Historical Fiction Authors
“The authors on our panel create an authentic experience—the sense, the touch, the smell of a historical period,” said Barbara Hoffert as she introduced “Historical Fiction @ Your Library” Saturday morning. And as the session (sponsored by the Association of Library Trustees, Friends, and Foundations) progressed, this authenticity became clear: Authors spoke of wandering the streets of Venice and Manhattan imagining their characters in another time, of wearing historical clothes to feel what it was like to live in them, and of cooking up old herbal remedies. One author even wielded a replica of a medieval broadsword.
Regina O’Melveny discussed the process of writing her debut novel, The Book of Madness and Cures. Already a poet, she had been writing a series of prose poems and realized they were in the voice of an interesting historical character. At the urging of a friend, she started building a narrative around the voice—a female doctor on a search for her father—and started research to place the story in the Italian Renaissance. Her writing process took her as far as Venice to do research on historical medical centers, but the story also comes from losing own her father as a teenager and listening to her Italian mother read passages from Dante.
Lois Leveen based her novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, on three short lines she found buried in a huge book when she was researching for her doctoral dissertation on African-American literature. In these lines, she read about a slave named Mary Bowser, who had been educated and liberated by her master’s radical abolitionist daughter. While writing the story based on her limited knowledge of the real Mary Bowser, she tried to dig into what Mary must have felt when she gained her freedom, left her family, and later returned to the South as a spy during the Civil War. Leveen recognized that her extensive research on the period helped her give Mary an authentic voice in this first-person narrative.
Gail Tsukiyama spoke about writing novels that evoke her half-Chinese, half-Japanese heritage. Her latest novel, A Hundred Flowers, takes place in a brief historical moment in 1956 when Mao Zedong began the Hundred Flowers Campaign. It traces the event through the experience of a single family. Tsukiyama called this process “bookending,” which allows her to take a huge scope—in this case the 5,000-year-long history of China—and turn it into a historical novel that gives readers a connection to the past.
Jeri Westerson spoke about her latest book, the Crispin Guest Medieval Noir Series of detective stories that she describes as “The Canterbury Tales with murder.”
The authors encouraged librarians to use their books for programs and to contact them for book talks.