Top Historical Fiction | Day of Dialog 2018

What is it like to be a contemporary author writing about the past? At the final panel of the day, moderated by LJ senior editor Liz French, five novelists discussed the issues and challenges of writing historical fiction.
In “Top Historical Fiction,” moderated by LJ senior editor Liz French, five novelists discussed what it’s like to be a contemporary author writing about the past. For Ramin Ganeshram, publishing The General’s Cook (Arcade, Nov.), a novel about George Washington’s enslaved chef Hercules, was a bittersweet experience. She had been working on this title when she was approached to write a children’s picture book called A Birthday Cake for George Washington, which was pulled by Scholastic Press shortly after its 2016 publication in response to criticisms of the illustrator’s overly positive depictions of slavery. “A Birthday Cake was meant to introduce young readers to this incredibly remarkable man," explained Ganeshram. “But the illustrations didn’t accurately portray the intent of the book or Hercules’s life.” She spent a year before publication trying to get the illustrator and the publisher to make changes, such as depicting the other kitchen staff as white, as was historically correct. “This was an enslaved man who ran the kitchen of the most important person in the United States. Hercules commanded free and indentured whites. To portray him otherwise was to rob him of his place in history.” Ganeshram was not unhappy when A Birthday Cake was recalled, although it took her years to get The General’s Cook released owing to the controversy, and she hopes the novel will rectify the injustice to Hercules by portraying him as he was meant to be portrayed. “A lot of what we ‘think’ about history we don’t actually know,” said Susanna Kearsley, whose new novel Bellewether (Sourcebooks Landmark, Aug.) revolves around a tragic romance between a French Canadian soldier and a Long Island woman during the French and Indian War. “We curate our own versions of the past.” Interestingly, one of Kearsley's protagonists is a museum curator trying to make sense of the historical narrative around this romance. As the author noted, “Curation goes into everything I do as a historical novelist. History is curation, deciding whose voices get heard.” Kate Morton found herself very much in sync with Kearsley, as one of her characters in The Clockmaker’s Daughter (Atria, Oct. 2018) is a young archivist who finds a satchel that reveals a 150-year-old mystery. “Being an archivist is very similar to being a curator, and this is something that fascinates me.” Morton sees archiving as trying to capture something intangible and telling stories about it. In interviewing an archivist for a London bank whose job was to go through personal memorabilia, she realized the huge responsibility entailed in determining how others would perceive individuals who no longer had any say about how their information was collected and used. Set in 1920s Paris and Philadelphia, B.A. Shapiros art historical thriller The Collector's Apprentice (Algonquin, Oct.) features a range of period celebrities, including Picasso, Matisse, and her favorite, Gertrude Stein. "She was so ahead of her time. And she was a great art collector." As a historical novelist, Shapiro is well aware of how norms and rules differ in different times. Challenged by her editor over the use of the word girl as applied to her protagonist, she said, "That's how she would have been referred to in the 1920s. I will take the one-star review over this issue. " Beatriz Williams, whose The Summer Wives (Morrow, Jul.) concerns class conflict on an island off the Connecticut coast, reminded the audience that we would eventually by judged by others a century from now. It is not the task of the historical novelist to sit in judgment on the past but to get as much of the characters' humanity as possible into the story. "Everyone is a product of their own time. I try to be respectful of that. We look at things differently now, but to see the humanity is part of our job." Photos ©2018 William Neumann  

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