John Crowley (JC:) The recipient of an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature, John Crowley lives in the hills above the Connecticut River in northern Massachusetts with his wife and twin daughters. He is the author of Daemonmania; Love & Sleep; Aegypt; Three Novels; The Translator, and, most recently, Lord Byron’s Novel. His acclaimed novel Little, Big celebrates its 25th anniversary this fall.
Jeffrey Ford (JF): Jeffrey Ford is a professor of writing and early American literature at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey and the author of four previous novels: the award-winning New York Times Notable Book The Physiognomy, Memoranda, The Beyond, and The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque. His most recent novel, A Girl in the Glass, was a New York Times Editor's Choice, and his short story collection, The Empire of Ice Cream, was just chosen as one of Publishers Weekly's best 100 books of 2006.
James Morrow (JM): James Morrow's most recent novel, a critically-acclaimed historical epic called The Last Witchfinder, was a New York Times Editor's Choice. His earlier novels include This Is the Way the Worlds Ends, Only Begotten Daughter, and a cycle of Nietzchean satires known as the Godhead Trilogy. A two-time winner of both the World Fantasy Award and the Nebula Award, he lives with his wife and son in State College, Pennsylvania.
Tim Powers (TP): The author of numerous novels including the World Fantasy Award Winner Last Call, Expiration Date, Earthquake Weather, and The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers lives in San Bernardino, California. His most recent novel, Three Days to Never, explores a secret chapter in Einstein's past, and spent three weeks on the LA Times Bestseller list.
Moderator: Diana Gill, Senior Editor, Morrow/Eos (DG)
DG: Looking at your most recent books, they all deal with secret histories of a sort, whether it's a lost piece from the mad, bad poet Byron, books warring against themselves, Einstein's hidden past, or the mysteries behind Long Island's Gold Coast. What drew you to these themes, and/or these particular time periods? Are history and speculative fiction a natural match? Is it easier to write fantastical elements in period novels, or harder?
JC: "Secret history"--Well, we probably all noticed the presence on the best-seller list of a certain book promising to reveal a secret history, and thought, well, we could do that too--anyway a possibility. Actually, I have a feeling that any novel (or book) describable as a Secret History has a fair chance of selling a few copies. I believe (and I think it's central to the kind of books I have written, and I'd hazard it's true of many of the readers of my fellow interlocutors's work) that the appeal of a Secret History is universal, not necessarily because it promises to tell a secret; rather because it offers an alternative to the usual story we have to live with all day every day. Conspiracy addicts want a different story that's the real story; readers of secret histories just want something different, topsy-turvy, reversed or bottom-up.
TP: I think John's right, conspiracy theorists want "an alternative to the usual story we have to live with all day every day" (and we're all honorary conspiracy theorists when we're in the middle of reading a book like, say, Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49). But it has to be secret, too! There has to be that element of "I know the real story, and most people don't." I'm a sucker for that effect myself, so I like to try to evoke it in my books.
I've found lots of historical characters whose lives could plausibly (well, almost plausibly) include familiarity with, and action in, very secret magical goings-on, and it's fun to concoct supernatural explanations that cover even their recorded, apparently-mundane actions. But of course it's cheating--as Dan Brown cheated in The Da Vinci Code--to falsify actual recorded history. You have to leave the reader thinking, "Jeez, I can't see anything that contradicts this theory ..."
And Diana, I think there's the same degree of trickiness in writing fantastical elements in historical stories as in modern-day stories! In both cases you've got to first convince the reader that this is the real world he's familiar with, and then take him by (ideally) smooth & plausible degrees into conceding things he wouldn't ordinarily concede. We have to be con-artists!
JF: I think these other guys have more experience than I do in using History as the backdrop for a novel. Early on, I just wanted to make it all up. I remember reading The Anubis Gates before I got into the professional writing game and both being blown away by it and thinking, “This research must have taken an enormous amount of work.” I avoided placing my stories in an historical time for the longest time simply out of laziness. When our editor, Jennifer Brehl, suggested that I try it I was very reluctant, but once you get your feet wet in the research before you know it you’re in over your head and loving it. The thing that most amazes me about doing this kind of work is that you realize what a shallow sense of history most people, yourself included, actually have. All you have to do is come down on any date and scratch the surface and you are going to find remarkable, little known, artifacts.
When researching The Girl in the Glass I discovered the existence of the Eugenics Record Office and the Mexican Repatriation all in a single sitting at the computer. Here were two items that have a profound connection and even impact on the world we live in today. I had to use them. I also wanted to use them for the reason John gives, that I felt I was the only one for miles around in every direction who either knew about them or was thinking of them in that moment. As for the influence of the fantastic, the type I make use of embodies eternal verities, eternal human concerns about morality, immortality, death, and the purpose of life. The supernatural, the fantastic is rich with metaphor about real lives lived. And Historically speaking these supernatural phenomena have always been important to people through the ages, so there is nowhere in Time that you can set down and not find someone keenly interested in the after life, or the hidden power of the mind, or communing with the dead. If it's ok, I'd like to offer a link to a recent, impromptu essay I wrote for the LBC about doing historical research here.
I also believe that the resurgence in interest in the secret history is that readers have become aware in recent years how much information is being kept from them by their government (either for good or bad, depending upon your political and moral persuasion) and how much the truth is obfuscated by the press (FOX News and all the other news shows run through corporate interest), by politicians (WMD's in Iraq), corporations (ENRON). Hey, it's more likely there is a secret history than there isn't, these days--or perhaps that's the way it always was. I think this phenomenon has fueled some legitimate questioning and also some really wacky conspiracy theories.
JC: Maybe you could distinguish between books that are about secret histories (like The Crying of Lot 49) and secret histories themselves. What Pynchon got was that we'd rather be titillated by the possibility of the secret history than to hear it explicated. A wonderful new book out now explicates the many variants on Hollow Earth stories--from Ignatius Donnelly to Edgar Rice Burroughs and beyond. I'd say that the Hollow Earth story is about as perfect a paradigm of an actual secret history as Pynchon's is the paradigm about one. Of course I attempted a combo or trifecta in the Aegypt series, about, embodying, and losing a secret history. (Note: I said attempted.)
TP: Jeff, that's a great essay. I agree that after doing heaps of research--going through the laborious initiation--there comes a point where you stumble across eerily perfect sources one after another. I remember finding a battered old tourist guide book on Beirut in 1963--including restaurants, what TV shows were on what channels, advice on seasonal clothing and God knows what all--just as I was setting a book in Beirut in 1963. These become the most valuable books you own, for a while! And then I get to a stage where I belatedly find one more book which seems to confirm the screwy theory I've cooked up for the book, and I think, "Uh-oh, you haven't invented a theory, you've stumbled onto the truth!"
And I generally have no idea what my plot is going to be, before I start the research. What I'm looking for in all these books is "bits that are too cool not to use," and when I've got thirty or so of them I've by-definition got thirty elements of my book. All I've got to do is arrange them in cause-&-effect order, and connect the dots! My system is set up for a writer with no native imagination but a good eye for what things would be good in a book.
And I always fondly imagine that if I let the research dictate the events & characters & concerns of the book, I'm not going to impose my 20th century perspectives on the story. I don't want to write a book about 1800, say, which in future years will reek of 2006--like the stories in Galaxy in 1969, about far-future societies concerned with student unrest and legalizing drugs and getting out of an obviously Vietnam-type war. Those stories still smell of patchouli oil, and you can hear Jefferson Airplane in the background. But of course even though I'm choosing elements from the time I'm writing about, it's still a guy in 2006 doing the choosing.
I always at least hope that I have nothing "to say" in my fiction. No relevance to here and now. If I see myself starting to write something that's perceptibly a metaphor for something going on in the world today, I hope I always have the discipline to cut it out. I suspect not everybody will agree with me on this last point
JF: I'm taking notes here, but on the last point--I don't think you can escape your time, willfully or subconsciously. Moby Dick is very much about its time with ideas for its time and yet manages to be timeless. I think it's presuming a lot to write for those hundreds of years in the future but not for your current neighbors. The constellation of historical elements you choose to work with in a novel could only be conceived of by someone who is you, living in this time and place. In the choosing, you have already grounded your work in this time. I smell patchouli.
TP: Jeff--well, you're right. We can't get out of the whole soup of philosophies and assumptions we're swimming in. And the stuff I choose as intriguing, from among all the historical bits at hand, are the things this 2006-guy finds intriguing. And certainly I want to write for my current neighbors! I don't mean to give the impression that I'm writing for the ages or anything like that. I want to be in print now, and I don't care if I'm in print after I'm dead! I just don't want to be writing from the default 2006 set of philosophies any more than I can't help being.
There'll always be a whiff of patchouli, though.
This only matters if we're writing about the future or past, I think. We don't want to be putting characters with incongruously modern-day sensibilities and opinions into those alien situations (unless it's by time-travel!). One time I was going to write a book involving the Brontes, and I read a 1990-something biography of Emily Bronte, and she turned out to have been an anorexic proto-feminist lesbian--but I think any woman in history would have turned out, in a 1990-something biography, to have been those things. I like to read old biographies of a subject as well as new ones--the old ones will be working from different (not necessarily better, but different) a priori assumptions than the new ones will.
But even in my contemporary books, I hope I have no relevance! It strikes me that fantasy and science fiction collapse as soon as some message becomes evident--our vampires and star-ships instantly become just tokens for the real-world things that the story's really about. I've told this story before, but--once I was on a panel about vampire books, and one woman on the panel said, "Dracula is actually about the plight of 19th century women," to which I said, "No, it's about a guy who lives forever by drinking other people's blood. Don't take my word for it, check it out."
JF: I get it, and for the most part agree. We tell stories. The readers can bring the meanings.