- Historic Sites
Our most popular practitioner of the art speaks of the challenges and rewards of writing
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
The essence of the historical novel is that a writer with current information and attitudes looks back upon events of moment so that he or she can organize such experience and give it meaning. I doubt that a good historical novel could be written much sooner than seventy-five years after the events being discussed. The Koran may be an exception, but modern scholarship suggests that even this remarkable document was largely a recollection in tranquillity.
From the immense amount of mail I receive on this subject, I judge that citizens have two motives in wanting a novelist to write about their corner of the world. First, they realize intuitively that a land does not attain full meaning until some artist with words and concepts externalizes its history and transmutes it into a narrative that sings. Second, there is a strong urge to have the rest of the world appreciate how interesting the homeland can be, for this shared recognition lends stature.
One of the most poignant memories of my writing life occurred when a Turkish diplomat asked if I would consider coming to live in his land for a while and writing about it. He said: “Desperately we need a good book about Turkey. It’s depressing to be a Turkish diplomat and to enter a plenary session and realize that not one person in that hall has ever read a book about Turkey … except maybe Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh , which tells how we Turks massacred the poor Armenians.” He, better than I, appreciated the true value of a historical novel.
When I planned my long novel Centennial , I studiously avoided the big, easy subjects of westward expansion like gold mining, railroad building, and the establishment of cities like Denver and Salt Lake because I believed that any reasonably good writer could handle such material. Only one with long experience and deep dedication could take subjects like the drylands or the prairie or the mystery of irrigation and make them fascinating, and I wanted to devote my energies to that greater problem. When the book was done, the wisdom of my choice was ratified by hundreds of citizens of Nebraska, Wyoming, and Colorado who sent me letters stating that I had at last put into words what they had always felt about their homeland. The majesty had always been there; it required a book to make it clear to the general public.
The thing that pleases me most about the novels I’ve done is that hundreds of young Gentiles who were marrying Jews have written to assure me that until they read The Source they did not appreciate the culture they were marrying into, while an equal number of young Jews have said that until they read my book they did not appreciate their own heritage. But the real reward came when Jews immigrating from Russia informed me that handwritten translations of my novel had circulated secretly among the community with the notation: “If a Gentile can know so much about Judaism, how can you know any less?”
My biggest disappointment has been a recurring one, starting most painfully with my first long novel, Hawaii . When I published the book back in 19591 realized that it was a collection of historical novelettes, each of which merited full-length treatment as a novel of its own. Also, since each segment dealt with a specific ethnic group—Polynesian, Hawaiian, Caucasian, Chinese, Japanese—young writers from these groups ought to retell the stories from their point of view, drawing upon the more advanced research that would be coming along. There ought to be a Chinese account of the Chinese invasion, a Japanese version of their immigration.
Now two decades have passed and the corrective novels I anticipated have not been forthcoming and will not be until young people of talent do at least as much work as I did back in the germinating period of 1940 to 1959. They must know all that I knew and then half again as much, and until they do, they are not eligible to supplant what I accomplished, even though such supplanting is called for.
I have had identical disappointments with my novels The Source, Centennial , and Chesapeake . In every instance each segment of these novels should be supplanted by strong, up-to-date accounts written by informed local residents who have done the enormous background work required, but up to now such writing has not appeared, because young people of talent have not done the work.
I expect better luck with my last novel, The Covenant . Since it deals with a national problem that ought not be left in the hands of an outsider, it is likely that various South African writers will enter the international field with their own accounts of what happened in their nation. I fully expect their novels to be better than mine, but I warn them that they will fail unless they do at least as much hard work and soul searching as I did.