Tinkering with history

Richard Smyth won the first prize in the LS13 anthology competition with his short story ‘Deep’. Here, he explains the relationship between history and his writing.

“Nothing but a pack of lies” – Damon Runyon on ‘Alice In Wonderland’

I write historical fiction. I don’t really mean to write historical fiction, but that’s what seems to end up happening. Maybe this is because, in my respectable other life as a non-fiction author, I write books on history – but I don’t think so. True, studying history gives me some of the tools I need to write stories and novels set in the past, but in many ways that’s a secondary concern; for me, where ‘historical fiction’ is concerned, the history bit plays second fiddle to the fiction bit.

In an excellent recent New Yorker profile, Hilary Mantel was quoted as saying: “I cannot describe to you what revulsion it inspires in me when people play around with the facts. If I were to distort something just to make it more convenient or dramatic, I would feel I’d failed as a writer.”

In an otherwise admiring series of tweets in response, the novelist and academic Sophie Coulombeau questioned this severe judgment.

“Truth – in history, fiction, histfic – is such a complex concept that it deserves more nuanced treatment than that,” she argued.

I agree. Fiction is a form of organised lying – with the object, of course, of arranging the lies so that they tell some kind of truth.

Richard at the launch of LS13 in June 2013, part of the Big Bookend weekend. Photo by Steve Evans

Richard at the launch of LS13 in June 2013, part of the Big Bookend weekend.
Photo by Steve Evans

There are many reasons for writing historical fiction. Mine is simply that history offers me a much broader palette: of language, of characters, of contexts, of locations, of ideas. I don’t want to use all these things at once – but I do want them all to be there for me to use when I need them.

The objectionable historian Roland Huntford once tried to justify his inaccuracies by describing the scenes he was writing about as “landscapes of the mind”. It’s a good phrase. I write about landscapes of the mind; we all do, when we write fiction. Martin Amis has said that it’s impossible to put real people in a novel, “because a novel, if it is alive, will inexorably distort them, will tug them all out of shape, to fulfil its own designs”.

Modern-day or historical, local or exotic, the facts of the real world take on a new form when reconstituted in fiction – no matter how painstaking the work of reconstruction. They become the property of the writer. The Clough or Scargill of a David Peace novel isn’t the real Clough or Scargill, just as Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell isn’t the real Cromwell. These books are simply full of downright lies – lies re-arranged to spell out new truths.

It goes without saying that no-one wants to see, say, Sir Alec Douglas-Home popping up in a novel about the Wars of the Roses, just as it would jar intolerably to read about a man getting on the Tube at East Acton and getting off in Shanghai. We need reference-points we know and can trust. But at the same time we have to remember that no novel, no matter how gritty or raw or unblinking, is set in the ‘real world’. Animators are fond of saying that in their films, unlike in live-action movies, nothing comes for free; everything you see on screen has been drawn by someone. As fiction writers, we can say something similar: the only worlds we can write about are the ones we make for ourselves.

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