Therese Down’s The End of Law “delves deep into an area of Nazi Germany that few speak of and many often do not know much about”. With that enticing premise, I invited Therese to talk about the writing of this novel and her take on what makes historical fiction unique. Thank you for being on A Writer of History, Therese.
MKTod: What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?
Therese Down: Research, and lots of it, is my immediate response. It can sometimes take me days or longer of research to write a paragraph or two. This is an aspect of the writing that I love because I learn so much and am often fascinated or appalled or astounded by what I discover. My own reactions then inform the writing and I hope, bring to it an authenticity that enlivens the dialogue and narrative.
Other than thorough research so that even fine details are accurate, (such as the sort of cars that would have been driven or whether there would actually have been electricity in that part of a country by this date; or how someone would have travelled from one part of a city to another) I think an ability to ‘put yourself in the picture’ is essential when writing about places, times and events outside one’s own experience. The imagination is key. I don’t accept that one must have visited a particular place in order to write about it with credibility. I don’t think Shakespeare ever went to Egypt! The fantastic thing about historical writing is that we can travel to places and times we can never hope to experience and render them credibly for someone else. Take for example William Golding’s recreation of a prehistoric world for ‘The Inheritors’, where language of any kind was nascent. Yet when I read this novel, I am transported to a landscape and a way of thinking that is utterly convincing and probably, historically accurate.
I don’t write until I can ‘see’ a room or a street or a scene really clearly and then I describe what I see. If words come to me that sound as if they might be anachronistic or which don’t fit a particular context, I check and research and modify my descriptions so that they sound as authentic as possible. For example, when I wrote ‘Only with Blood’, an account of Irish rural life in the 1940’s, I used the Gaelic word ‘bainbhs’ in dialogue between farmers and employed narration to make it clear what the word meant. It just would not have been authentic to make a 1940’s Irish farmer say ‘piglets’. It would never have happened.
Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?
Yes, I think so. When I was a child, I devoured Jean Plaidy novels. They transported me to mysterious times of lavish costumes and fine language as strange as any Narnia could conjure, but always, I was aware that the emotions, dilemmas and intrigues were based on fact. This knowledge encouraged in me an engagement with the characters, curiosity about history and understanding of human nature which fantasy could not. Some of the finest writing I have read and relished is Pat Barker’s; I could not put down any of her ‘Regeneration’ WW1 trilogy novels and was desolate when I had finished them. Faulks’ ‘Birdsong’ is another I loved. Others which mix historical settings with fiction and are eminently memorable still, though I read them years ago, include Susan Hill’s ‘The Man in the Picture’, Patrick Suskind’s ‘Perfume’, Jim Crace’s ‘Quarantine’, Charles Palliser’s ‘The Quincunx’ and a few of Mary Renault’s classical mythological novels. All have placed me firmly in another context and allowed me to tour deserts or centuries-old London, Venetian or Paris streets; become immersed in the flavours of the foreign, the sounds and sights of the long past. In a very similar way to that in which Archaeologists thrill at artefacts once treasured by someone long dead, a reader of historical novels may experience vicariously their lifestyles.
What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?
I think I am concerned very often with realistic setting – accurate scenery or urban layouts are important. Less materially, the constraints of the political context and prevalent attitudes inform my work; a female protagonist’s frustration with the lack of educational opportunity available to her in 1940’s Ireland or the impotence of dissenters in Nazi Germany. I do however think it is important to leave readers with an impression of redemption and hope. Historical novels are snapshots of what life was like for a few people in particular situations and can make for painful or even harrowing reading. But, history evidences that no matter how tragic, unreasonable or difficult circumstances might become, the human spirit and an indomitable sense of natural justice prevail. It is right, I think, that an historical novel at least hints at this. Tragedy does not usually have the last word in fiction or history and if it does, its lessons are inevitably that evil is to be avoided. Take Doctor Faustus, for example – a perennial ‘morality’ play currently enjoying an RSC run. The latest audiences will be under no illusion about Marlowe’s message!
In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?
The internet is an airport for historical writers. It can fly you off from innumerable gates (links) to any destination – geographical or in time. It is my go-to source for first person accounts or historical documents of almost any description. If I want to know when the rainy season is in Lagos, Nigeria, or what would typically be served in a Nazarene café; if I need to know what sort of car a high ranking SS Officer would drive or what title someone might use to address Herman Goering in 1942; If I have to be sure about how TB was detected, communicated or eradicated in 1940’s Tipperary, I can find out via the internet. After that, there is word of mouth. Very often, someone I know will have an idea about something or will have studied it at university. I am a teacher so work with walking, talking sources of varied knowledge. I work with people who are pursuing postgraduate studies in ancient archaeology, have doctorates in Hagiography and a peculiar Paleolithic worm that had teeth … They know stuff.
What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?
So far, I have had novels published which are set in the 1940’s and Europe. I had to be as meticulous as possible when trying to create landscapes and impressions of cities because there are plenty of people still living who remember them – my 88 year old Irish mother included! I was delighted when she and some of her Irish friends confirmed that the Ireland I had created in ‘Only with Blood’ was as they recalled and had experienced it. However, thanks to the internet, fine autobiographical and historical books, (such as the diaries of Victor Klemperer, 1933-41 titled ‘I Will Bear Witness’), as well as endless TV documentaries, it is not too hard to re-create realistic Berlin landscapes and events.
Do you see any particular trends in HF?
I think the Tudors, Medieval and Mythological contexts have enduring appeal – as do the World Wars, of course. Anthony Doerr’s ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ has just won The Pulitzer. Khaled Hosseini’s’ ‘The Kite Runner’ and ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ as well as innumerable other great books set in the Middle East and currently called ‘Crime’ or ‘Thriller’ writing, are set to become history novels of great import, as soon as they can be deemed ‘history’ of course. It’s an interesting if somewhat tautological notion, that ‘historicity’ comes with a certain passage of time – fifty years, perhaps? It’s notional. However, the trials and dilemmas of the Human Condition explored by historical novels are perennial. In this, the divide between a history novel and imaginative fiction can be a thin thing – perhaps captured in the questions ‘Did it happen?’ or ‘Is this a true story?’ Even notions of truth are blurred at this margin; it is highly likely that many things described in historical settings are ‘real’ if the constructs to ‘whom’ they happen are not.
Please tell us a little about your latest novel.
My latest novel ‘The End of Law’, exemplifies that eclipse described above, where fictional plot lines are superimposed on reality and the reality – the historical veracity informing the plot – shines brightly behind and at the perimeter of what is fiction. I have learned much from Pat Barker’s writing and followed, timidly at first, in a path she thrashed clear with her ‘Regeneration’ series. Barker imagined what Siegfried Sassoon might have said when he met Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart War Hospital for Officers, during WW1. She imagined how things might have played out when Officer Sassoon risked court martial and imprisonment for writing an anti-war declaration including the statement : “I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it”. And she imagined – brilliantly – the conversations that Sassoon and Owen and other fictional characters would have had with the character Rivers, based on the real and renowned psychiatrist who oversaw their ‘rehabilitation’ or ‘regeneration’.
Thanks to Barker, in the main, I had the courage to write dialogue for intimidatingly real characters such as Hermann and Albert Goering, Himmler, Ribbentrop and others. My research and studying of their actions as well as their apparent attitudes and personalities, informed my imagination re. what they might say in certain situations and to characters I created. Pat Barker gave me the confidence to dare to give them voices. I wanted ‘The End of Law’ to focus on the hearts and minds of those caught up in the increasing madness of 1940’s Nazi Germany. I wanted to ‘engage with’ the process by which so many people became corrupted. A particular interest which drove this narrative was the conviction that many, many voices were stifled or eliminated at this time. Not enough deference, I think, is paid to those Germans who never accepted what was happening or were hopelessly compromised or made ill by the gradual institutionalization of indifference to the vulnerable which spawned the T4 programme and then, the Holocaust.
Several people who read my first novel, ‘Only with Blood’, and enjoyed it, have told me they will not be reading ‘The End of Law’ because it is likely to be too upsetting. I understand this. To a point. I hate gratuitous or sensational depictions in literature or in film, of cruelty or suffering. I have taught Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ more times than I care to remember but I would never choose to read the passage where the sow with piglets is killed by a group of savage and inexperienced boys whose hunting instincts are driven less by hunger than a need to make something suffer. But my squeamishness is not license to avoid the issues Golding raises, about the darkness of man’s heart and humanity’s propensity for violence. Obviously, numerous exam boards share my view because this text has been examined on GCSE courses for at least thirty years! The murder of Piggy at the end of ‘Lord of the Flies’ or, for that matter, photographic/cinematic evidence that the Holocaust took place, are not, to my mind, in the same category as certain film directors’ torture scenes or the ‘Saw’ film series. I think depictions of violence must be considered in context; how necessary are they? How much must be delineated graphically to make the point? Often, implication and understatement are more powerful. I hope ‘The End of Law’ strikes the right balance. In a way, the ‘heart’ of the writer informs the book and I hope it is clear where my heart is in ‘The End of Law’.
To risk repetitiveness, what is harrowing cedes to what is hopeful. This is breathtakingly trite as a view of the Holocaust or T4 but, history has denounced the brutality and shameful atrocity of Nazism. It doesn’t, sadly, mean that the result is a wholly reformed world. But perhaps my need, and that of countless other writers, dramatists and film makers, to revisit the debauchery which seized Germany just eighty years ago, is an indication that what is good about humankind will not be ultimately subverted. Art should, I think, be a mirror we continue to hold up to the past, lest we forget what it looked like and don’t recognize it in the future. I hope my book, ‘The End of Law’, is at least a compact mirror which reflects some of what is behind us and says ‘Look. Look back at this. Never again let it be something which confronts us.’
Many thanks, Therese, for your contribution to inside historical fiction – helping readers and writers to appreciate the ingredients that go into making historical fiction unique.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.