When readers ask me, “Did that really happen?” after they have finished one of my books, I’m suffused with two competing emotions. The first is satisfaction because at one level, the question is flattering – the enquiry is often prefaced with a comment like, “I enjoyed it so much I felt like I was reading a novel.” But at the same time, there is frustration. Over my writing career, I have worked hard at the craft of bringing facts alive. None of the eight books that I’ve published so far (with the next to be published in September 2013) is a novel. Most are biographies, although not always of the womb-to-tomb variety. I am proud to be what literary gate-keepers (publishers, editors, agents, critics) label “a creative non-fiction writer.”
What does “creative non-fiction” mean? In my world, it means that I don’t make things up. For each of my books, I have done an immense amount of research in order to find the story and the colourful details that will make the facts fascinating. I have combed primary sources – diaries, letters, journals, court records, newspaper articles, videos, photographs, artifacts, family histories. I have carefully studied and learned from secondary sources: published books by writers and historians who have travelled some of these ways before me, and brought their own skills to shaping a narrative from the inchoate past. I have travelled to libraries and archives on two continents: I have squinted at microfilm and I have handled fragile onion-skin paper. I have accumulated an immense catalogue of facts. Then I have tried to squeeze the juice out of the dramatic possibilities I’ve discovered during my research.
I want my readers to be engrossed, not just engaged. I hope that they will lose their sense of distance from the past, so that dates dissolve and their concern for my characters is so complete that they anxiously await the outcome as if it mattered still. I try to place my reader in a draughty, smoke-blackened cabin alongside Susannah Moodie in January 1838, and share Susannah’s panic that her two year old son Donald is going to die. I want a reader to feel he or she is in the stuffy, dusty Boston attic in June 1876, watching Alexander Graham Bell endlessly repeating his tuning fork experiments in the hope that his assistant will hear the sounds in the next room. I know readers will learn about events, but I am determined to give them more than that. I hope they will forge an emotional connection with the people at the heart of the story.
But I do not fabricate. I imagine, but I do not invent. I do not make up characters, events or dialogue – anything in quotation marks comes from a written source. Physical descriptions, of people and buildings, come from photographic evidence. However, I speculate and I interpret, based on empirical evidence and knowledge of common practice and human behavior. I do so cautiously, and only when I am confident that I am much more likely to be right than wrong. Such a practice might not pass academic scrutiny, but I do not write for an academic audience and, in the words of the historian Modris Eksteins, “For facts to become memorable, an element of fiction [is] essential.” It is the only way to take my readers into the centre of events, so they are caught up in the drama. And even the most rigorous academic historians will make subjective judgements about what is important in the past, and what links events, as they select first their Ph.D. topic and then their focus for university careers.
In fact, I don’t think there is a rigid barrier between fiction and non-fiction. I’ve picked my spot on a spectrum of popular history that stretches from the careful and elegant recitations of facts (in, for example, The Dictionary of Canadian Biography) all the way through novels set in the past to the far end of the book spectrum, where historical romances cluster. (I’ve always loved the description of my work as “popular history,” since it suggests the existence of something else that is “unpopular history.”) I’m somewhere in the middle, but much closer to the DCB than to the mawkish and melodramatic books which feature heaving bosoms, sparkling crowns and goblets. On this spectrum, I am not far removed from such respected historical fiction writers as Patrick O’Brian, author of novels about the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, and Hilary Mantel, whose two extraordinary bestsellers about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, each won the Mann-Booker prize.
Like these two writers, I build my narrative around the idea that the outcome of my story is not yet fixed, although in fact most of my readers will know what happened. I try to imagine events from the perspective of the main characters, who move forward in ignorance. I want readers to understand that things could have turned out differently. A good fiction writer, like a non-fiction historian, will spend months on research to make the story authentic and credible. However, where a fiction writer differs from a non-fiction writer is that the fiction writer will fill in the gaps in the historical record, and invent episodes, minor players, dialogue. Both O’Brian and Mantel do something that I don’t do: they make stuff up. But they invent only after they have done mountains of research to make their novels credible.
Hilary Mantel is scrupulous in presenting fabrications that are plausible. She never, for example, puts Cromwell, the powerful adviser to Henry VIII of England, somewhere that he could never be because there is evidence he was elsewhere that day. In a recent profile of Mantel in the New Yorker, she expressed her disdain for the writers of the TV series The Tudors, who decided to roll Henry VIII’s two sisters into one, because it simplified the script. Then they got tied in knots deciding which king she should marry. “I cannot describe to you what revulsion it inspires in me when people play around with the facts,” Mantel said. “If I were to distort something just to make it more convenient or dramatic, I would feel I’d failed as a writer. If you understand what you are talking about, you should be drawing the drama out of real life, not putting it there, like icing on a cake.”
You don’t have to spend long in archives to see how much drama there is in real life – often more drama than a novelist would dare invent. My next book (to be published in September 2013) begins with a bang: a shot is fired on a chilly February night in 1915, and a Toronto man crumples to the ground. The shooter is a timid eighteen-year old English girl who had no business holding a gun, let alone knowing how to fire it. But her life spirals down from there. She is charged with murder; three weeks later, she is on trial for her life.
Of course I, and many legal historians, know the outcome of the case. Yet the tension builds, as we explore what was going on in her case, and in Toronto during this period. Will she hang?”
I don’t make anything up because I don’t need to make anything up. I just need to pay attention both to the big picture (an Empire at war) and to the small details (the girl’s shabby woolen coat) that will take the reader into the heart of the story.