I love it when readers say to me, “After I finished your novel, I went straight to Google to figure out what was true and what was made up!” That’s exactly why historical fiction is my favorite genre: In a good story, I become immersed in a different time period with people I’d never meet otherwise, who are living through situations that are unimaginable today. After I’ve turned the last page, I’m eager to discover the nuggets of truth buried within the work of fiction.
My fictional characters are built around the framework of historical fact. Once I have an idea for a setting for my book — The Doll- house is set in the Barbizon Hotel for Women and The Address takes place in the Dakota apartment house — I do a deep dive into the research of the time period (1950s for The Dollhouse and 1880s for The Address, although they both feature contemporary plotlines as well). I read everything I can from that era, including newspapers, magazines, fiction, and nonfiction. I also interview experts, like architectural historians who specialize in the Gilded Age, or women who lived in the Barbizon Hotel for Women in the ’50s and ’60s.
That’s when the ideas start to pop. While researching The Dollhouse, I learned that when the Barbizon Hotel for Women was turned into luxury condos, a dozen or so long- time residents were moved into rent-controlled apartments on the same floor. Great set-up for a book, I thought.
I read a harrowing newspaper article from the 1950s about the rising heroin epidemic, which was often blamed on bebop jazz musicians. What a great contrast to the rarified world of the hotel, with its guests in pearls and white gloves, right? So in my plot, I sent one of my characters downtown, where she got mixed up with some seedy characters.
I used the same approach while working on The Address. I discovered that in the 1930s, a “lady managerette” ran the Dakota. That gave me the idea for one of my characters: a housekeeper named Sara Smythe who gets an unexpected promotion early in the novel.
In general, the characters in my stories are all fictional. That gives me room to play around with them, get them into and out of trouble, and not feel constrained by a true historical figure. Exceptions do occur, though. Nelly Bly, a fabulous reporter from the 1880s, makes a quick appearance in The Address. As a former journalist, I couldn’t resist. And both buildings were touched by famous, tragic figures. Sylvia Plath stayed at the Barbizon Hotel in 1953 and wrote about it in The Bell Jar, and John Lennon was murdered outside the Dakota in 1980.
In both those cases, I felt it was important to mention the association, but not linger there. For example, I set the modern-day timeline of The Address in 1985, when Strawberry Fields first opened, as a way to respectfully touch upon the tragedy without making it a major part of the story.
A couple of times I’ve had to slightly fudge dates of real events in order to make the story work. When that happens, I mention it in the author’s note at the end, where I also list many of the resources I relied upon. My hope is that readers will continue on in their journey to learn more about the past, and enjoy it as much as I did.
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This month’s picks come from Nora Alice Demick, a Marketing Coordinator for Viking, Riverhead and Penguin Books, as well as the chair of the Penguin Random House LGBTQ Network.
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This book primarily takes place in a small fishing town in Maine. Why did you choose that location for the book’s setting?
My family used to vacation in just the part of Maine where this story happens. It’s a place I really love, and a place where I haven’t seen a zillion books take place before. It’s very special to me, and every time I’ve been back as an adult, I’ve thought about setting a story in and around the towns that dot the coast. I finally found the right story, and because it relies so much on the comforting feeling that a hometown can have, it seemed just right to put it there.
What are some of your favorite rom coms and did any serve as inspiration for the book?
I love Sleepless in Seattle, no big surprise. I love While You Were Sleeping, which I saw an embarrassing number of times while it was in theaters (I was in law school at the time). The Amy Schumer/Bill Hader movie Trainwreck has a scene I really liked that involves his character being just very relaxed and straightforward about how he feels, and I realized later that it influenced some of the way I wrote this story. I’m old enough, I suppose, that I find plain talk wildly romantic.
Speaking of rom coms, this book would make a great movie. Who would you cast as Evvie and Dean in the film adaptation?
This question is so hard! I think there are people who are great at fantasy casting, and I am emphatically not one, but I will say that I have envisioned a Marvel-adjacent telling that would cast Brie Larson and Chris Evans. But I can honestly say I didn’t have anybody in mind, particularly.
As a debut author, is there anything you wish you had known before you started writing this book? Do you have any advice to share with other first-time authors?
I didn’t know how much I would have to just keep going at times when it seemed like I had no idea what I was doing. I think there’s always part of you that wonders whether you can really do it, because a novel is a big undertaking. I think it’s very natural to stall out a couple of times, just feeling unsure that you have a middle of the book. I think a lot of people have a beginning and an end, and figuring out what the middle is catches them off-guard. That’s a time to just keep going, because you may change a lot of it later anyway. Try to understand the characters. Try to make sure you know what the emotional arc is, and you’ll find the rest.
What’s making you happy right now?
Having Evvie Drake Starts Over come out, for sure. But I would also say Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s wonderful book Fleishman is in Trouble, which deserves every bit of the praise it’s getting. I read it several months ago and instantly knew how special it was, and I’m very proud of myself for having so many people agree with me.
The novelist William Dean Howells once famously remarked that his friend Mark Twain was not a writer who performed so much as a performer who wrote. Perhaps surprisingly, this astute observation also holds true in Twain’s nonfiction, a form that would seem to put less of a premium on both invention and performance. To read the passages from The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, A Tramp Abroad, and Life on the Mississippi collected in this volume is to understand that Twain didn’t lose much sleep over the idiosyncratic demands of fiction versus nonfiction. Both offered numerous and varied opportunities to an inspired, indeed unparalleled, bullshitter. To be sure, many of the set pieces that are included in the Everyman’s Library volume of The Complete Short Stories — “Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral,” “The Story of the Old Ram”—turn up in this volume as well. Classifying Twain’s work into fiction or nonfiction is something we do for our own convenience; his convenience was to ignore ours.
So, are the events chronicled in Roughing It — which details Twain’s journey by stagecoach to the Nevada territory, his stint there as a silver miner, and his apprenticeship to the newspaper trade — true? Once asked that same question about one of his own stories, David Sedaris replied, “They’re true enough,” and it’s easy to imagine Twain saying the same thing about his youthful adventures in the American West. We know he traveled to Europe and the Holy Land as a correspondent, so it’s not unreasonable to suppose that at least some of what he reports in The Innocents Abroad actually happened. I suspect, however, that the literally true parts are those he wasn’t able to improve on through embellishment or outright invention. For Twain, “truth” was not just elastic but indeed designed to be stretched. He learned this lesson early on, writing for western newspapers. He explains the job to great comic effect in Roughing It, where, as a cub reporter, he wrote a story about a wagon full of immigrants attacked by Indians. At first, fearing that other reporters might recount the same story, he sticks pretty close to the facts, despite his conviction that the story could be improved upon by straying from them. Later, though, when he learns that the owner of the wagon meant to continue his journey the following morning (leaving no one to contradict Twain’s account), all bets are off . His next draft describes an Indian fight that “to this day has no parallel in history.” This is Twain we’re talking about, so it’s likely that he also exaggerated the extent of his exaggerations, but still. Buoyed by praise from the paper’s editor, he expresses a willingness to murder every immigrant on the plains with his pen if “the interests of the paper demanded it.” Thus the low bar of truth is established: true enough. For him. For his editor. For the paper’s readership.
ONCE ASKED THAT SAME QUESTION ABOUT ONE OF HIS OWN STORIES, DAVID SEDARIS REPLIED, “THEY’RE TRUE ENOUGH.”
His approach to fiction was basically the same. At the beginning of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck says that readers may have heard of him if they’ve read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which “was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There were things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.” That first assertion, it’s worth remembering, was both the truth and a lie. The book was actually “made” by Samuel Clemens, and the parts Mr. Clemens “stretched” were the parts that needed stretching, beginning with his own identity as Mark Twain. Again, Twain is not so much a writer, at least as the term is used today, as a storyteller whose primary duties are to the narrative and its audience. No story is likely to be instructive if it isn’t entertaining, and the best way to gauge whether it’s working or not is to watch it land with an actual audience, a lesson Twain learned long before he gave his first public lecture.
In A Tramp Abroad he recounts his first ride on a Mississippi steamboat as a ten-year-old boy. Falling asleep, he has a terrifying dream that the boat is ablaze, and he rushes into the ladies’ salon, still under the nightmare’s influence, screaming “Fire!” The ladies there knew better, of course, and they advised him to return to his cabin and dress, lest he catch cold. It’s a revealing memory. The humiliation of his story playing so badly, his audience rejecting both the tale and the teller, is still fresh in Twain’s mind twenty-five years later as he’s writing Tramp. Just as telling is the reason he recalls the episode in the first place. He’s in Germany watching a production of King Lear, where the actor playing the title role “raged and wept and howled” across the stage. Twain admires the performance but feels sorry for the actor, who has to wait until the end of the act for his applause.
Writers, by contrast, are used to silence. Their applause, if they’re lucky enough to get any, comes long after their “performance” has concluded, in the form of reviews. True, authors who publish serially may to some degree interact with their audience. When readers loved Sam Weller in an early installment of The Pickwick Papers, Dickens was happy to expand his role as the novel progressed, but that’s hardly akin to telling the same stories on stage night after night, as Twain did on his public speaking tours. Each audience provided him with valuable insight into what worked and why, allowing him to revise the material accordingly. His first public lecture triumph near the end of Roughing It is described almost completely in terms of the crowd’s appreciation. The audience is with him from the start, he tells us, even the jokes he’d judged to be inferior faring “royally.” Near the end, though, the material grows more somber and serious, and Twain tells us that the “absorbed hush” that fell over the audience “gratified me more than any applause.” Indeed, he’s so pleased by the reaction that he can’t help but smile, which the crowd took as a cue to laugh, thus ruining the moment.
Later in life, Twain’s relationship with his audience would grow more complex. In Life on the Mississippi, he admits that being a river pilot was the best job he ever had, because the steamboat pilot has no master, whereas writers were “manacled servants of the public.” That said, no writer ever courted his audience more assiduously nor drew more confidence and pleasure from public adulation (Twain courted honorary degrees, too, and shamelessly.) Indeed, one suspects that it was from his audience, as much as the work itself, that Twain derived his sense of accomplishment and well-being.
WRITERS, BY CONTRAST, ARE USED TO SILENCE. THEIR APPLAUSE, IF THEY’RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO GET ANY, COMES LONG AFTER THEIR “PERFORMANCE” HAS CONCLUDED, IN THE FORM OF REVIEWS.
It’s worth pointing out that the world has changed since Twain left it, and our attitudes towards “truth” and “fiction” have become more rigorous and stern. Mislabel your novel as a memoir (or allow your publisher to do so) and you’ll likely find yourself in a world of hurt. Twain was no great fan of fraud and deception, but like Melville he understood that the world was steeped in both, and moreover he harbored more than a little admiration and affection for its charlatans. Reading Huckleberry Finn I often wonder if I judge the King and the Duke more harshly than their creator intended. At the very least Twain would’ve understood that people who get conned are often complicit in their own deception. Just as important, he would have recognized the paradox inherent in labeling some stories “made up” ( fiction) and others “true” (nonfiction). Interestingly, audience often plays a role here, too. When you claim that a story is invented — especially one as elaborate as Twain’s were — people will naturally suspect you of telling the truth (Come on! You couldn’t have made that up!). Conversely, when you claim to be telling the truth, those same folks shift gears and suspect you of lying (Surely you embellished this!). Storytelling thrives in this fundamental para- dox and often resists any attempts at clarification.
“Mark Twain’s Nonfiction” first appeared as the introduction to Mark Twain’s Collected Nonfiction: Volume 2 (Everyman’s Library, 2016)
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Here’s what Robert, a designer, had to say:
Photography, music, design and illustration. That pretty much sums me up. I love going out to eat, especially here in the city, and I love to read. I’m more keen to read a book about a specific topic but I also learn a lot from fictional characters.
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I’m an author. And an editor. But never at the same time.
I’ve traveled a lot — all over North America and to Europe as well — to talk to writers about the craft of writing. I’ve given talks about plot, about character, about voice, about emotion, and have had wonderful conversations about stories with tons of booklovers. But inevitably, at some point in the conversation, someone asks me how my editorial brain coexists with my writer brain — whether I’m always editing what I write. And the answer, of course, is yes, I do edit what I write, but I don’t edit it — I couldn’t possibly edit it — in the same way I edit someone else’s work. And I never edit it until I’ve finished a complete first draft.
In the first book I wrote, The Nina, The Pinta, and the Vanishing Treasure, which is a mystery for elementary schoolers, I edited and edited the first chapter until I felt like it was as close to perfect as I could make it before I moved on. And then I did the same with the second chapter. And the third. The book — which is only about 20,000 words — took me nearly a year to draft, and then when I got to the end, I realized that I’d constructed the plot all wrong, and all of that painstaking editing was, while perhaps not a waste of time, extraordinarily inefficient, because now I had to rewrite half of those chapters and revise the rest so that they made sense with the new plot structure. So over the next couple of years, I devised a plan, a way to turn off my internal editor and write more efficiently. These are my writing commandments.
1. THOU SHALT OUTLINE:
Before I start writing, I go through the entire story, chapter by chapter, and decide what important plot and emotional events will happen in each one. That way, I always know where the story’s going and will feel compelled to move forward instead of working on the same chapter for months.
2. THOU SHALT NOT RE-READ EARLIER SECTIONS
With my first book, I would start every writing session by rereading everything I’d already written, revising all of that, and only then start on new material. That meant that the longer the book got, the more time I needed to set aside each day to write. I realized afterward that this made no sense, so now I don’t read over what I’ve written until I have a whole draft done.
3. THOU SHALT HAVE GOALS
I break down my writing goals into manageable tasks that I must complete. When I’m drafting, my goals are all quantity based: 1,000 words today, 1,500 words this weekend, etc. And then once I have a draft done, I give myself chapter goals: Revise four chapters this weekend, one chapter after dinner. When I have that target in my mind, I push through to get things done.
4. THOU SHALT NOT SHARE YOUR WORK UNTIL IT’S COMPLETE
I have an amazingly generous, perceptive writing group, but I try not to share pages with them while I’m mid-draft. I want their thoughts on the whole book at once, otherwise it’s quite likely I’d begin inputting their edits into early pages and work so hard on those that it would take me forever to get through a complete draft.
5. THOU SHALT ACCEPT THAT SOME THINGS CAN BE FILLED IN LATER
Sometimes I’ll be going along and a thought will strike me about a section I’ve already written. Instead of going back and revising that scene right then, I scroll back to that scene and make myself a note that says something like [REMEMBER TO ADD IN THE THING ABOUT THE PASTA POT]. And then when I’m up to the revising stage, I add that part in.
6. THOU SHALT REMEMBER THAT THIS MANUSCRIPT IS NOT WRITTEN IN STONE
I think the true key to turning off any internal editing is to remember that every book goes through multiple revisions in its lifetime. The words and phrases and sentences don’t have to be perfect right away — I spent four years writing and revising The Light We Lost. Some lines are the same as they were in the first draft, but many are not. In the end, understanding that I’d eventually be letting go of so much that I’d written is what made it easiest for me to turn off that internal editor and enjoy the act of creation inherent in writing.
Long before I became a doctor, I was a writer. At the age of seven I wrote my first suspense novel, about a blue zebra named Mickey who was warned never to go into the jungle. Naturally, Mickey went into the jungle. I bound the pages together with needle and thread and proudly announced to my father that I had found my future career. I was going to write books!
My father said that was no way to make a living. And that’s how I ended up in medical school in- stead.
Although it delayed my childhood dream of becoming a novelist, I never once regretted studying medicine. I’m fascinated by science. I enjoyed meeting people from all walks of life — doctors treat every- one, from bankers to the homeless. But my passion to write never left me, and when I went on maternity leave and finally had a chance to complete my first novel, I realized that writing was what I was really meant to do. Even though I’d made an occupational detour, those eleven years of medical training turned out to be the best education a writer could hope for.
I finally used my medical knowledge in my tenth novel, the medical thriller Harvest. To my surprise, Harvest hit the New York Times bestseller list. Up till then, I had assumed that readers didn’t care if medical scenes were realistic, but Harvest taught me that, yes, readers are interested in what doctors do and think. My literary agent told me: “Readers want to know secrets.” They want to peek behind the O.R. and autopsy room doors. They want to know what doctors won’t tell them. All the years I’d spent learning to be a doctor meant I could write with the level of authenticity readers are searching for.
Since then, I’ve tried to provide just those details. Have you ever wanted to know the physics be- hind why a plane or car crash kills you? I revealed that secret in Gravity. Ever wondered if you could buy your way to a higher spot on the organ transplant list? In Harvest, I revealed how it’s possible. In The Bone Garden I described how to amputate a limb without anesthesia; in Ice Cold, I described death by nerve gas; and in Playing With Fire, I explored the baffling behavior of patients with partial complex seizures.
Over the years, as I’ve described autopsies, E.R.s, crime scenes, and even resuscitation in space, I’ve exhibited the doctor’s point of view. I know how panicked a doctor feels as a life drains away beneath his hands, and the thrill of hearing a silent monitor suddenly start to beep with a renewed heart- beat. I also understand the logical manner in which doctors approach problems, how they must sift the subjective from the objective, and try to tease out the facts from the emotions.
In my Rizzoli and Isles crime series, medical examiner Dr. Maura Isles gives us the doctor’s point of view. When she and Jane investigate a murder, no matter how disturbing the crime scene may be, Maura thinks like a doctor. Like a surgeon faced with an exsanguinating patient, Maura must suppress her horror and get to work. Others may think she’s cold- blooded or robotic, but that’s how Maura stays in control: by staying focused and doing her job.
I no longer practice medicine, but when I sit down to write a novel I sometimes imagine I’m once again donning a doctor’s gloves and white coat, this time as Maura Isles, my alter ego. Over the course of eleven books, I’ve grafted much of my own personality onto Maura. She and I are fascinated by science, we graduated from the same universities, and shared the same major. We both play the piano, drive the same car, even favor the same wine. In a world that’s far too chaotic and unpredictable, we both search for logical explanations.
In fiction, at least, Maura can find them.
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25 years ago, Julia Alvarez wrote In the Time of the Butterflies, the story of four young women from a pious Catholic family that were assassinated in 1960 in the Dominican Republic after visiting their husbands who had been jailed as suspected rebel leaders. The Mirabal sisters became mythical figures in their country, where they were known as Las Mariposas (the butterflies).
This extraordinary story of love, courage, resistance, and family has since inspired other works of fiction, movies, plays, and dances and become an American Library Association Notable Book and a 1995 National Book Critics Circle Award nominee. To celebrate both Julia, a National Medal of Arts recipient, and the anniversary of her bestselling classic, Algonquin Books, Penguin Random House, and Repertorio Español have teamed up to offer one winner the “Ultimate Julia Alvarez Gift Package.” This gift bundle includes some of the author’s bestselling titles, both in English and Spanish signed by the author, as well as two tickets to an upcoming feature of the adapted play En el Tiempo de las Mariposas (In the Time of the Butterflies) at the Repertorio Español in New York City.
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