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Truth, lies and historical fiction; How far can an author go?

Detail of an illustration by David Woodside for the print edition of this story

David Woodside/The Globe and Mail

Authors Philippa Gregory and Wayne Johnston can tell you that historical novelists have to deal with some odd complaints, most of which stem from the fact that everyone from the living descendents of their fictional characters to the fans of medieval monarchs will cheerfully ignore the words "a novel" blazoned on the cover.

Gregory has written numerous novels about Tudor and Plantagenet women, including her latest, The Lady of the Rivers, about Jacquetta of Luxembourg, a figure from the War of the Roses. She has also co-authored a history book, The Women of the Cousins' War, that includes a biography of Jacquetta.

Johnston's bestselling 1998 novel The Colony of Unrequited Dreams controversially gave Newfoundland premier Joey Smallwood an unrequited love. Now, Johnston has published A World Elsewhere, which introduces fictional Newfoundlanders into a psychopathic household inspired by Biltmore, George Vanderbilt's palace in North Carolina.

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Globe and Mail arts writer Kate Taylor, herself the author of a novel based on the Dreyfus Affair, titled A Man in Uniform, asks Gregory and Johnston just how much a historical novelist is allowed to make up.

Kate Taylor: Philippa, in The Women of the Cousins' War, you have this lovely line. "Too many critics think of historical fiction as flawed and unreliable history, written by authors too lazy to check the facts. Others condemn it for being insufficiently imaginative, written by authors too lazy to invent."

Philippa Gregory: I think it's really funny how the genre is despised.

KT: But it's so popular.

PG: Despised by the critics. I've seen it transformed from being something which was regarded as the provenance of rather stupid women writers and readers to becoming much more mainstream, regarded with much more respect. But even so, you know, these traditional views [persist]

For me, it's actually one of the most interesting ways to work as a novelist and, incidentally, the most lively way to work as an historian. I really love the task of enlivening the research. I know I'm writing fiction, but it feels like doing a reconstruction, as if you were the police doing a crime scene. We know that person was here, we know they end up over there. Why would they do that? Who would have been with them? What were they feeling?

I was writing a non-fiction book based on the same character, Jacquetta, who is the heroine of my novel. When I was writing the historical record I would say to the reader, we don't know what she does in these years but, given her position, her gender and her age, she was probably doing this. As a novelist, you can't tell the reader you don't know anything. You have to be absolutely in control of all the material. You have to get hold of the reader and not let them go.

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Wayne Johnston: Yes, absolutely. I was going to say that you have to be literally authoritative when you're writing a novel.

Through The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, I do introduce a character who, to the best that anyone knows, did not exist in the life of Smallwood: Sheila Fielding. In the book, she never changes the historical record at all, never appears in political events. She lives in the offstage life of Smallwood. I wrote a draft of the novel without her, before I even conceived of her. The book didn't work because it was so lopsided with this larger-than-life charismatic character, and so I inserted Fielding.

But I have gotten a lot of flak for that. Completely unknowingly, I had stumbled into a historical rumour that there had been such a woman. I was believed to being jumping on that rumour and putting it forward as fact.

But I don't know, Philippa, what you would think of a book [like]E.L. Doctorow's novel [ Ragtime]in which Freud and Jung go to Atlantic City and take a ride through the Tunnel of Love together which is done for fun, but they are never known to have been at Atlantic City together.

PG: But if they had been, undoubtedly they would have gone to the Tunnel of Love.

What's really interesting about your Newfoundland book [is]that when you came to write you found an unbalance so profound that the novel wouldn't work. What you picked up there was an absence, and, in fact, in life it had been there. It's that the history missed out something and I'm not surprised that it was a woman because history traditionally misses out women.

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There's also the concept, which is a bit metaphysical, of there being a greater truth beyond the events. So in Freud and Jung going through the Tunnel of Love you can see that in a kind of theoretical way, that's a stimulating, provocative thing; it really appeals to us as a sort of truth.

Do you have any sense of a truth beyond a historical truth?

WJ: Yes, and if a very literal-minded person is the person trying to pin you down I get kind of uncomfortable. It's difficult when someone who thinks you should get your history from history books, period, to explain to them why you write fictional history. It's difficult to point out to them in a rational, literal way what it is. I go by what effect does it have on me and what effect does it have on the reader, and if it does have that kind of feeling, then I assume, even a bit blindly, that we're going somewhere right. KT: Wayne, I found this beautiful quote of yours online. "Fiction like The Colony of Unrequited Dreams does not pursue and is not based upon the kind of truth pursued by biographers and historians. Adherence to the 'facts' will not lead you safely through the labyrinthine pathways of the human heart."

WJ: That quote has often been thrown back at me to mean that historians are inept or lazy, just not doing their homework and I'm doing it better. That's not what I meant. But the people who are most vehemently against my books have been usually unpublished or scantily published historians, and I think the problem is the simple disparity in the size of the audience. I think it gets on their nerves that I have …

KT: ... a bigger audience for making it up.

WJ: Yes.

KT: At the end of a movie when it says "Based on a true story," that is somehow very important to the audience. There's a feeling it has more weight than something that was wholly fabricated. Philippa, in The Women of The Cousins' War, you say readers have this mistaken sense that history is a science, that it's set in stone, not recognizing that it is itself an art of interpretation.

Wayne, at the beginning of A World Elsewhere, you make it quite clear that the characters of the Vanderluydens are based on the Vanderbilts, but they are not exactly the Vanderbilts, so you changed their name. I wondered if that was because of the flak you took over Colony of Unrequited Dreams.

WJ: No, it wasn't. It was a kind of experiment. Some people had said I could avoid all controversy simply by changing the names of the real historical figures. I said, given the biographical details that are the same, don't you think people will simply make the identification anyway? They said no. So I decided in this book to ostensibly change the names and – lo and behold – most of the reviewers don't even bother to use the names I've given the characters. They just use the Vanderbilts.

KT: And yet to some extent what you're doing by changing the names slightly is flagging the issue, saying this is fiction and I am a novelist and I do have the right to make things up.

WJ: Every book of historical fiction sets its own parameters and I think mainly what should be asked of the writer is that they remain consistent to those parameters throughout the book. Take a book like The English Patient [by]Michael Ondaatje. If you take the main character, and then compare the book to the movie, you have three different versions of this guy's life. Count Almasy was gay, he never had, to anyone's knowledge, a love affair with a woman. But at the end of the movie, he is coming out of this cave holding her dead body in his arms and weeping for her. That is a big departure, and I wonder, Philippa, what you would think of that kind of departure?

PG: I'm really struck when I speak to other historical novelists how we all have privately invented the rules we all individually obey. They're often similar [but]there's also incredible discrepancies. I don't think that we're writing in anything that I would call a genre because with a genre I would expect to find established rules. We're doing the thing that seems right to us, given the material we're working on, given what we want to do with it and, sometimes – yes, of course – given the trouble we've had from readers on a previous book.

One of the difficulties I have, because I'm writing with very well-known historical characters I have a reader's prejudice to deal with. If you write anything which indicates Richard III was not a nice person you get an immediate, sometimes vitriolic response. Richard III is the only king in England ever to have his own fan club, which exists 500 years on.

KT: The people who want to rehabilitate him, right? Who say he was not the murderer of the princes in the Tower, that's only Tudor propaganda.

WJ: Shakespeare slandered him, that's what people are saying.

PG: Well, that's true, of course. Shakespeare did. Do I want to take on Shakespeare as well as Richard III? No, not really.

WJ: I was going to add a similar but different hazard is to write about recent historical figures and be prepared to literally run into their relatives, in life or in print. I was being interviewed on TV [about Colony of Unrequited Dreams]and didn't know that my interview was coming immediately after the Smallwood family.

They were not readers of novels, they were not readers of history, and so the premise of historical fiction was to them completely new. They thought I was doing something scurrilous, and it was up to them to set the record straight. I should say that in the 11 years since that book was published, the Smallwood family have approached me and said that they were too hasty in their judgment and, at the time of the interview, hadn't actually read the book. They had only had a journalist helpfully underline certain parts.

KT: And how's your relationship with the descendents of the Vanderbilts, who still keep Biltmore running as a tourist destination?

WJ: Well, the book has only been out a couple of months so I haven't heard directly from them. But because I add that author's note, that may placate them completely. I may never hear from them.

KT: What about the general reader? Do either of you have a sense that there's a bit of naiveté out there? It does say "a novel" on the cover.

PG: I'm on a book tour at the moment with something which clearly says it is a novel and another book which says it's a collection of history essays, and people ask me what's the difference between history and historical fiction. I feel like I'm missing something because I go, surely you know that, surely we all know that. It's blinding what the difference is. It's the difference between magic and science.

WJ: I find that it's never the common reader, whatever exactly that is, who makes the objection. It's always someone who presumes to make the objection on [their]behalf. You will get an editor or an academic who will say, "Well, I know the difference. I know what a novel is, but what about the common reader?" I've gotten that so many times. I've actually had people say to me, "Aren't you worried that generations of Newfoundlanders are going to be misinformed about their history because of the historical fiction that you're writing?" If I can manage to control my half rage, half hilarity, I simply say to them "No, I'm not worried about it."

KT: Magic and science – it's a nice point to end on. I should let you both go. Thank you so much.

PG: Thanks, it's been a real pleasure. Very nice to meet you, Wayne and Kate, I've enjoyed our conversation.

WJ: Very much.

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About the Author

Kate Taylor is lead film critic at the Globe and Mail and a columnist in the arts section. More

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