Very nice blog post by Michael K. Reynolds on the ways that one can interface fiction and history. He offers three possibilities – The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Strategy (“if your lead character is Winston Churchill in the early 1940’s, you are going to have a difficult time with it not being swallowed up by World War II themes. However; if you shift your lead character to a young man from India who happened to immigrate to England at the onset of the war, then this can take on a much different path”), The Monet Approach (“the idea that blurred detailing can actually provide a powerful and succinct image”), and The Character Pigeon (“use a minor character (or characters) to carry the weight of the prevalent, but non-centric theme. That way you’re not ignoring it, but you’re freeing your lead characters to swim in the main waters of your story”).
It started me thinking about some of the ways I’ve dealt with history in my own work. In my most recent, Nick and Jake, the era – and the specific year, 1953 – are central to the story. Bringing Nick Carraway and Jake Barnes into 1953 was important in that it gave a new perspective on the seminal characters of a key period in American literature, but it was also important in that it gave a new perspective on that year.
But for all that history was important, we still had to play fast and loose with a few odd details. The overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran, which was the first CIA exercise in overthrowing the government of another country, changed the history of the Middle East irrevocably, and not the way the CIA expected it to.
We wrote Nick and Jake partly in response to the Bush administration’s post-9/11 foreign policy, resulted in America having and then losing the sympathy and support of international opinion. We were struck by how much this mirrored the 1950s, when America went from being the country that had saved the world from the Nazis, to being The Ugly American. The thing that made the Iran coup so devastatingly successful was that no one believed the Americans would ever do such a thing. So it was a perfect metaphor for us.
But it had happened in the fall of 1953, and the action of Nick and Jake is in the spring of 1953. But it was too good for our plot to leave out…so we moved it up a few months.
Our ingénue moves to New York from the Midwest and undergoes some significant changes. Where would she stay in the big city, a young, innocent girl? Why, the Martha Washington Hotel for Women. And nothing says Martha Washington Hotel for women in the 50s like Valley of the Dolls. Only trouble is, no one really remembers, or cares about, the characters in Valley of the Dolls any more. Not that that would have bothered us so much, except that we didn’t remember or care about the characters either. Jacqueline Susann, the novel’s author, interested us as a colorful character and a symbol of a certain literary/political zeitgeist. Only trouble there was, unlike her characters, Jackie Susann was over fifty, married, and living a totally different life from that of her characters. This might have bothered us more than it did, if we hadn’t discovered it only after we had begun writing her into the book. By the time we knew that she wasn’t really one of her characters, we liked her too much to let her go. So we shaved thirty years off her age – historically inaccurate, but that’s really the time and place she’s associated with.
Here’s a character we pulled from history out of necessity. When we went to do the audio dramatization of Nick and Jake, we were fortunate enough to have Valerie Plame Wilson offer to play a role, but there was no role for her. Who was important in the politics and cultural politics of 1953? Clare Boothe Luce! She was perfect for the story, and perfect for Valerie – and of course, since Valerie was playing her, we twisted history a little and made her an undercover CIA agent. And who’s to say she wasn’t?
More on history, and other historical novels, next time.