Sunday, 3 August 2014

Guest Post: The Fine Art of Faking It by Jenny Bond

Today I'm really excited to share a Guest Post by the lovely Jenny Bond, author of The President's Lunch, who has offered to share her take on writing fiction based on historical figures.

First up though, I'd like to thank Jenny for contributing this post and tell you a bit more about her.

Jenny has worked as a teacher, journalist, copywriter and researcher. Her non-fiction titles have been published in Australia and the USA. It was writing about the stories behind great novels that led to her own first novel, Perfect North (Hachette 2013).

Her second novel, The President's Lunch, again incorporates real life figures with fictional ones, a technique that allows her to imaginatively interpret historical events.

Jenny lives with her husband and children in Canberra.

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John Updike once said, ‘An imitation of the life we know, however narrow, is our only ground.’ Updike was a prolific author but his themes were limited to events in his own life, and his settings to fictionalised versions of the towns in which he lived. Of the sixty or so books he began there were only a few projects that he failed to complete. One was a novel about America’s fifteenth President James Buchannan. Updike said he despised the ‘vigorous fakery’ of historical fiction. ‘Having never used a spittoon,’ he said, ‘I am unable to write about one.’ 

I admit that when an author writes a work of historical fiction they are treading a very fine line between historical accuracy and make believe. However, a story is not fakery if the topic is thoroughly and judiciously researched. What I find most rewarding as an author of historical fiction is this very process. To discover what it was like to use a spittoon, to use Updike’s example, is an incredibly challenging task. I spent an entire day recently learning how to light a fire as it would have been done in the early eighteenth century. As I was writing a scene for my third novel, which is partly set in New England, it occurred to me that matches might not have existed in 1716. Alas, they did not. The first self-igniting match wasn’t invented until the nineteenth century. Before this time fires were lit by igniting tinder with a spark produced by striking steel against flint. It was a painstaking process, as is the process of writing historical fiction. 

Hilary Mantel, award-winning author of Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, has often been accused of fakery, of weaving historical characters into a narrative of her own devising. What’s wrong with that? If the characters and setting are thoroughly researched, what’s the crime? In the two years it took me to write and edit The President’s Lunch, I have come to know Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt so well that I believe I could take a fairly accurate stab at predicting how they’d react in any situation. I have read their letters and their memoirs,  scoured their biographies and spoken to people that knew them.

Visiting the homes of the Roosevelts was the most valuable piece of research I carried out. Not only did I obtain an insight into the characters of this unique couple from the furnishings, wall hangings and place settings they chose, but I was also offered an illuminating glimpse into the time in which they lived. All of their private homes - Stone Cottage and Springwood in Hyde Park, New York, the cottage on Campobello Island and the little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia - have been scrupulously maintained by the National Park Service. 

When I walked into the sitting room of Eleanor Roosevelt’s cottage at Val-kill in Hyde Park, a fire burned in the hearth and the walls lay covered with hundreds of framed photographs of her family and friends. The sofa and armchairs were plush and inviting. On one wall rested a substantial shelf that heaved with books. I examined the breakfront in the dining room and noticed the china. It was a very ordinary looking setting, simply decorated with apple blossoms. And despite the compact space, the table was large and I easily imagined at least ten people seated around it. Just from two rooms I determined the warmth, intelligence, generosity and sociability of the First Lady. 

Writing historical fiction is a time-consuming and often expensive occupation. But to find a doorway and an insight into the lives of historical figures, then weaving that newfound awareness into an entertaining narrative fabric, is incredibly rewarding.

If you'd like to keep up with Jenny's news and books, you connect with her via the following links:


About the Book

"She tasted power and passion in the world's highest office against the backdrop of the Great Depression and World War Two.

Robbed of her home and job by the Great Depression, the future looks bleak for Iris McIntosh - until a chance encounter with America's indefatigable First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. Propelled into the White House's brilliant inner circle, Iris finds herself at the centre of momentous change ... and her heart torn between two men. But her loyalty lies with a third: the complicated and charismatic President Roosevelt, who will ultimately force her to question everything she believes in.

A compelling story of politics and power, love and loss, set in one of the most cataclysmic periods of history."

The President’s Lunch is published by Hachette Australia and is available from the 1st August at the RRP of $29.99.

READ AN EXTRACT HERE.

The President's Lunch is available for purchase at the following links:

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