This is the substance of a talk I gave at the University of East London, March 2008


Henry James, The Art of Fiction:
‘I remember an English novelist, a woman of genius, telling me that she was much commended for the impression she had managed to give in one of her tales of the nature and way of life of the French Protestant youth. She had been asked where she learned so much about this recondite being, she had been congratulated on her peculiar opportunities. These opportunities consisted in her having once, in Paris, as she ascended a staircase, passed an open door where, in the household of a pasteur, some of the young Protestants were seated at table round a finished meal. The glimpse made a picture; it lasted only a moment, but that moment was experience. She had got her impression, and she evolved her type. She knew what youth was, and what Protestantism; she also had the advantage of having seen what it was to be French; so that she converted these ideas into a concrete image and produced a reality.’

Yes, that is the stuff of a novelist but he also needs to convince his reader entirely. As James goes on to write: 'I am far from intending by this to minimise the importance of exactness-of truth of detail … If it be not there, they are all as nothing, and if these be there, they owe their effect to the success with which the author has produced the illusion of life.’

I read something about football in 1958 ('when Pele scored a hat-trick in the World Cup Final') or North London in the 1970s ('the cordon of skinheads demanding money outside Camden Town tube station') or New York in the mid 1980s ('the black man who lived below me on Mulberry Street'), and if I spot an error of fact then the whole edifice crumbles. If the author didn’t get
that right: Pele only got two goals in the 1958 World Cup Final; skinheads used to make their aggressive demands for 10p inside the concourse of the tube station; there were no blacks living in Little Italy in the 1980s; then I don’t believe anything else the author tells me. I won’t believe in the marital relationships he describes, that bit of supposedly poignant and significant dialogue between father and son, not even the colours in the sunset that are described on page 37. I know that detail and it’s wrong. Therefore everything else is called into question. A reader doesn’t have to trust the writer, but he needs to believe in his authority.

The wisdom about research is that the researching author reads everything he can about the subject, he becomes an expert in the field. And then he unremembers it. It has to be digested, the library knowledge must become almost a part of his lived experience.

The other wisdom is that you never put down everything you know. Just as you know more about your characters than is actually on the page, so that the reader (and the character) draws on hidden worlds of associations and knowledge, you never throw all your research into the book. It becomes embarrassingly obvious when an author does this, as in those old Arthur Hailey blockbusters --
Hotel, Airport and the like -- in which everything the author, or, more likely, his team of underpaid researchers finds out gets thrown into the mix.

The field I rather stupidly became a sort of expert in a couple of years ago was utopian religion in the mid-19
th century in central New York State, specifically the Oneida Community. The origin of my interest for fictional purpose, what James called in his preface to The Spoils of Poynton ‘the germ of an idea’, happened a while before that, and I can no longer quite remember it. I think it happened in a library, probably the British Library. It might have been while I was researching my previous novel, The Gift, on one of those undisciplined days when one text led to another and I started following chains of thought and influence over place and time for the sake of the pleasure of it, losing sight of why I was there in the first place. I believe it had something to do with Chinese erotic practices (you probably shouldn’t ask) where I came across a passage that referred to some of the different groups that practised what the Oneida Community would call ‘Male Continence’. This was my introduction to the Oneida Community. I’ve long been fascinated by attempts at utopia, ideal living, intentional communities, and while I got back to the task in hand, the germ took up residence, and grew.

When it became time to begin research into the Oneida Community, it wasn’t enough just to research the Oneida Community. People take their influences from the generation before them. To understand a character who lived and, as in the case of Mary Pagan in
The Pagan House, died in 1850, I had to read up about the cultural and religious currents of the 1820s. I had to make myself some kind of expert in the Second Great Awakening, the evangelical movement of that time. That was just one of the many tasks or challenges or impossibilities that I set myself.

At the heart of the book is a 13-year-old boy. That’s fine. I was once a 13-year-old boy. But Edgar isn’t me. There are some similarities. He has a transatlantic upbringing for one thing, but he is 13 in 1996, and I was 13 in 1974. Times change. This is not just a truism, but a profound truth.

Here’s a confession of just one of my prejudices: I loathe historical fiction. I once had a (hated) history teacher who was, I discovered, when I was about Edgar’s age, also a novelist. Reluctantly, I gave this man some additional respect because I innocently believed back then that the novel represented the highest pitch of man’s artistic achievement. I went to the library (this is long ago, they still had public libraries back then, with books in them) and found one of this teacher’s books. It was, like all of his books, a historical novel. This one had the misfortune to be set in Russia. The opening described a horseman riding through snow, angrily dismounting in a castle courtyard. “Typical,’ muttered Pushkin, “typical.”

And was I relieved. I could lose any begrudging respect for his man. The book was awful. Pushkin did not talk or think like that. My history teacher’s attempts to give him life just pushed him further away from us. He is not us. It’s horribly easy to write bad historical novels—their authors seem to have convinced themselves that to summon up the past all they have to do is dress up their characters in period costume and put long sentences in their mouths and silly hats on their head. There are very few novelists who can represent the past in its strangeness. They are not us, now is not then. It is a presumption to pretend so that gains us nothing except for, maybe, some diversion.

Perhaps it is impossible to make an accurate representation of the past. But if we didn’t attempt the impossible the world would be a very dull place. Male authors write as women and vice versa and sometimes with some degree of success (more so when it's the women writing as men). One of the additional problems of writing historical fiction is that nothing, except maybe science fiction, dates so quickly as an attempt to regather the past. You could call it the
Days of Heaven fallacy. Terence Malick's film is a grandly beautiful love triangle story and more, set, purportedly, in 1916. But actually it's set in 1978. Just look at Richard Gere’s haircut.

So. You’ve made the mistake of setting a book, at least in part, in the past. You’ve made the mistake of setting the bulk of it just outside Syracuse in New York State. (You should of course have set it either somewhere you know very well or somewhere that you would actually like to visit, Tokyo or the Pyranees or Las Vegas) How do you go about getting the information you need?

If you were researching something or someone set in the now or the recent past, you can go to the places you’re going to write about. You can meet people who knew the originals for your characters. It’s not, though, entirely straightforward. I was once researching a film about a dead boxer. There was a mystery surrounding the manner of his death (was it suicide? gang murder? which gang?) as well as some aspects of his life. Each group I met, ex-boxers, ex-policemen, showbiz types, had a different theory about his death. Each group had a partial tale to tell about his life. I had to come to my own conclusions given the stories they told. But when you’re researching fiction you’re not after truth: that’s something you can make up later. What you’re after is
voice. How did they speak? If you find out how they spoke you’re more than half way to learning how they thought, the language they used to describe their own reality to themselves. Once you get the voice, everything else falls into place.

What did they see? And what did they experience with the other senses too? I always listen to the music my characters would have chosen or have forced upon them. Almost as important is what
didn’t they experience. What commonplaces of our world were utterly missing from theirs?

What metaphors did they use? In
The Pagan House, the originals for my Perfectionists used the language of the Bible, but they also had a fondness for military imagery. They were soldiers dressed for war.

Fortunately the Oneida Community left behind a lot of documents. They wrote tracts, pamphlets, newspapers, lectures, diaries, love letters. They believed in the word as the ammunition of truth. As the group’s founder, John Humphrey Noyes, wrote: ‘If printing is the most important art as the medium for uttering truth, navigation properly stands next in importance as the means to transporting it. With these two arms, a competent and organised Press and a suitable Marine, truth is furnished for the conquest of the world.’ The printing press was the cannon of their artillery. Every interaction with the outside world was a battleground to bring heaven closer; every moment with a brother or sister was a rapturous prayer. They were God’s advance guard.

So I read their tracts and pamphlets and letters. Some are collected in books. Others are published on the Syracuse University Special Collections website. Others are available only to be consulted at the Syracuse University Library itself. Still others are gone, burnt in the 1940s. Utopia gave way to capitalism in the late nineteenth century. The community dissolved itself and reinvented itslf as a manufacturing company. They made themselves and their descendents rich on the proceeds of tableware and silverware. The descendents of the original communitarians were the managers and bosses. But a couple of generations later, some of the communitarian free-loving past was not seen as appropriate for the reputation of a respectable company and some company wives got together, shamefully, to burn as much of their racy past as they could.

I went to Syracuse, to the library to read the original documents. There is something maybe sentimental about wanting to touch the originals even though I had already read most of them in collected form. But I also wanted to see the buildings they made, the landscape they inhabited, the hills they looked out on, the shapes they and their descendents have made on the region. There’s a thrill to physical immediacy and while it may be a myth, it’s a useful one, that travelling in space can also be a journey through time. And the book is about now as well as then. I wanted to meet their descendents, and the descendents of their neighbours. If I hadn’t gone there I would never have understood the Native American resentment to their once charitable benefactors, for example.

And I wouldn’t have received the hospitality of their descendents. I stayed in a house lived in by direct descendents of Mary Cragin (the original of my Mary Pagan) and John Humphrey Noyes. I owned up to what I was doing but their instinct to Yankee hospitality was greater than any trepidation as to what I might make of their world. Without that stay the book as it stands could not have been written. Each conversation I had, in the towns of Kenwood and Sherrill, in Syracuse, on the Indian reservation, in the casino, fed into the final book in some way.

I sent the book to my hosts in America and, to my relief and gratification, they liked it. They didn’t find horrible errors of fact or interpretation in it, or at least they didn’t tell me if they did. The book is, I hope, in its own terms at least, a success.

But. To all this talk of scrupulousness and historical tact, let’s have a counter-example. Walter Abish’s
How German Is It? was published in the USA in 1980. The author’s Germanic-sounding name, the book’s setting in contemporary Germany, its concern with contemporary German history and recent German horrors, its preoccupation with German identity and essence, the door the book seems to open into the modern German mind, all these things led readers to assume that the author was a German. The book is a staggering achievement of playful authenticity. The fact that its author is an American (albeit born in Austria) who, until several years after his novel was published, had never been to Germany, hardly detracts from its achievement. As Abish said in an interview, which in a way paraphrases James, ‘After all, the Germany in one’s head is frequently more valuable as a source than the Germany one may visit.’