Friday, December 19, 2014

The Art of Life

One of the difficult steps in my expansion from writing history to producing historical fiction was mastering the art of the historical detail. Not in the sense that historical novelists often get themselves into trouble: by insisting on cramming every factoid they have carefully researched into their books regardless of whether it fits the story or turns it into the fictional equivalent of a Strasbourg goose. As a scholar of an unfamiliar time and place who stumbled into a fantastically specialized area of study while writing her dissertation, I long ago mastered what Sir Percy calls the “cocktail party spiel”—the ability to summarize a complicated project in twenty-five words or less. The alternative was to watch people’s eyes glaze over as they edged for the bar (literal or figurative—and if you’ve ever wondered why I write novels under a pen name, it’s to protect innocent readers from my academic work). So as a novelist and as a historian, I am a big fan of “look it up,” as in if readers want to know more, that’s what they’ll do.

No, the difficulty I had was in mastering the concept of the emotional detail. Historians look for facts, to the extent that we can extract them from often-biased documents, and the facts of a historical event often fail to convey how that event affected the people caught up in it. The lower a person’s social standing, the less likely we are to find written documentation that reveals that person’s inner life. Or, as Laura Morelli puts it in her interview with New Books in Historical Fiction, we know about the lower classes (in her case, the boatmen of sixteenth-century Venice) mostly when they get themselves into trouble with the law.

Of course, roustabouts and troublemakers are more fun to write and read about than prissy heroines and noble youth who never harbor an unkind thought. But our necessary reliance on the skewed record left to us by history requires us novelists to use our imaginations creatively to develop, within the framework of what we can know about the general attitudes and life situations of specific groups in specific times and places, a creative understanding that we can apply to the circumstances of individual characters—themselves our inventions.

The results, when we get it right, sweep the reader into the past as no dry-as-dust treatise ever can. Take, for example, these two paragraphs from The Gondola Maker.

Peering further back into the shadows, I observe what appears to be years’ worth of neglected belongings: furniture covered in drapes, shelves stacked high with discarded tools, household goods, and more. Within this jumble, my eyes begin to make out the shape of another gondola stored in dry dock, turned upside down on a pair of trestles. The boat is partially covered with a large swath of canvas, but from the portion of the craft that is visible, I see that it is very old and neglected. The paint is dull and scratched, and part of the wood is split on one side, probably the result of some long-ago crash.

My heart leaps as I notice the carved maple leaf emblem on the prow of the boat. Even through the darkness, I would recognize it anywhere: the old gondola was made in my father’s boatyard. (107)

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction. If you listen to the interview, the NPR story I mention is also available online and free of charge.

As the son and heir to the workshop of sixteenth-century Venice’s premier gondola maker, Luca Vianello has his career, his marriage, and his place in society mapped out for him. True, his stern father still grieves for Luca’s older brother who died in childhood. And Luca’s left-handedness—viewed in Renaissance Europe as sinister, even demonic—provokes blows from his father even as it causes him to lag behind his younger brother in developing his skills. But it is only when tragedy shoots Luca out of his family’s boat-building business altogether that he can envision the possibility of change.

Through luck, Luca lands a position in another Venetian boatyard, far less prosperous than the workshop to which he was born. He loads boxes, succeeds as an errand boy, and befriends an older, more experienced gondolier determined to introduce Luca to the charms of wine, women, and on-the-side deals. Before long, Luca has become the private boatman of Master Trevisan, painter to Venice’s elite. There Luca encounters  both the beautiful Giuliana Zanchi (and Trevisan’s portrait of her) and the abandoned, broken-down gondola that will become his personal restoration project.

Laura Morelli is an art historian and the author of, among other nonfiction works, Made in Italy and Artisans of Venice. In her award-winning debut novel, The Gondola Maker, she draws on her extensive knowledge of the Venetian past and present to recreate a lost fictional world that will astonish you with its rich, varied, endlessly fascinating detail.

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