When Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and other novels about Thomas Cromwell became surprise international bestsellers several years back, it wasn't their length or literary aspirations that made the books' popularity surprising to commentators: It was the subject matter.
James Wood, The New Yorker's finicky fiction reviewer, deemed Mantel's books good despite being "historical novels, a somewhat gimcrack genre not exactly jammed with greatness." In The Nation, Leo Robson noted, "Historical fiction has become a byword for middlebrow wasteland." His piece proposed that two white female British authors, Mantel and Penelope Fitzgerald, could be credited with saving the reputation of historical fiction nearly singlehandedly. In a profile of Mantel in The New Yorker, Larissa MacFarquhar observed that "these days the historical novel is not quite respectable. It has difficulty distinguishing itself from its easy sister the historical romance. It is thought to involve irritating ways of talking, or excessive descriptions of clothes."
For authors who aren't Mantel, pursuing historical fiction can be a ding to their reputation, stamping them as mediocre or less interested in literary accomplishment than playing in a historical sandbox. Author Katy Simpson Smith, whose second novel, Free Men, was published last month, told The Huffington Post in an email that she's definitely noticed this stigma. "I'm not sure why," she added, "since so much of our great literature is about the past."
Free Men is the second historical novel from Smith, who holds not only an MFA in creative writing, but a PhD in history. Like her first novel, The Story of Land and Sea, Free Men takes place in the post-Revolutionary coastal South, which Smith studied academically, and examines the stew of social disorder, racial oppression, and shifting alliances that defined the nascent American region.
Also like her first novel, Free Men marries exhaustive research into the time period with effortless prose and insight into her characters that makes a story from several centuries ago feel immediate. In Smith's full email conversation with HuffPost, she shared more about her process for writing a historical novel, her new book, and her frustration with the stigma attached to historical fiction.
Free Men is your second historical novel set in the post-Revolutionary South, and you also studied the period academically. What compels you to focus on this era and region?
I'm fascinated by the early stages of this country -- shouldn't we all be wondering how we got this way, for better or worse? -- and the South is such a perfect crucible of developing ideas on race and class and gender. Marginalization here was increasingly the order of the day, and I've found myself obsessed with figuring out how those on the edges of power fought back.
Free Men is based on an actual historical event. How did you stumble across the story? What made you feel drawn to turn it into a novel?
I was researching a very different story when I found myself knee-deep in the geography of south Alabama, wondering how on earth a place called Murder Creek got its name. Turns out it's exactly how you'd think! There's a great 19th-century history of Alabama that includes descriptions of the culprits (a white man, a black man, and an Indian man), and I thought that unlikely trio was begging to be unpacked.
Was taking on the voices of such a diverse cast of characters, including a Native American and black slaves, daunting? How did you approach trying to make sure their stories and voices were resonant and truthful?
Absolutely -- as a writer, you can never walk into someone else's head without a certain terror. But I also knew that a story about the early South without black and Native voices was even more irresponsible, so I was going to try my darnedest. Which meant: combining as much knowledge about their historical context as possible with an unwavering empathy and an awareness of my own cultural blind spots. And, of course, this turns out to be the same basic recipe for writing any character.
You have degrees in both creative writing and history -- when did you know you'd write historical fiction?
I was writing historical fiction as early as middle school (I had a story, e.g., about a girl my age growing up in a medieval Welsh castle -- because why not!), but as I got older I think I veered toward history as the most rational way to indulge my love of stories. But there's a big dream in all of us that's struggling to find its way out, and for me, that was fiction writing.
Have you ever written fiction in a contemporary setting, or would you ever?
I have written a few contemporary short stories but felt out of my element, weirdly. I don't consider myself solely a historical novelist, though, so I will happily go wherever the stories take me!
How do you balance making your fiction feel fluid and natural with adhering to the historical accuracy? Do you ever find this to be a struggle?
It is indeed tough, and one's initial impulse as a historian is to Get the Facts Right, but there's a larger purpose in fiction, and I've had to teach myself that those factual details are just handmaidens to the story. I want this world to be fully and clearly eighteenth-century, but I want its reach and relevance to be much broader than that.
“It's the story that will burrow into the hearts of readers, not the petticoats.”
What is your approach to research? Do you do lots of research specifically for a novel, research as you go, or try to immerse yourself more generally in the time period instead of doing focused research?
I've been fortunate that my first two novels have sprung from the same period as my academic research, so I have a foundational knowledge of this world on which to build. But I invariably run into all sorts of things I don't know (How do you steer a sailing ship? What birds sing in the Alabama woods in March?), and it's fun to take breaks from the writing to go down those research paths. If I tried to do all the research at the beginning, I'd still be at it! It's good to know one's weaknesses.
Do you have any advice for aspiring historical novelists?
Again, I'd say: put the story first. It's the story that will burrow into the hearts of readers, not the petticoats. Do the research, but then feel free to put most of what you learned in a separate folder, only to be pulled out when readers ask about your research process.
Historical fiction isn't exactly a clear-cut genre as sci-fi, romance, or fantasy are, though it does tend to cross over here and there (historical romance, for example, is a huge subgenre). Do you ever feel that historical fiction carries a stigma compared to literary fiction with a more contemporary focus?
YES. And I'm not sure why, since so much of our great literature is about the past. Is a human 100 years ago worth less than a human today? Does a story set 100 years ago need to be more brilliant than a story set today, just to claim the adjective "literary"? Is it considered a "genre" because most contemporary readers are only interested in what's around them? And isn't that narrow, given that literature should be a project of horizon-expanding? You can tell I've thought a lot about this, and have reached no conclusions.
Are there any other writers of fiction set in the past you particularly admire or enjoy?
There are so many who do it well -- my personal pantheon includes Edward P. Jones, Charles Johnson, Toni Morrison, Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Hilary Mantel -- but I've recently gotten excited about poets who are taking up the work of marrying imagination and history, especially in the South: Natasha Trethewey, Nikky Finney, Derrick Harriell.
You've also published nonfiction historical research before; do you ever plan to write history again in the future?
I don't have plans to write a straightforward history again, only because fiction is so deeply satisfying to me right now.
Have you started working on another book, or thinking about one? If so, could you share anything about your next subject?
I have! I'm in the early stages, so I'm entirely lacking confidence, but if it ever sees the light of day, it'll be a parable of Rome, with blood and guts and love and faith.