the battle, not observing it. And it is so with a story, too.
A character can tell their own story - a story that might be nested inside a larger one, to be sure, as all personal stories in the end are because we all live in a shared larger world. But it is the individual story that we can see through the prism of any individual person's life, and it is through their eyes that the bigger story is seen, and shaped, and told.
I don't think enough is ever said about the very real fact that we are all, right now, LIVING IN HISTORY. It just hasn't become history yet, but with every passing moment it is closer to the past than it is to our present or to the future. Minute by minute our own stories drip off the ends of our lives and merge into that larger, shared, historical background that is the tapestry of human existence.
And writing a historical tale (they're all pretty much historical, except proudly futuristic science fiction) is essentially the distilled art of fiction. You're weaving a single golden thread in and out of a larger picture, and making that single thread meaningful within the context of a wider and more encompassing history...

Gillian: My inner historian argues that , using that approach, you can never write a battle. We see different things from the scrum to those we see from a nearby mountainside or from a chronicle written afterwards, but each of the things we see contains inherent bias. We bring ourselves to our writing and colour the scene with our thoughts. The difference between historical non-fiction and historical fiction include the boundaries (things like how far we may colour, what we may colour, which colours we have at our disposal) and whether or not the reader expects to be able to critically evaluate the text by retracing the research that went into it (scholarly apparatus).
As a reader, I expect to be drawn into the story if it's fiction and to be able to critically evaluate it if it's a historical study, but there is significant overlap and our humanity shows in every word we write.

Alma: You can write *A* battle, with any battle you choose to write. But could you write *THE* battle, something specific, something that pertains directly and in-tight-focus to a particular combatant within that battle? You correctly say that our humanity shows in every word we write - how could it be otherwise? We put so much of ourselves into everything we do, every story we tell, or at least we should, and it's the mark of the very best storytelling that the humanity of the writer has to shine through somehow (without being pedantic and preachy about anything, of course). And when fiction touches history it's so easy to slide into the accepted history pageant and forget (as always) the humanity of the under-history, the one never written, the one lived by the "losers" in any given conflict. And telling the untold story... isn't that what every writer dreams of doing...?

I try to do it, at least, with every tale that I tell. I like to think of fiction as a light, something that chases away the shadows from the dark places of the world, and I never forget the power and the privilege of being the hand that wields the torch...

Gillian: And on that note, I will leave Alma to her torch and me to my rather different light. I love it that there are so many choices for narratives and that we can all have valid views. It adds a richness to fiction, not knowing how far that we are going to agree or disagree as readers with the story that unrolls before us.

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