Friday, May 22, 2015

Interwoven Threads

History is messy, with overlapping stories and mixed points of view. Although historians do their best to stick to the documented facts, most acknowledge that their efforts can take them only so far. Accepted truths change depending on point of view: rich or poor, male or female, York or Lancaster. The best we can do is try to distill a coherent account out of whatever varied opinions we find in the historical record, admitting that the results are necessarily incomplete. So many individual perspectives have not survived in archival documents, assuming they ever existed in documentary form. Indeed, the inability to establish a single, final version of “what actually happened” (with apologies to Leopold von Ranke) keeps historians in business: we can always revisit old debates or generate new ones based on previously unexplored evidence.

Fiction, in contrast, tends to be neat. Sure, a given tale can follow large casts of characters through long, twisty plots. But good stories have structure, and structure demands a beginning, a middle, and an end. Everything has to hang together, or the reader loses interest. Plot consists not of random incidents but events carefully chosen to force the central character to change. Setting expresses the hero’s emotions at the moment in question; props and symbols foreshadow the eventual outcome. To paraphrase Anton Chekhov, a writer shouldn’t place a gun on the mantle at the beginning of the play unless she intends someone to fire it by the end. However winding the journey, the whole unwieldy vehicle of a novel staggers upward to an inevitable hilltop, then rolls down the far side to the resolution. That very neatness—the sense that here life makes sense, has a clear and identifiable purpose—constitutes much of the appeal of fiction for writer and reader.

But sometimes an author wants to show a more multifaceted, messier view of a chosen location in a specific time while retaining the advantages of fiction. These advantages include the novelist’s freedom to imagine the inner worlds of people living in the past—although, of course, novelists also have a responsibility to ensure that their medieval knights don’t talk and think like twenty-first-century technocrats. One option is to feature a family—or related families. By juggling different story lines and multiple points of view, an author can create a more journalistic portrayal than one finds in a typical novel. This is the approach Alan Geik has taken in his debut novel Glenfiddich Inn: baseball and radio, war and propaganda, scheming in business and on the stock market, politics, medicine, and the suffrage movement all find a place in his exploration of Boston in the years during and immediately following World War I. We discuss these topics and more during our interview,  held one hundred years, almost to the hour, after the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, an event with profound effects on his characters and the larger world they inhabit.

The rest of this text comes from New Books in Historical Fiction:

Boston in 1915 is a town on the move. Prohibition creates opportunities for corruption and evasion of the law. Stock scandals and political machinations keep the news wires humming. Women agitate for the vote, socialists for the good of the common man. A new sports phenomenon, the nineteen-year-old Babe Ruth, sparks enthusiasm for the local team by hitting one home run after another. A new invention called radio hovers on the brink of a technological breakthrough that threatens the established newspaper business.

Over it all hangs the shadow of what will soon be known as the Great War. Boston, like most US cities of the time, has large German and Irish populations that do not want to see their country fighting alongside Great Britain and France. Meanwhile, thousands of young men die daily in the trenches, and the RMS Lusitania sinks off the coast of Ireland, torpedoed by a German submarine captain who believes (perhaps rightly) that the British have stocked it with hidden munitions.

Through the overlapping stories of the Townsend and Morrison families in Glenfiddich Inn (Sonador Publishing, 2015), Alan Geik weaves these disparate threads into a compelling portrait of early twentieth-century Boston and New York.

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