by M. J. Rose, May 18, 2010 4:34 PM
It's an honor to be back at the Powell's blog and share something about my newest suspense novel, The Hypnotist
All writers have rites and rituals that we've developed over the years. I always wonder about these habits and idiosyncrasies. But I never have the nerve to ask the venerable pros I meet.
Here are mine.
Before I start any book I need three things. The first is a question I don't know the answer to but find interesting enough to spend at least a year finding out.
The second is a quote that captures the spirit of the theme I want to write about — what I think powers the novel.
And the third is an object that belongs to my main character — that has some meaning to him or her — even if I don't always know quite what that meaning is when I begin.
The question that inspired this book was: Who owns art? Should the cultural heritage of a piece of artwork determine what museum it finally winds up in? Is restitution always in the best interest of the pubic?
For years I've been reading about Greece's efforts to get the Elgin Marbles back to their homeland. I can see both sides of the arguments. I have sympathy for countries whose riches have been taken from them. But at the same time I've spent a lot of my life visiting museums. I've been moved and inspired by work gathered from around the world and can't imagine what these amazing institutions would be like if they were stripped of their treasures.
The quote that mesmerized me and epitomized what I wanted this book to be about was:
Often, in the cosseted quarters of a museum, we forget that every work of ancient art is a survivor, a representative of untold numbers of similar artworks that perished. This triumphant exhibition makes us remember, while demonstrating that every survivor saves much more than just itself: long strands of culture, identity and history waiting to be woven back together.
—Roberta Smith writing in the New York Times about the exhibit Silent Survivors of Afghanistan's 4,000 Tumultuous Years
And the magical object, the talisman that belongs to my main character, is a broken pencil. It was in Lucian Glass's pocket the day he was brutally attacked and killed. He was only 20 at the time, a student at college. Glass has kept the pencil in a drawer that he opens all the time... he's seen it so often that he no longer notices it. Until the day my novel starts... and he's forced into remembering something he never really could
by M. J. Rose, December 9, 2008 2:00 PM
(Read Part 11 here
Christopher Gortner is the author of The Last Queen which is set in early 16th century Spain, Belgium, France, and England. This book is his debut, and promises much for the future about the past.
MJR: How do you delve into a historical past you cannot yourself remember ? yet you somehow manage to write about so well?
Gortner: For me, it's part instinct (which I talk about more in the next question) and part research. I write novels based on people who actually lived, so it's always a challenge because my imagination is constrained by fact. For example, I can't change the ending, even if it ends badly. I'm obsessive about research; I have to find out everything I can, and that means getting in contact with libraries and archives, finding out-of-print books, setting up meetings with experts in certain areas, etc.
For The Last Queen, I read over 50 books about Juana of Castile and her world; I also took several trips to Spain and other parts of Europe to trace her footsteps and view the places where she lived. I even tried on a 16th-century Spanish gown so I could feel its weight and get a feel for how women moved in such ornate, heavy clothes. As a historical fiction writer, I also become a psychological sleuth. Facts are facts, but there's always more than one side to a story. Juana herself left almost nothing in her own hand; much of what she said and did was channeled via accounts written by men whose prejudices reflect the era and the version they were paid to tell (as most historians were hired by the current ruler). This is where instinct comes in. I have to get to know my character as well as I know myself. I must understand her actions, her beliefs, her fears; what motivates her, what repels her. I can't afford ambiguity; I must become the person I'm writing about and still remain true to the facts of her life, even if she does something that I would not do. It's a matter of perception; by learning to see the world as she experienced it, that world becomes my reality.
MJR: Do you believe at all in a collective unconscious and that you are pulling from memory, or is your ability to write about a past you cannot have lived just a testament to your creativity?
Gortner: I do know that, for me, writing about the past feels instinctual. As long as I can remember, I've been obsessed with the Renaissance. In my mid 20s, I went for a psychic reading and the woman told me she saw two different past lives of mine, both of which had taken place during the Renaissance. It was eerie, as I'd said nothing about myself! Of course, she might have assessed my gothic way of dressing at the time and drawn reasonable conclusions. A man who wears a cape in broad daylight would probably like the Renaissance, right?
Still, it often feels as though I've been there and my fascination is some type of emotional coping mechanism. I'm rarely as content as I am when I'm writing about the 16th century. The book may present a thousand challenges, but the scents, the tastes, the textures, and hues of the time are always familiar to me. I've had occasions when I couldn't find a specific detail when writing and simply made a guess, making a note in the manuscript to return to it later and research it more; and when I do, more often than not I find my guess was accurate.
I do hold a degree in Renaissance studies, and I have read tons of books about the time period, but honestly there are moments when I feel as though I know things about the era that I didn't know I knew. Is that "pulling from memory"? Perhaps. Certainly, it feels like more than creativity. After the research is done, and the writing begins, something stronger takes over and perhaps that is, in fact, a collective unconscious of the past. While I'm on the fence when it comes to reincarnation, I believe that as human beings we all carry echoes of the past within us. Mine just happen to reverberate more strongly with one era
by M. J. Rose, December 5, 2008 4:03 PM
(Read Part 10 here
Laurie King is the bestselling and amazingly prolific author of more than an 18 books, and she has kept me reading late into the night time and time again. She currently writes both stand-alones and series ? including the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series that takes place in the early 20th century. Her most recent novel, Touchstone is set in 1926 England, during the weeks leading up to the turmoil of the General Strike.
MJR: Laurie, how do you do your research? How do you find your way into the past?
King: I write mostly in the '20s, although I am contemplating a project that will stretch through the '30s, so most of my research is either the written word or photographic, with some film. What I read depends on what I'm writing ? biographies for the prominent people and themes of the time, collected letters and diaries for the flavor and individual concerns. Autobiographies can be tricky, because the details tend to be smoothed over by the retelling, and if details are the lifeblood of fiction, they are both the blood and the heart of crime fiction, which functions on specifics, not themes.
The point of historical fiction is not that it is a past one cannot have lived, but a past that one could have lived, given a minor chronological difference in the circumstances of one's birth. "The past is another country; they do things differently" is true, but only on the surface. We read a historical novel not because everything in it is so foreign, but because "they" who live the story are so familiar to us.
This has no more to do with the collective unconscious than any other kind of novel, since the collective unconscious is concerned with archetypes rather than memory. And drawing from what I suppose could be called collective memory is a dangerous temptation when writing historicals, because of the hazards of anachronism.
The trick in writing a story set in the past lies in capturing the flavor of the time, whether it be ancient Rome or Paris in the '20s, without getting bogged down in distractions. If my historical novel reads like a collection of 3x5 note cards, I may have written a remarkably accurate depiction of society and technology, but as a novel, it's a failure. If it presents people I know, all their quirks and passions and interests, only sharply outlined by their very different circumstances, then I've
by M. J. Rose, December 3, 2008 1:40 PM
(Read Part 9 here
Sandra Gulland is the wildly popular author of a trilogy of novels about Josephine Bonaparte: The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe, and The Last Great Dance on Earth. She spent eight years researching her latest release: Mistress of the Sun.
MJR: What are some of the lessons you've learned about research and memory and history in all the years you've spent studying the past?
Gulland: One realization that was important for me in delving into history ? an epiphany, really ? came while I was feeding my horse. I realized that what I was doing was timeless. But for his height, my horse was not much different from a horse in the 17th century ? or the third century, for that matter. As for myself, I might be taller than a woman in the past, and clothed differently, and my constellation of beliefs and customs somewhat different, but my body and soul were basically the same, and what I was doing ? feeding a horse ? had been done for centuries before. That was the key that opened the door for me, helped me to make myself at home in a world of the past.
MJR: Being at home in that past… is it magic? The collective unconscious? Reincarnation? Or just old-fashioned hard work?
Gulland: I don't believe in a collective unconscious, but I don't disbelieve it, either. I do, however, envy writers who claim a book was channeled, that all they had to do was take notes from the voices speaking through them. If only it were so easy!
There is something magical about creation, and we all do whatever it takes to court the illusive muse. Writing my first novel about Josephine, I felt that she was looking over my shoulder approvingly ? I liked that. (For the second and third, I sensed I was on my own. "She's busy," I told myself, somewhat
by M. J. Rose, November 25, 2008 1:58 PM
(Read Part Eight here
Douglas Abrams is the author of The Lost Diary of Don Juan, which takes place during the Golden Age of Spain. It's a historical novel that he wrote to answer a question asked by today's men and women: can romantic love survive modern marriage?
MJR: You started out using an historical figure as metaphor for a subject you wanted to explore, but you managed to create a living, breathing man out of your quest. How did you accomplish that?
Abrams: Over the course of more than four years and 30 drafts, I revised The Lost Diary to try to get as close as I could to Don Juan's world, to understand the decadence and the dangers of Golden Age Spain. The more I researched, the more I discovered that the Muse was leading me down the right alleyways of history. Don Juan's story had to be set in this particular time and place, for the unique combination of rebellion and repression that symbolized the end of the 16th century in Spain helped shape him both as a man and a character.
MJR: How does something like that happen? Do you believe in the collective unconscious?
Abrams: I definitely believe in a collective unconscious. I certainly don't have the creativity to write my novels without a great deal of help from this mythic imagination that we all share. I do feel it's quite possible that reincarnation is real. The issue is that most of us believe we were kings and queens, when in reality we were the footsoldiers and servants of history. Many times while I was researching The Lost Diary and racing down the alleys of Sevilla, I had powerful déjà vu. People ask if I was Don Juan in a past life, and I say that I was more likely his
by M. J. Rose, November 20, 2008 1:28 PM
(Read Part Seven here
Heather Terrell is the author of The Map Thief, a novel that takes place in early-15th-century China and the Ming Dynasty, late-15th-century Portugal and the European Age of Discovery, and the modern-day world. I discovered Heather's work when I read her debut novel, The Chrysalis, last year, and I wrote her a fan letter.
MJR: When you write about the past, it's extremely vivid and dramatic. Your characters inhabit that space and yet are still completely relevant and relatable. How do you accomplish that?
Terrell: To plunge into the past, I immerse myself into the real people who inhabited the time period and the finer points of their lives and settings ? by studying original sources wherever possible, and the visual aspects of their lives when available. For example, in The Map Thief, to capture the worlds of the early-15th-century Chinese mapmaker who created the map and the late-15th-century Portuguese cartographer and navigator who used it, I reviewed the journals of the historian on board the Ming Dynasty sea voyages as well as the first-hand accounts from those on Vasco da Gama's expeditions, among other things. In fact, I ordered so many rare, obscure historical texts from my library that the librarians thought I was writing my Ph.D. thesis on eunuchs in Ming Dynasty China, and asked me to lecture about that topic ? before they learned I was writing a novel.
I believe that we can tap into the mindset of those who lived in the past by familiarizing ourselves with the real details of their existences ? and that we can bring them alive with our creativity. That is the goal I strive for, in any event.
When historical fiction is well written, it does seem to have sprung from the psyches and memories of those who lived long ago. And, who knows, perhaps it does...
by M. J. Rose, November 18, 2008 2:35 PM
(Read Part Six here
David Blixt is the author of the acclaimed The Master of Verona, which takes place in the early 14th century in Italy: the time of Dante, Giotto, and Petrarch; the very birth of the Italian Renaissance. It's an impressive debut and an extremely entertaining and intelligent novel.
MJR: How do you explain how you write so convincingly about a past you cannot yourself remember?
Blixt: I could say that human experience doesn't change, only the trappings and mores of society ? that research, married to empathy, will carry the day. But that answer doesn't address the fact that out of all the periods and all the locales, I am drawn to only a few: Republican Rome, late-Medieval/early-Renaissance Europe, and Home Front America. I often wonder why I'm not drawn to China, or Africa, or South America; why not the Victorians, the Ptolmeys, or Napoleon? There is, for me, a visceral connection, and I mean visceral ? it's deep beneath the skin, a truly gut-level pull to certain times and places that fascinate me. I write those periods because I know them better than any others. That knowing is not learned. It is felt.
I often make intuitive leaps that surprise me, ones of which I cannot trace the origin. Moreover, there are things I knew before I ever read them ? things I wrote about before I knew they were factual, because I knew they were true. The best examples are the Roman ruins under the city of Verona. I created them before I ever saw them, before I'd even heard of them. When I visited Verona and saw that they were real, I felt a mixture of vindication and awe ? where had that idea come from? I still don't know, and it's fruitless to question it. It's not something that can be counted on to write the novel for you, just trusted when it appears, and not ignored.
The Master of Verona was inspired by a combination of Shakespeare and history. The genius of Shakespeare is not in his plots, which were all stolen and are often ridiculous. The genius is how he inhabited all characters fully, giving them voices so their own, they become real people on the stage. It takes a remarkable empathy to achieve that ? and what is empathy but shared
by M. J. Rose, November 13, 2008 1:57 PM
(Read Part Five here
Katherine Neville is the bestselling author of The Eight, which has been selling steadily for the last 20 years. There aren't many authors who discover they've written a classic in their lifetime, but Neville has. The Fire, her fourth novel and long awaited sequel to The Eight, takes place from 1822 to the present.
MJR: Reading your work, I often get the feeling you're not inventing the story as much as retelling it. Almost as if you are remembering it, which is a great feat. How do you accomplish that?
Neville: "Re-membering" just means putting the pieces back together. There are lots of ways to remember our planet's past, other than just stuffing a bunch of googled encyclopedia "factoids" into our heads, as so many history courses often encourage or even seem to require.
For me, one of the most interesting ways of remembering is personified in one of my characters from The Eight ? the heroine Mireille's little son, Charlot, who reappears in The Fire as a grown man. In the earlier book, he was described as a child prophet who was born being able to "remember the future" ? a mental phenomenon that many famous seers, it seems, have also possessed from early childhood. Just as a really good history book or novel makes you feel you were really there in the past ? Charlot also has the experience of feeling he has already experienced events that have not yet come to pass.
Well, as it turns out ? strange as it seems ? we all inexplicably possess this kind of "second sight" or "sixth sense" to some degree. I've lived for many years with a world-famous brain scientist, Karl Pribram, and I've seen many brain experiments in his lab and others, where they have demonstrated that perfectly ordinary people, like you and me, with no training or any special kind of sensitivity, have this ability to know just before a random stimulus is about to come their way ? like a tap on the hand, for instance ? and that over and over, it's been recorded electronically that there's a surge in our frontal lobes shortly before something is about to happen ? regardless of how randomly and unpredictably these stimuli may be coming in.
We don't have a scientific explanation for how this occurs. But who cares how or why it works? It seems to me that if we all possess an important skill like this, instead of trying to find out why or how, we should try to figure out how to develop it for the betterment of our own lives and life on the planet.
In fact, when it comes to my own writing, I try to do exactly that: I usually feel there's something wrong with my book if this synchronicity thing isn't happening on a pretty frequent basis ? like books falling at my feet, open to the right page, that will tell me just what I need to know next to move the plot. In fact, if this isn't happening fairly regularly, I can't finish writing the book at all.
I'm going to have to invoke Yogi Berra here, when he said: "It's deja vu all over again."
Many people might automatically assume that the only explanation for that was that they'd been there before in a prior "lifetime." Hindus and Buddhists would certainly support that concept. Others think that it's cellular memory, part of our genetic code ? or channeling the dead, or something else. It's an experience we've all had, but which nobody to my knowledge has ever convincingly
by M. J. Rose, November 11, 2008 12:23 PM
(Read Part Four here
Steve Berry is the New York Times-bestselling author of modern-day thrillers that deal with history's mysteries. His research literally takes my breath away. His attention to detail creates a fictive coherence that is to be admired. Berry's newest, The Charlemagne Pursuit (December 2008), deals with an ancient civilization 13,000 years old, the ninth century CE, the time of Charlemagne, and present day.
MJR: Steve, how do you write so precisely and realistically about the past?
Berry: The simple answer is research, research, research. I suppose that means I rely on the recollections of others. How else would we ever know about the past except through the memories of those who experienced it? In my case, that comes from hundreds of primary and secondary sources, which I pore through one by one, searching for those precious few facts that will fit together to make a story. Without those recollections, properly memorialized and preserved, the past would truly be lost.
I'm not arrogant enough to say that my creativity is all that is at work here. Nor am I enough of a believer to say that a collective unconsciousness is at work.
I prefer to say that hard work and clear patience, weeding through the recorded memories of both participants and observers, eventually (at least in my situation) makes for a completed story.
by M. J. Rose, November 6, 2008 2:00 PM
(Read Part Three here
David Hewson writes contemporary suspense novels featuring an Italian detective named Nic Costa. His newest is The Garden of Evil, which references the work of Dante and 1950s San Francisco. I've been reading David's work since he was first published in the U.S. and have always been amazed by how he uses the past to inform the themes of the current day story he's telling.
MJR: How do you delve into a historical past you cannot yourself remember ? yet you somehow manage to write about so well?
Hewson: I choose a few selected items to create a concrete image of the place, then build the rest from imagination.
MJR: Do you spend a lot of effort on being accurate? I find that I can get very caught up in details and waste hours trying to find out something that in the end I realize no one alive now could ever know.
Hewson: While I try to be "accurate" as much as possible (mainly because it would be lazy to be inaccurate when the sources are out there), I don't see veracity as important in itself. What matters is the subjective truth of the historical world to the reader. An unreal world that feels right is much better than a technically accurate one that feels made up.
MJR: Do you believe in the collective unconscious? Do you give it any credence in how you're able to tap into the past you write so realistically?
Hewson: I don't believe or disbelieve. Since it's incapable of proof either way, it seems to me a circular argument. For some reason, ever since I was a kid I've been obsessed with Roman history. I've always assumed this is because among the books I grew up with there was a lot of stuff about classical civilizations. I don't feel I'm remembering something when I write about history. To me, this is fiction told with a twist.
(Read Part Five