The second panel I attended at the LA Times Festival of Books was Fiction: Novel Lives. The panel was moderated by Robert Roper and included Jill Bialosky, Nicholas Delbanco, Brian Hall and Marianne Wiggins. This was perhaps one of the only in panels that truly stuck to the theme, as each novel discussed was, literally, about well-known personages (real or fictional).
Brian Hall's book, Fall of Frost, is a novel told from Robert Frost's perspective. Jill Bialosky's book, The Life Room, includes Anna Karenina as a character. The Shadow Catcher, by Marianne Wiggins, takes its subject matter directly from the life of 20th century icon/photographer Edward Curtis and Nicholas Delbanco's The Count of Concord examines the life and accomplishments of Benjamin Thompson, a contemporary of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
Bialosky talks of what inspired her book: She was enchanted by female protagonists (a la Wharton's The Awakening) who, when faced with a choice in the struggle between passion and responsibility decide to kill themselves. Why do they end their lives for their passions?, Jill asked aloud. Much has been made of her book an it's Anna Karenina character, but she points out that she is not the central voice, not the central character. Her original title for the book was The Interior Life of Eleanor Cahn and her editor made her change it. She's not thrilled, although admits that The Life Room sounds cooler.
Wiggins speaks of her inspiration for her latest book and how these idea fragments eventually interest her: You must ask yourself, can an idea sustain the structure of a novel? She had been thinking about Shadow Catcher and the photographer Edward Curtis for years. She wanted to write about his work, but couldn't find an interior tension that would sustain the work. She did some research. She learned that he wanted to photograph all the Indian tribes before they were extinct. Interesting, stuff, but still no tension. She then learned that he couldn't get funding for the project and eventually accepted money from J.P. Morgan (directly involved the reason the Indians kicked-off their land) to complete his historic photographic journey. Bingo! That's was the moment. When he made the deal with the devil, that's when I knew I had the necessary tension to sustain the novel.
Delbanco finds it fascinating that his fellow panelists all began their novels about well-known figures by being engrossed in their lives, whereas he began his out of irritation. He became aware of Benjamin Thompson and some of his accomplishments (many inventions now used every day in our homes) and worked on the book for 22 years. Yet the man was pompous and quite an ass, and Delbanco didn't really like him. Eventually, he realized that there was an odd tension in the fact that Thompson was designing tools to better mankind, yet he wanted nothing to do with people and was horrible to them in his personal life. Eventually, all the pieces fell into place.
Roper asks the panelist about the responsibilities inherent in writing about historical figures. How do you buy permission from readers to break from the historical novel form?
Hall: I didn't want to change the facts of his life. So the idea was, what is it as a novelist, what can I bring to it? By exploding the chronology (rather then outlining Frost's life in chronological order) I can focus on his ideas, can focus on his intimate life and how it shaped his poetry. Since it's about poetry and I'm a prose writer, I wrote short chapters to make it feel is immediate as poetry.
Wiggins: I make a contract with my writing: I'm the only person in the room. I take it very seriously. My job is this: I'm going to tell you a story and I'm going to make you laugh and I'm going to make you cry. I'm going to change your life.
Bialosky: I kept thinking about an adulterous woman. I create as a need to understand. I had no idea what she was going to do - it kept me interested until the end.
Hall: I inhabited Frost to write this book. He points out, though, that it is a terrible challenge to put your prose against Frost's poetry.
Bialosky is also an editor and she points out that she has edited many historical novels. She recently edited The Last Summer of The World by Emily Mitchell, a novel about photographer Edward Steichen. During the editing process, the question kept coming up - what liberties can you take? Bialosky has come to believe that if you are a novelist, it is entirely up to you how much of their real lives you use vs. fabricate.
Hall agrees that the license is up to you, but bemoans how intimidating it was to write dialogue for someone as literate and eloquent as Frost. Wiggins offers up that she had the opposite problem in writing dialogue for Edward Curtis as he was notoriously short on words and quite a cold man.
Someone from the audience asks the question I've been wondering about: why did Wiggins put herself in the novel as a character named Marianne Wiggins? She says she didn't start out with herself in the novel and didn't take the decision lightly. After trying to write whole sections of the book over and over and trying to come up with the right way to tell the story - this solution (adding herself in) emerged. She fought against it and tried still other approaches. To her own discomfort, it worked. It was the only way to tell that story. She says that as a novelist she has never mined her own life for her work and that it was a difficult and painful process, one she isn't interested in repeating.
The session ends with a question about family estates and if anyone had difficulty getting their work approved or blessed or whathaveyou by living family members. Roper defers to Hall in this moment, as it seems there was quite a struggle with the Frost estate over Hall's book. Half the family was for the book, half were against it. Several didn't feel he was portraying Frost in the best light and they wanted to protect the Frost image. In the end, he had to remove several lines of poetry that were still under copyright and re-work the order of the novel accordingly. He believes it resulted in an even tighter work. His book is just out, he reminds us, so we can see for ourselves.
Take-away: This was far more interesting than I expected it to be, if only because I rarely read historical novels. On a completely personal note, I was heartened by the way in which each writer came to their subject matter and how they stuck with it, slowly collecting enough pieces to make a novel, trusting the process and that it might take years before they had enough fragments to tell a compelling story that interested them enough to write it over a possibly longer period of time.
I was once captivated by Sub-commander Marcos via a small item I read in the San Diego Tribune about a recent march through a town square in San Cristobal de las Casas. That one small mention in the paper on a Sunday morning set my mind ablaze and I wrote 30 pages straight away. I then did more research and was convinced that this was a story - an outsider perspective on the whole movement - that I had to write. It worked its way into my brain for months and I wrote whatever came out.
At some point, I fell back on the oh-so-awful norm of far-too-many writing workshops: write what you know. I stopped myself one day and thought: who the hell do you think you are writing about Mexico and Chiapas and the Zapatistas and all of these politics that you know nothing about. How could you ever do this world justice? It also seemed so far beyond my grasp - something I couldn't do. Too ambitious. An easier book on relationship insights, all witty and sly, seemed a better bet for me. Also - I don't even read books like that, so where was this burning desire to write one coming from?
I dropped my research then and there and never wrote about it again. But, but. In the past two years, there have been "signs" that I've chosen not to follow: my new filmmaker neighbor who interviewed Sub-commander Marcos, a random email I received from someone who has researched and written extensively about Marcos, the treasure trove of Chiapas books I found at an estate sale. I've filed these bits and bobs away and haven't done anything with them. But they haunt me. There is a story there to tell, with a unique perspective (that of the total outsider), which I, at some point, felt compelled to write.
I'm not saying I've dusted off the books and jumped headlong back into the Zapatista rebel world to resurrect this book. What I am saying, is that this panel brought all of this back to the fore, both reminding me that I had once had this passion for a subject that seemed so outside myself and chiding me for not having enough faith in my own abilities and the writing process to give it a proper go.