Take a life, any life, even your own. Write down all the known facts and documentation of that life, much but not all of it taken from public record: birth, parents, hometown, siblings, education, college transcripts, career, titles, marriage, children, divorce, volunteer positions, achievements, military service, address, church membership, diaries, daybooks and perhaps old letters retained by the sender or recipient.
What you’ve got then is all a good author of historical fiction needs in order to create on paper a fully formed life in the form of a novel. Then try separating fact from fiction. It almost can’t be done. With proof of available research and documentation, the reader of this story of a life, largely created, will be seduced into thinking he or she understands the main character’s emotions, relationships, compromises, decisions, demons and angels, failures and successes.
A recent spate of novels of historical fiction — all about women — have piqued my interest in the genre. My book club, the Bookies, soon to be 15 years old, has read two of them. Late last year, we read "The Paris Wife" by Paula McLain about Hadley Hemingway, the first wife of Ernest H., and the couple’s years in Paris. Just last month, we read "Mary Coin," the made-up name for the woman pictured with two of her children in one of the most famous photos from the Great Depression, a real woman named Florence Owens Thompson.
Recently, I’ve devoured two other similar novels. "The Aviator’s Wife" by Melanie Benjamin depicts the imagined life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, herself an accomplished pilot, and famed aviator Charles Lindbergh. "Z, A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald," is by Therese Anne Fowler and is about the marriage of Zelda to Francis Scott Fitzgerald. She was in her own right a respected author and painter who is largely remember for her mental health issues.
Paula McLain wrote "The Paris Wife," alluding to the fact that Hemingway had a different wife for every period in his life. "The true story of Hemingway’s marriage is so dramatic and compelling, and has been so beautifully treated by Ernest Hemingway in ‘A Moveable Feast,’ that my intention became to push deeper into the emotional lives of the characters and bring new insight to historical events, while staying faithful to the facts," wrote McLain. She consulted numerous books of research into the two main characters’ lives, as well as his selected letters from 1917-61.
"Paris Wife" author McLain and Fowler, author of "Z…," have different views for why a solid friendship between Ernest and Scott ultimately dissipates. McClain suggests that Hemingway felt Zelda held too much sway over her husband, something a manly man like Hemingway would never allow, while Fowler creates a scene in which Zelda overplays a brief physical flirtation between Ernest and herself, after which the friendship seems to dissolve. "I had to make an executive decision," Fowler explained to Scott Simon on NPR. Either explanation might totally miss the mark, but who will ever know the truth. In "Z…," Fowler is primarily focused on Zelda with the mission to "set the record straight" about a woman "badly misrepresented in popular culture."
In "The Aviator’s Wife," Melanie Benjamin attempts to create the inside story of Anne Lindbergh’s marriage to the revered Charles Lindbergh. "I truly believe the inner life can be explored only in novels, not histories or even diaries and letters," she writes. "For even diaries and letters are self-censored at the moment of writing them; it’s impossible to be absolutely honest with oneself." In Benjamin’s case, she had both partners’ published diaries and books, as well as numerous biographies of the two of them. Her recounting of the moments, days and months following the kidnapping of 18-month-old Charles Jr. is some of the most gripping writing I’ve ever encountered.
Now try imagining what a creative author might make of your life without having known you. You’ve lived it, but would you read it?
Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.