Historical Fiction: The Pleasures and Perils of Writing About Other Eras

Christina Baker Kline and Lisa Gornick
From the September/October 2019 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Earlier this year novelists Christina Baker Kline and Lisa Gornick had a conversation at the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library about the challenges of writing fiction set in earlier times. Gornick had just published her fourth work of fiction and her first foray into writing about the past: The Peacock Feast (Sarah Crichton Books, 2019), a multigenerational saga that spans the twentieth century, ricocheting between the fantastical Tiffany mansions, Anna Freud’s London office, a California commune, a Texas death-row unit, and today’s Manhattan. Kline was closing in on a final draft of her eighth novel, The Exiles (William Morrow, 2020), which takes place in the mid-nineteenth century and tells a little-known story about convict women sent from Great Britain on repurposed slave ships to Australia, where, despite discrimination and hardship, they helped forge a new society. Several of her previous novels are also set at least partly in the past. For both, this public conversation was an opportunity to read what other writers have said about researching, imagining, and depicting earlier times—and to then delve deeply into their own experiences doing the same. What follows is an adaptation of their talk at the library.

Kline: Several years ago, in an essay for the New Republic, Alexander Chee recalled that when he described the subject of his novel-in-progress The Queen of the Night, his friends “would look at me, confused, only to respond, ‘Oh, you’re writing a historical novel?’ The only answer to such a question was yes, and yet I felt somehow misunderstood. Worse still was the trepidation in their eyes, as if I had announced that I was giving up years of hard work writing literary fiction to sell out and become a hack.” The Peacock Feast is your first “historical” novel. Does Chee’s anecdote resonate for you?

Gornick: I was so naive about historical fiction that I didn’t even realize I was writing historical fiction. I’m not even sure if I did write historical fiction. My book has three strands, one of which is set in 2013 and another that unspools largely from 1963 forward. It’s only the third strand, which starts in 1914, that is incontrovertibly “historical.” 

Kline: I had the same experience with my novel Orphan Train. Only a third of it is set in the past—from 1920 to the mid 1940s. The rest takes place in the present day. A Piece of the World and The Exiles, though, are firmly rooted in other eras.

Gornick: Going back to the Chee anecdote, with Orphan Train, did people ask you, “Are you giving up literature for genre fiction?”

Kline: The question of genre is an interesting one. A number of years ago I set out to write a fast-paced romp, what Graham Greene defined, in his own work, as an “entertainment.” When that novel, The Way Life Should Be, came out it was sometimes included on lists of “chick lit,” which made me shudder. I felt strangely buttonholed, shoved into a female ghetto, the very name of which was belittling.

I think there’s a distinction to be made between historical romance and historical literary fiction—though Wikipedia confusingly, and wrongly, includes The Scarlet Letter and Absalom, Absalom! under “historical romance.” Certainly many writers set out to publish “historical fiction” about larger-than-life people, landmarks, and occurrences—real-life royalty; significant historical events like the French Revolution and World War II—that focus primarily on romance and intrigue. These novels tend to be chockablock with historical detail, as a sort of education for the reader. As Chee said of Gore Vidal’s novel 1876, “No powder, no coin, no button misses his eye.” In writing about people from different eras, I’m less interested in verisimilitude than in exploring ways that the past resembles the present. I want readers to feel immersed in the story, as if it’s taking place now, whether it’s set in 1840 or 1940 or today. You have to do the research, of course, but how do you keep only the pieces you absolutely need? A lot of my process is about paring down unnecessary details, retaining the ones that illuminate character and place.

Gornick: I hadn’t considered that by writing fiction that is partially set in the past, I was at risk of my novel being deemed “genre fiction” until another literary writer politely told me she was wary of our sharing an event lest her book be ghettoized. Chee aside, I don’t think this is an issue that concerns male writers. I doubt George Saunders worried that he could compromise his literary credentials with Lincoln in the Bardo or that Anthony Doerr feared that All the Light We Cannot See might be classified as a historical romance.

Kline: Or that Ian McEwan had such worries about Atonement.

Gornick: One of the pleasures of preparing for this conversation was the reading we did together on the topic of historical fiction. What are some of the ideas that came up for you after spending time with these essays?

Kline: I had a few revelations. In her New Yorker piece titled “Just the Facts, Ma’am,” Jill Lepore writes, “Fiction can do what history doesn’t but should. It can tell the story of ordinary people. It’s the history of private life, the history of obscure men.” I realized that this is exactly what I did in my three latest novels: Orphan Train tells the story of immigrants in destitute circumstances; A Piece of the World is about an ordinary woman, Christina Olson, living in rural Maine, who became the subject of Andrew Wyeth’s best-known painting; The Exiles is about poor women sentenced to deportation.

Lepore goes on to write: “Who are these obscure men? Well, a lot of them are women.” Recently an interviewer asked why, in my later novels, I write only from the female perspective. I told him that lately I’ve been preoccupied with stories about people who have historically been on the fringes of society, whose stories have been unnoticed or obscured—and a lot of those people are women. Throughout history, women kept journals and wrote letters, but few were writing books. Researching the story of Australia’s convicts, I found a trove of contemporaneous accounts written by men about their experiences. Few by women. 

One more thing. I was struck by a line in “The Dead Are Real,” the 2012 New Yorker profile of Hilary Mantel by Larissa MacFarquhar: “It’s become one of the hallmarks of literary fiction that its authors regard their characters with something between affectionate condescension and total contempt.” In a contemporary novel I wrote a few years ago, Bird in Hand, I had a fairly cold eye; I treated my characters with a kind of ironic distance. But in these recent novels, writing about people, real and made up, whose stories have not been told, I found I wanted to get to the root of who they were, to explore their experiences in a way that felt rich and full. To inhabit their stories I needed to develop empathy for their perspectives. 

What struck you, in particular, from the essays you read?

Gornick: James Wood begins his excellent review of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels with a story about an English publisher who claimed that the way to write “a good Jewish novel” was to “write a good novel, then change all the names to Jewish ones.” Wood extends the quip: “Mantel seems to have written a very good modern novel, then changed all her fictional names to English historical figures of the fifteen-twenties and thirties.” By treating her historical characters as she would contemporary ones, Wood argues, Mantel renders their inner lives with the same complexity and freshness with which we understand the people around us. As an example, he cites Mantel’s passage in which Cromwell is talking about his adolescent son in the familiar way that we’ve all heard friends and relatives describe their children: a mix of humblebragging and making excuses.

I don’t actually agree with the idea that we can simply transpose the psychology of today to persons of other times. Yes, there are fundamental aspects of human experience that transcend time and place, but consciousness is also radically dependent upon culture, which is constantly evolving. What friendship, privacy, sexuality, and harassment mean for our children, growing up as they do with devices and social media and a more fluid and complex understanding of gender and race and how power operates, are all radically different than they were for us as young adults—not to mention in the time of Cromwell. Imagining the inner lives of people from another time, with the same richness with which we approach characters of our own time, is a large part of what interested me in writing The Peacock Feast. What did it feel like to be the daughter of a gardener and a maid of a very powerful man a hundred years before #MeToo? How did a woman born at the tail end of the Gilded Age experience her parents’ servitude, the Depression, and the social mobility of the postwar years—and how does this history imbue her sensibility as a contemporary, now wealthy, cosmopolitan centenarian? 

A second nodal point in The Peacock Feast is 1963 in San Francisco. A central character turns fifteen that year, and he is overcome with the sense of looming change: his family’s mores—tennis whites at the country club, polished buttons on his school blazer—soon to be rendered not only absurd, but politically objectionable as the city becomes a sanctuary for seekers and lost souls. I was interested in moments of disjunction between generations: when children and parents see the world through different eyes. 

Let’s turn to the question of how to handle the research for a historical novel. Tell me how you think about this. 

Kline: Even when I’ve done a massive amount of research before I put words on the page, I always write my way into needing to learn something new: the cloth used for uniforms at the female factories, for example, or how scurvy was treated on convict ships. These granular details may not end up in a final draft, but I want to be aware of them as I’m working. For The Exiles I did a great deal of research about Newgate prison in the nineteenth century, but it was an offhand detail I discovered after finishing a draft that brought the section alive for me. A particular tallow made of animal fat was used for candles in homes of the poor and in the dark hallways of prisons. It was cheap and had a low melting point; it dripped in puddles and smelled terrible. I went back and wove in this detail.

I have one more thing to say on this: As I did the research for this novel, I realized that I could not tell the story of the convict women without addressing the history of the Indigenous people whose way of life was destroyed when European colonists landed on their shores. The convict women endured terrible hardship, but their experience paled in comparison to that of the Native people. Writing about cultures other than your own is fraught and complicated. I am consulting, and sharing my work, with a number of people who know far more than I do, including a historian at the University of Melbourne who traces his ancestry back to the Trawulwuy people of northeast Tasmania.

What about you? How did you approach the research?

Gornick: The stimulus for The Peacock Feast was a photograph, now the frontispiece of the book, that I saw at an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: five young women in Grecian gowns, three of whom are holding silver salvers on which sit roasted peacocks with their plumage reattached. The photograph is simultaneously gorgeous and horrifying and left me intensely curious about when and where it was taken and who these women were. The event, I learned from various accounts, was something between a spectacle and a party thrown by Louis C. Tiffany for “150 men of genius” whom he’d transported to his Long Island estate by private train. Three of the young women were his daughters, one of whom I knew by her married name, Dorothy Burlingham, as Anna Freud’s life partner and an engineer of the Freud family’s escape from Nazi-occupied Vienna. 

In a recent interview, Marlon James talked about what he calls “world-building.” For my novel, there was a lot of world-building, during which the story evolved. There comes a point for me with any kind of research, be it historical or technical or about other cultures, when I have to let go and trust that I’ve sufficiently internalized what I need to know such that the relevant details will organically find their way into my scenes. It’s like taking the tea bag out of the water when it’s steeped just the right amount. Then it’s time to write. 

Now for a trickier question: How indebted do you feel in your fiction to stick to the historical record—to what actually happened?

Kline: Novelists who write about real events constantly wrestle with this question. Several years ago I did an event with the writer Lily King, who wrote Euphoria, based loosely on the life of Margaret Mead. In our conversation, Lily said that once she gave her characters fictional names, she freed herself from any responsibility to adhere to the historical record. She used only the pieces of the real-life story that interested her and invented the rest. Of course, some readers complained that it wasn’t factually accurate. Her experience reminded me of a quote from Hilary Mantel: “Anyone who writes a novel of this type is vulnerable to the complaints of pedants.”

I admire and respect this perspective, though so far I’ve taken a different tack. When I wrote Orphan Train, I felt an obligation to the 250,000 train riders and their descendants to be as accurate as possible, knowing that people would be reading about this little-known piece of American history for the first time. In A Piece of the World, I stuck to the facts of the story as much as I could because I was writing about real people, some of whom are still alive today. Christina Olson was a complicated woman, and part of the challenge of that book was figuring out her motivations for actions that might have appeared callous or unkind.

Several of the characters in The Exiles also existed in real life. One was five years old in 1840, when my novel begins. I changed her age to eight so that her consciousness would be more developed, and she’d understand a little more about what was happening to her. People who know her true story may be unhappy about this, but I felt it was necessary to give depth to her characterization.

Gornick: Writers seem to be all over the map on this issue. The novelist Ron Hansen takes his friend Russell Banks to task for having approached his novel Cloudsplitter, about the abolitionist John Henry, with the assumption “that his obligation to history was negated as soon as he called the book a novel.” Hansen states that he finds Banks’s position “ethically problematic” and quotes law professor Ken Manaster: “To deceive people about what was not only is disrespectful, but also undermines our collective conversation about our path, hindering our thinking about what could be.” This idea seems to me particularly important now, when the label “fake news” is used to attack journalists’ ethical efforts to present their findings, attempts to distort reality are epidemic, and the shared understanding of literature is so scant that I’m frequently asked about one of my novels: Is it fiction?

One of the things I love about the Lepore piece you cite is that she illuminates the history of history, which is both an empirical and interpretive enterprise. As she says, history in the time of the ancients was considered a literary art, with invented speeches par for the course. It was not until the nineteenth century that history became firmly based on “the cult of the fact.” Conversely, Lepore notes, eighteenth-century novels—Daniel Defoe’s The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela—were often called “histories” and “pretended that they were true.”

In her interview with Larissa MacFarquhar, Mantel claims that she will not include anything in her novels that is contradicted by the historical record: “If I were to distort something just to make it more convenient or dramatic, I would feel I’d failed as a writer…. You should be drawing the drama out of real life, not putting it there, like icing on a cake.” I abide by that same rule. If Louis C. Tiffany dynamited the breakwater in front of his Long Island estate on June 16, 1916, that’s the date it must happen in my novel. However, to complicate matters, in The Peacock Feast, I have both fictional and historical characters. When Anna Freud is in conversation with my character, Prudence, who is invented, obviously I’ve had to imagine that conversation. That said, I felt obligated to depict all of my characters who once lived according to my most honest understanding of them.

Kline: I feel a little differently. While I’ve chosen in my recent novels to tell stories within the constraints of historical facts, I don’t think novelists have a responsibility to be historically accurate. I think novels are novels, and nonfiction is nonfiction, and fiction writers—people who make stuff up—can do whatever they choose. Some readers are under the impression that the train in Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad was real. What responsibility does he have to his readers to explain that it’s not a real train; it’s a metaphor? None. Lincoln in the Bardo is a ghost story; readers will have to undertake further research if they want to tease fact from fiction. I need to allow myself the freedom in my own mind for flights of fancy. Maybe in my next novel.

Gornick: Several of the writers we’ve discussed cite Aristotle about the difference between the historian and the poet—which, in this context, I think, includes all imaginative writers. As Wood sums it up, “The former describes what happened, and the latter what might happen.” Looked at through that lens, it seems that as novelists we are tasked with navigating our way between respecting what historians have shown us about the past and defending the freedom to imagine—both what never happened, and what might have happened but was never recorded. 


The New York Times best-selling author of eight novels, including Orphan Train (William Morrow, 2013) and A Piece of the World (William Morrow, 2017), Christina Baker Kline is published in more than forty countries. Her novels have received the New England Prize for Fiction and the Maine Literary Award, among other awards, and have been chosen by hundreds of communities and universities as “One Book, One Read” selections. 

Lisa Gornick is the author of four novels, including The Peacock Feast (Sarah Crichton Books, 2019) and Louisa Meets Bear (Sarah Crichton Books, 2015). Her stories and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, and the Wall Street Journal and have received many honors, including a Distinguished Story selection in the Best American Short Stories.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this conversation contained references to Tin Ticket, the working title of Christina Baker Kline’s ninth novel, The Exiles. It has been updated to reflect the title of the book as it was published by William Morrow in August 2020.