Essay

Why I Write Historical Fiction

Note: I was invited to appear with other historical novelists at a benefit for the Austin Lyric Opera. Two days before the event the terrorists attacks occurred in New York and Washington. I tossed aside the whimsical piece that I had written specifically for the benefit and wrote the following essay:

Soon after I turned in the final manuscript of Oblivion’s Altar to my publisher, I found myself wondering why I bother to write historical fiction. After the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, even while I was watching the horrendous events unfold that should have forced me to dwell on vastly more important things, I felt a certain self-loathing about the work to which I’d dedicated the last 15 years of my life. Writers often talk about a sort of “post-partum” depression that hits them after they complete a large work, but this seemed much worse than that. Much to my dismay, I couldn’t shake the gloom.

I am the son of a Presbyterian minister, who, before losing his battle with chronic mental illness, played a local role in segregation of our part of the south of the 1960’s, built one of the finest churches standing in the state of Arkansas, was acquainted with Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and was deeply involved in the governing body of his faith. He raised my sisters and me to make a difference in the world. In fact, my father named me David after the shepherd king of the Israelites. To me, that fact has always spoken for itself in regards to my father’s expectations of what he believed I would accomplish.

My elder sister is a successful business executive and political activist and still finds the time to mentor at-risk high school students. My other sister, a talented artist despite being legally blind, has overcome every obstacle in her path. In her own way, she inspires people. At 45 years of age, in the wake of publishing a novel at the very worst possible time, and under the sudden storm cloud that looms over this nation, I find myself wondering if I’m I living up to what was expected of me? Does what I do have any value? Am I contributing to my people? After wrestling with this issue for close to a year now I think I have my answer.

I wrote a novel called Not Between Brothers, a story of the colonization of Texas and the tragic clash of cultures that led to the violent birth of my adopted state. Despite the obscurity of the book’s author and publisher, we sold out the first edition in about two months, auctioned the paperback rights to Penguin Group U.S.A., and optioned the story for three years to NBC Studios and Kevin Costner. Turned out to be quite a ride. What most people don’t know is that I had written four failed novels before Not Between Brothers was published—and none of these were historicals. To the few people who knew anything about my aspirations, my wife at that time included, it seemed that I was turning to historical fiction on a whim.

That isn’t the case at all. I have always been fascinated by the past. I grew up in Arkansas in the shadow of an Indian mound. My ancestors were among the first Anglos (French) to settle in Southwest Arkansas. During walks on our land with my great aunt Ola—our family’s historian and naturalist—we found arrowheads, musket balls, and even old coins. Out in the pasture was a decrepit “slave” quarters. In the barn hung rusty implements that celebrated our modest farming and ranching roots. My creativity worked overtime to imagine what sort of life these symbols, these artifacts, represented—and more importantly, how they related to me and my generation.

As a boy, I read children’s editions of Homer, Huck Finn, King Solomon’s Mine, and other adventure classics. When I returned home from elementary school, I usually thumbed through the World Book encyclopedia, fascinated by virtually every article that had to do with the past. I have my great, great grandfather’s original amnesty oath he signed after the Civil War. My grandfather’s Ouacita County Deputy Sheriff’s badge and the knock-off Colt pistol he carried in that service hang from my wall. I have the doughboy helmet my other grandfather wore in WWI. I have pictures of my father as a 17-year-old gunner’s mate and petty office in the Pacific Theater of World War II. My mother’s brothers were career soldiers. One of them was twice honored for heroism under fire in Viet Nam. From birth, I felt strong ties to history. By blood, I was born a part of it.

Then, due to a tragic chain of events, my immediate family was uprooted to urban Houston in 1972, leaving five generations behind us in that stubborn red clay. I can’t describe my personal sense of chaos, my notion that my family was being destroyed along with the rest of the western world. Circumstances dictated that I was raised by others, most influential of all an alcoholic golf pro and his circle of astonishingly dysfunctional friends. I loved them.

But I no longer felt part of a family. After Houston came university at UT in Austin, when I came in contact with many diverse and conflicting elements, and most of them were stoned. Those were wild and confused times, now long gone and it’s for the best.

After graduation, I went overseas to work in the oilfields of the North Sea and Saudi Arabia. Expecting to be gone only a few weeks, I returned almost four years later to what seemed to me to be a vastly changed world. Already bitter and angry, I now felt alienated, disenfranchised, completely lost. And, to add insult to injury, due to downturns in the Texas economy, I was also unemployable.

I turned to writing. And after writing without success for almost a decade, I ultimately turned to historical writing. By chance I read a copy of J. Frank Dobie’s Vaquero Of The Brush Country, the story of John Young. His life absolutely fascinated me, and I began to wonder if I could somehow write a novel loosely based on his struggles. I began to research the period, trying to re-imagine his times. After consulting some 60 non-fiction and primary sources, my story expanded to roughly 1,100 manuscript pages, and even then I had scaled down the project. For the first time in history, my novel was rejected based on its weight alone.

Nevertheless, I ultimately found a publisher, began working with their contract editor—a native of Brooklyn who had probably never seen a tree—and for 9 months we labored together to hone the manuscript into its present form. I don’t believe that sort of effort goes into publishing novels these days. Editors simply don’t have the time. Anyway, three men worked day and night for quite some time to produce the book that is available to readers today. My name is on that book, but it belongs to all three of us—my publisher, my editor, and myself.

The experience of writing Not Between Brothers changed my life— which is why I’m telling you all this—and not because I finally published something after being rejected over 300 times. There was an unexpected byproduct beyond the release of a first novel. All my research into Texas, Mexican, and Native American history created an understanding that brought me a tremendous peace of mind. Living through the social turbulence of the 1960’s—in a racially segregated town in the south fewer than 60 miles from where Martin Luther King was murdered; and through the waste of the drug and alcohol culture of my generation that destroyed so many young and promising lives, and through the gaud and economic excess of the 1980’s, I really believed that our culture—our nation—was disintegrating, collapsing in on itself at the end of its lifespan, as had Babylon and Rome and countless others.

Now, after investing a few years in learning about our ancestors’ experience, I no longer believe that our society is falling apart. Through my research I came to understand that it was never stitched together all that well to begin with. The miracle of America is not about what could or should have happened. It’s what did happen. Historical fiction reminds us of whom we are at a time when it’s far too easy to forget. I can tell you that we are living in the most stable, most prosperous, most technologically advanced period in the history of human kind. These are the good old days…

It’s also become easier for me to be proud of what we’ve accomplished as a nation and as a people than to condemn the worst of our mistakes. I hope that any reader of Not Between Brothers—despite the novel’s graphic depiction of violence (all based, I might add on true accounts. I called ‘em as I saw ‘em) comes away with this one message: Our ancestors built something magnificent here. Although this nation is the product of bloodshed, horrendous tragedy, and suffering beyond imagination—hope for the modern world still depends on the painful process of cross-culturalization that is still underway right outside our front doors in this improbable experiment we call America. Somehow—don’t ask me why—it’s working. If you can be still for a moment and look, you can see it all around you.

If I’m any good at writing, this hard-won conviction will still shine through even the darkest scenes of my work. If it does, then I’ve done my job. And even if it doesn’t, if that book has my name on it, I’ve still done the very best that I have to offer—and that also brings me peace.

I’ve never written anything for a mainstream audience. If I intend to keep eating, however, I expect I should get around to it before long. Even so, I wrote because I believed I was born for it—and for years I was alone in that conviction. You people have no idea what I overcame to publish this obscure novel and what I still have to battle everyday to create the ones that have followed it. But I suppose I’m proud of the fact that I beat the odds that stare any writer in the face. The fact that I publish historical fiction increases my degree of satisfaction a little, because during my ill-fated tenure in graduate school at UT, a professor and novelist-in-residence (still there) told me that one couldn’t change anything by writing fiction. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now.

For a moment, let’s ignore the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, and On The Road and consider the value of historical fare. Well-researched, intensely accurate, vividly described, and vibrantly told historical fiction illuminates what the dust of time has hidden away from us. It’s a good thing to become intimate with our ancestors. A reader leaves his/her cultural hot tub to rejoin the powerful river that connects the past with the present and beyond. Once we have a better understanding of what has come before us, we establish a better sense of where we are, which means we are able to make better choices as we pick the twisting path ahead. It seems very real to me, then, that the past truly inspires the present—with the future of our children, and our children’s children, hanging in the balance. What we do matters.

Today, while we’re still reeling from the events in New York and Washington with yet another war on the horizon, while we’re certain only that we face a dangerous, uncertain future, a good historical novel may remind you that we have met this kind of horror and worse before and survived it. Historical Fiction not only forces the worst imaginable tragedies into a calmer, more rational perspective, it reminds us again and again of the strength and resilience of the human spirit—and that throughout human history, though the battle may be long and bloody and claim countless innocent lives, good has always triumphed over evil.

If you don’t believe that, perhaps you should consider the journey of the Christian faith. Forged over a three year ministry by an illiterate backwater carpenter under the yoke of oppression of the Roman Empire, eleven surviving disciples and, three decades later, a reformed tax collector named Saul, later called Paul, began to spread the message of the new religion. In the end, even the Roman Emperors would fall under their sway. Sure, zealots and psychopaths have committed outrages in the name of the Christian faith against innocents over the centuries, but the best—the most simple and unadulterated—of Jesus’ message of love and tolerance have survived to guide and comfort people in modern times. Today, some 2 billion people belong to one family or another of this faith. Consider the odds of this miracle in the days following a carpenter’s crucifixion who during his lifetime did not write down one word of his teachings and beliefs.

For me personally, historical fiction reinvigorated me with a sense of family, of community, of my place in the world. The more I understood about the past, the more hopeful I felt about the future. Historical fiction gave the gift of purpose to a young man who had no idea what to do with his life; a man with only a misspent youth to look back on; who, for a while, had forgotten how to dream. I’ve traveled a long hard road to get there from where I was but I feel such joy now just to know that I’m lucky enough to continue my journey. I’m here now, among all of you, where I intend to complete my finest work.

This is why my old English professor, a celebrated novelist and hopeless snob, was dead wrong when he said that fiction couldn’t change anything. Historical Fiction changed my life. And I feel certain that if you read the right books, it will change yours, too.