(Re)Imagining True Lives: On Historical Fiction

September 7, 2011 | 13 books mentioned 9 4 min read

Say “historical fiction,” and your listener’s eyes may glaze over, as you fight to re-seize attention. Younger readers or those with edgier tastes, especially, may associate authors of historical fiction with dotty academic types in tweed, or their narratives with conventional period dramas, the cinematic equivalent of which might be a Merchant Ivory production. So let me just say, with as much un-dotty enthusiasm as I can muster, that I am, like, way super excited about the histo-fi seminar I’m teaching this fall, “(Re)Imagining True Lives.”

More specifically, the reading list focuses on works of fiction that feature, either prominently or peripherally, real historical figures as characters:

covercoverAmerican Woman by Susan Choi
The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert
Regeneration by Pat Barker
Hadji Murad by Leo Tolstoy
Stories from You Think That’s Bad by Jim Shepard
Stories by Roberto Bolaño, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Colm Tóibín
Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

Possible additions/substitutions:
covercovercoverWritten Lives by Javier Marías
Libra by Don Delillo
The Master by Colm Tóibín
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Book of Salt by Monique Truong
The News From Paraguay by Lily Tuck

(Now, if this list doesn’t get your reading chops watering, then sure, maybe historical fiction just isn’t for you.)

What fascinates me as both reader and writer (and also as teacher and lifelong writing student) is the always dynamic tri-level experience of delving into these works and their like; one is always simultaneously aware of 1) the author’s particular knowledge of and relationship (intellectual, political, emotional) to the real-life material; 2) one’s own particular knowledge of and relationship to (or lack thereof) the material; and 3) one’s engagement/response to 1).

Where has the author stayed close to “facts,” and where has she taken liberties of imagination, supposition, projection? Does my experience of the novel grow more, or less, deep and interesting as I identify the fact-fiction seams? Personally, I would say more – which is to say that, as we see the way in which researched and imagined history braid together, the author himself ultimately becomes a compelling character in his own right. As the author decides what to imagine/suppose/project (and of course how), he reveals, inevitably, his own concerns, ideas, obsessions.

covercoverWhat is it about the German romantic poet Novalis’s rather banal, albeit eccentric, middle-class family and upbringing, and his courtship of the dull-witted 13 year-old Sophie von Kühn – years before he came into his full powers as poet and philosopher – that captivated Penelope Fitzgerald’s literary imagination? By what instinct or logic did both Susan Choi and Somerset Maugham take liberties in renaming their characters and revising their stories, while also rendering them clearly recognizable to the reader (as Paul Gauguin, and Patty Hearst and Wendy Yoshimura, respectively)? What do Bolaño and Le Guin mean by backgrounding primary figures like Borges and Cortazar, and the Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen, while foregrounding peripheral, fictional protagonists (the novelist Sensini in the story of the same name, and the all-female exploration team in “Sur”) in their stories of literary greatness and extreme adventure? Similarly, how important in the scope of history are figures like J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, and Freud – in Doctorow’s literary vision – relative to a minor ragtime musician (the fictional Coalhouse Walker, Jr.), the Vaudeville escape artist Harry Houdini, and an immigrant street artist (also fictional), given Morgan’s and Ford’s relatively peripheral (at the same time utterly fascinating) scenes in Ragtime? What do Walbert’s imagined depictions of suffragette Dorothy Trevor Townsend’s female descendants tell us about her “what if” thought process (i.e., what if your mother, grandmother, great grandmother starved herself to death for a cause?) and conceptions of emotional inheritance? In other words, in their particular, idiosyncratic manipulations of history and imagination, and through our careful study of the results, these authors show us glimpses of not only their characters’ but also their own inner moral landscapes.

How we read these works also reveals to us something about our own relationship to fact and fiction. To what degree am I aware of divergences from strict facts as I am reading? Do I give myself over to the whole of the created world and characters, or do I pause to ask myself, “Did this really happen?” and then click over to Google to fact-check? Or do I engage in this research afterwards? Or not at all? Why, or why not?

We read a memoir, a la James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, and take it for true, only to learn that key elements have been fabricated, embellished. We are offended, insulted, maybe impressed, maybe not so surprised. But what of the converse? You are reading an absurd or incredible scene in a novel (the episode in Ragtime where J.P. Morgan sleeps solitary in the crypt of an Egyptian pyramid comes to mind), and then come to find it really happened. What is the effect, then? The other day I was walking in the park and saw, in a pond, a bronze sculpture of a turtle, nose in the air, perched on a rock. How quaint, I thought. Then, movement in the water: an actual turtle swimming, nosing up to the sculpture, trying to get its attention. Silly, dumb thing, I thought. Then, the sculpture’s eyes – black on white with blood-red outlines – suddenly flickered; the turtle stretched its neck even longer up toward the sun, then twisted to acknowledge its suitor-compadre. I stood there a few moments, smiling stupidly.

What was the nature of my delight? The translucent hologram of truth and falsity, real and fake, shifting and melding, captivates. In the hands of a skillful and mindful artist, the effect is unsettling and exciting: we start out on a smooth, hard path, but then find our feet sinking into warm sand, or slipping on ice, at times finding again stone-solid footing, only to slip or sink again. Where are we? Whose reality is this? History, the author’s inventiveness and fixations, our own projections and obsessions call out to us all at once. In historical fiction, studied closely, perhaps more so than with other sub-genres, this motional holographic magic comes into stark relief – not unlike the red flickering eyes of a turtle or, one hopes, the un-dotty aha moments of a seminar-class discussion. For good measure, maybe I’ll show up on the first day wearing gold lamé and skinny jeans.

is author of the novels Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and The Loved Ones (Relegation Books 2016), which was a selection for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Indie Next List, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, TNB Book Club, Buzzfeed Books Recommends, and Writer's Bone Best 30 Books 2016. She is deputy director at Film Forum, a nonprofit cinema in New York City, and she teaches media & film studies at Skidmore College and fiction writing in Warren Wilson College's MFA program. Learn more about Sonya here.


  1. If you’ve not read it, I could definitely reccomend A. N. Wilson’s “Winnie and Wolf” about the relationship between Wagner’s daughter in law and Adolf Hitler. I enjoyed that book very much – as did the critics: it was a Booker longlister a few years ago.

  2. What a fantastic reading list–and course. The intersection of fact and fiction in literature is certainly an interest of many. Virginia Woolf was fascinated with it–convinced (rightly) that fiction doesn’t just fall like”stones from your pocket.” I think Joyce Carol Oates has done some of her best work here. “Blonde” and “Black Water” are both dark, historical reads–“Blonde” re: Marilyn Monroe and “Black Water” about a “Senator” who, driving drunk, crashes a bridge leaving his female passenger to drown. I forget who that book was about (yes, kidding). Anyway, a great idea for a course.

  3. I remember reading “The News From Paraguay” in undergrad (it had only just come out.) As much as I wanted the source material to be interesting, that book just… wasn’t.

    Everything else looks fantastic, this is exactly the sort of course I would love to take.

    What about Gore Vidal’s “Narratives of Empire” novels, though?

  4. Wonderful list. I’ll try Choi again–didn’t keep me reading the first time I picked it up. Recently read Melanie Benjamin’s The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb and loved it. Fascinating look at Civil War Era and Gilded Age U.S. I love historical fiction and was kind of surprised by the opening lines of this great review. Like any other genre it has its highs (as you so splendidly note) and its lows.

  5. Today many of us are also experimenting with historical figures in our work. The Year of the Gadfly (my debut out in May) has Edward R. Murrow as a character and Ann Neapolitano’s wonderful “A Good Hard Look” weaves in an out of the life of Flannery O’Connor.

    Where are you teaching your course, Sonya?

  6. Good historical fiction naturally arouses my curiosity and makes me want to read solid nonfiction on the era (if only to make sure I don’t soak up any mistaken “facts” due to the author taking artistic license). Viewed this way, histfic is a great way to get fired up for real history. Okay, I will mention that I have taken this sort of artistic license myself. I’ve recently released a historical fiction book that has a 19-year-old George Washington going to London to seek his fortune. “George in London” is manifestly not for real (George made one trip to Barbados at 19 but returned to Virginia and never again left the confines of the US), but I have had people say to me, “I’ve never heard that story about Washington.” “Well, it is a novel,” I say.

  7. Thanks for the terrific recs above, everyone – I was hoping for that.

    @Jane: you know, it’s really my own projection of feeling dotty, and then double-projecting onto “younger or edgier readers.” There was a time, years back, when I myself would have generally avoided historical fiction. In other words, the “defense” is my own internal loop, which you’ve aptly exposed!

    @Tim: but that’s what I love about this sub-genre, i.e. the decisions authors make to render a real event here, imagine a fictional one there – it’s like seeing the author and subject engaged in a beautiful, complex dance.

  8. @Sonya, Yes, the dance is fascinating. When an author is really cooking, when he or she has you in their grasp, it’s easy to become wholly credulous and believe it all. Of course, that sort of transportation is why we read fiction to begin with, I’d guess.

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