Monday, June 9, 2008

A respite from heat whining: Read this book!

What's better than reading in air conditioning on a sweltering day? (See, I'm not whining).

Sandra Gulland's Mistress of the Sun was on the best-seller list in Canada for over two months. It's also a BookSense pick for June. Her interview is particularly fascinating for me because of the smart, savvy way she talks about the process of writing and of research.

Mistress of the Sun has a fascinating topic--the power these women really had, set against the backdrop of glimmering Versailles. What drew you to writing historical fiction in the first place?
I came to historical fiction by the back door. My first novel was a futuristic story about the end of the world. I grew up during the Cold War, and the end of the world was with me always, and perhaps I thought I could shed it by writing about it (thereby passing it onto some undeserving reader). Fortunately, the novel was unpublishable. My next novel was lighter: a contemporary comedy of manners about an elderly eccentric inconveniently possessed by the spirit of Josephine Bonaparte. Part of the convoluted plot entailed the spirit leading the woman to a diary written by "Josephine" and a fuddy-duddy historian coming in to document this discovery. Only a few pages of this manuscript was the so-called "diary" written by Josephine. I sent the rough draft to Jane Urquhart, then Writer in Residence at University of Ottawa. She told me that the diary pages had life, and suggested I forget the rest. I had long wanted to tell Josephine's story, but lacked the courage. And so, given this nudge, I began writing Josephine's diaries and let go of the contemporary scaffolding. So clearly, I came to historical fiction in a very round-about way.

It's been said that your books don't read like historical fiction at all, that in fact, they seem a unique kind of writing, which is quite a compliment. Why do you think your historical fiction is in a class of its own? Is this deliberate on your part?
I do take this as a complement — thank you — but it's certainly not deliberate on my part. Perhaps my ignorance of the historical fiction genre has something to do with it. But most of all, I feel that people of the past are simply people, not that different from you and me. I'm pleased that historical fiction fans like my novels, but I'm especially pleased when they engage readers who do not, as a rule, read historical fiction. How do you feel about researching (love it/hate it) and what's your research process? Do you try to stay as close to the facts as possible or do you feel yourself drawn to the embellishing of the truth? I love research: love it, love it, love it! (Have I made myself clear?)My research method sounds more systematic than it is. I basically wade into the subject, resolved to study the most current and respected biographies first, but invariably get side-tracked by the more esoteric works. I post dates and events to an elaborate timeline.

In the timeline, I look for the factual arc of a story, and then write a draft. I don't write in many details at this stage. I'm looking for the emotional line of the story within the scaffolding of facts. This is where embellishment can be so important. Action A is followed by Action B — but how, and why? A historian can simply state the facts, but a novelist must show how they connect. It has to make sense — and this is where it's so important to feel your way into a character's story, imaginatively try to discover the emotional truth in the facts. In order to bring that truth to life, one must embellish. Once I more-or-less have what I think will be the story in place, I know what further research I need to do. That's when I travel to the significant sites in the novel, and research the themes that have emerged in the early drafts.Then, of course, I have to revise — re-vision — and the process begins again: revise and research, research and revise as the shape of a novel, the character's story, begins to come more clearly into focus. I like to stay as close to the facts as possible. That's what fuels my imagination. It gives me something concrete, something to begin with.

Often it's the tiny factual nuggets — the small discoveries — that allow my imagination to flower. In learning that Louise de la Vallière's father had a gentle expression, for example, and that he worked to heal the sick, I began to have something I could work with.That said, the story is all-important. I simplify and shift the factual record if need be. What I love about your novels are the rich, amazing little details, like putting Belladonna in the eyes to make pupils dilate. What are some of your other favorite details?I love researching details of daily life: I collect them avidly. }

One I love but did not have occasion to use in Mistress of the Sun was a military school practice of keeping a room warm with a hot cannon ball in a bucket of sand. I hope to be able to use that in my next novel. With Mistress of the Sun, I had a lot of fun with language. I enjoyed searching Books Google [] for archaic expressions. For example, "red as a ...." What might someone in the 17th century have said? A quick check on-line and I'd discover a wealth of archaic expressions: red as a turkey-cock, red as a drunkard. One I used was red as a pulpit cushion.For Mistress of the Sun, I did a great deal of research into 17th century horsemanship, learning about bread baked specially for horses, the words used to describe a horse (a flea-bitten or mouse color, knees great, plain, & firmly knit) and the methods used to train a horse (the word cherish so often used). It was horrifying to read the midwifery guides of the time, full of graphic details. These helped me to understand the realities of the lives of women.

You live in rural Canada for part of the time, I believe. Do you find being outside of a city has its benefits in writing? Or could you live anywhere?
My husband and I now have two homes: one in remote, rural Canada, and the other in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where we live in the center of town. I very much enjoy the contrast. I have an office in both places and am always working, but I aim to do the high-concentration early draft in my Canadian home, where it is quiet and there aren't many distractions. In San Miguel, there are many temptations, but they can be quite inspiring creatively. I think I could live and write anywhere, likely. I've learned to use headphones to shut out the world. The problem, as a historical novelist, is that at a certain stage of the writing I need to be close to my reference books — and books are not so easily transported. I have some books I take back and forth, and some that are duplicated, but my main reference library is in our home in Canada, and so that's where I "thicken" scenes and fact check.

I know, I know, everyone asks this question most likely, but I'm fascinated by how other writers write. Do you outline? Do you know the heart of your novels or does it all emerge through the writing? You're writing about historical figures, so a lot is already known about them, but what surprises you about these people as you write?
I love this question, actually, and I'm always interested in how other writers answer, in part because I'm always looking for that elusive "better way."It took me eight years to write Mistress of the Sun: too long. My cut file is at least three times the length of the novel. After the novel had been accepted for publication in both Canada and the U.S. — after everyone was more or less happy with it and thought it just needed tweaking — I lopped off the last third and completely revised it. It wasn't until the final days that I even knew what the ending would be. All this to say: I don't want to take eight years to write my next novel, so I'm giving a lot of thought to my method. I want find a way to get closer to the essential story sooner.In the past, I would outline, but once into the draft I would forget about it completely. Then, between drafts (and there were many), I might outline and analyze, trying to figure out what was wrong, trying to figure out how to make it right. The "heart of the novel," as you so nicely put it, emerges very, very slowly. While it's true that the broad outline of my character's life is set in history, what she felt about what happened — and, most importantly, why she did what she did — remains unknown. That's the part that's challenging: figuring that out — and in doing so, the heart of the novel begins to be revealed. It takes many drafts. Right now, for my next novel, I'm hoping to have imaginatively worked through the story more before I begin. I'm trying Robert Olen Butler's dream-storming technique (as explained in his excellent book, From Where You Dream. it's a fluid out-lining method that I hope will help me get closer to the heart of the story without going down so many dead-ends. I’m not sure that can be avoided, however.

Can you tell us about your next project?
I'm thinking a lot about La Grande Mademoiselle, the Sun King's big, oaffish and eccentric cousin. She was a fireball, a warrior, an early feminist, a writer, and the wealthiest person in Europe — wealthier than the King himself. She rejected marriage to practically every king in Europe ("Not good enough!"), only to fall for the charms of a short, ugly womanizer, a lowly courtier. They secretly married, but he became abusive and she kicked him out. As with all life stories, it's long. There are a number of fantastic "chapters," but I'm not sure which I would focus on. I've lots of mulling to do yet.

You believe in your fans so much that you included them in the critique process of Mistress of The Sun. What was that process like? Did you make all the suggested changes or just some of them? Would you do it again?
I used to be an editor, and I'm a strong believer in the value of the editorial process. For me, reader feedback, and lots of it, is essential. In addition to my editors — who are wonderful and very rigorous — I lean on friends to give me critical feedback along the way. Then, when the manuscript is finally "there" and just about to be published, I arrange to have one or two book clubs read and discuss it. They're sent manuscripts, and they tape-record their discussion. I provide a brief guideline and a few questions, but other than that, it's open-ended. They send me the tape: I play it, cry — and then I get to work. I don't make all the suggested changes by any means, but I do try to resolve areas of difficulty. Based on reader responses to Mistress of the Sun, for example, I reworked the opening, cut an early chapter, and developed the ending quite a bit more. I think it's a stronger novel as a result and I'm grateful for that. A novel is only born once.

What do you wish I had asked you that I didn't?
This: Every novel presents a challenge. What did you find challenging about writing Mistress of the Sun? Louise de la Vallière's story was challenging because she leaves her children and the King to join a convent: how does one make that a "victory" ending for a modern reader? And yet it was a victory for her. So that was my greatest challenge: to tell her story in a way that the reader would applaud her. I'm pleased to say that, from reader reports and reviews, I think I may have succeeded.

1 comment:

Clea Simon said...

this sounds like the perfect summer read for me - thank you!