Anthony Dobranski – On Writing Historical Fiction – Transcript
“The Scientists and the Spy” kickoff event
April 23rd, 2015
Hello and welcome! Thank you so much for coming out tonight. Before I introduce Dr James Schooley, Marlene Berlin asked me to talk a bit about my writing process. This is a hard thing for a writer to unpack, because the best thing about getting to a process is the automatic nature of it. You don’t have to think so hard about it any more, and you do it. But I’ll try to take it apart for you.
First, I’m going to start with an example. Thirty years ago, the restoration of the Sistine Chapel and its famous fresco ceiling by Michaelangelo caused a huge controversy in the worlds of history and art. Columnists loudly condemned the work as flawed and inaccurate — not that they had art history degrees. They just knew that these vivid colors, these luminous faces of prophets, couldn’t be right. But they were. We had simply grown so used to the dark patina of centuries, the accumulated soot of millions of candles and oil lamps and censers of incense. We thought, this is how it must have been always. This is how it’s supposed to be. These bright, exciting images couldn’t be the work of the master. This is a Sistine Chapel comic book.
But it wasn’t. A trip north to Florence, where Michelangelo’s paintings hang in the Uffizi, bright as the light of a sun in a world without car exhaust, would have settled the issue. But that involves an effort, and one only makes that effort when one understands that the past is not the present, that things age and dim. To write a historical novel, you have to try to see the past when it was present, you have to try to feel it, and to know it.
The pop phrase of mindfulness is Be Here Now — the historical novelist needs to Be There Then.
So, to do that, I started with some research. As Marlene said, I depended on the efforts of Marge Elfin and the Forest Hills history book; I spent a lot of time with Ann Kessler and Anne Robbins. Ann Kessler introduced me to the Washingtoniana Collection in the Martin Luther King Library downtown, which has incredible archives of newspapers of the day. I read books of the time and immediately after; David Brinkley’s wonderful history Washington Goes To War was a huge resource. I talked to people.
And then, I went on eBay.
If you think I’m kidding, go on there tonight. Key in W-W-numeral 2 — nobody uses Roman numerals anymore — and eBay will bring you back in time. eBay was for me what the prop department is for a play. It was a way of putting me in mind of the sameness, and the great difference of things. I don’t mean to excessively value things, but they clutter the world we live in, and much of our actions involve them, so things are a very good place to start. There’s a fantasy novel from the 1970’s called Time and Again, in which the people who go back in time actually do it through the study of things that have been restored to the beauty they had in their day: pocket watches without tarnish, silk dresses that haven’t grown brittle and faded. It’s a metaphor but it means a lot, especially to a writer.
So, you go on eBay. There’s a lot of places to start — there’s too many places to start. There’s ration coupons. Silver star rings for parents with sons in combat. There are “He’s Watching You” posters. There’s Jap Hunting Licenses â€“ “shoot them in the stomach, because they got no heart but a lot of guts.” Yes. The past is a vintage clothing store, and occasionally, some of the hangers are filthy. To adapt a currently trendy phrase, it was what it was.
Here’s a thing that was mentioned earlier. This is a Waralarm. I’ll pass it around but let me talk about it first. It’s a clock. It’s a wind-up clock, the first I’ve ever seen and held. Why have a wind-up clock, in a world only 70 years past, which certainly had batteries and electricity? Because electricity might be unreliable, and batteries subject to rationing. Perhaps because an electric motor required more precision and more metal than the war effort could afford. It’s made of paper and lacquer. The back is just cardboard, with a cheap brass movement and as little metal as possible. They needed metal for other things. But they made it, and it was in fact a valuable thing. Look on the back and you will see, it has a maximum price. When have you ever seen a maximum price? Prices are for discounting. Nobody pays full price anymore. But that’s now. Back then, watches and timekeeping were as dear as metal and sugar. Workers still needed to get to work on time, for their own welfare and the nation’s. People still needed clocks, so they made cheap clocks, and they limited how much you could charge for them. Think about that a second: people still needed clocks, so they made cheap clocks, and they limited how much you could charge for them That one sentence has a holographic density, speaking of privation, of urgency, of a government control beyond any concern of any Tea Partier, of black markets â€“ all this, in one clock. I’ll pass it around.
It still keeps pretty good time, too. It’s dimmer than it used to be; no restorer has had a chance with it yet, unlike the Sistine Chapel. And, it’s loud. You might not notice it so much when you’re in this big crowded room, but hold it up to your ear. In a quiet room, late at night, it’s a very loud clock.
How are you going to get to sleep with a clock that loud? Are you just used to it, the way we are used to all these eerie green glowing LEDs on every modern appliance, including the smoke detectors over our heads? Or are you just so tired from your work at the crowded office, the triple-shift-factory, the lines for ration coupons, the cajoling for a little extra from the butcher, the standing-room-only commute on the packed bus? Some of these are more promising directions for fiction than others, but you can go any way. Depending on how many points of view you have in your novel, you might use them all. Or, the clock is loud, and you can’t sleep. You’re an insomniac. You’re a night owl. Your letters to your fiancÃ© at Guadalcanal are not getting answered. You ate a tin of meat that was just a little too old or too deeply dented.
Do this over and over, and this is how you make a world. You have different rules. You have to get money from people at a bank, not machines. You make phone calls with coins and ask an operator for connections you remember through words and numbers. You read new clean white books and you listen to radio shows on large wood arched radios with brass knobs. And none of this is noteworthy, and you have to explain it by not explaining it, just by living it. Of course, in a novel, you’re not a full person. You’re a character, a voice in a chorus, a part in a whole. You’re connected in ways that real life often denies, or at least hides, if you’re a mystic. Sometimes you have to do things out of your comfort zone, like chasing spies. But mostly you live your life and you hope for the best. Sometimes you think about the future, where everyone will have radios on their wrists like Dick Tracy, where people really will go to space, where cars will drive AND fly. We haven’t gotten to that one yet. But you live in the present, in 1942. And most days, it’s all you can do to Be Here Now.
That’s part of my process.