Saturday, August 31, 2013

Melbourne Writers Festival: History's Script with Sarah Dunant and Jane Sullivan

This is my wrap up of the second historical fiction session I attended at Melbourne Writers Festival this year.

The next session for me was History's Script which was hosted by Michael Cathcart from Books and Art Daily on Radio National and featured Sarah Dunant and Jane Sullivan, author of Little People. I really enjoyed the session I attended on Friday where Sarah Dunant spoke so well about Lucrezia Borgia so I was extremely glad that I had the foresight to book into another session with her during the Festival. This session was also recorded for the Books and Arts Daily show and will be played on Tuesday. If I remember I will post the link so that if you are interested you can listen to the session yourself.

The host started by asking each of the authors how they came to history. For Sarah, it started in childhood reading authors like Jean Plaidy, Margaret Irwin and Anya Seton amongst others. Living in post war Britain, historical fiction was a gateway to a far more colourful, more exotic and romantic past and she became obsessed with history. That romanticised view of history was beaten out of her when she went to study history at Cambridge University for three years. It was interesting at Cambridge to see how men and women come to an interest in history differently, something that is often reflected in the way male and female readers come to historical fiction.

Sarah Dunant

Sarah Dunant came to a love of Renaissance History a lot later, it not having been a part of history that she had studied previously and therefore been deromanticised from (my made up word, not hers). Her interest in Renaissance history was piqued when she found herself living in Florence in the early 2000s. Florence is a city where the history is literally everywhere, rich with the past. This had Dunant wondering exactly what it was that happened 500 years ago that turned Florence into a cauldron of change. Even at the time, Florentines were proud of the history that was happening, of the art and more.

For Jane Sullivan, her love of history came through the literature of Tennyson and Keats, or stories like Jane Eyre rather than through history itself. In fact, the thing that she remembers most about history from school is the cartoons that were in the history books. Jane is originally from the UK. When she did come to Australia she was struck by the way the cities must have been new, particularly a city like Melbourne which benefited from the gold rush and was at one point called the Chicago of the South because of how quickly it was growing up. She sees Melbourne as a city full of stories - not unlike Florence for Sarah.

One of those stories was how she came across the characters that were to people her book, Little People. She first found reference to a travelling show of dwarf performers when she was reading a book about poet Ada Cambridge. When the troop of performers were in town, they were feted as rock stars, causing big traffic problems wherever they went. I should also mention that as Jane Sullivan was talking about how she found these characters there were images of them flashing up on the screen which was really cool.

Sarah Dunant's book In the Company of the Courtesan also has a dwarf as one of it's main characters and she shared how she actually found her dwarf in a painting. She knew that courtesans of the day often kept little people as exotic pets and so her main character was born. The moderator noted that often looking at people on the margins help define the centre or norms of a situation. Dunant agreed that this was the case for her book as Bucino was also able to be the eyes and the ears for the courtesan and so was able to expand what the reader could see. For Jane Sullivan, her narrator was a normal sized person but still was in that role of outsider given that all the other members of the troop are little people.

The discussion then moved onto a discussion of what writing historical fiction enables you to do that straight history or narrative non-fiction does not. The first response was around limits of information available, especially seeing as sometimes there can be constructed or controlled history, such as in the case of the travelling troop given that P T Barnum was basically a spin doctor trying to entice the crowds in to the show. It also enables you to make up stuff that is still consistent with what you know.

For Sarah, the narrative comes first from history and then there is the story. History is rich and complex and you need to get the complexities which is sometimes difficult when you are going back 500 or more years. Sometimes you can find hidden bits of history - particularly in relation to women - but not necessarily the full story. For some of her earlier books, she sees it as putting the soil in place from what you know (for example, food, religion or culture) and then build the characters from there. It was different for Blood and Beauty because she had a known person from history as her main character rather than a made up characters, and in the Borgias case we believe that we know their history. She went onto touch on a couple of the issues that I mentioned in my post yesterday about the slander of Lucrezia Borgia's reputation.

Jane Sullivan

In a discussion on truth Jane Sullivan mentioned that there are 2 different types of truth. One is of fact - what is learned from research etc and the second is the truth of fiction where you try to create characters who are consistent, interesting and recognisable. This idea of historical truth is also embodied in the fact that historians will select from the various bits of evidence they have available to them to decide what is true, but it is just is likely that what they don't have will actually be the final truth. Novelists use this selection process when building their character but what they are aiming for is to be true to the grand narrative of history but bring them alive through characters and stories.

One of the interesting questions that was addressed during the session was the idea of history repeating itself. While the world moves forward technologically, the fundamentals remain the same. For example, when you are writing about the Renaissance you are talking about the rise of fundamental Christianity and many of today's world conflicts are born out of religious fundamentalism too. Nothing changes in the big roll of history - the hows might change but the big issues tend to be repetitive. The how is where authors needs to be careful because there are fundamental differences. The example given was about pain. Because we have easy access to pain relief our understanding of pain may well be completely different to someone from a couple of hundred years ago. While there are differences, Sarah Dunant pointed out that if you sink yourself in the past you can often find the similarities, but it doesn't necessarily work the other way around. No matter what you write though, your writing is informed by how you are now.

Throughout the rest of the conversation there were thoughts about whether fantasy is displacing historical fiction, particularly with things like Game of Thrones where it is fantasy strongly rooted in actual history, about the importance of afterwords in helping the reader understand which parts of the story were made up, about the difference between male and female gateways into historical fiction (apparently Hilary Mantel has made historical fiction something that men are more likely to read ..who knew!), about the idea of a historical fiction canon (suggested authors to include were Rosemary Sutcliff, Mary Renault, Rose Tremain and Umberto Ecco with the caveat that he is more imaginative than research driven), and about choosing real people as your central characters rather than making them up.

There was so much more that was talked about. Hopefully you might be interested enough to listen to the program when I add the link to the post at some point this week. There were times where I felt that the moderator was displaying a dislike (maybe too strong a word but there was something there) of the genre, so I might give it a listen to see if that comes through in the program too, and to see what I missed as I was madly scrambling away taking notes. You can read Bree's take on this session here.

Whilst I still have at least one more session to attend it will have to be pretty special to displace the sessions I have attended with Sarah Dunant. The Lucrezia Borgia session was absolutely fascinating and this discussion with Jane Sullivan was also very interesting.

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