Historical fiction affords novelists the opportunity to rewrite great events to their own specifications. They must begin by adhering to rigorous facts and are then freed to extrapolate at their imaginative will. Known
history serves as subtext. Readers come to historical fiction with some
knowledge of the eras they are about to immerse themselves in. Names, dates, and the locations of key happenings must be scrupulously accurate. From that point on, the writer is free to invent. Thus, we enter the secret infrastructure of emergent history and the private nightmare of public policy.
Rewriting history is a gas. It requires native audacity and a keen sense of how people were then. You get to live life concurrently now and then. You get to live life retrospectively, embody the attitudes of the era, and judge from a contemporary perspective. History resolves itself to an ambiguous degree over time. Writers of historical fiction get to revel in the tension of not knowing what we know now and structure their work disingenuously — because they damn well do know how the whole thing comes out. I groove on the history of my childhood and youth. My recollections are by and large sharp, occasionally diffuse, sometimes drug-blurred, and often distorted by simple synaptic dysfunction. None of it matters — because I am writing fictional history within established history, and I know when to deploy the facts of a given era and when to ignore them. And I am writing secret histories of collusion and conspiracy. The word "secret" denotes mendacity and privately codified agendas. I get to assassinate political leaders — and no one gets hurt. I get to invade the Bay of Pigs — and no one dies on the shore. I get to cook big "H" in Saigon and peddle it in the L.A. ghetto — and no one gets strung out. I can make you believe that this really happened, when something else entirely different did. Writing historical fiction is, for me, a wondrous form of benign megalomania.
My new novel, Blood's a Rover, is a superb case in point. The book runs from June of 1968 to May of 1977. Established historical events and iconic figures loom large. You've got fallout from the hits on Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. You've got the biiiiiig hippie riot at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. You've got Howard Hughes, Tricky Dick Nixon, and Gay Edgar Hoover. Oh, yeah: we know these events and we know the players. Then you've got a fictional armored-car heist, voodoo in Haiti, fictional black militants creating woo-woo in southside Los Angeles. Throw it all together and what do you get? A plausible historical novel, comprised of one-third fact and two-thirds fiction.
If corrupt political leaders rule the world and call the shots on the secret agendas, then there have to be some baaaad men out there, doing the dirty work. Chances are, a few of them possess emerging consciousness. Ooooooh, that makes for juicy internal drama. What happens if these baaaad men meet superbly depicted, strong women? Historical romance ensues.
An avalanche of recorded history assisted me in writing Blood's a Rover. The events of 1968 had been comprehensively catalogued and analyzed. A dearth of recorded history on Tricky Dick's Haiti/Dominican Republic policy assisted me as well — I got that much more fictional wiggle room.
Here's the crux of it, fuckers:
Some of this shit happened, some of it didn't. Some of it can be verified, some of it can't. Some of the characters are recognizably real, some are patently fictional, some are unrecognizably real. Get it? History is a conspiratorial, collusive, bright-light-defined and wholly delusional blur — and fiction gets us as close or unclose as purported true reportage does.
What a fucking gas!!!!! I wrote the book, got paid for it, and got to live the history. Now I can pass this wild-ass quilt of obsession and immersion on to you.
I'll never tell you exactly what's real and what isn't.