On Writing About Historical Figures
The issue of HP Lovecraft's racism – and of writing about the darker sides of historical figures – came up often for me at literary festival panels over the past couple of weeks. Interesting to hear thoughts from Damon Galgut and Steven Galloway on EM Forster and Harry Houdini, respectively, and to share thoughts on the challenges of portraying people who were complex, often difficult, sometimes ugly. In a word: human.
Historical figures are always mythologized. HPL certainly has been, grossly so – for better and for worse – and it was this very inflation and distortion of the facts surrounding his life which, in part, inspired me to write about him. To try to get at the reality, the truth, of the man.
After one panel at the Vancouver International Writers Festival, friends waiting for me in the lobby heard someone, a fellow writer, say, "Well, I don't know how you can write a book about H.P. Lovecraft and not talk about his racism." In fact, there are all kinds of ways to write about HPL and not talk about his racism. Anyone who knows anything about the man would tell you that it was not his racism which defined him. Rather, I would say, it was his fear. He said terrible, shocking things, yes. In his earlier years. He was a believer in eugenics. I did not write a novel that "talked about" his racism. Intentionally. I wrote a novel about him. Is his racism evident in the novel? Yes, circumspectly, as it was in his life.
In fact, I would argue, strongly, that a novel should never "talk about" a character's anything. This implies a kind of social commentary, an agenda, which has no business in fiction. I have no interest in writing – or for that matter reading – fiction which is "good for us" in this proscriptive way, as a model for how to live one's life, or, worse, as evidence that the writer – has everyone noticed? – does not share such despicable traits.
Good novels reveal the human in their characters, the good and the bad. All the shades of grey. To reduce a character, a historical figure, a human being, to one element of their personality, or their life, is to fail to do your job as a writer.
People are complex. Writing about them should be, too.
For more thoughts on HPL's racism, see my piece, "Facing the Monsters," in Publisher's Weekly:
Wednesday, 17 September 2014
Diary of a Nonentity, or, What To Do the Day After Your New Book Does Not Appear On A BIG Prize List, or, Speak To Me, HP Lovecraft:
6 a.m. Lie in bed a little longer. There is no hurry. It is September, in Edmonton, and therefore dark. One should never rush into darkness.
6:25 a.m. Make coffee. Stare at the coffee while it brews. It is also dark. Like your heart.
7:02 a.m. Get dressed. Yes. You should. Pyjama pants are not cute after forty.
8 a.m. It is just you and the dog now. Everyone else has left for the day. Stare at the dog so long he begins to shift nervously and avoid your gaze. Try not to feel snubbed by him.
9 a.m. By now you should be seated at your computer. You have checked Facebook, Gmail, and your work mail. Twice. You have googled the title of your book, just to see if anyone -- say, Neil Gaiman, or Cormac McCarthy, or Guillermo del Toro -- has expressed outrage at this obvious and inexplicable oversight by the prize jury. Finding nothing, google Guillermo del Toro. You have heard that plans for his film At The Mountains of Madness are again in motion. Read everything you can find on the matter. Google “Guillermo del Toro images.” Google monsters. Google madness.
11 a.m. Lunch. Coffee.
11:30 a.m. Email a writer friend. Pretend your intention was not to discuss the prize list. Say, I was not surprised. (This is the truth.) Say, Of course one is always disappointed. (This is also the truth.) Say, I was pleased to see “random name of any writer appearing on list” was there. Try not to say this twice. You have never been a good liar. Make plans with writer friend to meet for a drink later. Agree you won’t even discuss the list (HA HA HA).
11:40 a.m. The dog is making eye contact again, but cautiously. He wants to go for a walk. You are not in the mood. Instead, you stand in the yard staring at him again so long he is paralyzed by your black gaze and unable to urinate. Leave the dog alone. For godsake.
12:15 p.m. A photographer arrives to take your picture for a newspaper piece on your new book. He gives you a funny look at the door. You wonder if you should have showered. You put on a clean shirt. And lip gloss. What do they want from you? There is nothing to celebrate. There is no party here. Stare directly into the camera. Do not smile. This is not an occasion for smiling. There will be no more occasions for smiling. The last occasion was yesterday morning when your life still had purpose and you watched that Youtube video of the golden retriever relaxing in a soapy bath. You should have appreciated it more, then. Your mother-in-law is right: you have always taken things for granted. When the photographer asks what you like to read, tell him, The Death of the Author. When he asks you to hold a copy of your book, hold it straight out in front of the camera, right in their faces, like Spike Lee, thinking, This, this, you bastards.
12:50 p.m. Text your husband for the fifth time to say you’re pretty sure you’re not going to write another book. Say, What’s the point? Say, I can’t believe I’ve wasted my life. Say, I feel dead inside. Say, LOLZ. Say, TTYL.
1:00 p.m. Do not feel hurt that he is no longer responding. He is probably just busy.
1:15 p.m. Send him one more text just to make sure he’s getting them. Say, Are you getting my texts? Say, I feel dead. Inside. Say, I have no more words. Say, Also can you pick up milk. And dental floss. Say YOLO.
1:20 p.m. Doesn’t your blog need updating? You stare at the page. You have nothing to say. Instead, you play around with the template. Consider a new career in web design. Take forty minutes just to change the colours but feel inordinately pleased with yourself. See, you are no loser. You have skills.
2:08 p.m. Do not under any circumstances look at the new novel you started working on before you knew you had wasted your life. Google something. It doesn’t matter what.
2:31 p.m. Still nothing from Guillermo.
2:32 p.m. Ok, just one look at the novel, then. Fiddle with the opening sentence. But it is no good. You have not the heart for it. Dead, etc.
2:40 p.m. Write something else. Something for the blog, why not, anybody can blog, right? You don’t have to be a writer. You are not a writer.
4:17 p.m. You have written. Therefore you arrrre…still not on that effing prize list. Still, you feel less dead. Undead, perhaps. A phrase comes to mind: Work is its own cure, you have to like it better than being loved. You can’t remember who said that, but you think maybe it was Anne Sexton. You hope it wasn’t Anne Sexton.
4:20 p.m. Your children arrive home. Put your work away. Progress, in spite of yourself. When they ask how your day was, say, Fine. Say, Good. This is, actually, the truth.
When they ask why the dog is under the couch, tell them you haven’t the foggiest, he has been weird all day.
Sunday, 7 September 2014
Monday, 17 March 2014
When I should have been writing, I came across this gorgeous anatomical artwork by Travis Bedel and thought I'd post in celebration of spring. And, you know, organs.
Understand that as I write this, snow still sits piled up outside my window. But the pile is lower, and dirtier, than the day before. My heart still beats. Lungs inflate, seemingly without effort, and fall. Blood circulation improved, perhaps, by the mild weather and by the headstand I attempted and failed to do at this morning's Sattva class, in an effort to put my heart above my head. Failure is not a word we use at Sattva, I am told.
Last Wednesday, at about 9:45 pm, my dog was sprayed in the head by a skunk when he failed to see it was, in fact, not a cat which hissed at him from the crusty dark beneath the deck. I do not wish to know which particular skunk organ now scents the dog asleep at my feet, dreaming of blameless rabbits.
This is how I know it is spring. The rabbits, too, have grown darker.
Check out Bedel's artwork at Colossal http://www.thisiscolossal.com.
(Also, have a look at the hypnotic gifs of David Szakaly. Don't know what a gif is? Neither did I. So I googled it. I still don't know, but Szakaly's are beautiful and mesmerizing.)
Saturday, 15 February 2014
All right, here I am. On my blog. Blogging. But let me be honest about a couple of things.
First, it is an ugly word: blog. Blogger worse still, an insult spat by a cranky man at kids who cut across his lawn: rotten little bloggers. Blog spot, don't even get me started. I think stains, embarrassing ones.
And, yet, viewed another way, a writerly way, the word blog could be quite effective in its very ugliness. A word someone I've been spending a good deal of time with over the past year -- H. P. Lovecraft -- might well have appreciated, perhaps ranking it among his favourites: dank; effulgence; foetid.
Second...this blogging, well, it's weird. Journaling for an invisible -- hey, a cosmic -- readership? Like Lovecraft, I've always tended towards the private, and like him, too, I've never been an early adopter. I can only imagine his horror -- prolific diarist and writer of letters -- to know that we post our diaries for the world to see. An affront to his New England sensibilities and personal insecurities, to be sure.
Yet, here we are. Both of us late to the party and inwardly grumbling, as usual.