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: