by Rilla Askew
Life moves fast. Novel writing moves slow. Historical novel writing even more so—terrapin pace. At least this is so for me. I’ll spend years, decades, long tedious days and hours in studied concentration, poring over history books, archives, obscure articles, how-to resources: how were personal letters written, folded, delivered in Tudor England? How did one travel from downtown Tulsa to Greenwood in 1921? How do men drill for oil? Ride the rails? Make a gun? You have to know so much more than can ever go into the book, and you don’t know what you need to know until you write it. There are other ways to make historical fiction, I’m sure, but I don’t know them. I only know this one. The process is slow, methodical, exceedingly inefficient.
And yet the pace suits me. I have a tortoise-not-hare temperament, a lento reading tempo, a need for immersion—some residual Baptist instinct, maybe. Full immersion. Studying texts. It’s the pace at which I read for pleasure, a few pages at a time, going back over passages, savoring language. It’s how I write books: going back over and over the language, tweaking, rearranging, pulling out, putting in. I sometimes wish for a jackrabbit temperament, an ability to dash forward and write one of Anne Lamott’s famous shitty first drafts. I just can’t. If the language doesn’t work, if I’m unsure of the history, I can’t move forward. Oh, I put in placeholders sometimes, for language or history, but I can’t leave them there long, else they’ll become part of the book. And then later I’m sorry.
I came to writing historical fiction not because I was so taken with history but because I wanted to understand the contemporary world I lived in. That world—Brooklyn, 1989, a world of landline phones and dot matrix printers and Betamax VCRs—is history now. But the human grief and joy and brutality that lived there then lives in us now and always. This was the year of the Central Park Jogger and the killing of Yusef Hawkins, a black youth surrounded by a gang of white boys in Bensonhurst; it was the year Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing debuted. It was also the year I learned about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. I wanted to write about that.
But the massacre didn’t explode from nothing; it came of what went before, and before, and before. To understand 1921, I had to go back before 1921. As my favorite historical novelist, Hilary Mantel, says: “Beneath every history, there is another history.”
To write about early twentieth century Oklahoma, I had to go back to Indian Territory in the late nineteenth. I had to learn (because I didn’t know it) the story of how my people migrated to the Territory—and what they brought with them. I asked questions of living elders, read histories, traced elliptically through hearsay and conversation and handed-down narratives the outlines of how my family came by covered wagon into I.T. from Kentucky in 1887. That tracing and imagining became my first novel, The Mercy Seat. Writing it, studying my way into the earliest days of Oklahoma’s story, trying to know what happened, and why, and above all how, I learned what has been for me the hardest lesson: that you can never know all you want to know. All you yearn to know.
In that book, a young girl finds a tin box holding her dead mother’s belongings; she tries to decipher her mother’s life through reading the items: a lock of hair, a cheap snuffbox, a charred torn-out page of scripture, a child’s pair of eyeglasses. But she comes to see that
. . . she could not know her mother’s life, not lived nor told nor unfolding in the strength of imagination nor in dream or vision. Her mother’s life was locked away from her, eternal, as she was locked away from all others, as we each are locked away from one another in the pores of finite mind and skin . . .
This is the metaphor, for me, for writing historical fiction. We’ll never know the truths of their lives, those precious or mediocre or loathsome ones who came before us; they’re locked away from us as the dead are locked away from the living, but we keep poring through the tin box anyway, reading artifacts, piecing mismatched parts together, creating the narrative from imperfect words. When we begin, we learn everything we can learn, and then we learn, by writing, how much more we need to know. Then comes another hard lesson: we have to leave out so many of these fascinating facts we’ve learned, because they impede the narrative or make the story read like hey-look-at-all-my-fabulous-research.
So, we become meticulous, devoted, openminded, openhearted, humble enough to hide our hand, we hope. Still we see we’ll never know all we need to know.
But if we love this work, this reading and writing of historical fiction (and I don’t call my work historical fiction anyway, I call it “literary fiction set in the historical past,” which is a phrase that’s never going to fly with any publishing publicity person, ever), then we’re willing to work and work and work, even knowing we’ll have to submerge a good portion of what we learn, even knowing that, no matter how hard we try, we’ll still get things wrong.
In her wonderful essay “Why I Became a Historical Novelist,” Hilary Mantel says that she’ll make up a man’s inner torments but not, for instance, the color of his drawing room wallpaper. “ . . . someone, somewhere, might know the pattern and color,” she says, “and if I kept on pursuing it, I might find out.”
I share Mantel’s essay with students in my historical fiction writing class. I tell them: we’re writing to the one who knows the wallpaper.
Or anyway, I am.
It takes courage in all cases to be a writer, and a particular kind of courage to write outside one’s own lived experience, to try to create for readers the lived experiences of others in an era in which we have never lived, in a place where we’ve never lived—because, even if we have lived in our story’s location, inside our own period’s overlay, even if we travel (as we must do) to our story’s landscapes and cities, or study with intricate attention the paintings and photographs of the age, we can never experience the precise quality of light on the southern plains in 1837, or the ambient sounds on a Kansas City street in 1902, or the stench of burning flesh in 1546 in London, or on the streets of Tulsa in 1921.
For that, we must imagine.
So then we’re doing what all novelists of all genres and in all ages do: imagining our way into the lives of others, burrowing into their psyches, walking in their skins, finding our way, through imagery and language and sensory detail, into their world, and inviting readers inside with us. That’s the art of it, this great imagining, this welding of histories and artifacts and qualities of light to the human heart in all its joy and grief and suffering. Historical novelists aren’t writing to the past but to our own time. Each age has its obsessions, surely, but the fundamentals of the human story don’t change. We’re looking to create who we are now by imagining who we were before—who, indeed, we always have been.
Rilla Askew is the author of novels about westward migration in the late 1800s (The Mercy Seat), the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 (Fire in Beulah), and the homeless and dispossessed during the Great Depression (Harpsong). She’s currently at work on a novel about the Protestant martyr Anne Askew, who was burned at the stake in London in 1546. Rilla’s essays have appeared in Nimrod, AGNI, Tin House, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at the University of Oklahoma.