Friday, January 16, 2015

The Untold Story

There are many reasons for writing historical fiction, starting with a simple love of the past and extending to practicalities (so much easier to keep a mystery going in the absence of DNA evidence, cellphones, and even the presence of trained and dedicated professional investigators). Writers can give “voice to the voiceless,” as someone (alas, I don’t remember who) noted on Goodreads, referring to all the poor and downtrodden, many of them female, whose stories don’t make it into the official record. The majority of the population in any given century belongs to this group, so it’s a massive and worthwhile undertaking, although an absolute bear to research. But the information deficit is what makes these stories well suited to fiction; where data fail to materialize, the imagination takes over.

My Legends of the Five Directions novels also present an untold story, even though most of the characters are highborn. Due to frequent fires and wars, the lack of a developed educational system, and a general indifference to documentation until the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—and then primarily for practical matters of governance such as taxes, land allocations, and military musters—few written sources have survived from Russia before the Time of Troubles (1598–1613). As a result, historians expend a good deal of effort on untangling which of the extant documents offer useful information and what we can reliably conclude from them. Historians enjoy this kind of exercise, which is essential, of course, but for the world as a whole it can make for dry reading. In Legends, I try to distill what is nonetheless a quite considerable body of information into a series of authentic but fictional portrayals of a lost world. Novels allow me to fill in the blanks; I strive to keep my inventions in line with the known facts (although occasionally I goof), but I don’t feel the need to suppress every tiny detail that I can’t verify from the sources. Whenever possible, my characters are my creation. But even those who bear the same names as people mentioned in the history books reflect my invention of everything from their thoughts and speech and personalities to their physical appearances: most of the portraits that have come down to us were painted much later and at times in distant lands.

Alix Christie, in her fascinating debut novel Gutenberg’s Apprentice—the subject of this month’s interview at New Books in Historical Fiction—tells yet another kind of untold story. Her characters once existed, although she has had to reconstruct their personalities as best she can, and some elements of their lives have been revealed by advances in what we might call the technology of history: the ability to identify different inks in printed quires of the Gutenberg Bible, for example. The long-held belief among scholars that Johann Gutenberg singlehandedly invented the printing press has begun to crumble in the light of new evidence. (For more on the story behind the novel, see Christie’s wonderfully informative website.) But in Germany, too, the ravages of war, fire, and time have wreaked havoc on the archival record. Although the technology raises questions, the documents that could provide the answers have disappeared. Again, the situation is perfect for fiction.

And the story itself is tailor-made for a novel: three men, each with his own goal—sometimes overlapping, sometimes in conflict—drawn together to serve a purpose the importance of which they cannot yet conceive, forced to depend on one another to complete their project, but often at odds as to the best method by which to achieve the end they all seek. The one thing we know for sure is that the joint enterprise ended badly, in a bitter court battle that shattered their partnership. Yet together they produced the printed book—a creation that reordered the world they knew to an extent unequaled until the computer arrived half a millennium later.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

From sixteenth-century Venice we move back a century and travel north to Mainz, Germany, where a “madman” named Johannes Gutenberg has invented a radical new method of making books. Like any technological genius, Gutenberg needs venture capitalists to finance his workshop and skilled craftsmen and designers to turn his ideas into reality. He finds a financier in Johann Fust, a wealthy merchant and seller of manuscript books. Indirectly, this relationship also brings in a new craftsman when Fust calls his adopted son, Peter Schöffer, back from Paris, where Peter is making his name as a scribe, and forces him to become Gutenberg’s apprentice.

Like many people in the early days of printing, Peter is initially repelled by the ugliness and the mechanical appearance of books produced using movable type, an invention that to him seems more satanic than divinely inspired. But Fust will not release Peter from his apprenticeship, and the young scribe is soon learning to man the press and cut type as Gutenberg embarks, in secret, on the creation of the massive Bible with which his name will henceforth be linked. As he works, Peter too comes to appreciate—and in time to enhance—the beauty of printed books. Publication, though, takes longer and proves more difficult than anyone has expected. As the process drags on, tempers fray and tension rises, quire by quire.

Alix Christie apprenticed twice as a letterpress printer, and her experience informs and enriches Gutenberg’s Apprentice (HarperCollins, 2014). In this interview, we also talk about the ongoing transition from print to electronic books, what will tip the balance, and how our understanding of the first great technological revolution in books may prepare us for the second.

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