Pamela Redmond, as Pamela Redmond Satran, is the amazing author of five novels and the creator of the online fiction world Ho Springs. A New York Times bestselling humor writer, and a Glamour columnist, she's also the force behind the wonderful website Nameberry. And if that's not enough, several of her books have been optioned by Amblin Entertainment (that's the one helmed by Steven Spielberg.) Her new novel, The Possibility of You, about three very different women, grappling with motherhood, is as moving as it is provocative. I'm thrilled to have Pamela's essay here on my blog. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Pamela.
Inventing the Truth
By Pamela Redmond/The Possibility of You
When I was about three-quarters of the way through writing my new novel The Possibility of You, set largely in 1916 New York, I read an interview with E. L. Doctorow. Since Ragtime was one of the models not only for my own book but for the historical novel as we know it, I was eager to hear what Doctorow had to say about how to meld historical research with characters who feel vivid and contemporary.
His trick, he confessed: He doesn’t do any research. None. He just writes the book as if the events are unfolding in a timeless era and place, and only after he’s finished maybe look up some details to throw in for color. Historical accuracy? Not so important.
Now he tells me, I thought. The Possibility of You took me five years to write, partly because of all the historical research I undertook, and partly because I then had to figure out how to make my story come alive in the context of all that research. The challenge is different from that of a contemporary novel, in which both the writer and the audience share a broad base of knowledge about not only what life is like but about how people typically feel and behave, react and respond.
Writing about the New York of a century ago was a different proposition. Among the facts I discovered the found their was into my book: 1916 was the year that cars first outnumbered horse-drawn carriages in New York, and there was one stop light in all of Manhattan, at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, that was operated by hand. Thousands of cats and dogs were drowned in the East River, because of a (mistaken) belief that they carried the polio virus that infected 9000 children and killed 2500 of them that summer in America’s first major outbreak of that disease. And in 1916, a pioneering woman psychiatrist first translated Jung into English.
There were lots of other squishier details I tried to find out, only sometimes succeeding. How did the mostly-Irish female servants like the heroine of my book feel about their jobs, about the women they worked for, about their own futures? I listened to oral histories at the Ellis Island Library, watched movies and books from the eras, read newspapers and hunted down diaries, but there was little from the viewpoints and in the voices of maids and nannies, and when they did talk, they didn’t say much.
If only I’d known before I did all this work that I needn’t have bothered! And I say that only half-jokingly. I can’t imagine having written a meaningful story set in World War I era New York without knowing that the first birth control clinic in New York was opened that year, and quickly shut down by police. Or creating my heroine Bridget without knowing that Irish women were the only ones to immigrate alone – Jewish and Italian young women who came to this country in the same era traveled and lived with their families – and the only ones willing to work as servants.
While I had to learn these facts to create and populate my long-ago world, the research sometimes got in the way. Sitting in the New York Historical Society, reading every front page of the New York Times for 1916, I’d get caught up in some popular and related event of the time – the pandemic Beautiful Baby parades and contests, for instance – and decide my story needed one of those. And then I spent a lot of time writing it. But in the end, engaging as it may have been as an individual scene and as evocative of the 1916 world of mothers and children, it didn’t belong in my book and ended up on the cutting room floor.
There were other historical details that were so wonderful I couldn’t bear to leave them out, as tangential as they may have been. The goat carts that were a fixture of the time in Central Park, for instance, manned by poor children to be enjoyed by rich ones. Or the way the rivers circling Manhattan looked back then, clogged with boats chugging black smoke, doing the work now spread among planes and trucks and trains.
But in the end, I had to let go of all my research and let the characters and plot take the lead. I had to make Bridget a believable, sympathetic heroine independent of her era and her situation, to make the tension and yearning between her and her employer Maude as real and palpable as that between my contemporary heroine Cait and her lover.
Does that mean that the best tack when writing a historical novel is, like E. L. Doctorow, to eschew research all together? To simply create your characters and your plot as if they existed independent of time and space?
I’m not sure I believe that’s even possible, any more than I believe that Stephen King digs up his brilliant plots, as he claimed in his book on writing, like metaphorical diamonds buried in the dirt of his backyard. But I know that too much research can get in the way of the kind of invention on which every novel depends, the creativity that liberates fiction from reality, and in the process makes it truer than any fact.