A reader of any age might ask this question of a story, whether it’s told by a parent or teacher or read in a book of fiction or non-fiction. And today’s reader has a particularly strong “reality hunger,” a term used by David Shields to title his manifesto about the confusing nature of reality in modern life and our desire to find it. A writer of non-fiction today can get in serious trouble if he or she fails to report as accurately as possible what really happened, as memoirist Vivian Gornick points out in an interview in The Rumpus. And both readers and reviewers often assume that a work of fiction is all or part autobiography. The historical novel is a special case. Well-known and documented historical events provide a non-fictional frame, which the writer of fiction must observe. If historical figures appear in the novel, they must be true to character, and if they speak, their words must at least be close to what they really said. But the writer is free to imagine invented characters within the historical frame.
In my first book, The Crack between the Worlds: a dancer’s memoir of loss, faith and family, I
I wanted to find that girl I never knew, to take her on adventures she never had, to let her experience all the risky possibilities of her time and place, prohibition-era Chicago. Thus the seeds were planted for my historical novel A Free, Unsullied Land. I invented a young woman of the 1930’s named Henriette Greenberg, but she is not my mother. Her personality has elements of me, my mother, and many other women I have known.
I made the time and place as historically accurate as I could, and doing the research was one of the most enjoyable parts of writing the book. I dug through libraries and the Internet to find what such historical characters as Theodore Dreiser, Jane Addams and W.E.B. Dubois really thought and said. I researched the endless legal battle of the so-called Scottsboro Boys, nine African-American young men unfairly accused of rape in Alabama. I listened to the jazz that was making its way from the South to Chicago at the time.. I watched the groundbreaking musicals of Busby Berkeley, who celebrated the Great Depression’s “forgotten man.”
Did the events in the book really happen? No, they never did and never could have. My mother would never have had or even wanted to have the adventures of Henriette. She and the people with whom she interacts are almost all invented characters. But the world of the novel was real at one time, and I have tried to give it new life. I hope the reader will see how very different and yet how much the same it is as the world in which we live today.
Maggie Kast is the author of The Crack between the Worlds: a dancer's memoir of loss, faith and family, published by Wipf and Stock. She received an M.F.A. in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has published fiction in The Sun, Nimrod, Carve, Paper Street and others.
A chapter of her memoir, published in ACM/Another Chicago Magazine, won a Literary Award from the Illinois Arts Council and a Pushcart nomination. A story published in Rosebud and judged by Ursula Leguin won an Honorable Mention in their fantasy fiction contest.
Kast’s essays have appeared in America, Image, Writer's Chronicle and elsewhere. Her first novel, A Free, Unsullied Land, is forthcoming from Fomite Press in November 2015. An excerpted story, “The Hate that Chills,” won 3rd prize in the Hackney Literary Contests and is forthcoming in the Birmingham Arts Journal.
Website URL: maggiekast.com
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