That’s one of those questions that even the people who are interested in historical fiction can’t quite seem to agree on. What you do find, though, that books have in common is that they should be written by a contemporary author—whatever period they exist in—writing about a past. It has to use elements of the past, elements from the historical record, as it were. For example, if you think about Tolstoy, War and Peace would be a historical novel because it was set in a past prior to his own existence. And perhaps Resurrection, [Tolstoy’s last novel], might be regarded as a more contemporary novel. That would be the difference between the two.
It’s really hard to get away from the world ‘historical’ here. It has to contain some sort of historicity in it, but exactly how you pin down individual novels as being historical or not is incredibly difficult.
Does it have to be historically accurate?
Not at all. That’s why in my list you will find I’ve included a book like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. It’s highly inaccurate but it uses certain elements of history in the creation of this fantastic book—up to and including the fake footnotes that give it that air of authenticity.
“Prior to literacy, a lot of the world’s cultures collected their history in the form of myths and fantastic stories. And so, when you get that in a historical novel, it might actually be a return to the way that things used to be, as opposed to a brand new innovation.”
You’ve got a wide range of authors. If you think about someone like Hilary Mantel, she does a lot of historical research and it shows in the text. And certainly, even though it’s a fictional work, one can be certain that a lot of it, particularly in terms of the world-building and the timing of events, is particularly accurate in her work. But there are still a lot of fictional or fake elements that buttress those historical events.
You’ve also got novels like Fatherland, where the Nazis won the war, which are alternative histories. Those novels are still considered historical fiction even though they’re completely way off what we would consider to be accurate historically.
Why do you think history is compelling as a setting for a novel?
I suppose because we tend to have these very fixed notions of what history is. We think of a date and say, ‘Oh, the armistice was on such and such a date and then the war completely stopped.’ We can impose meaning on the past in ways that we can’t really do with the present or, certainly, the future, which hasn’t happened.
What’s compelling about it as well is that, certainly for the novelist, you can then challenge some of those assumptions, because one of the ways in which we form our individual and national identities is through memory. We think, ‘We are British because we won the war, we had an Empire, and we did this, this, and that.’ As a novelist you can then come along and say, ‘This is what you thought, but things weren’t exactly like that: you have this, which you also have to consider.’
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I think it’s enriching, following debate about who we are—particularly when we’re thinking on the grand level of what nations are, in so far as the nation state continues to be important to us.
So let’s start with earliest book you’ve chosen, which is Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. This was first published in 1869 but he’s writing about the Napoleonic wars, so about sixty years before. Tolstoy was quite critical of how history was being written and he thought his way of writing history was better. In other words, for him, it was a history book as well as a novel. What are your thoughts?
There is a big dispute between historians and novelists because, essentially, when a historian picks up an artefact or a document and says, ‘Here’s the Magna Carta,’ the next thing they do is construct a narrative around it. By virtue of their training and their special skills, we’re then supposed to accept this narrative as truth.
You see this in programmes where they pick up this little spear tip and say, ‘The people here hunted and they ate this and did this’—and you’re like, ‘Dude, that’s a spear tip.’
Then you’ve got novelists coming in, sometimes using the same source material, and doing the exact same thing—but historians will reject it outright and say, ‘No—that is not historical fact: these are fantasies.’ This is understandable, because if you’re in a university and you’re a professor of history, I think in this climate it’s better for your field to be aligned to the sciences than to humanities. But I digress.
“He’s forcing us to rethink some of the meaning or interpretations that we’ve previously given to these great historical events. And that’s very important.”
Tolstoy tries to guide us away from the ‘Great Man’ notion of history—we think of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan etc. And here we have Napoleon. The contemporary historical accounts say that, ‘Napoleon did this and he conquered that and he went there with his troops.’
But Tolstoy does something which is very unusual in War and Peace and which, for his time, was pretty profound: he sees the conditions of the ordinary soldier on the battlefield.
I mentioned earlier about how it’s difficult to impose meaning on our own contemporary time because stuff is still happening. He’s trying to stimulate our thinking about that. There is a line in the book where he says a battle might turn because one brave guy shouts out ‘hurrah’ (or something like that). But our historical interpretation, the way we would look at it, is that the battle was won because Napoleon planned A, B, C, D etc. and he was a great general.
In a way, he shows us just how chaotic these events are. Once the battle starts, it’s so chaotic that the plan for the battle just goes out the window straightaway.
“Recently, China has added an extra six years to their war with Japan, for patriotic reasons. History is not something that is fixed. It is something that is very malleable and can be rewritten.”
So, he’s forcing us to rethink some of the meaning or interpretations that we’ve previously given to these great historical events. And that’s very important. It leads us to some of the work that more contemporary historical novelists have done. For example Laila Lalami, who wrote The Moor’s Account about the opening up of America. She wrote it from a slave’s perspective.
There are Spanish accounts of the first conquistadores, the guys who made it back to Spain, one of whom was a slave. Everyone else in that party got asked to give an account of what happened, except the slave. So, Lalami, by taking those accounts, tries to piece out what the slave’s perspective of events might have been—which gives you a very different view of that historical period from what you would otherwise have in contemporary narratives. So, in a way, Tolstoy really opened up a space where now contemporary writers can write back and do interesting things with the form.
There’s a quote in War and Peace: “History is controlled by the actions of millions of people not the actions of great men.” In terms of accuracy, Tolstoy did a lot of research. He read a lot of history books, read contemporary correspondence, and then blended that in with his own experience in Crimea. So, although it’s fictional, Tolstoy paid careful attention to the history and historical accuracy also.
Yes. That brings us to one of the problems with the practice of history-making. There is one school of thought that sees history as a process of forgetting rather than remembering—you discard huge chunks of stuff. When you think about the source materials—when they use letters, say. You have to assume, firstly, that the writer knew exactly what they were talking about, that they weren’t biased etc.
You take the letter-writers material and you say that it’s accurate, but we give it a validity that far outweighs [what we should], because, when we look at most interactions during a war, they don’t happen by letter. It’s face-to-face. That might be changing in this particular historical period but a lot of stuff isn’t recorded.
“We can impose meaning on the past in ways that we can’t really do with the present or, certainly, the future, which hasn’t happened.”
So, you take little chunks of recorded material and, again, you think of who has access to the materials and the education that you need to record stuff. It’s a certain class of people that you note down and say, ‘Ok this is what happened at that particular time.’
No one is really writing about the peasants because the peasants didn’t leave anything behind that the historical novelist or the historian might look at and say, ‘This is what they did or this is what they felt individually.’
I think it also sums up one of the fears about this period that we’re living in now which is the idea that we’re generating so much paperwork and so much communication that it might actually become impossible for future historians to construct histories because there is just so much material out there. What do you pin down and say, ‘Okay this is what defines the year 2016?’
I think War and Peace does one thing which, in my view, historical fiction should do. He has a particular view of Napoleon, as a tricky character, which, having grown up in a Francophile household, made me want to read more about him. I think that’s really important in historical fiction. And I think, perhaps, all the books you’ve chosen do this. They make you want to know more about it.
I think that’s very important. That certainly has been one of the defences that historical novelists have made, ‘Look! We actually generate interest in history.’ People know they’re reading fiction but they can go on to read other things and certainly be in a position of questioning historical accounts that we take for granted.
Think of the last education minister in England, who wanted to change the history curriculum to make it more patriotic. Recently, China has added an extra six years to their war with Japan, for patriotic reasons. History is not something that is fixed. It is something that is very malleable and can be rewritten. But you would certainly hope that the reader of fiction—particularly when they come across these alternate accounts—can at least, when they engage with more authoritative history texts, meet them with a more sceptical eye.
You’ve already mentioned Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, book number two on your list. This was published in 2004 but, again, set during the Napoleonic wars.
Only this time with wizards and English magic! I chose this book because it really blurs the line between fiction and history. Just the use of footnotes and references to texts that likely don’t exist yet unless Susanna Clarke writes them in! I thought it was really fascinating because, by the time I was halfway through this book, I really believed in this world.
I picked a side, I was a Norrellite—I don’t know which side you were on?
This book a really good example of how novelists can mimic core historical narratives and give you something that is weirdly believable within the framework of its own reality because, again, this is how we construct history: I get my references, I note something down, I give footnotes and say here is an authoritative text—believe it. It’s very clever.
So why were you a Norrellite?
I just found Jonathan Strange a little unknowing and impetuous in his practice of magic. Whereas Norrell, who had been around for years, amassed this collection and bested the theoretical magicians. I thought he had the stronger claim to directing English magic going forward. And, in my own work, I really like this miserable type of character. I’m just drawn to them for some reason.
We interviewed Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians, on this site—he also recommended Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell as one of the best fantasy books. He said, “It’s a magic that feels absolutely real”.
It’s one of those things, particularly when you start thinking about magic realism as a novelistic form, that gets us to a question. We’ve now largely, because of education etc, adopted this western, scientific perspective of what the world is. But think about most peoples in the world. Take, for example, the story of Rome—the twins who were looked after by a wolf and then built Rome.
Prior to literacy, a lot of the world’s cultures collected their history in the form of myths and fantastic stories. And so, when you get that in a historical novel, it might actually be a return to the way that things used to be, as opposed to a brand new innovation. Magic realists almost take these fantastic elements that are part of certain South American cultures for granted. It’s like people walk around and they see ghosts—yes, this is what happens.
“There is one school of thought that sees history as a process of forgetting rather than remembering.”
I certainly think that perspective is interesting to say, ‘Okay, we can reincorporate fantasy into our contemporary existence which is largely scientific these days anyway.’
Judging from the popularity of the book, people responded well to that. It felt right to them. It certainly felt right to me.
I think it comes from a certain consistency in the world-building of it. What Susanna Clarke pinned down so well is that she managed to build this believable artifice that was buttressed by texts that don’t exist. I think that’s why it works so well.
Now, your remaining three choices are all set in Africa. Shall we start with the earliest one? This is Things Fall Apart which is written in 1958, but set in the Nigeria of the 1890s. Why is this book on your list of best historical fiction?
It’s because of its importance in the African canon and just how important Chinua Achebe himself is. I confess to not being a big fan of the text itself. That’s taboo in African literary circles, you are just supposed to genuflect before it and say it’s great.
One of the things Achebe does really well is that, if you look at the context in which he’s writing, it’s after years of colonisation in which one of the most insidious things that western colonialism did was that it tried to deny Africans a history. Africa was just supposed to be this blank slate. Africans were supposed to have been timeless: they never developed, they never advanced, they never had any ideas until the Europeans came along. And then they started imposing. History really starts when the Europeans conquer Africa.
“If I watch a BBC historical film, if there’s a black person in there they’re going to be a slave or a servant or something. That’s pretty much guaranteed. That’s all you’re going to ever see. And so, reading these texts, it is empowering.”
What Achebe is doing is almost a way of writing that back in, to say there was a culture, there were really intricate social and economic systems that existed before colonialism, that were disrupted by that process.
The example that I have is of myself growing up and being educated in post-independent Zimbabwe. Our history curriculum was still very heavily weighted towards European history. There were normally small chunks of African history that you just digested before you moved on to European history, which is supposed to be world history, which is supposed to be the more important stuff.
What Achebe shows you in this book is that there are a lot of really interesting cultural and historical events that you could cover—if you were only willing to go back and look at them. And I think that’s why that novel has been so successful and so important.
Is it quite an accurate picture, then, of Igbo society in the 1890s?
I haven’t studied the text—as opposed to reading the book—so I don’t know how accurate his depictions are. But, certainly, I think if there were gross inaccuracies then the Nigerian readership would have brought those to the fore by now.
And why don’t you like the book? Is it because it ends badly?
No, it just doesn’t appeal to me. It’s one of those things—like other times when people thrust a book on me and say, ‘This is a really great book’ and, for some reason, I just didn’t connect with it. It’s definitely not one of my favourites. I read it once and that was enough.
Again, this is probably taboo as an African novelist, but after Things Fall Apart, I’d had enough of Achebe. I just left it. It’s disgraceful, I know.
In terms of authors who are on this list, right now there’s a big brouhaha about Hilary Mantel. You haven’t chosen any of her books. Is there a reason for that?
That would just be a very obvious choice. I was hoping, certainly, to show other texts that whoever reads this might not have encountered before. My only regret, perhaps, is not getting Walter Scott in there, with Waverley, but I can live with that.
That’s supposed to be the first historical novel, is that right?
This is where we come back to that very difficult definition of what a historical novel is and how the canon, and history itself, is constructed. Because there certainly were books that had very strong historical elements before Waverley but what scholars tend to do is to call these ‘proto-historical’ novels.
So, you’re not allowed to acknowledge that they are historical—you call them ‘proto-novels’—you classify them as such. You’re throwing away all these books and then you’re saying that Scott is the first historical novelist.
I mean, what Scott does for his own time is that he wrote a great book, and it is a fantastic text. But I think it’s just that process of, ‘well, we need something in the canon to say that this is the first.’
“When a historian picks up an artefact or a document and says, ‘Here’s the Magna Carta,’ the next thing they do is construct a narrative around it. By virtue of their training and their special skills, we’re then supposed to accept this narrative as truth.”
A lot of people assume that Achebe is the first African novelist. There were all these novels before him, but, somehow, this movement solidifies around Achebe to give him this primary importance. And, so, you almost start from Achebe and virtually discard everything else before him.
And I really think this is what happens with Waverley. The Hungarian Marxist thinker György Lukács does a lot in promoting this idea that what Waverley shows is the Marxist idea of an the individual and the grand economic power structure. He says what Scott does is far more advanced than anything that had come before – so, this is what you can definitely call the first historical novel. I think it’s convenient for scholars to call it that—at least you have a starting point—but even now these ideas are being challenged.
Let’s talk about your fourth choice, which is set in Rhodesia and then Zimbabwe. It’s called This September Sun (2009) by Bryony Rheam, who is a white Zimbabwean.
I particularly like this book because of how it moves over a very long time span. We have two wars—World War II and then the Zimbabwean war for independence—somewhere in there. It shows really well how history isn’t just a static force. You can’t just say that stuff happened and then it’s over and it’s gone. The effects of these things that happened long ago still reverberate today. And I think, for me, that is why I had to choose this novel.
I suppose what I’m trying to describe is causality. The fact that historical events have a bearing on individual lives today. I like the link that she has, with the semi-contemporary setting of the novel.
“Africans were supposed to have been timeless: they never developed, they never advanced, they never had any ideas until the Europeans came along…History really starts when the Europeans conquer Africa.”
Partly, I think a lot of it had to do with the construction of Rhodesian identity and, later on, white Zimbabwean identity. It was important for the book to take us right back into the past, into her grandma’s time, and how people came over and they settled. It shows how this affects young white Zimbabweans who might, to a certain extent, suffer questions about their own identity in a country that might not really value them as proper Zimbabweans, as it would its black citizens.
There is the scene where the main character, Ellie, is in London which should be some kind of ancestral homecoming type thing for her. But she doesn’t really fit in there. It doesn’t really quite work out for her.
Because she’s from Africa.
Exactly. I suppose I’ve gone for the grand narrative, but I also think that where this succeeds is in juxtaposing small domestic-type histories together with grand national histories.
In terms of identities, is the history a problem for white Zimbabweans? Because it’s not something to be proud of, to have fought in the war of independence on the Rhodesian side.
It’s a big question about white Zimbabwean literature. When the farm invasions were happening, there was this huge outpouring of memoirs by white Zimbabweans. For example, David Coltart—who was the Minister of Education, and is a member of the opposition now—wrote a book that detailed his experience when he was conscripted as a member of the Rhodesian army and some of the horrible things that they did under the Ian Smith regime.
“It’s enriching, following debate about who we are—particularly when we’re thinking on the grand level of what nations are, in so far as the nation state continues to be important to us.”
Some of these memoirs were pretty honest about what happened historically, but with others it was more like, ‘horrible stuff is happening to our people’—but you don’t really get a sense of where it’s coming from, historically. You are certainly sympathetic of these things that are happening, without a wider awareness of exactly what is the core cause of some of these disputes that happened.
And I think Bryony, in her own books, refers to the “Whenwes”: these mostly self-published, glorious military books about how great the Rhodesian army was and how they were fighting terrorists and they would have won if they hadn’t been betrayed by the British and the South Africans. There is that hardcore Rhodie strand which is unrepentant and unsympathetic.
But then you’ve got contemporary writers who are very sensitive about how exactly this particular tribe in Zimbabwe came about.
Lastly, we have Kintu from 2014. This covers a huge span—it goes all the way back to 1750. It’s set in Uganda, I should add.
Isn’t this a fun read? Just the ambition of it, and the sweep of it, and the depiction of these ancient African kingdoms that you don’t really get anywhere else in popular culture.
For me, Kintu works really well in exposing or bringing about a history of Buganda. It really goes against that idea that Africa didn’t have a history before colonialism. I think that is the central importance of it. But, also, the acceptance of these cultural elements as the norm. We have this thread, of Kintu’s curse, going through generation after generation. It’s just part of the culture and, as the reader of the novel, you just have to accept it.
There are also various signs connected with twins. Twins have strange connotations, is that right?
I believe that in certain African cultures, twins weren’t allowed to live because there was a superstition that there was something spiritually off with them.
What’s also interesting about Kintu for me is how it pretty much skips over the colonial period as a mere historical blip. So, essentially, you come from the pre-colonial period and then before you know it, you are in Idi Amin’s Uganda. I thought that is really very interesting – the fact that you could have colonialism as a huge chunk of the book but she completely just slides through it, ‘okay it does happen but there were these kingdoms, these cultures, and they have endured.’ And then, things are back on track as it were.
I know you’re not Ugandan, but do you think it gives a good flavour for Ugandan history down the centuries?
It’s had to be reprinted several times and several print runs have sold out. It is really loved across east Africa, where it was published. I think the passion for the book itself in east Africa is just a reflection of what folks think and how they hungry they are for those aspects of their history that might not be so easily accessible to them.
“What’s also interesting about Kintu for me is how it pretty much skips over the colonial period as a mere historical blip.”
In many ways it speaks to—being a black person—seeing yourself depicted in history. If I watch a BBC historical film, if there’s a black person in there they’re going to be a slave or a servant or something. That’s pretty much guaranteed. That’s all you’re going to ever see. And so, reading these texts, it is empowering. Seeing that we do have a history and stuff was going on, that we don’t just appear in history as servants or slaves. I think that’s very important to one’s psyche and one’s construction of one’s own self-identity.
It’s one of the few books I’ve come across that I wasn’t able to get hold of via Amazon when you first recommended it to me. I had to track down the author, who put me in touch with a bookshop in Notting Hill who ordered it from Kenya. It’s now available, but still.
I think it speaks for itself that such a fine novel could not, for all the money in the world, find a western publisher until fairly recently when a small American independent press decided to take it on. There was just the idea that there wouldn’t be a market for it.
I’m very interested in the world, so when I was doing a graduate degree at Harvard I went and sat in on all sorts of courses that interested me. One was on African history because I really wanted get a sense of ‘real’ African history, not just what we learned at school—Germany got this and Portugal got Mozambique, and Britain got that. But even after following the course for a semester, I found it very hard to grasp. There are so many different cultures that it is hard to find one narrative, and there seemed to be lots of gaps.
There are very wide gaps. I think it’s only now that there are attempts to fill it out. But some of these things are pretty insidious. For example, Zimbabwe is named after the Great Zimbabwe ruins. This was a big medieval city—from around the 12th century to the 16th century or thereabouts—before it collapsed.
It was about the size of London then—around 20,000 people lived there. It was the centre of a big empire that traded in gold and ivory. But one of the first things that happened, as soon as we were colonised, is that you had these white historians coming in and saying that it couldn’t have been built by black people—it must have been built by the Queen of Sheba, or there was a white tribe in Africa that got wiped out. Or it could have been the Arabs. So, it could have been anyone else.
“It shows really well how history isn’t just a static force. You can’t just say that stuff happened and then it’s over and it’s gone. The effects of these things that happened long ago still reverberate today.”
Despite the oral traditions of the people who lived there, one of the first archaeologists that got to the city dug through layers of material and broke and discarded priceless historical artefacts because he was looking for proof that it was built by Europeans—which he didn’t find. Luckily, the British sacked him and they got another guy in who took over. But, by then, a lot of very important historical material had been destroyed.
But up until now, these myths persist that it wasn’t the Shona people who built it. They are all over the internet.
Are you going to write work of historical fiction set in Zimbabwe?
I have the idea of an epic fantasy series set in that historical period in Zimbabwe. Again, it’s getting to the stage of doing the hardcore historical research where you understand what the customs were at that time, what the economy really was like, because Great Zimbabwe itself was just one city among forty or fifty other smaller Zimbabwes that were there. So, it’s trying to fit it in in relation to these other cities and really getting a sense of the place before you go off and write something. One has to make sure that the work that one writes is fairly historically accurate, and then you fill in the gaps with semi-plausible happenings.
Is that what you’re working on now?
No. Now, what I’m supposed to be working on is a novel that I told my agent would be ready last spring. It’s a contemporary novel, set in a village that’s not named, and none of the streets are named. I’m trying to write about this modern sense of alienation which might be a result of technology or the way culture has changed. So it’s just about a dude who is alienated, who is failing to make fundamental meaningful connections. It sounds a bit miserable and solipsistic. At some point, I will get round to doing it. It’s just getting the will to grind through.
Where are you from in Zimbabwe?
I’m from a small mining town called Bindura. It was going to be the setting of my historical novel, because we have got our own small set of ruins that the local chiefs built. The reason it got settled is because the settlers thought there would be a lot of gold there. In fact, when they got there, they called it the Kimberley Reef because Kimberley, in South Africa, is where they got a lot of gold and diamonds. Unfortunately, Bindura did have gold, and it did have nickel, so it’s got two really big mines that are the reasons it exists. But not as much gold as they hoped. It certainly didn’t become the new Johannesburg. So, what I was doing was trying to link up Kimberly in South Africa to this Kimberly reef in Zimbabwe by a set of really interesting sort of historical coincidences. I may get back to it at some point but not just yet.
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