analyzing historical fiction, author Alexandra Curry, differentiating historical and contemporary fiction, novel about Sin Jinhua, novels about China, novels about east meeting west, The Courtesan by Alexandra Curry, what's special about historical fiction
I’m delighted to have Alexandra Curry on the blog today. Alexandra’s debut novel, The Courtesan, is based on the real life story of Sin Jinhua, a famous courtesan who lived during the Qing dynasty (late 1800s).
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’?
Alexandra Curry: I love history of all kinds, but for me historical fiction enters the realm of the magical when I, as a reader, don’t feel—at all—as though it is history. When for a few hundred pages I wouldn’t dream of not wearing the whalebone corset that makes it hard for me to breathe, or I am sweating in a Confederate soldier’s grey woolen frockcoat that is far too warm on a summer day, or my brocade Geisha’s obi makes me feel beautiful and almost legendary. For just a while, I am the classmate of a little girl in a South African school whose life has changed, right now, because the curls in her hair have caused her to fail the infamous pencil test of racial purity. It’s magical when I can almost feel the thigh-flask of bathtub gin that’s underneath a character’s skirt, and I see myself with bobbed hair and finger waves and tassels and sequins—and am on my way to Harlem to hear music that makes my shoulders, hips and feet move in ways that some people say is shocking. None of these experiences belong to my place or my time, but as a reader of historical fiction I feel the discomfort, the heat, the heartbreak—the excitement of another era. I know everything I need to know about these ways of being human and these times that have passed and just a little more than that. I know these things through the eyes of characters the author has created and I trust her or him to have given me the truth as those characters lived it. Fiction like this lets us see the intriguing, the shocking and the universal. It leaves us with a new frame of reference about how things connect through time, and at its very best when we read the words THE END on the very last page we understand why what happened then matters now.
Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?
I have to give a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ answer to this question—and do I dare add a ‘maybe’? This isn’t meant to be equivocal, but I think that reading is a hugely layered experience, and the burden of choice is on the writer and the reader of historical fiction, and it’s all good and all valid. Answering for myself, I want the very same things from all forms of story-telling: fascinating characters who allow me as a reader to peek into the intimate corners of their lives and well-told stories that leave me feeling that I absolutely have to know what happens next. When it comes to historical fiction, there is another layer, and that is the possibility of seeing the world through a different lens that is informed by what came before our time. I love the challenge of exploring that layer. I love the learning that happens so easily. I love seeing what is not as it is today, thinking about how history connects to where we are now, being profoundly changed in how I see the world because I have read a particular book that took me to another time. Is this inherent to historical fiction? I don’t know, but it makes for wonderful reading and gives us food for thought.
What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?
We live in a world that is incredibly global—and diverse—and familiar to us. There is so much we know—or think we know—and feel as though we have always known about other places and cultures. I have a very particular fascination with how this has happened over time. What was it like when we were not so familiar, when a European met a Chinese person for the very first time—or a Native American man went to France—or an Indian to Africa? How did these cultures react, one to the other? What surprised the Chinese person about the European? What brought conflict to the relationship, or sympathy, or misunderstanding? Or love? My first novel addresses these kinds of questions from the point of view of a traditional Chinese woman who journeys to Europe at a time when Orient and Occident are in the early days of getting acquainted. As you might imagine, the fact of this exposure has a breathtaking impact on her life that leaves her changed forever. My second novel, a work in progress, is the mirror-image and entirely different story of a western woman who travels, half a century later, to China. I am enthralled with the impact of these cultural meetups—in some cases collisions—and if I accomplish one thing in my novels, I hope it is to shine a light on worlds that are fascinating and complicated and universally human. If I can accomplish a second ‘thing’, it would be to give readers a large canvas kind of context, a way to experience history as my characters do and come away with a new kind of perspective on how the world actually fits together.
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?
My philosophy is Leave no stone unturned—and be very careful. For me as a writer the goal is full immersion for the reader in an intriguing, believable and truthful way—and to me believable and truthful are every bit as important as intriguing. I want my readers to trust me, which means No mistakes. It means that I have to know everything that matters and lots that doesn’t. So I read history. The more the better. The more obscure the better. I travel anywhere I can think of that offers specific ways for me to experience what that historical world was like. That means cities, countries, museums, reenactments, graveyards. Looking at old photographs or paintings. As a writer if you cannot see it you cannot write it. I am also a huge fan of primary sources. Diaries, memoirs, letters. What did people who lived at the time have to say about what it was like and how did they say it? And then, with all of this knowledge, there is the really difficult task of throwing out everything that doesn’t really matter to the story—getting rid of all that hard won background noise–which is a process that can bring a writer to tears. It certainly did me.
Please tell us a little about your latest novel.
The Courtesan is the story of two cultures colliding: the East and the West. It is also the story of a woman who lived in 19th century China. Her name is Sai Jinhua, and she was a real person. Even today, she is very well-known in Asia, a woman of almost legendary status. My version of her story finds her in 1881, orphaned and unwanted by her father’s first wife, who sells her as a child-courtesan. Sai Jinhua goes on to lead a rich and unexpected life as concubine to one of China’s first (and reluctant) ambassadors to Europe. She travels with her husband to Vienna, where she experiences firsthand the strange world of the ‘foreign devils’, as western people were known in China at the time. There she falls in love for the first time, and she greatly angers her very conservative diplomat husband as she plays with a freedom a woman does not deserve in the Chinese tradition. On her return to China, Sai Jinhua is greatly changed by her European life experiences at a time when intense conflict between East and West is boiling over. She finds herself right in the middle of a war known now as the Boxer Rebellion. This was a war that changed the course of Sai Jinhua’s life—and also changed the course of history.
Many thanks, Alexandra. I appreciate your thoughts on historical fiction. And best wishes with The Courtesan and the new story you are working on!
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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, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.