Larissa MacFarquhar on writing historical fiction

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Larissa MacFarquhar writes pieces for The New Yorker that anyone seriously engaged with literature must read.  This is the case again with her October 15 profile of Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall, which begins with these reflections on the writing of historical fiction.  I share the opening, urging you to find the magazine and read the essential whole. 

What sort of person writes fiction about the past?  It is helpful to be acquainted with violence, because the past is violent.  It is necessary to know that the people who live there are not the same people now.  It is necessary to understand that the dead are real, and have power over the living.  It is helpful to have encountered the dead firsthand, in the form of ghosts.

The writer's relationship with a historical character is in some was less intimate than with a fictional one: the historical character is elusive and far away, so there is more distance between them.  But there is also more equality between them, and more longing; when he dies, real mourning is possible.

Historical fiction is a hybrid form, halfway between fiction and nonfiction.  It is a pioneer country, without fixed laws.....
 On another topic altogether, I'll be posting some of the questions and answers from yesterday's Push to Publish YA panel on this blog later today.  (I promise.)

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