We have a special treat for If You Like today: a guest post from historical novelist Beverly Swerling.
Beverly is the author of a trio of books set in my own beloved New York (City of Dreams, City of Glory, and City of Promise, chronicling New York from New Amsterdam through the Gilded Age), her London-set new release, Bristol House, and the recently re-issued Mollie Pride. One of the wonderful things about Beverly’s books is that she tackles times and places one doesn’t ordinarily see much of on the shelves.
So, without any further ado, Beverly Swerling:
IF YOU LIKE HISTORICAL FICTION DOES IT HAVE TO BE EUROPEAN KINGS AND QUEENS?
In modern publishing few things are more fraught than deciding what kind of a book a book is… Truly. Genre—what the industry calls BISAC codes—is a make-or-break decision. The only thing that is maybe more laden with angst in the months before publication is the title.
We got started down this particular yellow-brick-road back in ye olde 1970s when the chain bookstores began to exercise growing power. Their business model did not allow for knowledgeable salespeople who could talk to customers about books the salespeople had actually read. That’s what the trade calls hand-selling, and it was not a crazy idea back when bookstores looked to serve particular segments of the reading public, not stock everything in print.
The chains, however, spent money on real estate rather than staff. They created super stores in malls, and hired entry-level employees to stock their miles of shelves. What the people unpacking the boxes needed was a simple way to know where a book belonged. They were instructed to go by what genre was written on the spine. That requirement changed the nature of publishing. We all became enslaved to the overriding importance of assigned categories, one of which was—and still is—historical fiction.
Except that some books are really hard to categorize. And many, a great many, fit into so many “categories” it’s impossible to know which is the most important.
Pretend you and I are strolling the bookstore aisles. I want to suggest something wonderful for you to read. Do you like historical fiction, I might ask.
“No, never! All those kings and queens…”
These stories have in common that they center around a woman, who is confronting her present (and finding it wanting, else there would be no story) and discovering that the roots of her dilemma are lodged in some event in the past. One that involved a family member.
Picoult’s hallmark is to examine a fraught moral issue from a multiplicity of sides. In The Storyteller, she focuses on the Holocaust. At least half that book takes place in Poland during WWII. And even the contemporary section is driven by discussions of Nazis.
In Willig’s The Ashford Affair the historical section is set around WWI in England and Africa. And again, the events of those times impact everything in the contemporary parts of the book, which occurs mostly in New York.
So are these novels historical fiction? Depends on whom you ask, but I can tell you for sure that the skills required to make a bygone era come to vivid life on the page are evident in abundance in both books.
I am particularly aware of all this because just now I’m bringing out a series of e-book Encore Editions of some of my own earlier novels. The first is Mollie Pride, with Juffie Kane soon to follow. For me both are as much historical fiction as say my City of Dreams, which takes place in 17th and 18th century New York. Both Mollie and Juffie are women thrown into challenging and dramatic situations in the exceptionally turbulent early 20th century. Both must dig deep to triumph (and incidentally find true love—and don’t get me started on why pretty much every novel is one way or another about precisely that).
We meet Mollie in 1926 when she’s a little kid in her family’s vaudeville act. She gets into early radio, and the great challenge of her life will be reporting from London during WWII at the height of the blitz, while her marriage falls apart, and terror and treason stalk her every word. Juffie Kane is set mostly in the years immediately after that war. Juffie—it’s short for Jennifer—is born on Boston Common in 1927, while her parents are marching in a protest. She’s gorgeous and talented and she becomes a famous Broadway actress. What no one knows is that the mob—la cosa nostra, which was at the height of its US power in those years—points a gun at her head from backstage.
Not a king or a queen in sight, but in my view, historical fiction every one.
Thanks so much for that thought-provoking post, Beverly!
Now that you’ve got me thinking about it, so many of my favorite books fall into that amorphous zone of “is it historical fiction or isn’t it?” (or, as I like to refer to my own books, genre stew), like Anya Seton’s Green Darkness (Tudor and 1960s). There have been a whole spate of wonderful recent releases that also fall into that category, such as Susanna Kearsley’s The Firebird, Beatriz Williams’s Overseas (present day and WW I), and Stephanie Lehmann’s Astor Place Vintage (New York turn of the century and now). They do tend to be hard to slot into a convenient category, although I’ve heard that there’s now an official term for them: time slip.
Perhaps we need a time slip category in the bookstore?
What are your favorite “is it historical fiction or isn’t it?” books?