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Writing Historical Fiction (6): Jason Goodwin

Recently on goodreads.com, I got an opportunity to ask few questions to Jason Goodwin —  the author of The Snake Stone,The Janissary Tree and  The Bellini Card, featuring Investigator Yashim — on writing historical fiction.

  1. Research for historical fiction can be never ending. So do you write the plot first and then add in the minor details later? Does research and writing go in parallel?
  2. …the research can be, could be, endless, so there comes a point when you have read a hundred books, hoovered the floor of the car again, washed up and fixed the leaky tap, looked at some notes, and you just have to get going. Clinging to the fragile hope that this, your story, is true in spirit, if occasionally outrageous in the details. But not, ever, anachronistic.

    A dozen minor details can be cleared up as you go, via the internet – a name, the position of a building, was he alive at this date? etc. Alan Paton, who wrote Cry, the Beloved Country, says he researches each chapter before he writes it, chapter by chapter. My chapters are tiny, usually, so that’s not the way I do it.

  3. How much liberty do you take with history to make the plot interesting? Did you have to make such a choice in any of the Yashim books?
  4. When I started writing The Janissary Tree I vowed to let mystery come before history, but of course it doesn’t come that pat. The Valide, the sultan’s mother, is drawn from Leslie Blanche’s The Wilder Shores of Love, which lays out in detail the old rumour that Mahmut II mother was a French girl from Martinique who sailed to France to finish her education. En route she was taken by Algerian corsairs, and wound up in the sultan’s harem where, by dint of her intelligence, charm and determination, she secured the top spot in the female hierarchy of the Ottoman Empire. Astonishingly, a childhood friend from the remote Carribean island became Napoleon’s Empress Josephine. Some island!

    Is Aimee’s story true, or merely a suggestive and irresistible flicker of a muslin dress across the darker pages of history? Who cares? The Valide, much older and wiser, is one of my favourite characters, and I won’t be doing without her even though, in truth, Mahmut’s mother was certainly dead by 1836, when the novel unfolds.

    Fast and loose? Maybe. But when I wrote the janissary tree I needed a third fire-tower in Istanbul, so with a certain unease I invented one and put it in a specific part of the city. Not long afterwards I happened to be leafing through the pages of an exquisite volume of engravings of Istanbul, made by a French ambassador in the late 18th century – and there was my fire tower. I’d invented it, slap-bang where it had actually stood. (I think I’ve mentioned the Library Angel on another post).

  5. Adding too much historical detail can make the book look like a history book. Adding less will not transport the reader to the 18th century. How do you come up with the right mix of spices? Do you have any guidelines?
  6. Too much, too little – who can tell? I go with the feel of it, and sometimes a reader objects that I’ve overdone the history lesson (never, I think, the other way round). I’m sorry they feel that, but I’m not deeply moved. When I began writing, when I was younger and greener, I cut my teeth on travel narratives, travel books, and the craft of it taught me a lot about using one’s eyes and ears and sense of smell in evoking an unfamiliar scene. The historical novel is travel of another sort, into the past. If a reader doesn’t want the stunning detail which evokes a period, or fixes a place – well. There are other books they can try! So, like a chef, follow your nose and do what you want.

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2 Responses to Writing Historical Fiction (6): Jason Goodwin

  1. Harkabir Singh Jandu April 4, 2011 at 9:39 pm #

    Nice. I’ve read Lords of the Horizon and The Janissary Tree by JG. I found both to be interesting. Lords of the Horizon is written very differently from usual history books. Each chapter covers as aspect rather than a time. It has this very ethereal sort of quality where sentences often lead into unrelated sentences and individual paragraphs don’t seem to say a lot. Each chapter as a whole may not make a lot of sense but the book over gives the reader a semblance, an essence of what the Ottomans were. One gets to know much more about how the Ottomans thought, lived and behaved than about what they did. This differentiates it from standard history books.

    The Janissary Tree is indeed well researched but not in extremely minute detail but then I suppose such microscope detail, which I am talking about, is usually very difficult to unearth; though authors such as Eco do incorporate it. However it did manage to successfully and happily take me back to Istanbul and I also learnt a lot more of later Ottoman history through the book. (Something I knew next to nothing about).
    I like the structure and the pacing of The Janissary Tree. It keeps one engaged. Yes the chapters are short but perfect for a fast paced mystery. The dialogues have been written quite well and lend a great degree of authenticity. Perhaps some of my impressions of The Janissary Tree have to do with the fact that I didn’t read it but rather heard the audiobook which has been read out remarkably well by the narrator. The book is abound with many highly descriptive passages and they have all been written really well; and in this sense the JG’s descriptions are highly reminiscent of Thomas Hoover’s work in The Mughal. Much to learn from JG.

    And the cooking scenes are an absolute delight. I am not averse to re-reading The Janissary Tree, in fact I might just do it.

    Thanks for the interview.

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