Finding Depth in the Past

For years I often struggled with modern settings, but when I turned to historical fiction an interesting thing happened. Only when I began writing about the past could I treat my characters with real respect, could I get rid of a certain ironic curl of the lip, an actual physical tic that sometimes accompanied my putting words on the page. I was freed from the pressing need for cynicism and mockery. It’s hard to make fun of the dead. There’s plenty of humor to be found in times past, but characters called up as it were from the grave don’t invite mockery the way contemporary ones do.
In The Reservoir (my first novel) I spent months on the trail of a true story, thinking I might turn it into a nonfiction book. Failing to find enough detailed material, I turned to fiction, and the world of the story began to open up in the most liberating of ways. By that point, I had enough experience in both research and writing to give it a try, though I’ll admit that at first it seemed overwhelming. I’d never pictured myself writing historical fiction, but I was intrigued. My job, as I saw it, was to re-light a fire that had gone cold more than a century ago and make it burn brighter than ever. With Love and Lament, the challenge was altogether different—to make a fire from nothing but a handful of kindling, a few family anecdotes.
What became illuminated for me was a character named Mary Bet, a young woman who is always trying to find her better self, stumbling sometimes, but striving to do right, and the drama comes in seeing her struggle and seeing how she handles the blows that a hard life inflicts. I think we measure ourselves against our predecessors. When we know something of their lives, we wonder how we might’ve done, and almost always what they did seems bigger, harder, on a grander stage: “What they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream.”
I recently saw a production of La Bohéme at Charlottesville’s Ashlawn Festival, and realized something I hadn’t before. That odd juxtaposition of the sublime and the ridiculous in much of opera—gorgeous music soaring over some trivial business—is often intentional. I’d always considered it a weakness of opera, and probably sometimes it is. But, for example, when Mimi observes how Musette lives a lie—a profound observation—while, at the same time, Musette makes flippant remarks about her sex appeal, the ensemble (some of the greatest music ever written) underscores that tragicomic nexus where our feet of clay always trip us up, even while we reach for the highest heaven of invention or nature.
We can find that nexus of the mundane and the profound in any good fiction; I’ve just been looking for it lately in the past.