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Writing Historical Fiction: Daring to Own an Icon

July 11, 2011 Books, Fiction, Guest Posts, Inspiration, Writing 9 Comments

By Ann Napolitano

I’ve always been fascinated by historical fiction. I marveled at the guts of Michael Cunningham, setting out to re-imagine the grand Virginia Woolf in The Hours. I crept nervously into The Master by Colm Toibin, because Henry James is one of my favorite writers and I was afraid Toibin would ruin him for me. I was amazed—and relieved—to find that the opposite was true. Toibin nailed James; the writer was alive and so improbably, wonderfully real on the page. Instead of taking Henry James away from me, the novel offered the gift of time with him.

As much as I loved these books, though, I never thought I’d write a historical novel myself. Simply writing a good novel was hard enough. When I thought about the kind of book I wanted to write, the genre never came into it. I wanted to capture some kind of truth and meaning through telling a fictional story, and I wanted to write a book I loved as much as the novels of my favorite writers. Some of my most beloved books have real people in them, but most of them don’t. And what I admired most about the work of Cunningham and Toibin was not that they had recreated literary figures, but that they had captured magic on the page. It’s the magic that I’m after; I don’t particularly mind how I, or any other writer, get there.

When I wrote the first draft of my novel A Good Hard Look, I was interested in writing about the way people live their lives—specifically, the idea of a “well-lived life.” My protagonist, Melvin Whiteson, was a very wealthy man who’d been given every opportunity, but didn’t know what to do with those opportunities. The novel wasn’t working, though; I think Melvin was more of an idea than a character. I was about a year into the book when Flannery O’Connor showed up as a guest at Melvin’s wedding. I didn’t see her coming—creatively speaking—though in hindsight, I can see that Flannery embodies for me this idea of a life “well-lived.”

At the time of her arrival, though, I was basically terrified. Flannery was an intimidating, fiercely intelligent woman, and a writer whose sentences lashed like whips. She glared at me from the pages of my novel and I blinked back, feeling faintly nauseous. Was I really going to attempt this? Did I have to? Every time I opened the file on my computer, she was there, her gaze sharp and piercing. Melvin was stirring to action beside her, which was an intriguing development. Something was growing between my protagonist and the writer—I glimpsed a shared hunger on their faces. So, I took a deep breath and tried to separate the strands of my trepidation. There were two main components: one, that I would portray Flannery inaccurately, and two, that I would do her a disservice by writing a mediocre book.

To conquer the first fear, I did research. I read everything by and about Flannery that I could get my hands on. I visited Andalusia, her farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. I read about the early1960s, when this novel would need to be set (Flannery died in 1964). I took notes, haunted libraries, and used mimeograph machines. When I finally sat down at my computer, I wrote slowly. I could feel Flannery’s eyes trained on me while I typed. I couldn’t bear to misrepresent her, so I under-represented her. She appeared in scenes, but she didn’t do much. I lacked the temerity to “go into” her thoughts. I portrayed her as always in control, and never vulnerable. I suppose I was trying to please her, or at least not make her mad, which is ridiculous because I knew then—and I know now—that Flannery was a private person who would have preferred not to be written into a novel, no matter how winning the portrayal.

The turning point occurred when I submitted the first draft to my writing group. They told me, in no uncertain terms, that I needed to either commit to Flannery being in the novel, or cut her completely. I knew at once that they were right. I also knew that Flannery couldn’t be removed—her integrity and moral strength had become the spine of the novel—so I radically changed my approach. I turned off the editor in my head, tried not to make eye contact with my imaginary Flannery, and rarely checked the facts I had so fastidiously written down. I also came up with a historical/fictional divide that I was comfortable with (or as comfortable as I could ever be).

I would stay true to the chronology of Flannery’s life. For instance, she works on one novel and several short stories over the course of my book, and they are in the order she actually wrote them. I never altered either the content or the timeline of her fiction. The chronology of her struggle with lupus is correct as well—her symptoms, her remissions, her final decline. Her peacocks are as plentiful and dominant at my version of Andalusia as they were at the real farm. Flannery only leaves Milledgeville once during the book, and that’s for a trip she actually took to Lourdes, France. And the only other living person in A Good Hard Look is Flannery’s mother, Regina. I realized it was impossible to depict Flannery without her mother; they lived together and Regina both cared for and exasperated her daughter daily. Regina was a structural pillar in Flannery’s life that could not be removed.

The metaphor I used to help navigate writing about a historical figure was Flannery’s home. I thought of all the subjects I needed to leave untouched—her work, her travels, her illness, her relationship with her mother—as the front porch and the grounds of Andalusia. It was public knowledge and could not be modified. But what happened behind the closed front door of the house: the conversations, the worries, the desires, the friendships and losses that were never documented—those were fair game. Creatively, I needed to fill in those gaps. Morally, I had to tread carefully; I needed to base my fiction on what was known about Flannery’s character, about her habits, about her voice. My great responsibility was to imagine a private life for Flannery that felt as true as the documented facts.

I spent seven years writing A Good Hard Look in order to make sure Flannery was believable, and that the book that contained her was not appallingly bad.  Even after all that time and effort, I still don’t think of myself as a historical writer. I am simply a novelist who struggles—sometimes mightily—to meet the demands of each book. It is difficult (and also thrilling) to imagine who or what might rise out of my next novel that could possibly rival Flannery O’Connor.

Ann Napolitano is the author of the novels A Good Hard Look and Within Arm’s Reach.

She received an MFA from New York University; she teaches fiction writing for New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and for Gotham Writers’ Workshop.

She lives in New York City with her husband and two children. She can be found on Twitter at @napolitanoann.

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Currently there are "9 comments" on this Article:

  1. Great post, Ann. As I flirt with bending reality for a new idea, I love your ‘when you get behind closed doors’ thoughts.

    • Thanks so much for your comments. I love hearing from others who have also ‘bent reality’ (to steal your phrase, Randy). It’s such an intimidating (but exciting) undertaking, isn’t it?

  2. Erika Robuck says:

    Ann, I can connect with everything you say here because I have a book with Ernest Hemingway as a character coming out in 2012. I wanted to be as true to his life as possible while telling the greater story of Key West during the Depression, so I had to use a fictional character to connect all of it. I love reading about how other writers do that, and I can’t wait to read your book. I love Flannery O’Connor and look forward to seeing how you animate her. Based on the amount of time you spent writing her and your respect for your subject I’m quite sure she will be rendered well. It does sound as if she insisted on appearing, doesn’t it?

    This line really resounded with me: “Instead of taking Henry James away from me, the novel offered the gift of time with him.” I think that’s the goal of every writer of historical fiction.

    Thanks for this excellent post!

  3. I can relate! I had the same thoughts about depicting Louisa May Alcott–“Am I really going to do this?”

  4. Becky Levine says:

    There must be something in the air–I just wrote a post about Jane Addams walking into my book & not knowing (but hoping) that she’ll stay. Just put your book on my to-read list! :)

  5. Necee Regis Necee says:

    What I really love about this post is the way you talk about the trepidation and doubts you had all through the writing process. I don’t know why, but I always assume that other writers are committed to their work 100% and I’m the only one questioning things along the way. Congrats on following through and getting the book published. I look forward to reading it!

  6. Thanks for the kind words, everyone. And Necee, it’s funny, I assume the opposite – that most writers are mired in despair (in regards to their work) most of the time. Maybe the middle ground is the truth.

  7. Leslie Greffenius Leslie Greffenius says:

    I was captivated by this post before I read the first line. From the photo, I knew that Flannery would be involved in it somehow. And I love her – not just her stories, but her essays and other works. I love her sharp wit and her ability to turn on herself (Flannery was asked once whether she had based the rather unnatractive character Hulga in “Good Country People” on anyone in particular. She said, “Yes, I based her on myself.”) How wonderful that she appeared in your novel and would not go away. I can’t wait to spend time with her behind closed doors. Thanks for the interesting post, and the book!

  8. […] Napolitano on O’Connor: ‘Daring to Own an Icon’ ‘An Encounter with the Keepers of the O’Connor Legacy’ annnapolitano.com @napolitanoann on Twitter […]

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