The fifth annual Boston Book Festival took place on the same weekend as the Head of the Charles Regatta and a game at Fenway. It was a perfect fall day, and downtown Boston flourished with all the activity. Just like last year, there was such an abundance of sessions to choose from, and as I arrived in Copley Square, I sat on the steps of the library, not just to capture a few portals for the Enlightened (yes, I’ve succumbed to the lure of Ingress), but to make some last-minute decisions about where to go.
After having read so much Shakespeare in an academic environment, I was curious about Shakespeare and Leadership, led by Richard Olivier, son of the great Lawrence Olivier. After coming to the realization that acting full-time wasn’t precisely his niche, he remained in the world of theater, and developed a course in leadership through examining Henry V. As he explained it, there are great myths in Shakespeare’s plays, and these old stories can be used for personal development via what he called “mythodrama.” So, old Henry V became a case study for project management and strategic planning, and we were walked through the process of facing challenges, confronting self-doubt, and re-energizing followers through a more collaborative style of leadership. Emotional intelligence and the ability to recognize whether you are the right person doing the right thing was also discussed via the proverbial “dark night of the soul.” Mr. Olivier occasionally turned to reciting portions of the play to enhance his points. A PowerPoint display breaking the lessons of management in regard to the trajectory of the play loomed over him. I expected to see an org chart, but alas, there was none. The session was funny and enlightening.
Any time a panel on historical fiction happens, I have to be there. A session called Imagining the Past featured Amy Brill, Michèle Forbes, Dennis McFarland, and Julie Wu, and was moderated by Michelle Hoover. One of the first topics discussed was the term “historical fiction” itself. Many of the authors on the panel objected to the term, as they felt it made it into a genre and disconnected it from the literary world. Compelling and inspirational stories transcend time and evoke universal emotional truths, so if a story is set in the past, does that mean it fits within a genre? If so, then what is the formula that makes it so? To the point of one of the speakers, history feeds into everything, so naming it historical fiction is a redundancy. It seems to be an influence of marketing departments within the publishing world. One of the speakers noted that it’s about branding: if it’s considered “women’s historical fiction,” then the cover has to have a pretty cover with a girl and a florid, serif font. If it’s a work of literary fiction, then the cover has to be abstract with a modern, non-serif font. Coming from the publishing world myself, I recognized this and it was very interesting to consider. Sometimes I’m surprised at how people label my work, but if it pleases them, then who am I to argue? However, am I missing potential readers because of how it may be branded?
Researching historical fiction was a core issue on the panel, and I was relieved to hear that like me, most of the authors are easily tempted by book after book, in hopes of getting the details just right. The biggest challenge in getting obsessed with research is that when writing it into the story, you don’t want to spool it all out and find your narrative lecturing the reader on everything you’ve learned. On the opposite side, Julie Wu talked about dealing with a paucity of resources when trying to write a topic that is essentially forbidden by governmental censorship. As the balance of censorship continued, Amy Brill talked about losing all of her research on a flight, and having to start over. In the next iteration of writing the novel, she learned to focus more on the story, rather than relying on the research to guide her through it. It’s a tough lesson to learn. I was heavily reliant on my notes for the first two novels. In the third, which will be published next year, I did substantial research, but I’m turning to those notes less frequently than before. The characters have taken charge and are telling it themselves, and I’m using the notes to verify events as I go.
The third session I attended was also about history, and like the first, was incredibly crowded. The Abbey Room of the Boston Public Library was so jam-packed that each aisle had rows of people sitting on the floor. As we wilted in the heat, we were swept up in a fascinating discussion with Megan Marhsall, biographer of Margaret Fuller; Eve LaPlante, biographer of the Alcott family; and Carla Kaplan, author of Miss Anne in Harlem, a book that explores the subversive white women who embraced black culture in the Harlem Renaissance in the ’20s and ’30s. Each of these books covered amazing aspects of history. It made me want to learn more about Margaret Fuller in particular, but I was especially taken by Carla Kaplan’s account of women who eschewed their lives to join a culture that was suspicious of their presence. These women became shunned from the world they came from and weren’t fully accepted by the one they wanted to be in. And through these profiles, we see seeds of the dramatic shift that became the focus of the twentieth century with the Civil Rights movement. An interesting thread of discussion revolved around the commonalities shared by all of the women profiled in the books: that many had no father and were mentored by older brothers, that there was a lot of anger at their second-class status, and they were usually lower-income and had to forge ahead on their own. There was often a sphere of isolation, a uniqueness that characterized these women—much like the ones I write about. My notebook was filling up rapidly.
The final session I attended was called Obsessives, and featured Joshua Kendall, Jason Anthony, Ty Burr, and Margalit Fox, and was moderated by WBUR’s Tom Ashbrook. While I love to write about food in stories, Jason Anthony’s description of how starving explorers survived in Antarctica provided me with no appetizing inspiration. Penguin brains and blubber? No, thanks, I’ll pass. Margalit Fox’s account of Alice Kober, who helped decipher Linear B after evidence of the language was found in the ruins of the Bronze Age palace of Minos on Crete, gave me even more fodder to add to my list. Fox once described herself as a rescuer of lost souls. If I could name one obsession of my own, it would be the same. Alice Kober, though she devoted her life to decoding this ancient language, received none of the credit for it until Margalit Fox wrote about her. It was a man’s world. Everything was. And like Fox, I’ve found myself on a path of finding obscure women’s stories and sharing them. It was a theme that came up throughout the day. One day, I hope to share some of those stories with the crowds at the Boston Book Festival, too.
(Originally published October 2013)