Since the May 2013 publication of my novel Beautiful Fools, The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, I've been fielding questions in Q&A sessions and interviews about historical fiction. "What are your rules for what can and can't be done in historical fiction?" Or, "How much license is a fiction writer allowed to take with the facts?" And my favorite, if only because it proved surprising to me when first posed, "What made you decide to become a historical fiction author?"
In all honesty, I'd never really thought of myself as a writer of historical fiction until I completed a novel categorized by my agent and publisher as such. Several novels in a specific vein—J. M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg, Joanna Scott's Arrogance, Edmund White's Hotel de Dream—served as intriguing precursors for me. Each of those books pursues a peculiar angle on the lives of famous artists, freely speculating on grounds and personal events where historians fear to tread.
In a similarly speculative vein, Beautiful Fools imagines a trip Zelda and Scott took in April of 1939 to Cuba. It would prove to be the last time they ever saw each other. None of the twenty-plus biographies about the Fitzgeralds offers more than a few sentences on the Cuba escapade. It's a lost chapter in a great and troubled love affair. And it was that scenario—the "hole in history"—that first drew me inside the story.
In the spirit of reflecting on my own recent practices in light of what others have done before me, I offer a few "rules" about historical fiction:
- Through untold hours of research, you must investigate a past you didn't live. And even though you don't have ready imaginative access to the events, you must make them believable. If your novel features a cockfight that takes place in Cuba in 1939, and, yes, mine does, well, you've got to take a crash course in cockfights (not a sport I endorse, by the way), gathering whatever details you can about cockfighting in that era.
- There's no reason to abide by the scripts of biographies and histories. Why not take your characters off the grid? Almost anything can happen once Scott and Zelda tour a derelict bullfighting ring, or stay in a Havana hotel made famous by Hemingway, or find themselves escorted by a mysterious Cuban and his girl to a Havana juke joint—even if the real-life Zelda and Scott never visited, as far as we know, any of these places.
- Make your characters resemble people, not historical personages. Characters based on famous lives must behave in ways consistent with experiences their real-life models actually endured in history. And yet, you need to know those lives so well as to begin to forget them, much in the manner each of us forgets so much of our daily lives as we race through them. At one point in Beautiful Fools, Scott mistakenly places himself on a camel in North Africa during the 1929 Wall Street Crash. He's actually remembering, though he doesn't know it, a trip taken months later with Zelda in early 1930 shortly before her first major mental breakdown. The trigger event of the nation's Great Depression blurs in memory with the onset of his wife's mental illness and his own personal great depression of the 1930s.
- Make it new—as Ezra Pound might say. Zelda and Scott's lives are so well documented. I couldn't feel the urgency of repeating familiar terrain when many excellent scholars, from Nancy Milford to Matthew Bruccoli, have taught us so much about the Fitzgeralds. Beautiful Fools came alive for me by digging deep inside the lost trip to Cuba as a means of exploring my own hypothesis about a last-ditch effort to save a marriage. Here was a place only a novelist could go, where historians couldn't.
Many conversations about historical fiction get bogged down in the "what," in debates about specific requirements a novel must fulfill to qualify as historical fiction. From my perspective, however, the real urgency resides in the "why." Why bother to tell this story of the past at all? Why now? Why again? There must be some way in which the story you tell about the past impinges on our present.
In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare pilfers Plutarch for a plot, but the urgency of the drama resides elsewhere. It's not the overly stereotyped conflict of the ancient West versus the ancient East that grips us. It's the passion between Antony and Cleopatra, a passion so great that each behaves in a manner irresponsible to everyday notions of duty and rather large political responsibilities. To offer a twist on an Aristotelian adage, Shakespeare finds the "universal in the historical"—he tells us a story about the allure of passion and its potentially destructive consequences. That's why we revisit that tragedy time and again. What held my imagination in writing Beautiful Fools, then, was the notion of a last chance to save a passionate, tumultuous twenty-year marriage. A last chance for a great love, even though Scott and Zelda didn't know it at the time—that's something to which we can all relate in the here and now.