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July 22, 2005

Author2Author: René Steinke & Susann Cokal, pt. 4

by Ron Hogan

steinke.jpgRené Steinke: You obviously did an enormous amount of research for Breath and Bones. How did you handle the relationship between writing and research. Were you ever stymied or blocked by knowing too much? Did you set limits on how much research you would do and when? I found that I had to be careful about the research not swallowing me up, and at a certain point, I had to say, "Okay, you've read enough to write the story." And I didn't use 90 percent of what I learned. I couldn't fit everything into the novel--just couldn't without weighing it down.

I also wanted to ask you about historical novels in general--do you think of the historical novel as a particular genre with specific rules, or, as I heard Michael Ondaatje say somewhere, is it simply a story that happens to be set in the past? What are the novelist's responsibilities to history and to the story? I was surprised at how often these big questions came up as I was writing Holy Skirts.

susanncokal.jpgSusann Cokal: For this book, I dabbled in research for about five years, and even before that I'd been interested in the Old West and in nineteenth-century art. By the time I was ready to write Breath and Bones, I felt I was pretty grounded in most of the things I needed to know. But as I wrote I discovered I needed to find out more about Mormonism, immigration, and in fact most of the other elements of the story. I bought more books--now the research for this novel takes up about 16 feet of shelf space, and that doesn't count what I checked out of the library or the more experiential research of going to places and imagining other lives.

I really like doing research. For my first novel, Mirabilis (which has a medieval setting), I spent a year reading and taking notes before I started to write. I worked on it for about seven years total--a length of time my agent tells me I may never have again. It's impossible to know when you know enough, because you will never know enough … And yes, there are countless facts and ideas I had to leave out of Breath and Bones because they didn't suit my story. (That happened even more with Mirabilis.) I look forward to using some of them in the future--knowledge and thought are never wasted. It's always good dinner-party fodder, anyway, especially some of the old ideas about hygiene and medicine.

Despite that "never enough" feeling, I do think it is my responsibility to find out as much as I can about the era in which I set a story. Probably most historical novelists believe in adjusting history to suit story, but I don't really. I want my settings to be authentic, even though I haven't written about any real historical figures so far. As a reader, anachronisms bother me, as does flagrant tinkering with dates and events in order to make a "better" story. Maybe it's the scholarly side of me… Of course, this isn't to say that I don't make mistakes, or that I don't have to choose between conflicting accounts of events--in which case I do pick the version that fits my story best. And a bit of magic realism or gentle improbability is just fine with me; everyday reality is often disappointing, and the distance of history sometimes lets us tell a wilder tale. But I think that every incident in both my novels is possible, even plausible; even some of the more fantastic ones (especially in the medieval novel) were inspired by things that people thought really had happened.

Yet I'm not sure I do think historical novels possess a set of rules different from the constraints placed on "regular" novels. For the most part (there are exceptions in experimental writing), we all want readers to feel emotionally engaged with our characters and moved by them; in order to accomplish that, we try to make the novel's world as real as possible--that is, as believable as possible, whether we're writing about the recognizable present or a fantastic future world or a misty past. Good writing is good writing, independent of temporal setting.

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