Happy to have All True named notable by the Tampa Bay Times, and it's nice to be listed with Jillian Cantor and Graham Moore! Daniel Boone did spend a little time in Florida, though not very successfully, nearly starving to death (I cut this episode out of the novel draft in the end). On this list, at least, he's in historical-fiction company with the Rosenburgs, Thomas Edison, and Nikola Tesla.
Here's an essay I wrote for the very interesting people over at Zocalo Public Square, who are hosting the Smithsonian's What It Means to Be American series. In which you can find the non-American author at age ten, with braces.
It's publication day for All True in the USA! Ecco has done a beautiful job with the book. Speaking of beautiful jobs, I also have a memoir out today in The Millions about my misspent youth on the pageant circuit. Let me know what you think.
Standing in the street outside a dead person's house isn't a particularly good feeling, even when the person's been dead since 1941. Even when your connection to the person is academic. Even when you've imagined some kind of rapture descending on you at seeing the place in the flesh, or you've pictured yourself resolutely neutral, looking with cool architectural interest.
Sniffing around after writers is part of the literary game, and maybe always has been. We devour their books and letters and diaries. We get a sense that we've earned a look into the closets, all of them. Especially when it's damp out. On a woolly grey day around the turn of the millennium, I skulked on the pavement outside Virginia Woolf's childhood home in London. Number 22 is a tall white house in Hyde Park Gate, a cul-de-sac off the buzz of Kensington High Street. It boasts three blue plaques beside its front door, announcing it as the home of Leslie Stephen, Victorian man of letters and the birthplace of Woolf and her sister, the artist Vanessa Bell. I remember thinking there could be more plaques: this is the house where Woolf's mother died, making a "shipwreck" of her daughter's life; this is the site of possible molestation by her half-brothers; this is where the Stephen kids wrote the family newspaper I was basing my Ph.D. thesis on.
That last part was the problem. I was the problem. Standing in Sussex on another day in the garden where her ashes lie, I'd felt neutral about my presence, accepted by the place. Now in London a bizarre envy swam up in me, as it sometimes did when I was hovering over her spiky handwriting in libraries. I felt no right to be at her house, to look through the railings, but at the same time, I felt I had every right. All the rights.
The house is private, now apartments, not a museum. We expect museums. I thought about checking to see if the main door was unlocked, asking to look around. You picture yourself, as I said above, and as I realized then. I was photobombing Woolf's place (though this was before I had a phone capable of taking pictures). Maybe photobombing her life. I caught my reflection in the front-room window.
Woolf herself went literary-touristing. She joined the crowds who went to see the Brontë parsonage in Yorkshire, and was intrigued by Charlotte Brontë's "little personal relics"--the dress and shoes that outlived her, and brought her back to life. You can feel Woolf's fingers and eyes, her looking and wish to touch, in her essay. I went to see the Brontë things too, on another literary bender, and I stood reverently in front of the glass case, gaping with everyone else at the clothes' tininess. I wondered if all the other tourists were imagining trying them on.
My bet is yes. I'd argue that many readers and researchers get infected with this brand of entitlement, an outsiders' envy, and we picture ourselves in the story. This ranges from first-year students muttering if the novels on my reading list aren't "relatable," to the great Richard Holmes putting his younger self, on the trail of Shelley and co., into Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. Joyce Carol Oates recently tweeted succinctly, "If the dead only knew--how the living exploit their names, their work, their reputations while having done nothing themselves to earn it." But maybe we earn our keep by being aware of what we're doing, as Oates clearly is in her novels, and wrestling with it.
I had a fairly violent fight when I turned from academic writing to my own novel, All True Not a Lie In It, the explorer Daniel Boone's story of childhood, exploration, and captivity, in his own voice. So little remains of him, besides a passel of fraudulent relics like buckets and guns, that it's easy to overwrite any sense of who he really might have been. People were making up stories about him even while he was alive (my title comes from his laughing response to a questionable "autobiography" someone wrote for him). I struggled with taking on the first person--see my last post here--but Dan was so far from my experience that I thought I had at least the liberty to create him as I saw him.
Until friends read it and started pointing out connections with my own life. One said, "Dan as a kid, when he's watching everyone and trying to be alone, that's you." Aren't we taught to walk a mile in someone else's shoes? That's what I was doing, I argued. They argued back: Dan's kids are my kids, his grief is mine, his jokes are mine. As they said it, I saw it. So perhaps I'm with Flaubert: Daniel Boone, c'est moi.
Only c'est pas moi, too. Not all moi. Writing is necessarily transformative, even when you're writing about actual people, as the dozens of books and stories about Dan have shown over the decades. I've thought often about the sharp critic Janet Malcolm's sentence on whether we own our lives: "After we are dead, the pretense that we may somehow be protected against the world's careless malice is abandoned." I've thought about how we inevitably shape any figure we write about, living or dead or imagined, and how we are inevitably there too, at least in part, like it or not. There's no way not to be there.
Maybe this will make us less careless. Maybe we should admit it, take our place. Stare openly, wave, say hello, go inside, sit down.
Why would a man run his hand slowly along a concrete wall?
Do men never do this?
My writer friend didn't think so. He said when the male narrator of my short story "Tentcity" did it, that was the end of his believability. I said, "Maybe he was thinking. It was helping him think." My friend said that wouldn't help.
When the story was published, the first comment to pop up said not all men (this was pre-hashtag) were jerks who would leave their children's mementoes to burn in a fire. I thought about replying, defending my jerky protagonist and my right to imagine my own characters, thank you very much. But I decided I couldn't speak for all men, or all writers. I went to get an apple from the fridge, until that felt too symbolic.
I didn't write directly about men for a while after that. And when I decided to write a novel about Daniel Boone, the frontier explorer whose life was so startling it almost reads as fiction, the voice didn't come easily. It took me three complete drafts to face writing in the first person, as Dan himself. Doing it felt like a cross between a prom and a wrestling match.
The prom: I ended up a little in love with the Dan of my creation. I had dreams about him, or about historical re-enactors dressed like him. I avoided YouTube videos of the 1960s TV show, dreading having my hazy McDreamy morph into Captain America in a coonskin cap. Casting around in earlier drafts---one involving a frame story about a researcher, another in the third person--made me feel like a Fifties wallflower, waiting for someone to ask me out. Some Day my Prince Will Come is no fun, until suddenly he's there and you're grinning and running around figuring out his likes and dislikes and tics. Do you like this dress, Dan? I bet you do! Adelle Waldman's recent New Yorker article about fictional heroines knowing their beloveds better than they know themselves rang a few bells for me.
The wrestling match: not what you want from your prom date, but that's where my initial giddiness ended up, with me struggling to predict his feints and fake-outs, to figure out what the hell he was thinking when he was taken captive, for instance, and failed to even try to escape for six months. He's a slippery figure, much written about and much mythologized, but he didn't leave many of his own words behind (two versions of autobiographies vanished, a huge loss to history). He isn't who I think he is was a pathetic and grinding refrain in my head. Only I can write this was another, the sound of the desperate novelist bogged down in a draft. Sometimes that slipped into Only I can't write this. I wondered about handing off my idea to someone else. Maybe to my male writer friend. I wanted to be able not just to hear Dan, but to pin him, which meant accepting that he was my character, completely under my control, and throwing away any rules about who writes what. So I'm not sure that his voice was a deliberate choice, exactly, or just a necessity that gave me that control.
Are male and female voices so fundamentally different; is one so impossible for the other to imagine? The obvious examples--Tolstoy and his Karenina, Flaubert and his Bovary? Those are third-person, sure, but there's Alexander Chee directly voicing Lilliet Berne in his great recent novel The Queen of the Night. Then there are Jonathan Franzen's Patty Berglund sections in Freedom, which garnered him mixed reviews, and scared me somewhat, though I'm glad male writers get called on this issue too. As I tried to write, I reminded myself that I was writing not just as a man, but as a dead man, and one from another century. These latter differences didn't seem to cause so many problems. And there were no concrete walls on the frontier, at least.
I carried on in the first person. The voice started to pour out. I had another dream, about physically turning into Dan, literally walking like a man along a creek near where I live. Daniel Boone was never the obvious choice for non-American, non-hunting, non-tough me to take on. But the difference helped, in the end. I had to think harder to build him. He made me think harder. We took each other over. It was a fair deal.
I've had letters from male readers saying I got it right. I've had letters from women saying the same thing, or saying that I've nailed what it's like to be married to such a man. Maybe the women characters were my way in--Dan's wife and her sister and his daughters all came roaring along, without so much wrestling. Anyway, I've since taken up kickboxing.
I don't think about myself specifically as a woman when I'm boxing, or writing. I say with Lady Macbeth, Unsex me. I say writing as another gender forces perspective and empathy, and you'd better try your damndest to get it believably right. I say sometimes the voice comes after you, and you have no choice about it. Ask not whether a man would run his hand along a wall. Write about what you want. Or about who wants you.
I'm the author of All True Not a Lie In It (Knopf Canada 2015, Ecco USA 2016) and The Old Familiar (Thistledown 2008).