Wednesday, 08 July 2020

Getting an historical perspective

Mary Chamberlain and Lara Prescott, Festival Hub

WITH the first autumnal chill in the air, a small group gathered for Wednesday morning’s event.

Mary Chamberlain and Lara Prescott have both written historical novels and so what we all wanted to know, and what was discussed at great length, was how hard is it to separate fact and fiction?

Lara Prescott read from her novel The Secrets We Kept first, then Mary Chamberlain read from her Second World War-inspired book, The Hidden.

Both were extraordinary readings with captivating, engaging, narrative voices, beautiful, intricate prose and most importantly, a hook.

We wanted to hear more. They have created gripping stories, full of twists and cliff-hangers, and as Mary Chamberlain said, “It is a balancing act of writing history and creating a page-turner.”

So how did they do it?

Both novels are extremely successful; not, as might be expected of books about the Cold War or the Second World War, bogged down in facts, they move along quickly, alert, experimental, exciting.

But underneath the fiction is a lot of research. Both writers visited the places they were writing about, with Chamberlain saying she needed to get a “visceral sense of the place” and Prescott agreeing that “walking the steps is important on a sensory level”.

Both writers trawled archives, read books, wrote pages and pages that never made the novel, so how did they know what to keep in and what to take out?

It is important to remember, Prescott told us, that writing historical fiction is only a personal interpretation of history. Characters are only amalgamations of real people. Chronology can bend for fiction. If you get constrained by facts then you kill the story.

The temptation to include everything must be overwhelming but as Chamberlain beautifully explained you have to imagine you have a deep well of knowledge but can only pull out a thimbleful for the book.

Both novels reflect upon little known periods of history; they take a viewpoint that is unusual, previously unspoken.

For example, Chamberlain writes about women’s stories from the Second World War and in particular the occupation of the Channel Islands. She looks for hidden stories.

Similarly, Prescott, writing about the publication of Doctor Zhivago and inspired by some redacted documents she found in the archives, focuses on the women, the CIA typists, wondering who typed those documents, to tell her story.

Prescott describes herself as “filling in history’s blanks”.

It was a fascinating discussion, packed full of information and answering some really in-depth questions, but at no point did it feel like a history lesson.

We were lost in the world of fiction, of words and creativity, but somehow leaving, stepping back out into Henley’s chilly sunshine, informed and satisfied. A true skill.

Laura Healy

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