Monday, 15 December 2014

Brighton Festival Fringe Event

It's early days yet - but I'm just flagging up the fact that I'm delighted to be talking about historical fiction with the award-winning novelist Susanna Jones as part of the Brighton Festival fringe in May 2015. 

Susanna is the author of three contemporary novels: 'The Earthquake Bird'; 'Water Lily' and 'The Missing Person's Guide to Love' and of the historical novel 'When Nights Were Cold', which tells the intriguing and unsettling story of a group of female mountain climbers in the early 20th century. 

So far this is the information that we have:

Historical Fiction Now - writing and publishing panel and workshop. Novelists Susanna Jones and Sally O'Reilly on why they started writing historical fiction and their publishing experiences. Includes panel discussion with publishers and literary agents followed by lucky dip pitching session. Bring a one-page book idea/synopsis for possible feedback.

The venue is The Latest Bar and the time is 7pm on Thursday 21st May. 

Hope to see you there - and more details soon!

Thursday, 4 December 2014

What IS historical fiction?

I've just finished chairing a series of seminars about historical fiction for the Open University. (There's more about this series here.) There were six speakers, all brilliant and all with a different angle on historical writing and the way in which it relates to other forms of fiction - and to different academic disciplines. I'll be posting in more detail about the subjects we discussed in the next few weeks.

It may seem pretty straightforward to come up with a definition for historical fiction - surely we are simply talking about any story that is set more than 50 years ago? But even that is open to debate - Jerome de Groot, one of the seminar speakers, includes Alan Hollinghurst's  'The Line of Beauty' in the genre, whereas the Historical Novel Society insists that the 1980s are too recent. Whatever the cut off point in terms of time, it's also the case that this is a vast compendium of a genre. 

There are infinite possibilities for writers of historical fiction. It includes straightforward generic writing such as Tudor bodice rippers, and experimental writing like Ali Smith's 'How to be Both' which was the winner of this year's Goldsmiths prize for experimental fiction as well as being long
listed for the Booker.

I'm interested in the way in which this genre can be bent and shaped by different writers, and the way that it develops and morphs with time. I'm also interested in getting well away from the idea that this is a cosy or conservative genre, in which writers are playing safe. 

As Hilary Mantel says: ‘A relation of past events brings you up against events and mentalities that, should you choose to describe them, would bring you to the borders of what your readers could bear. The danger you have to negotiate is not the dimpled coyness of the past – it is its obscenity.’

Some stories may be more brutal than others, but the ‘obscenity’ of the past fascinates writers – war, murder, fear, oppression, loss, invasion, imprisonment and bereavement all feature in 21st century historical fiction, as does squalor, both moral and physical. And just as no subject is off limits, neither is any period, or any form of experimentation. Historical fiction is not an escape from the modern world, it can enable us to see contemporary life more clearly.

Like all writers, I am learning all the time, and this seminar series taught me a lot. What I’ve learned in the last couple of months is that the challenges and complexities of writing historical fiction relate to writing set at any time, and to any comprehension of the past, whether recent or remote. Put simply, this is about what can be known, how we can know it, and how that knowledge can be communicated.

Will this make it easier to write my next novel? Probably not. But I am certainly fizzing with ideas not only about the subject matter, but also about ways in which this story can be told.