Friday, August 22, 2014

Novels as Therapy

Some people write explicitly autobiographical fiction, in which they take incidents from their lives and rework them through novels as a way of dealing with them. Virginia Pye, in her interview with me for New Books in Historical Fiction, mentioned that she usually writes about places after she stops living in them—although River of Dust, the subject of our interview, followed a different path to completion. My fellow member of Five Directions Press, Ariadne Apostolou, also draws on her own life experiences for material, although the application of a large dollop of imagination makes the results no less fictional than any other novel.

Since I have written two historical novels set in sixteenth-century Russia, a two-part science-fiction romance, and one romance bridging present technology with a fictionalized past, it should come as no surprise that I tend not to draw on the events of my own life for my raw material. Of course, I borrow bits and pieces from people I know (never entire characters) and mine news reports for evidence of attitudes and behaviors that might have prevailed in the settings I create. Likewise, my many years of studying medieval and early modern history, especially the history of Russia, go right into the books. Everyone does that, or something like that. “Write what you know” need not mean “write what you’ve lived,” but stories cannot exist in a vacuum.

Even so—and this realization has struck me with particular force this last month as I revise for publication a pair of novels that I began in 1998—my fiction, too, contains an autobiographical element. My novels work when they express my emotional state at the time of writing. Not my state at a given moment, although that can be useful in tackling individual scenes, but a deeper problem or approach to the world that characterizes my concerns throughout the two or three years required to produce 80,000–90,000 edited-to-a-fare-thee-well words. Otherwise, why would I stick with it?


I have not yet found that underlying element in The Swan Princess, which probably explains why I’m procrastinating on it. I know the overall plot, the character arcs, and the general locations, but I still have to figure out why it matters to me; the whole enterprise remains too intellectual for a pursuit as creative as fiction. Desert Flower and Kingdom of the Shades, in contrast, are like a window onto my own past, a chance to revisit that earlier self and see how I’ve done in terms of resolving (or not resolving) the issues portrayed there. It’s been a fascinating trip. I will be glad to get the books out, but at the same time, I will miss the submersion in that world, that part of my history.

I won’t tell you what specific issues found their way into the books: they are heavily disguised and, in a sense, not important. What counts now is their fictional representation. But I will say that the subconscious mind is a marvelous and peculiar place, one to which every novelist and creative artist owes a huge and ongoing debt. And once in a while, it’s fun to dip a toe into the onrushing stream of time to see what small parts of the past can be recaptured.

Maybe it’s true, as Tom Wolfe says, that you can’t go home again. But write it down, and you have a place to revisit ever after. For me, that’s good enough.

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