On Writing Historical Fiction
A Session with Leora Skolkin-Smith
Susan Sontag in her piece, “The Imagination of Disaster “ wrote, “Ours is an age of extremity. For we live under continual threat: of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin specters. For one job that fantasy can do is to lift us out of the unbearably humdrum and to distract us from terrors, real or anticipated – by an escape into exotic dangerous situations. But, another one of the things that fantasy can do is to normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it. In the one case, fantasy beautifies the world. In the other, it neutralizes it.”
Though she was applying these ideas to science fiction, they can be equally applied to writing historical fiction. Historical fiction has often been used to describe books that stick only to actual events and facts, but for our purposes, and for the purposes involved in writing my novel Edges, I intend the term to mean fiction (fantasy) that is based on real history used as a background for pure fiction. How imagination uses real history to fictionalize, that is, to make into imaginary incidents and characters times that are known as “eras” can be fascinating. Edges was grounded in the history of Israel and Palestine during the Cold War. All of the background took hard work and much research and it was firmly rooted in the actual factual existence of a country – Israel – just beginning to modernize during the Cold War era. This was also a time when the new Israel was faced with a divided Jerusalem in which border countries were “enemies,” intent on de-stabilizing and perhaps destroying the nation. Similarly, the new country of Israel was motivated to dismantle centuries-old Arab civilizations, its communities of Palestinians. Terrorism and what we know as the Middle East loom in our collective minds as terrifying, ineffable. Daily reports of their bloody skirmishes and bombings invade our American consciousness with little relief. I wrote Edges because my Jewish mother was born in Jerusalem in the 1920s in Palestine, before the state of Israel was formed. My grandparents and great-grandparents, Jews, were also born in the ancient city of Jerusalem. I had an unusual access to stories about Israel and Palestine before the current bloodbaths scourged the landscape.
The news about Israel and the war there was constant throughout my lifetime, but after the first Infatida in the 1980s, bombings and death were graphically shown on TV in monotonous, bloody, relentless, and repeated reportage. Because the American short story writer Grace Paley (widely read for her famous short stories about women’s lives in New York, and then the “Poet of New York”) was “political,” and involved in activism and the antiwar politics beginning in the Vietnam Era, Israel began to gain prominence in her own writing life. Being close to her from early days as a student at Sarah Lawrence I phoned her daily, telling her stories of old Jerusalem, sharing the intimate scenes of sitting around the dinner table in 1963, in an earlier Jerusalem when my mother took me there to visit as a child. These stories seemed to illuminate a forgotten Jerusalem, not so besieged and terrifying.
On September 11th, 1991, Grace Paley wrote on my behalf to the United Nations. Through her support, I was able to meet and interview the UN Mandate representative of Palestine. From there, the chaotic birth of this novel began.
Edges is historical fiction, or “fantasy” in the way that Sontag describes “fantasy.” As such, it was written to transport the reader into exotic landscapes (in this case the Middle East), to make those war-torn, news-heavy regions “beautiful” and, at the same time, to neutralize the feeling of terror that the constant images on TV of terrorism and retaliation engendered. The reader is given a form of relief, you could say, from the horror of a war told in headlines and TV images, involving the ever-present threat of “terrorism.” By instead sharing the stories of real people and their first-person narratives as all historical fiction, though based on a real place and time, it was a “fictional” telling. The characters are based on real people, and the setting is a real city. The background events of the Cold War and early Israel are factual, as my research on the Israeli underground and first Arab uprising were completely factual. But the story and the incidents and many of characters are invented. Invention allowed me a way into truth; I was able to tell a more truthful story than I would have if I had just used factual incident and people. By this, I mean that fiction, as has been said, is the lie that tells the truth. One can go deeper into the psyche and historical times than if one only stuck to the known facts. Doing a lot of research, one soon realizes that facts are slippery, and ambiguous, and many are not to be relied on to tell the truth of what exactly happened; more often history is in the eye of the beholder and at the service of a particular political point of view. This not to say that one should be at liberty to fashion history into imaginative lies. This is a fine borderline and I hope now to clarify with more solid examples what I mean by “writing historical fiction” with a few suggestions for those who might want to do it.
Why a writer’s imagination hooks into actual events is mysterious. In my case, I had a burning yearning to exist as a person with a background that was slowly, but surely, being erased. Most people’s ideas about Jews and Jerusalem were based on contemporary events and political biases. But I had a real mother, a real grandmother, and maternal family who came from the besieged area shown daily in the news and about whom few knew anything other than clichés and harshly politicized ideas. I think, looking back, that the days Edges was only a cipher inside my very confused ideas about heritage and psyche, writing, and autobiography, real history, and the illusions of politics were the days. the back-story for the novel began.
As a side note, I would like to say that, in a way, my mother, born a Jew in Palestine of an old Jewish Palestinian family, never really knew who she was, or to what country she really belonged or if, when she stopped fighting for some ineffable password into a solid identity, she might finally rest, even relax into an equitable relationship with the world. I both admired and feared her instability, her refusal to be anything at all but the messy self she was.
The first scenes I came up with were just about sitting around a dinner table in 1963 in Jerusalem as a child with my mother, my aunt, my sister, and my uncle. They made Grace Paley and people I loved laugh but also feel an intimacy with a place so riddled and terrifying – the news about Israel and the war there was constant after the first Infatida in the 1980’s – bombings and death graphically shown on TV in monotonous, bloody, relentless reportage. I wanted to draw everyone to some more illuminating and digestible reality, a profounder place perhaps, one more “beautiful” and telling them these stories– about my mother, my grandmother from old Jerusalem, about a childhood where things were beautiful on the streets now strewn with victims. I offered something I had never felt as a writer. I tapped that earliest of impulses – a yearning to tell stories that would entertain and uplift people a little, let them escape unbearable realities about their current days, tell them things about mysterious and frightening faraway places, excite the room with weird characters, and like Scheherazade, keep the plot of war, love, family, and land going ever strong and truthful. I was bringing some light to events far out of people’s control and understanding, to people I cared about who were hurting from the confusion, the daily innumerable incidents in Israel and elsewhere in the nearby Middle East. And, not unimportantly, I was also entertaining, bringing intimacy, familiar warmth with the tears. Added to this, I was finding myself and my mother, finding what one would call a “writing voice.”
The magic came when Grace Paley, reader and listener, one of people I tried to entertain out of sorrow, asked for more dinner scenes in my 1963 recalled Jerusalem, then more family characters, more scenes with this mother, this sister, this forgotten place, and historical time.
I cannot say that these desires and impulses are behind all historical fiction or in the mind of every writer of historical fiction, but what I think is common among us is this desire to tell a story for people to escape into exotic landscapes and times, to offer relief, something “beautiful,” and new clarity to the troubled times before their generation, illuminating the otherwise mysterious and seemingly impenetrable history that either confounds them or troubles them. It is a great privilege to be able to do this as a writer. And I believe even historical novels, whether they are set during the time of Babylonian civilization or during the First World War has, as its seeds, a drive to take the reader into foreign and remote territories too hard for the reader to conceive in the everyday banality of daily life, stuck in just one time and one historical era, our very complex present, born from the very past the historical fiction writer aims to set into life again.
My historical fiction came from family, storytelling at dinner tables, facts, and things I heard at random about a place very famously documented in contemporary news stories and history classes. The essence of capturing an era for me was to, as I have said, take the reader into exotic places I had traveled in myself as a rather lonely child, unable to communicate what my family history underwent and suffered. The era of the Cold War was an era I grew up in, and one about which I knew very few facts. Like everyone, I watched movies about World War II and Cold War spies. I participated in bomb drills in elementary school and heard about the possibility of nuclear annihilation from Russia and Communists. But Edges also came from a very personal place, family heritage, and my own despairing feelings of alienation in a culture raised on popular myths about the Middle East. To derive a fiction from these feelings was to initiate a transformation of painful, raw material into “art,” and it was enormously gratifying. A kind of alchemy, one might say, took place inside me.
Exercise 1 I want to propose as an exercise for those who want to try to write about an historical era. First try to ask family members how they grew up and what stories they have about their past. Oral storytelling was the first impulse mankind had of recording history and of creating fiction as well. And whether or not a family story leads one to write about the era of their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents and leads one into more obscure territories, it is essential to make personal and urgent the impulse to tell a historical tale. Even the Bible, as we know, was constructed by stories passed on by generations of emotional and sometimes physical necessity – out of urgency that is. First write the story you hear as faithfully as you can. For example, “My grandfather owned a department store in early Palestine where he sold primus stoves and this and that happened to him.” (This was one of the stories I used to write Edges.) Or, “My mother carried ammunition in her underwear during the war of Independence.” (Another story that went into Edges.) Even if you’re going to completely invent the characters and events, this idea of listening to the past is crucial. Though it’s important to steep oneself in actual historical documents and facts from books, it is equally important to assign a real face and personality to these events, and I find this most easily done by inviting family members to tell their old tales. I found that family was a way to make inroads into the history, and some of my listening led to inventing fictional characters and incidents.
Exercise 2 The second exercise is to pick an era that causes you confusion and piques a curiosity in you that can only be quelled by reading and by identification with some aspect of that historical period. For example, as a woman I might want to write a historical fiction about the ancient characters in Greece, about Sappho, or the time of Antigone. I identify with the conflicts these women in the distant past experienced, and I have an insatiable curiosity because of my need for feminist clarifications and female participation throughout history that might be ignored now. As a Jew, I might want to write historical fiction about World War II and the concentration camps for the same reasons. That is, I have an investment in understanding that era. As a New Yorker, I am forever finding turn of the century historical fiction fascinating and compelling. And so on. It is important that you have a very personal and urgent investment in the material. That you are, perhaps, trying to solve some personal confusion or conflict within yourself by writing about history so that it does not turn out overly academic and “factual.” And it is crucial that you offer, as Sontag suggested, an escape into exotic places and an escape from the limiting daily-ness of each of our lives into imagination and beauty.
Lastly, I need to say that it is essential that one works from actual first-person accounts of the historical era to try to discern if there is a common thread or theme. For example, reading first-person accounts of the holocaust would give one a much more immediate sense of what was experienced than reading an academic book on the holocaust. One can, from actual first-person accounts create characters, in the similar way that one does listening to a family member recount old stories. The Nobel Prize winner Herta Muller interviewed an actual survivor of the Communist regime in Hungary to write her stirring masterpiece, The Hunger Angel. The citation from the Nobel Prize committee read: “For Herta Muller who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.”
Finding the historical imagination as it lived in my head brought me back to childhood, when I used to play with friends acting out stories we saw in the movies or TV, free to insert my own personality and my own personal truths into the canvas so universal and timeless. Even as a child playing I felt very much an artist and novelist. My imagination helped me through terrors then as it does know, making unknown worlds, too foreign to traverse, as familiar as my own private playgrounds and rooms. It’s a pleasure that I learned I can bring pleasure to others, appeasing the hungry ghosts nipping at us and bringing a sense of great beauty to what is exotic, distant, remote, and faraway.
About the Author…
“Skolkin-Smith’s alchemy is to inhabit her characters even as she crafts a riveting story that is nothing short of brilliant,” said Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You. Reviewers and readers agree that Skolkin-Smith’s work is a remarkable blend of literary mastery and profound observation. It is a combination that must be experienced to be fully appreciated.