Mary Mackey on Writing Historical Fiction

MACKEY WIDOW (1 of 1)MACKEY AUTHOR PIC (1 of 1)Mary Mackey   is the author of a new historical novel, The Widow’s War,  just published in paperback by Berkley Books (a division of Penguin). It is the story of a woman’s life and struggles set against the backdrop of the approaching Civil War. As in many of Mary’s other sweeping historical epics, it portrays a strong and courageous woman caught up in historic times.

Maxine Hong Kingston said of The Widow’s War: “We thrill to the story of Carrie Vinton, as she courageously takes the side of freedom over slavery.”

MACKEY NOTORIOUS (1 of 1)Mary has been a professor of English and Creative Writing at California State University for over 30 years. She has published 12 novels and 5 books of poetry. Her works have been translated into 11 foreign languages including Japanese, Hebrew,  Greek, and Finnish. Her best selling novel, A Grand Passion,  sold over a million copies and made The New York Times bestseller list.

Mary will be reading and discussing The Widow’s War on Friday, September 11, at 7:00 PM at Book Passage Corte Madera, California.

Andy: Mary, I want to talk to you today about writing historical fiction. It is a genre that I love to read and that you, it seems, love to write. But first I’d like you to tell me a little bit about your new book, The Widow’s War, which has just been published by  Berkley Books.

 Mary:  Well, we might start with the fact that Carrie Vinton, the heroine, is a widow because she’s just shot her husband.

 Andy: Wow. That starts things off with a bang. I presume she had good reason, yes?

Mary: A whole list of good reasons. This is a novel about the first African-Americans to fight in the Civil War. They’re a fictional cavalry unit, but they could have existed. The story that surrounds them is filled with Afro-Brazilian magic, heroism, history, and a passionate love affair that borders on obsession. But it also explores the subject of betrayal: personal betrayal, political betrayal, and, of course, sexual betrayal.

 The heroine, Carrie Vinton, is an American who was raised in the jungles of Brazil by her father, a botanist. Carrie is passionately opposed to slavery.  In the fall of 1853,  Carrie finds herself alone and pregnant in Rio de Janeiro after William, her abolitionist fiancé, disappears. William’s stepbrother, Deacon Presgrove, arrives in Rio, tells her William  is dead, and convinces her to marry him for her baby’s sake.

 After they return to the states, Carrie finds out she’s been tricked: Deacon is a fortune-hunter who’s married her for her money and William is still alive. From that point on, the novel is one series of betrayals after another. Believing that Carrie is dead, William has emigrated to Kansas where he is running slaves out of the slave state of Missouri on the Underground Railroad. Carrie goes to Kansas to search for William. This isn’t the Kansas Dorothy went back to after she returned from OZ. This is a Kansas convulsed by a violent civil war that raged for seven years before the official Civil War broke out. Two years earlier, in 1854,  President Pierce had signed a law which gave the residents of the Territory the right to vote to determine whether or not Kansas would come into the Union as a free state or a slave state. Almost immediately fierce fighting broke out in the Territory as proslavers flocked over the border to vote and abolitionists, mostly from New England, emigrated to Kansas to bring the state into the Union as a free state.

 William and Carrie are reunited but their happiness is short-lived. Attacking Carrie’s home, proslavers kidnap William, Carrie’s newborn child, and thirteen fugitive slaves. Desperate to fight for what she believes in, to get her child back safely, to prevent innocent people from being sold back into slavery, and to be reunited with the man she loves, Carrie arms a cavalry unit of African-American soldiers and leads them on a rescue mission into the slave state of Missouri. These soldiers have been trained by John Brown, the same John Brown who attacked Harper’s Ferry in 1849. Brown believed armed insurrection was the only way to end slavery and he was very active in Kansas at the time.

 I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, so I’ll leave you with William with a noose around his neck and Carrie riding into Missouri to try to save him.

 Andy: Can you be bribed to tell us if she makes it in time?

 Mary: Afraid not.

 Andy: Okay, then, the next question: This is your second book that takes place in  the time of  the Civil War. Your first was: The Notorious Mrs. Winston .[ picture of book.  ]  What caused you to become interested in this historical period?

 Mary: My great-grandfathers fought on opposite sides during the Civil War. One died for the Union at Shiloh; the other was a Confederate Army surgeon. I grew up hearing both points of view, and by the time I was twelve, I had decided that slavery was a great evil, and that if I had been alive in that period, I would have been a abolitionist.  Of course, I’m not the only person interested in the Civil War. Hundreds of thousands of people are still drawn to the subject. It was one of the great turning points in American history, and many of the issues it raised are still with us—racism, for example.  You can’t understand American in the 21st Century  if you don’t know what happened when this country was almost ripped apart in the mid-19th century. In the 1850’s  slave owners came very close to controlling Congress. If Kansas had come into the Union as a slave state, all the western states, including California, might have become slave states. The North might not have won The Civil War; we might be two countries instead of one.  You might say we escaped by the skin of our teeth.

 Also, as a novelist, I’m always trying to create a plot that’s exciting—one that sweeps the reader along. There are few periods more exciting than the years just before and during the Civil War.

 Andy: It seems to me that historical fiction as a genre has an enduring attraction. I have always loved it because it seems to  focus on the heroic virtues (and vices) of humans. In the best works, I always come away being uplifted by these kind of epic themes. What is it about the genre that allows you to –well- get away with these kinds of portrayals. After all, most contemporary literary fiction seems to dwell on more intimate and private subjects.

 Mary:  I love writing historical fiction  because it allows me to set my stories in times when people face serous adversity.  I think you really get to know a character—or a real person for that matter—by the choices they make under stress. When the going gets tough, does the person endure or fold;  show compassion or shove the children aside, jump in the lifeboats, and save him or herself at the expense of everyone else? 

 At present in the industrialized world,  most people have few opportunities to show how heroic (or how deeply wicked) they are. We live sheltered lives. If we drink the water that comes out of our faucets, we aren’t likely to die of typhoid; most women survive childbirth; the majority of babies don’t die in infancy; our homes are warm in winter; most of us have never really gone hungry, and although we may deplore the violence in our cities, an army is not likely to attack the town we live in, burn the buildings, and massacre all the men and boys (which is what actually happened in Lawrence, Kansas in 1863). 

 Writing historical fiction gives me wide-ranging, exciting possibilities that allow my characters to be heroic or foolish on a grand scale with important consequences. I have an opportunity to examine the point where personal life and history intersect. Tolstoy does this masterfully in War and Peace. Dickens does it in A Tale of Two Cities. I learned from them that historical fiction can also be literary fiction.

 Andy: So now here is the big question. What is the greatest historical novel ever written?  Or let me rephrase that. What is the greatest historical novel ever written other than  War and Peace?

 Mary:  I’d say Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (a.k.a. Remembrance of Things Past),  all seven volumes of it. It’s not usually classified as historical fiction, but it covers the first decades of the French Third Republic and fin de siècle. Published between 1913 and 1927, it has a timeline that begins in the early 1870’s. Proust is one of my mentors. He’s influenced the way I think about psychology and style. He taught me that concrete detail and well-developed, complex, vivid characters can recapture the past and make it come alive.

 My next favorite piece of historical fiction is Mary Renault’s novel The Persian Boy.  I’ve read it several times and each time I go back to it, I’m impressed by how beautifully Renault integrates the history of Alexander The Great’s conquest of Persia with the intimately personal, first-person narrative of Alexander’s lover, the eunuch Bagoas.  Like Proust, Renault has strongly influenced my writing, particularly my pre-history novels The Year the Horses Came, The Horses At the Gate, and The Fires of Spring.  

 Andy: Lately, when I have tried to sell publishers any book, fiction or non, publishers seem obsessed about the books not being too long. It seems that the internet has created a generation of readers with ADD. But historical fiction seems to be able to get away with more words. I see 800, 1000, 1400 page historical novels. Got any thoughts why this is so?

 Mary: I suspect readers are willing to buy and read long historical novels because historical novels are offering them a history populated by human beings who love and suffer in ways that haven’t changed all that much over the centuries. Also,  I think many people (myself included) like to learn history in an enjoyable, painless way. Reading primary, or even secondary, historical documents can be a complex, difficult, boring process. I do it all the time, and even though I’m a trained academic researcher, I often find myself exhausted as I try to sort through events and make sense of them. Good historical fiction spares the reader this process. Ideally, the author tells a good story and in the process of reading that story, you learn a lot of history, but you learn it without having to spend two or three years consulting hundreds of books and articles.  Better yet, you remember it. Once I read The Persian Boy, I never forgot that Alexander The Great made it all the way to India in his attempt to conqueror the world.

 Andy: When I saw the movie  Zorro 2, there was a scene that took place when California was admitted to the Union  in 1850. The scene included Abraham Lincoln and a Confederate general. So my question is when the historical record clashes with telling a good yarn, who wins out?

 Mary: History, at least in my novels. I think my readers rely on me to be accurate. That said,  I’m writing fiction, which means that, among other things, I’m inserting fictional characters into real history, so sometimes I rely on possibility rather than on the exact record. For example, in The Widow’s War, I have a fictional pro-slavery senator  named Bennett Presgrove help a South Carolina Congressman nearly beat an abolitionist senator nearly to death on the floor of the U.S. Senate. The beating is a real, historical fact—one that shocked me when I discovered it– but in real life, the South Carolina Congressman conducted his infamy solo. At the end of the novel, I have an Author’s Note. In it, I tell the reader what’s fact and what’s fiction. I would never consider putting Abraham Lincoln next to a Confederate general in 1850. If I were reading a novel that did this, the entire illusion of being transported back to another era would be ruined for me. Even small mistakes in the historical record bother me. For example, I’ve read novels set in prehistoric Europe where people sit around drinking tea.

 On the other hand, some novels intentionally set out to distort history or change history. For example, there is a whole genre of science fiction alternate history novels that take as their subjects things like the South winning the Civil War or Hitler dying as an infant. As long as the author tells you at the beginning that this is the game plan, I don’t mind. Fiction is just that: fiction. The joy of fiction is that you can do anything you want with it as long as you are honest with your readers.

 Andy: I know you have been writing about the Civil War period now. But have also written about Czarist Russia and European pre-history. Are there any other  historical periods that you find really appealing?

 Mary: My doctoral dissertation was on the influence of the Darwinian Revolution on the 19th century novel, which is why the 19th century always attracts me, but I’m also particularly interested in ancient Rome, Britain as the Roman empire was crumbling, the Middle Ages in general, 17th century France, and Latin American just before and during the Spanish and Portuguese conquest. I read about these eras constantly, although I don’t know if I will ever set a novel in them.

 Andy: So what is it with the God damned Tudors? It’s like one novel after another about Elizabeth, Henry, Mary Scots, that stupid rogue Essex, the Boleyn girls. Is there really anything new to say about these people? Why do they seem to have such an enduring  fascination?

 Mary: I think some of the appeal is celebrity gossip. “OMG! Henry the VIII beheaded 2 of his wives!” Plus the women wear really beautiful clothes and are very rich and live in palaces while the rest of us are trying to pay the mortgage. I have nothing against these novels. They provide entertainment and escape, and in the best cases they bring history to people who would never read it otherwise. Some are very well-written and well-researched. I particularly enjoy the work of Philippa Gregory. I think the problem with the Tudors is that they are being mined to death. It’s like the Jane Austen craze. Jane Austen is a great writer, but you can only take so many rewrites of Pride and Prejudice. I’m reminded of great songs that are played until you can’t stand them. At this very moment, someone who has never heard it before is listening to Stairway To Heaven and being blown away by it. But when I hear it for the 6,000th time, all I want is earplugs. It’s the same with the Tudors.

 Andy: Ok Mary. I want to write an historical novel. I’m thinking of doing a kind of mystery. Maybe Sherlock Holmes teams up with Otto Von Bismarck. Maybe a murder in the Hapsburg court. A lot of scenes with generals in cool outfits doing the waltz. Is this a good idea. What periods of time do you see really working right now for a successful novel?

 mary: Right now I’m hoping that the Civil War period is the best for a successful novel. Seriously, Andy, if you’re planning to write a historical novel, you should start by finding a period you love and set your story in it. If waltzing generals in cool outfits make you happier than Roman emperors in togas, go for the waltzing generals.

 Historical Novels that Mary recommends you read:

Mary Mackey suggests you read all of Andy’s suggestions (below) plus:

 Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

The Persian Boy by Mary Renault

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Death Comes to the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

The Year The Horses Came by Mary Mackey

The Widow’s War by Mary Mackey

Ten Historical Novels that Andy recommends you read.

Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears

The Dream of Cicero by Iain Pears

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

The Three Musketeers s by Alexander Dumas

Saints and Villains by Denise Giardino

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Lincoln by Gore Vidal

The Notorious Mrs. Winston by Mary Mackey

The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

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5 Responses to “Mary Mackey on Writing Historical Fiction”

  1. The Compulsive Writer Says:

    I stumbled upon your blog and I am so glad I did! I loved this post. I write a humorous blog – (real pictures, fake stories; history as I see it) where I tell the “real story” behind historical photos and art. It is my creative outlet to write about history in a humorous way since the manuscript I am working on right now is not (historical fiction, WWII). Off to check out the rest of your blog…

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