icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

What's True. What's Not.

Woodcut from Foxe's Book of Martyrs: The order and the manner of the burning of Anne Askew

As an historical novelist I'm devoted equally to the historical record and to my own creative imaginings. Above all, I'm devoted to story. If I know the facts (and I work very hard to know them), I won't change them. Sometimes, though, to make the story work, I find I have to leave out some of the facts. My next few blog posts will be about what's factual in Prize for the Fire, what's been imagined, and also what's known about Anne's story that I've intentionally left out.

 

Anne Askew's own writings tell us much about her beliefs and the events at the end of her life. Thanks to the relatively good record-keeping of the Tudor era, we know additional facts about her family and the complicated religious and political milieu during Henry VIII's reign. We know Anne was the daughter of a Lincolnshire knight and was forced into an arranged marriage at a young age; that she had two children by her husband, Thomas Kyme, and was violently thrown out of the house by him; that she unsuccessfully sought a divorce, took back her own name, moved to London and became a famous gospeller (one who expounded publicly on the Christian Bible). We know she was a writer; that she memorized prodigious amounts of Scripture, was put on trial for her beliefs, was tortured in the Tower of London, wrote a detailed account of her trials and torture, which was smuggled out of the prison by her maid, and that she was burned at the stake on 16 July 1546.

 

The above is recounted in The Examinations of Anne Askew, the collection of her writings published shortly after her death by the Reformist John Bale. But a casual scan of internet sources will bring up assertions about Anne that my deeper dive into her history contradicts. From the time of her death, Anne's story has been used as a polemic by both traditionalists and reformists, and I think this accounts for why some misleading assertions about her keep getting repeated, including, at this writing, on her Wikipedia page.

 

Wiki says, for instance, that she was an Anabaptist and a friend of the Anabaptist Joan Bocher, who was burned four years after Anne, but, looking at primary sources from Anne's era, I found no evidence of that. I did find that she was accused of being an anabaptist by her enemies, just as she was accused of being a sectary, a heretic, a morally loose woman. The tale that she was friends with Joan Bocher was first published 53 years after her death in a diatribe against both women by a Jesuit priest, Robert Persons, who had his own agenda. This was during the reign of the very Protestant Elizabeth I, and Persons, who was born the same year Anne died, said he'd learned all this from someone who had been at Bocher's trial. Make of that what you will. I didn't put it in my novel, except for a fleeting appearance by a "Sister Joan" in an evangelical meeting in a London brewery near the end of the book, which I slipped in like an Easter egg for scholars of the era to find.  

 

One interesting fact I left out of the book is that Anne's father, Sir William Ayscough, served on the jury that condemned to death four of the purported lovers of Anne Boleyn. The trial was at Westminster on 12 May 1536, and Anne Boleyn lost her head seven days later. Prize for the Fire opens nine months after that. In drafting the novel, I wrote several versions where young Anne learns of her father's role on the jury and the condemned men's executions, as well as the beheading of Anne Boleyn, but it always came out as backstory, exposition, overheard conversations, and it carried the narrative too far from Anne's primary conflict—her grief and her miserable marriage—so this interesting historical tidbit remains a true part of Anne Askew's story but not of my book.

 

Next up in the series: Who's True. Who's Not.  

   

Be the first to comment

Cover Art

Juxtaposing the covers for my newest novel, Prize for the Fire, with the paperback cover of Fire in Beulah (images in right sidebar), I think of the symbolism of fire, not only in the titles but in what these two books are about. I think, too, about how a cover image can become the book's characters in the reader's mind. While I'm writing, I hold a clear image of what a character looks like, and I try to evoke that image in words. But the picture on the cover can change everything—how the reader sees the character, and, ultimately, how I do. The young woman on the paperback cover of Fire in Beulah has become Graceful for me, though the character in my mind looked quite different when I was writing the book. Now, though, I can't see Graceful any other way.

 

I initially had a different image in mind for the cover of Prize for the Fire. I worked on the novel for 20 years, holding the image of young Anne Askew in my mind. After the book was finished, I looked for a portrait of a 16th century girl that matched the Anne in my mind, and the young woman in the dark portrait here matched perfectly. For technical reasons the designer couldn't use this image, though, so he found one very similar--close, but younger and saucier, less sad. I love the layout and design of the cover and am interested to see if this younger, saucier Anne replaces the girl in my mind. I expect after I've lived with her a while and carried her to bookstores and book clubs for readings, she will.   

 

For my first book, a collection of stories, Strange Business, the first dustjacket design Viking showed me was a stock image of an empty, flat, dusty crossroads in a western ghost town—a New Yorker's vision of dusty Oklahoma. It looked nothing like the small town in eastern Oklahoma where the stories are set. I was dismayed, but being a first-time author, I didn't know if I had the authority to say anything. My editor at Viking, Will Gillham, saw my dismay. What's wrong? he said. I told him. Well, he said, find us an image that looks like what you want, and we'll use it. I was in New York then, couldn't get back to Oklahoma to take pictures, so I asked a photographer friend in Tulsa, Dawna Wallis, to please take some pictures of small towns in eastern Oklahoma. She traveled all over for a day, taking pics, and a signature redbrick building in downtown Henryetta, Oklahoma, is the one we chose for the cover. To me, it's perfect

 

With most of my books I've been consulted on the cover art for the hardcover, but not always for the paperback, which can result in disappointment. I loved the design and photograph for the hardcover of my first novel, The Mercy Seat (right sidebar). The image doesn't correlate with the main character, Mattie, but with the younger sister she raises after their mother dies. The paperback cover, however, has a stock image of westward migration that leans too close to stereotype for my taste. The flat plains behind the wagon are nothing like the craggy mountains and green rolling valleys of Indian Territory (now eastern Oklahoma) in the novel. The paperback cover for The Mercy Seat has never become the image of the Lodi family for me.

 

The difference between hardcover and paperback covers can be striking. Finding the right image for my novel Kind of Kin proved trickier than expected. I came to admire the vividness of the design Ecco came up with for the hardcover (scroll down in right sidebar), and it speaks well to the subject of the book—stereotyping and political demagoguery concerning immigration. But the image itself is troubling, and the book is also about community and family and a lost child, so we elected to change the cover for the paperback. The image of the little boy walking away through the tall grasses has a keener, softer appeal, and this also became the cover for the UK edition.

 

The cover image closest to the picture I held in my mind while I was writing is the cover for Harpsong (bottom right sidebar) because the book began with this image. It's a Walker Evans photograph from the 1930s, which I had tacked as a postcard to the bulletin board in my writing room in the Catskills. One day I was walking on our country road when this image and a voice came to me: "That's me and him standing at the side of the road outside Joplin, Missouri. To look at it, you wouldn't know where it was, would you? Dirt road, bare trees, it could be anywhere, Arkansas, Mississippi, these Oklahoma hills even, where we came from." This became Sharon's voice in the novel, and these are the first words I wrote for the book. It's is a love story, finally, featuring a mouth harp-playing troubadour inspired by Woody Guthrie. OU Press worked closely with me on the cover and interior design, which they used for hardcover and paperback both. It's my favorite cover of all my books, and my favorite interior design as well. Both evoke perfectly the unfolding story in the novel, and a writer can hardly ask for more than that

Be the first to comment

Walking in their skins: on writing historical fiction

The burning of Anne Askew. Sixteenth century woodcut.
The burning of Anne Askew. 16th century woodcut

I came to writing historical fiction not because I was so taken with history but because I wanted to understand the contemporary world I lived in. That world—Brooklyn, 1989, a world of landline phones and dot matrix printers and Betamax VCRs—is history now. But its human story endures.

 

1989 was the year of the Central Park Five and the killing of a 16-year-old Black youth, Yusef Hawkins, surrounded by a gang of white boys in Bensonhurst; it was the year Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing debuted. It was also the year I learned about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the most massive assault by white Americans on Black Americans in the nation's history that had taken place not fifty miles from where I grew up. This event, this truth, this enormity had been covered up for generations.

 

I wanted to write that story, not as a history but within the resonances of fiction, and I wanted to do it as truthfully and accurately as possible. In those days, the facts of the massacre were hard to come by. Newspaper archives had been expunged. White Tulsans wouldn't talk about it, or didn't know. This is how I learned to do historical research: to dive below the surface, look underneath the common stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. 

 

And I learned, of course, that the Tulsa Race massacre didn't explode from nothing; it came of what went before, and before, and before. To understand 1921, I had to unearth so much that happened in the years, decades, centuries before. As Hilary Mantel reminds us: "Beneath every history, another history."

 

To write about early twentieth century Oklahoma, I had to go back to Indian Territory in the late nineteenth. I had to learn the story of how my people migrated to the Territory—and what they brought with them. I asked questions of living elders, read histories, traced through hearsay and conversation and handed-down narratives the outlines of how my family, white settlers, came by covered wagon into I.T. from Kentucky in 1887. That imagining became my first novel, The Mercy Seat. Studying my way into the earliest days of Oklahoma's story, trying to know what happened, and why, and above all how, I learned what has been for me the hardest lesson: that you can never know all you want to know. All you yearn to know.

 

In that book, a young girl finds a tin box holding her dead mother's belongings; she tries to decipher her mother's life through reading the items: a lock of hair, a cheap snuffbox, a charred torn-out page of Scripture, a child's pair of eyeglasses. But she comes to see that "…she could not know her mother's life, not lived nor told nor unfolding in the strength of imagination nor in dream or vision. Her mother's life was locked away from her, eternal, as she was locked away from all others, as we each are locked away from one another in the pores of finite mind and skin…"

 

This is the metaphor, for me, for writing historical fiction. We'll never know the truths of their lives, those precious or mediocre or loathsome ones who came before us; they're locked away from us as the dead are locked away from the living, but we keep poring through the tin box anyway, reading artifacts, piecing mismatched parts together, creating the narrative from imperfect words.

 

When we begin, we learn everything we can learn, and then we learn, by writing, how much more we need to know. Then comes another hard lesson: we have to leave out some of the facts we've learned because they impede the narrative, make the story read like hey-look-at-all-my-fabulous-research. So we cut them, or replace them with other details. We become meticulous, devoted, openminded, openhearted, humble enough to hide our hand, we hope.

 

My forthcoming novel about the English Reformation martyr Anne Askew, Prize for the Fire, has called on these resources more than any of my previous works. I've tried to imagine my way into the distant past--not 100 years ago but 500--and into a religious mindset, a passion, worldview, and country not my own. I've sought to write a fictional truth grounded in facts I've discovered through targeted research and travel over the course of twenty years. I'll never uncover all I need to know. But I keep trying.

 

In her wonderful essay "Why I Became a Historical Novelist," Hilary Mantel says that she'll make up a man's inner torments but not, for instance, the color of his drawing room wallpaper. "…someone, somewhere, might know the pattern and color," she says, "and if I kept on pursuing it, I might find out."

 

I share Mantel's essay with students in my historical fiction writing class. I tell them: we're writing to the one who knows the wallpaper.

 

Or anyway, I am.

 

It takes courage in all cases to be a writer, and a particular kind of courage to write outside one's own lived experience, to try to create for readers the lived experiences of others in an era in which we have never lived, in a place where we've never lived—because, even if we have lived in our story's location, inside our own period's overlay, even if we travel to our story's landscapes and cities, or study with intricate attention the paintings and photographs of the age, we can never experience the precise quality of light on the southern plains in 1837, or the ambient sounds on a Kansas City street in 1902, or the stench of burning flesh in 1546 in London, or on the streets of Tulsa in 1921.

 

For that, we must imagine.

 

So then we're doing what all novelists of all genres and in all ages do: imagining our way into the lives of others, burrowing into their psyches, walking in their skins, finding our way, through imagery and language and sensory detail, into their world, and inviting readers inside with us. That's the art of it, this great imagining, this welding of histories and artifacts and qualities of light to the human heart in all its joy and grief and suffering.

 

We historical novelists aren't writing to the past but to our own time. Each age has its obsessions, surely, but the fundamentals of the human story don't change. We're looking to create who we are now by imagining who we were before—who, indeed, we always have been.

 

 

 

(A version of this essay was first published as "Imagine" in Nimrod International Journal blog in February 2020.)

1 Comments
Post a comment