Everyone has been so kind about my poem – and I’ve had a number of requests for the rest of the speech. So here it is, along with a photograph of me in mid rant!
You’ll all remember, I’m sure, that though I wrote a lot of the speech out, I also went ‘off book’ on a number of occasions. I ad-libbed the ‘Dracula’s Cheese’ story, for example. And somehow a reference came to the city of UR (I still can’t recall why!). So anything missing in what follows is obviously the result of … whatever was in the air. But what happens in Denver, stays in Denver, right? If only we could think what that was!
SPEECH: HISTORICAL NOVEL SOCIETY CONFERENCE, DENVER JUNE 2015
We are historical novelists, fiction is our game,
We do not write for fortunes, we do not write for fame.
We write because we have to, the fires that burn inside
To stride across the centuries, and sail the oceans wide.
We write to right historic wrongs, of Richard the Third and Vlad,
Of women shunned in monk’s dull minds, the glad, the sad, the bad.
We stand upon the shoulders, of greats who blazed so hot;
Renault, Dumas, Sutcliff, O’Brian, Dickens, Scott.
We rub against great shoulders, a wondrous array of speakers
Gabaldon, Goertner, George, Cushman, Hollick, Peters.
So when you reach for implements, for goose quill, pen or keys,
Do not write for fortune, nor seek too much to please.
Write because you have to, the fires that burn inside,
To stride across the centuries and sail the ocean’s wide.
Thank you. But I know what advice I’d give to myself: don’t give up the day job. I don’t think I’m cut out to be a poet. Except in a sort of Walter McGonagall way, whom I quite like.
Welcome to the Sixth North American Historical Novel Society Conference.
Firstly, I’d just like to add my thanks to the organizing committee. They have done such hard work!
I do have to question one decision – having a conference in a city where marijuana is legal? I mean, I walked past a shop front on my way to the hotel, inhaled deeply and… um… um… what was I saying? Oh yes – have you really looked at these chandeliers? Trippy!
So please excuse any infelicities in what is to follow. It’s entirely the fault of… altitude.
As this is the first day of a conference for historical fiction writers I thought I’d take a look at what it is that we do. Why we do it. What inspires us. What troubles us. What are some of the pesky questions that always assail us? That have, I suspect, assailed historical fiction writers from the very beginning.
Accuracy. I wonder if Homer sat in his villa, perhaps 400 years after the Trojan War, worrying if Achilles wore a Corinthian or an Attic helmet? Did Shakespeare, who made historical fictions in play form, concern himself with the actual details of the peasantry of France from which Joan of Arc arose? I suspect that neither of them did, very much. Because what they were at heart were entertainers. They wanted to make people laugh, or cry. To move them. I’m not saying you can’t be both historically accurate and entertaining. But it is quite the trick we seek to perform. And I suspect, that at a historical novels conference our prime directive, our motivating force, is telling a good story first, and an accurate story second.
We have excuses, right? I mean, what is history? It’s in the word. It’s a ‘story’. Think of a famous historical battle. We can agree where it was fought, when and by whom. But after that? Historians have taken descriptions from men who were trying very hard not to die. Descriptions recalled at leisure, over a few cups perhaps, and told for reasons that might have little to do with a factual retelling. They may want to glorify themselves and slam others. They may want to earn some money in the telling. And we all know in our own life how each time one tells a story, it changes. It is shaped at least partially by the hearer of that story: Heisenberg Principle story telling. And then you hear someone else tell the same story but from their perspective and… wow! “That’s not how it was!” People get in the way of ‘truth’ all the time. So how much more difficult if the events took place one hundred, five hundred, three thousand years ago.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love good historians and I rely on them for so much of my craft. But I find that the best historians are not your ‘just the facts, ma’am’ re-counters. They are the ones who tell a story. And to tell a story you need to shape it – select this fact, not that, this person’s opinion, not another’s. It may be a truth. But it cannot be the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Facts, selected, can make fictions too. I recently talked separately with two friends who are getting divorced. They could have describing entirely different people, told completely different stories. Just look at the daily news, or the great propagandists of history. Hate this person because they are this. Leave out the inconvenient facts that they are also that. I think that it is into the gaps between so-called facts, that the historical novelist leaps.”
The glorious thing is that historians and novelists can live happily side by side. We do different things – but we aim to reach the same goal: to tell a story, to illuminate times and people. The advantage we have is that we can – indeed we must – get into the psychology of a character. And perhaps because we hazard guesses as to why someone did something, based on they’re being raised in a certain place at a certain time, how they might have reacted to love or trauma, perhaps we novelists can contribute greatly to the understanding of the times and of people in the past.
Still, here we are, striving to be ‘accurate’. Which brings me, of course, into our great shared experience, our massive mutual torment.
RESEARCH. I remember how it all started for me. I had the idea for my first novel, The French Executioner, in 1993 but I didn’t start writing it till 1999. I felt I needed to know everything before I began – or else that panel of critics, who followed me everywhere, would haul me up before the Court of Public Ridicule and sentence me to the stocks. Of course, once I actually began writing I realized that 90% of what I’d learned was irrelevant to the book – and that there was all this other stuff that the characters told me I now needed to learn! These days, I read enough to get me going and then I go. My desk is awash with books that have the information I’ll need when I need it. But the only thing that matters to me, at least to start is story, story, story. Unless the way forward hinges on an historical detail, I more often than not put in a question mark if I don’t know the answer. I will know it when I need to, before it goes off to the editor. For now: why is Vlad walking into that hall, not ‘what tapestries would have hung on its walls?’
Speaking of Vlad, I have a story to do with him and my favourite kind of research. On my feet. I know so many of you are the same: needing to feel the weight of that broadsword, or that dress, or stare from the same battlements that your character stared from. We all know – it can change everything.
So I went to Romania to research my novel on the real Dracula and I knew some of the places I need to be – especially his castle of Poenari, a ruin now which I had all to myself for most of St George’s Day, April 23rd 2007. There was a story I’d read that when Vlad was surrounded by 20,000 Turks in that same castle, with 50 men left and doom coming with the dawn, two shepherds suddenly appeared in the middle of the night, through the Turkish lines. ‘How did you get here?’ asked Vlad. ‘Up the secret path, lord,’ they replied. ‘I know this mountain like the back of my hand,’ said Vlad. ‘There is no secret path.’ ‘Forgive us, Lord, but there is. And we can get you and ten of your men out if you follow us now.’ Vlad agreed to go but asked them what reward they wanted for their service. They told him that his father had granted them grazing rights to ten mountain tops around there, where the rich summer grass was to be had, but that his cousin, the usurper, had taken those rights away. ‘Grant us those again, lord,’ they said. So he did, they led him out in dead of night and those mountain tops still belong to the peasants’ descendants to this day.
So that day in 2007 I go back to my digs. No hotels nearby I am staying with a family, the Tomescus in the village of Arefu – where one of the main forms of transport is still the bullock cart. It’s George Tomescus’ saints day so they have a feast prepared – roast pig, braised pig, pig kebobs, pickled pig. All washed down with beer and the firewater he made called ‘tuica’, a plum brandy – which is … like inhaling in a shop front in Denver. When dessert comes, its sheep’s milk cheese of a stinkiness that pushes even my boundaries. But when I take a bite I realize something: this cheese is made from milk from the sheep who grazed on the mountain tops that Vlad gave George Tomescu’s ancestors for their service. I am eating Dracula’s Cheese. I am eating history.
I am sure many of us have stories like that. Sensual history, making us feel something on our tongues, in our nostrils, rather than just in our minds.
But of course, returning to my theme of the problems that unite us, we have the big problem of speech. How accurately should we write the way people talked? Do we disregard it completely? Do we allow anachronisms? David Mitchell in a quite wonderful essay on historical fiction at the end of his stunning novel: ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ says that most historical novelists must create a kind of ‘bygonese’ that is inaccurate but plausible. He cites the ‘lest vs. in case’ dilemma as in:
“Eat now, in case we don’t have time later.” – Very 21st century.
But in an historical novel it could be:
“Eat on the nonce, my lad, lest no later opportunity present itself.” – which is pure Blackadder.
Mitchell also gives terrific examples of what my friend Diana Gabaldon described, I think in the very first panel she and I were on together as the School of: ‘I’ve suffered for my research – now its your turn!’
Some people call it the info dump. We’ve all come across them. Characters digressing to explain some finer point of church politics, or pole axe use, or Baroque architecture. And you think, oh yes, that’s very interesting: but where’s the story gone?
Mea culpa. I’ve done it. We’ve all done it. And it’s not that you mustn’t put detail in. You have to, for the reader to understand the context for your characters’ journeys, and dilemmas. But I find the more I do it, the more I must find a character or action reason for why we need to know. Dialogue’s great for that. An argument giving two positions and thereby establishing both.
David Mitchell gives a wonderful example of when things go wrong: “Shall I bid Jenkins ready the Phaeton coach, or might Madam prefer the two wheeled barouche landau?”
I’d like to leave research now and come onto something which I think is equally important for us, today: where do we stand in the 21st century?
I am a modern novelist. So are we all. We happen to write stories that are set in the past. But we are inevitably reflecting our lives, our times, our influences to readers who live now. So if we are writing a novel about Oedipus, can we avoid Freud? Just because it is a recent psychological theory, does it make it any less true for the Theban king? And will the story not resonate on those levels with our readers whether we point it out or not? Though sometimes of course a cigar is simply a cigar. Unless it’s a stogie. A toby. A cheroot. Or a penis.
It’s obvious in one way, that we write for today. And yet it’s taken me a long time to accept. It’s a little like when I started out as an actor. I used to dream of concealing myself, changing myself so that it was not me that the audience saw but some amazing other being. Until I realized that was wrong. It was always and only me that the audience saw, no matter how funny the walk, how concealing the beard. It’s the same with the books I write. They are me. Us. And our readers? We like to transport them to another time and place, J P Hartley’s ‘Foreign Country’ where things are done differently. But it’s them we transport. Our stories refracted through their lives and experiences. I don’t claim to be much more than an entertainer. That’s my main job, as I see it: to give people a bit of a break from their everyday lives. But I hope that perhaps by dwelling in the past for a while, it enables them to more clearly see their present. Messages may be for telegrams, as Sam Goldwyn had it, but perhaps Santayana’s famous words: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ may find extra resonance in our work. We write the past. But we write for today!
Now, to conclude my speech – and to begin the three day adventure we are all embarked on, I’d just like to say this. It is both humbling and prideful to be Guest of Honor at this gathering of my peers. We are all in the same boat, wrestling with the same demons, in an often frustrating and insane business. Yet it is one that allows us to delve into history, uncover the famed and the forgotten and give them a fresh voice. Indeed there’s a theory that Homo Sapiens only burst from the pack of competing hominoids to rule the world because we discovered storytelling. It raised us, distinguished us, made us able to cooperate, to share. It gave us a reason to explore the world, beyond us, within us.
It is a most honourable profession, the storyteller’s, and an ancient one and it is a privilege to be in such company, in the mile high city for a weekend that is bound to thrill.
I have had a few requests for my rousing conclusion speech – St Crispin’s day – but I’m not going to do it. I’m sparing Diana apart from anything else because I think she’s been forced to sit through it, what seven times? You can hear me do it in my Shakespeare talk tomorrow if you care to attend. So I’ll conclude in two ways:
A Roman centurion walks into a bar and orders a martinus. The barman says, “Don’t you mean a martini?” And the Roman says, “If I’d wanted a double I’d have asked for one.”
Finally, I’ll end with the same inferior poet who began these proceedings. Myself. And say:
‘Write because you have to, the fire that burns inside
To stride across the centuries and sail the ocean’s wide.’
Thank you and have a great conference!