A Room of One's Own
Virginia Woolf said it: every woman writer needs a room of her own. Writing men need rooms of their own as well, of course, but Woolf was talking about women because even men of little means have never had trouble procuring at least a humble room of their own, whereas for a woman “to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble.” Woolf was writing—speaking, actually, at Newnham and Girton colleges—in 1928. Women have certainly come a long way since then, but some things never change. “Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down.” All familiar constraints for a writer today, along with the fact that the world “does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them. It does not care whether Flaubert finds the right word or whether Carlyle scrupulously verifies this or that fact.”
My usual room is a study in my house with a south-facing window that keeps me warm on these cold winter mornings. I have a big desk in the corner with a PC and my books near at hand. I’m pretty good about ignoring the laundry and the bills and the to-do lists while I’m working. But the phone rings, the UPS guy comes, the neighbors argue outside. And if I get up for a cup of coffee, I’m reminded of the dozen other things I could be doing.
I’m hoping to get my second novel to my agent this winter, and in this final push, I needed another room of “my own,” one where no one could find me. Friends came to the rescue, offering me two different quiet, unused spaces where I worked for two weeks on my winter break from teaching. I was amazed how much work I got done. I learned that my attention span is a lot longer than I realized. Given a whole day and no one to talk to, I can write straight through and hardly look up. I wouldn’t want to spend every day that way, but for two weeks it was heaven.
If you’re looking for good places to write, there are lots of choices. Nearly every public library has its nooks and crannies, and university libraries are great if you have access. A favorite spot of mine is the Institute Library in New Haven with its Victorian décor (you have to be a member). Your place of worship might have a spare room for a short-term weekday retreat. Coffee shops are a perennial favorite, though I find the noise too distracting. One writing friend even suggested the train station, where the bustle might inspire you, or might offer just the right kind of escape. (I haven’t tried this yet.) Or you can do what I did: send out an e-mail to a bunch of friends and see who has a place for you.
Virginia Woolf said a great deal more in her lectures than this. She spoke of the need for money as well, and of the infuriating constraints put on women as thinkers throughout the history of male-dominated scholarship. It’s not just a room that we need. But it’s a start.
When History Meets Fiction
One of the difficulties for readers of historical fiction is knowing where the line has been drawn by an author between the two. Where does the history end and the fiction begin? I’ve been giving a talk lately called “When History Meets Fiction.” Some of you have heard it, but I thought I’d share one piece of it here because it’s a topic that nags at many readers.
There is a continuum in historical fiction that runs from “alternative history” on one end to deeply researched, highly accurate historical fiction on the other. In “alt-history,” the premise itself is understood to be preposterous. For example, in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America
, Charles Lindbergh runs against and defeats FDR in the 1940 presidential election. In its review
, the New York Times
described the novel as “a fable of an alternative universe, in which America has gone fascist and ordinary life has been flattened under a steamroller of national politics and mass hatreds.” The reader knows going in that this isn’t how things happened at all. It’s a “what if” story, one in which the basic premise is historically inaccurate, though many of its other details are spot on. In some ways, historians are less bothered by “alt-history” because the line between the history and the fiction is pretty clearly drawn.
At the other end of the spectrum is a novel like Sally Cabot’s Benjamin Franklin’s Bastard
, which she researched as if it were a biography. Franklin did, indeed, have a bastard son, who ended up as the Tory governor of New Jersey, on the opposite side of the Revolution from his father. What history knows very little about is who his mother was. Cabot took the facts she had available and wrote the story of that woman as she imagined it. The key here is that she wrote not what was possible or imaginable but rather what was credible or even, in some cases, probable. In an Afterword, she sets the historical record straight.
Between these two kinds of historical novel, we have a wide range of novels that play with history to a greater or lesser degree, and it’s in this middle ground that readers tend to run into more trouble. Take, for example, Hilary Mantel’s
widely acclaimed historical novel Wolf Hall
, the first in a series that retells the history of the Tudors through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, the chief advisor to Henry VIII and an important figure in the English Reformation. My knowledge of that history is weak enough that I wasn’t bothered by any of the choices Mantel made in Wolf Hall
. What was clear to me was that she did her research, recreating a very specific time and place; and she wrote a compelling story that never drew attention to the fact that she’d done her research. However, in a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education
, critic Susan Bordo pointed out lapses in Tudor history in a number of popular movies and books, including Wolf Hall
and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies
, about which she wrote, “The imaginative fiction of ‘Cromwell’s point of view’ is both the novel’s greatest achievement and a handy rationale for playing very loose with the facts.” For one thing, “the details of Anne [Boleyn’s] fall are quite different from what most historians now believe.” In other words, Mantel tells a great story, but it isn’t the true story. Is that a problem for me as a reader? Only in the sense that now I know I’d better brush up on my Tudor history.
As readers of historical fiction, we need to remember that we’re reading fiction. Even if the author doesn’t do us the favor of a note at the end setting things straight (Mantel offers her readers a two-paragraph Author’s Note that does very little), we can’t assume we’ve been given the facts. In the best of historical novels, what we’re given is a story that transports us to another time and place and keeps us turning the pages and leaves us wanting more. That “more” might well be the history itself. Of course, as any discerning reader knows, even the histories have their particular angles and their own versions of the story, in which case we might ask: where does the fiction end and the history begin?
I just read. . .
Black Swan Green
by David Mitchell. Many readers know Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas
(made into a movie in 2012) and his newest, The Bone Clocks
, but Black Swan Green
deserves some attention, too. In fact, I’d like to see it take the place of Catcher in the Rye
school reading lists. (A Google search tells me that Slate
, at least, agrees.) Like Catcher
, Black Swan Green
is a boy’s coming-of-age story, this one set in England during the Falklands War in 1982. Some readers may take awhile to settle into the British vocabulary and the contraction-riddled voice of the adolescent narrator, Jason Taylor: “S’pose Dad’d been mangled by a juggernaut on the M5 and the police only had this office number ’cause all his other I.D.’d got incinerated?” But Black Swan Green
is well worth those minor challenges (which, anyway, are good for those of us who like a little stretch), and is, in fact, full of original, stunning language as well. Jason wakes from a nap after a painful injury and “my head didn’t feel right, like a crow’d flown in and couldn’t get out.” A mysterious bridle path “joined up with a moon-cratered track. Trees knitted overhead, so only knots and loops of sky showed.” Each chapter of Black Swan Green
appears at first to stand alone. The novel is episodic, and early on, I wasn’t sure whether I was reading a story collection rather than a novel. But Jason’s experiences do follow one upon another and begin to echo each other in what turns out to be a simple yet deeply satisfying conclusion of sorts—as much of a conclusion as one can have in early adolescence, a time that can feel like a very long prelude to “real life.” You don’t have to have been a thirteen-year-old boy in Thatcher’s England to recognize the creepy neighbor, the peers waiting for Jason to fail in public, the adult who finally understands him, the embarrassing parents, the desire for the wrong boy/girl, the forbidden places. Black Swan Green
is bound to be, in some ways, about your adolescence, too. I wanted to say to Jason: I understand you, and you’re going to be just fine.