Two Historical Novelists on Deadline Discuss Challenges of the Present and Challenging the Past

Two Historical Novelists Tackling our Deadlines (on the right, Katie Hickman)
Two Historical Novelists Tackling our Deadlines (on the right, Katie Hickman)

Last summer Katie Hickman and I found ourselves doing a joint reading at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta. We were both on book tour—Katie for The Aviary Gate, and me for Stealing Athena. We didn’t know each other, but I’d been wanting to meet her. Her best-selling book, Daughters of Britannia: the Lives and Times of Diplomatic Wives, contained a substantive chapter on Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin, who happened to be the heroine of Stealing Athena. E! Weekly had featured Stealing Athena and The Aviary Gate side by side as having virtually identical book covers (a bit snide, but publicity is publicity). Plus we are both known as inveterate travelers, Katie the more so. She’s actually listed in “Wayward Women, the Oxford Dictionary of Women Travellers.” No sooner had I’d thought, gosh, I’d love to meet Katie Hickman, than the gig at the MM House appeared on my book tour itinerary.

Needless to say, a friendship has ensued. So here we were in London, meeting to see the Picasso exhibit, Challenging the Past, at The National Gallery, an appropriate outing for two people who perennially challenge the past in their work. We started with a superb, low calorie lunch (ha! Fish pie with cheese and potatoes and salmon with Hollandaise sauce) at Portrait, the restaurant at The National Portrait Gallery, where we could be seen for at least two hoursdrinking wineand whining about our respective deadlines. We commiserated over how we go absolutely mad trying to balance all the things we must do in our lives—mothering, researching, writing, maintaining love relationships, maintaining precious friendships, maintaining our intellectual and cultural interests (which inform our work), traveling (which informs our work), blogging and book promoting, feeding our creative selves, taking care of our homes and our health and the health of our loved ones, doing yoga, which we love, but who has time? Yes, it is utterly exhausting to be a woman, and being a woman writer is doubly so.

We decided that what we really need are a couple of wives to share our loads. Any takers?

And yet, it all must be done, all of it, to maintain who and what we are, not in the public sense, but in the intimate sense of one’s own self-definition. It’s the only way we can go about our business of challenging the past. As Katie pointed out, when we take in a powerful cultural experience (as we were about to do), it feeds us in ways that enable us to create emotional adventures for our readers. This resonated with me in the most literal way; my last two novels were inspired while standing before works of art.
After lunch we sauntered into the tremendously-crowded-for-a-Tuesday Picasso exhibit. The National Gallery has taken a brilliant approach to showing the work of an artist that you’d think needed no further exhibition or analysis. It’s a show of Picasso’s influences, with each of his paintings demonstrating the work of the master artist he had challenged himself to imitate. There was no limit to the man’s stylistic ability! He took on artists as disparate as El Greco, Matisse, Vasquez, Van Gogh, and Gaugin—titans of painting who came before him—and recreated their works in his own inimitable style. We couldn’t figure if he was trying to pay tribute to them or trying to best them or both. Perhaps both.

It occurred to me later that that is what we do in writing historical novels. We are making an attempt to “answer” history. History, or the historical record, is just a story. There is no one true permanent historical record that stands alone. While one point of view might become canonical, every story within the historical record is merely that—a story, written from a particular point of view. (See next post for a further discussion of the self as a story, recapping a conversation with a law professor and Hobbesian scholar.)

My next novel poses a two-fold challenge. It is an extrapolation of a very popular story set in Victorian times. Not only will I be trying to form my answer to the original literary work; I will also be responding to and challenging the ways in which the author of the original fiction presented his own world, and the ways in which contemporary readers perceive that world. I will confess, dear reader, that it can be a little intimidating. Wish I had a sliver of Picasso’s mighty ego to carry me through the task.

If you’re in London, don’t miss Picasso at the National Gallery:

And if you’re in the mood for food, as Winnie the Pooh sang, treat yourself to a wonderful lunch with a very special view of London at Portrait: