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Monday 26 September 2011

The Role of History in the Making of Stories

Over on Goodreads, Andrew Williams and I chat about The Role of History in the Making of Stories - and other things - and we will be available to chat and answer questions for the next few weeks. For those of you who are not on Goodreads, here is our chat. We'd love to hear your comments and answer any of your questions, so you can either do that by commenting here on this blog, or, if you are a member, join the group on Goodreads.

Andrew’s book The Poison Tide will be published in 2012. To Kill A Tsar is published in paperback on September 29th 2011.

My latest book, Icelight, the third in the Peter Cotton series, is published on October 13th 2011. Black Bear will be published late in 2012.

Here is our chat:

Novelists Aly Monroe, author of The Maze of Cadiz, Washington Shadow and Icelight, and Andrew Williams, author of The Interrogator and To Kill a Tsar, chat about the role of history in the making of their stories. Both were shortlisted for the 2010 CWA Ellis Peters Historical Fiction Award

Aly: You told me your parents were history teachers. How much was history a part of your childhood, and how much does it give you your ideas?

Andrew: Lots and lots. I’ve always been fascinated by the past. Yes, my parents were history teachers and I think I could name the buildings of a medieval monastery by the time I was ten.

Aly: A bit of a history geek from an early age then?

Andrew: I did like football too. But all my stories draw on real people and events. Sometimes I change names, sometimes I don’t. Of course, I’m telling a story so I tinker with the facts, but I hate making mistakes with the history. I mean, I’m happy to repaint people and events just as long as I know why I’m doing it. If I am economical with the actualité you’ll find the reason in the historical note at the back of the book. I feel a responsibility to the history, and so do the writers I admire most. It’s a shocking cliché, I know, but truth is often – I would say ‘usually’ – stranger and more compelling that pure fiction, at least as a big backdrop.

By the way, I’m not sure I think of myself as a historical novelist, just a thriller writer who sets his stories in the recent past.

Aly: My case is a little different. My parents weren’t history teachers (though my father started out as a university teacher), but my grandparents on both sides were immigrants, and I think this may have influenced me in a number of ways – not only my interest in the recent past but also in half belonging to other places.

My books are set just within living memory. So the history part of what I write often begins with things I have heard directly from people who had experience of the time and events I’m writing about. This provides a springboard for research. This was the case with The Maze of Cadiz, when people in Spain talked to me of their experiences under the Franco regime. It was also the case for the initial idea of the Peter Cotton series - and the character of Peter Cotton himself.

Andrew: So what especially attracts you about the past rather than the present day for your stories?

Aly: I’m interested in how people are moulded by the particular time and place that they inhabit, and how they react to it. Readers have their own backgrounds and have lived, or more likely know people who have lived, through the time described. It’s more Grandpa than Cleopatra’s handmaiden because I like that living link. Asps are fine, but women using pencils to draw a false stocking seam on their wartime legs is also interesting, as is the knicker elastic problem post war.

What about you?

Andrew: I am interested in ordinary people’s lives in extraordinary times; in wars, periods of political upheaval or revolution, above all in conflict.

I have only a passing academic interest in the swords and sandals history of the distant past. I understand my characters because the world they inhabit isn’t so very different from mine. I can imagine my Great-Great Grandfather Jesse Williams following events in Russia in his newspaper. He might have read the reports of The Times’ correspondent in Petersburg, George Dobson. Well, when I was researching To Kill, I read Dobson’s dispatches too. All the sources necessary to flesh out the bones of the history are there. I have the context for the love, friendship, hope, despair, betrayal and grief that are common to all lives, and those are the things that interest me most. The recent past of my stories doesn’t seem such a foreign country. Not so foreign I can’t ask of myself and the reader: what would you do if you were hunted by the tsar’s secret police?

Aly: Where do the first seeds for your stories come from?

Andrew: A line in a book, an interview on the radio, a name on a website; something that captures my imagination and transports me back through history. With To Kill A Tsar it was an engraving on a friend’s wall of his Scots-Russian ancestor; it was a fascination with terrorist violence born of many years covering Northern Ireland; and it was a question: what would a comfortable British liberal do in an autocracy like tsarist Russia where peaceful protest for democracy might earn a summary sentence of twenty years in a Siberian camp? Can terrorist violence be justified in such a place and what would happen if, like the doctor hero of my story, those you are close to are planning to commit murder in the name of freedom?

Aly: The beginnings of a story for me usually come from things stored up in my mind – loose images or voices remembered, that become characters if you place them in a setting, concentrate and let them grow. That probably sounds a bit like organic gardening! The point is that it is not entirely a conscious process. You have to let the characters react to each other and to their context and circumstances. The history and the research are the more conscious part of the process.

For the first book, coming to Scotland after many years in Spain gave me a kind of distance and allowed me to listen again to some of those voices of Spanish people who had talked to me. That eventually led to The Maze of Cadiz. One of the main starting points for Peter Cotton himself was looking at family photos from the forties and realising that the people looking back at me were the same age – or younger than my children. It gave me an almost maternal feeling – and that gave me my period. The first seeds for Icelight came from childhood memories of my own – a freezing winter, a quiet suburban road, a shard of glass in a tree trunk, smeared with blood.

Henry James said you can never really do a historical novel. You're always writing about your own time. Do you agree?

Andrew: Up to a point, yes. It is an easy trap to fall into. All of us have read ‘historical’ novels that make almost no effort to capture the spirit of the time, and some are best sellers, so their authors must be giving their readers what they want. I do research the feelings and thoughts of my characters pretty exhaustively. I think it’s a little easier for me than the Tudor and Viking lot because I’m not excavating too deeply.

Some of the real people in To Kill A Tsar left their own accounts of the events I relate in my story. Actually, the historian faces the same dilemma of interpreting the past with the benefit of hindsight. But with the greatest of respect to Mr. Henry James, I think the best historians and novelists just about manage to pull it off: I do my best to learn from them.

Do you agree with James?

Aly: Absolutely. James was talking about doing justice to past. The longer the time, the less possibility of justice and the greater the impositions of a modern mind-set. It’s one of the reasons I write in the period I do. The underpinning of the Peter Cotton series is an examination of the post-war decline of Britain’s importance in the world as a colonial power, and a portrait of the time and place of each story. The chaotic and often incompetent or accidental nature of how things actually work that is shown in the books, is equally true today. Of course, in both Washington Shadow and Icelight there are evident chimes with the present economic crisis, but more importantly, the books show a version of how we got here.

Andrew: Do you plan the story before beginning a book? Do you stick to it?

Aly: One of the most enjoyable experiences of both writing and reading for me are the unexpected doors that open along the way. I don’t want to know everything I’m going to discover or exactly where the book is going before I begin.

I don’t begin with chapter by chapter plans. My plans are more in terms of key events or scenes that form the inner structure of the book – and that’s not only to do with the historical story. The final division into chapters is usually one of the last things I do – and it’s partly about the rhythm of the story. I also have different sections in each chapter – for the same reason.

So I do plan in broad terms, but as I’m working, I’m delighted when I discover or think of something I didn’t count on to begin with. Sometimes it’s a character who might have seemed insignificant at the first planning stage but grows and becomes more important. Some of these characters then go on to become significant characters in following books. This is the case with Ed Lowell, a Boston Brahmin in Icelight – he will have a significant role in Black Bear, the fourth Cotton book. And also Herbert Butterworth, the Chancery’s ‘archivist’ - in Washington Shadow. He will appear again in a much larger way in Black Bear.

What about you?

Andrew: I plan it very carefully. I used to write documentary scripts for the BBC. It was important to keep things tight because shooting and editing days cost a lot of money, so I always structured the story very carefully first. Old habits die hard and I do the same with a book – chapter by chapter. But once I begin to write, it changes; chapters, characters and storylines appear and disappear. Everyone has their own way of going about things. Some people write almost nothing down first – perhaps they don’t write history thrillers.

How much do things you discover along the way influence the direction of the story?

Aly: Actually, a lot. As I was writing and researching Washington Shadow, the sheer lack of comprehension on the part of the British government of what the negotiations for an American loan really involved and the desperation of the Keynes delegation, handling both London and Washington, as victors with a begging bowl struggling to remain players in the new world order, gradually came home to me and set the atmosphere of the book. And in plot terms, Tibbets’ role in the story did not come to me until I was some way into the writing.

And there was a real change in Icelight. In the first two books, I did not give speaking parts to real people. They were there, but as part of the setting. But when I was writing Icelight, some of the ghastly actions I discovered taken by certain people at the time made me decide to include them as speaking characters in the book, under different names. These things definitely influenced the push of the story.

Andrew: For me, the themes remain pretty much the same, but how I tease them out through the story changes a good deal. Some characters come to the fore, some fall off the page. I wasn’t entirely sure how To Kill would end until I got there. One strand of the story might have ended a number of different ways. A couple of friends felt the ending of The Interrogator should have been darker; I considered that very carefully at the time. I’m still not sure they aren’t right.

Aly: Can you imagine yourself writing a novel set in the present day?

Andrew: I would like to. I have an idea for a novel set in the 1990’s during the war in the former Yugoslavia. I made a couple of programmes on the conflict, and have been nurturing an idea for a story for almost ten years. The war in Bosnia is still the past, but edging closer to the present. First a spy thriller, The Poison Tide, telling the story of a secret service operation in Berlin and New York in 1915-16.

What about you?

Aly: It’s an interesting question. Why not? It’s a different kind of challenge. But I don’t feel that as a novelist I am necessarily the best commentator on current events, so it would be a different kind of novel. I do have some other books in store that have nothing to do with Peter Cotton, although when I look at them, they are also set in the recent past. But before that for me, the task is to finish Black Bear, which will take Peter Cotton back to the US. It’s a very different kind of book – and Cotton will find himself plunged in a situation experienced by the ‘real’ Peter Cotton (see ‘Beyond the Books’ on my website) – or at least that is what he told me.

The Poison Tide will be published in 2012. To Kill A Tsar is published in paperback on September 29th 2011.

Icelight is published on October 13th 2011 and Black Bear will be published late in 2012.

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