Poets & Writers

Historical Fiction

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, Tin Ticket (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?

I was 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.”

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