On That Pesky Line between History and Fiction
One of the most frequent questions I get as a historical novelist is: “How much of what you write is really history?”
It’s a good question. And an important one, I think–especially given how discomfort-making the blending of fact and fiction can be. It’s sort of the literary version of mixing beer and liquor: for some people, even the idea makes them queasy.
I discovered this myself while writing my first novel, The Painter from Shanghai (W.W. Norton 2008). As a former journalist–with both a BA and an MA in Asian Studies–I take both facts and history very seriously. At first even I was a little anxious about fictionalizing a real-life character from a different culture and era. But the story of prostitute-turned-post-Impressionist Pan Yuliang seemed ideal for a novel, since even in her native China there is very little documentary evidence about her life. In fact, when I began researching her in 1999, most people seemed to rely mainly on another fictionalized biography—one published anonymously during the ‘80’s. Even academics, I noticed, would refer me to this unattributed, novelized version for lack of better source material.
As my research progressed, though, I began to notice something else: namely, a reluctance by some of the sources I approached to be associated with a fictionalized history. No one said so in so many words. But there was a clear pattern of dropped email chains and unreturned calls from various professors and scholars of the “straight” history world to whom I’d reached. Having never encountered such reticence in my previous field of journalism, I found it somewhat baffling at first. But an early review for Painter shed some light.
Writing for the scholarly Asian Review of Books, editor Peter Gordon had many nice things to say about my novel. In the end, though, he admitted that the idea behind my novel unnerved him: “The problem is that the real Pan keeps on getting in way….one continually wonders how much is real and how much dramatized…. The result is that The Painter From Shanghai sits at the intersection of biography and fiction, a place which I personally find somewhat uncomfortable.”
Which led me to ponder: where, exactly, is that intersection? Or rather: what rules should be followed when mixing “real history” with writerly imagination?
For myself, at least, it’s actually pretty straightforward. There is no question that truth is important, and it is a period writer’s responsibility to get the details right wherever and whenever possible. But in the end, a novelist’s first job is to tell a good story. To craft a compelling yarn, peopled by characters her readers can not just picture but inhabit–live and breath, see and sigh and even smell through. And while reassuringly fact-checkable, names, dates and places alone simply don’t provide a broad enough palette to do that: to truly “flesh out” historical moments—e.g., drape them in human skin–sometimes one simply must fabricate.
Recognizing this, the rules I’ve set for myself are simple. I research my projects intensely, get all my facts straight, and resolve to do my best to stick to them. I am allowed, however, to take historical liberties that are at least somewhat plausible—in other words, don’t contradict broadly-accepted historical fact. For instance, in fictionalizing Pan Yuliang’s story I have her meet the Chinese revolutionary Zhou Enlai at Lyon University, and then again later on in Shanghai. There’s actually no historical proof the two ever really met. And yet the fact that these two real figures were in Lyon and Shanghai at the same time, and definitely knew people in common, made it seem credible to me that they might have met. Moreover, introducing Zhou as a character was a way to give readers a taste of the time’s political fervor and excitement, which was one of my goals as a novelist. And so, I picked him for my palette. The same rationale wouldn’t have worked for every character from the period, however. For instance, seating Mao Zedong at Pan’s table at Les Deux Magots would have been taking it too far, since anyone familiar with the story of China’s revolutionaries in Paris would know he wasn’t part of that cliché.
Similarly, in The Gods of Heavenly Punishment I’ve added a fictional bomber (Cam Richards) to the heroic band of Doolittle Raiders who flew our first strike against Japan. Confession: no one by that name ever existed. Still, almost everything that happened to Cam Richards did happen to a Doolittle Raider, with the exception of where his bomber crashes. In my novel, this happens in Japan-colonized Manchuria, which is not a stretch most readers would notice. Besides, I needed my heroine—who visits a Japanese settlement in Manchuria shortly after the crash—to receive an item that had belonged to Cam’s wife. So overall, I figured I was within my rights to move Cam’s doomed bomber further North than any of the Doolittlers actually flew. It would not have been within my rights, however, if I decided to add, say, a third nuclear bombing at the end of the Pacific War. For one thing, it would add nothing to the story I was trying to tell. But there’s also the fact that most people stop mid-page and think: “Wait, that didn’t happen.” Then they’d probably wonder why I wrote it, and whether other historical facts in my book were fabricated. At which point I’d be guilty of a far greater authorial sin than veering from history: losing my reader.
So to the extent that there are rules about mixing fact and fiction without bilious results, they probably boil down thusly:
1) Be factual whenever possible.
2) Don’t mess with the really big stuff.
3) Above all, tell a really good story.
That said, sometimes fictional narrative can play into historical truth in unexpected ways. One of my own more memorable research moments in Painter occurred over the Chinese lover I wrote into Pan’s early years in Paris. When my factchecker asked how I’d come across this character, I told the truth: that he was based on a painting of Pan’s, of a strong young man holding Chinese soil in his hands. I’d imagined him as a fellow artist, one of the Chinese students fermenting revolution in smoky Left Bank cafes. Also, someone younger than she was (I thought she’d like that).
“But where did you read about him?” asked my researcher, who happened to be Chinese. She went on to tell me that there’s a man who fits the same profile as my character who lived with Pan for years in Paris, and now lies buried next to her in Montemarte.
For a moment I just stared at her. Then I burst out laughing. Well, what do you know, I thought. In this one case, at least, my fiction had led me straight to the facts.
*Note: This post originally appeared in the excellent historical fiction blog Historical Boys.