History vs. Historical Fiction

One of my biggest reading disappointments ever was Edmund Morris’ biography of Ronald Reagan—and not because of the subject. ‘Dutch’ came out in 1999; Morris died in 2019. This tale may seem remote to those under forty but please hang in there. ‘Dutch’ was a controversial watershed for biography, memoir, and history, with ripple effects that reached my preferred genre: historical fiction. Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” published in 1966, marked the previous watershed, credited with (and also condemned for) launching the ultra-popular “narrative non-fiction” genre, e.g., Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” 1997.

The rest of that bunny trail post must await another day.

My main point here: the license non-fiction writers now routinely take with the truth—sometimes explicit, more often sneaky—trace the arc of relativist sensibilities and a movement from uneasy tolerance of, to a ravenous appetite for sleight-of-hand ambiguity. De novo mixtures of compelling and true have become book-of-Judges knobs for non-fiction author and reader to dial as they please in mutual fantasy dances.

What parts of a “non-fiction” story are true and which are made up? Increasingly often, the question is mooted by the postmodern culture in which we all swim. Films “based on a true story,” or “based actual events” are so commonplace as to be the mainstream norm. They may rest on a solid foundation of truth. Or they may perch a huge narrative edifice precariously on the metaphorical equivalent of a wet toothpick. One may never know. Many may never care.

Journalism’s parallel trajectory is another bunny-trail post, but it’s worth noting that some, like Dan Rather, have followed in a long line of propagandists, insisting that plausible falsehoods can be truer than truth if offered in the service of a cause that feels super-high-stakes important.

To them and their fans. At that moment.

And everyone did what seemed right in their own eyes.

But hold on a second, Art, aren’t you mixing cats and dogs, apples and oranges? (Comic relief: a mental image of puppies and kittens, terrorized by rolling fruit.) If a “non-fiction” tale can be made compelling and entertaining by selective, impressionistic story-telling, taking fictional liberties here and there without revealing how much, where is the harm?

Everywhere and increasing, I would submit. The label is everything. Fiction is fiction. Non-fiction is not. (Feel free to argue with me in the mediated comments; I welcome honest feedback.)

I’m a slow writer, with great sympathy for other slow writers, but Morris’ 900-page tome, billed as non-fiction was excruciatingly long in coming. Released eight years late, in the fall of 1999, he’d stretched a gold-plated ($3M) six-year contract for ‘Dutch’ to an incredible fourteen. Years prior to its publication, Reagan’s caregivers had wisely pulled the Alzheimer’s-beset former president out of public view. (At one point Morris quipped—correctly and not without apparent compassion—that he knew more about Reagan’s youth than Reagan did. That true statement caused a brief stir. Most true statements do.)

Despite the extreme delay, neither Reagan’s caregivers nor Random House were willing to switch author-horses midstream. Morris came with sterling credentials. He had enjoyed unprecedented access to Reagan while he was in office. No one else had seen or heard all that Morris had—and no one else ever would. Whatever the book’s (or the author’s) shortcomings (or the legal ‘outs’ which Random House lawyers might have debated invoking) ‘Dutch’ would remain the official Reagan biography, Morris’ to complete, however long it took. (The long delay in publication sparked speculation as to its cause. Random House deftly used that to build marketing impetus, a lesson not lost on later book launchers.)

Once ‘Dutch’ emerged, the controversy took an intensified turn. Could the book be considered history as that discipline had always been understood, each fact arranged with fear and trembling that time and God would bear witness? Much of ‘Dutch’ seemed to be. But significant sections of it are not. Morris said as much, as The New York Times remarked, at the time:

“…you realize that Morris is coyly telling you that he is fabricating, when he writes, ‘The past is delusion, the future illusion’… So why, you find yourself asking, should you believe any previously unreported details in this authorized biography? … What is the difference between “Dutch” and, say, Oliver Stone’s film “J.F.K.”? Why shouldn’t Morris’ memoir be treated as historical fiction? …[Morris’] highly unorthodox technique… turns out to be a conjoining of invention and reality.”

To comment further would diminish the value of that quote. There is much in there and the implications are huge. I cite it mainly to tee up questions which I faced writing “Covered With Snow”, which is fiction, a different genre. What was my goal? Entertainment? Education? Evangelism? Yes, all of those. But in what mix? What license could (and should) I take with facts? “It’s fiction,” is a legitimate fig leaf, but as soon as one claims “historical,” the bar is set higher—closer to that of a serious biographer like Morris.

One early reviewer compared “Covered With Snow” to Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” (fiction) and suggested it be added alongside it to the high school AP History syllabus. She’d learned a lot from it, she said. That made me glad that I’d made the choice I did: toward extreme historical veracity. As I await a call from the Advanced Placement syllabus folk, and wait some more, (yeah OK: not), I remain humbled and flattered by that young reader’s take. Whatever one may think of Covered With Snow’s entertainment value, or its evangelistic ‘arc’, it is at least solidly educational.

I was very aware (OK, kind of in awe) of O’Brien’s literary masterpiece before I started “Covered With Snow”. O’Brien fought in Vietnam. I was too young—by a decade, at least. Firsthand knowledge adds weight to fiction or non-fiction. But it doesn’t determine the fact/fiction mix. TTTC was required reading for one of my daughters her freshman fall in college. And, having coached in a high school that offered lots of AP courses, I was aware of its presence there too. (Readers may have fun looking for my efforts at homage to O’Brien’s work. Some are more obvious than others.) Yet, like me, O’Brien had an agenda for influence for which he need not apologize. Good fiction must stir emotion; and it is always persuading, whether the reader knows it or not. That just goes with the territory of playing emotional notes.

The main fact/fiction question I wrestled with was how much to bend historical timelines to make the plot ‘work’. A second was how closely to stick to the details and timing of singular events, like the iconic but notoriously ill-conceived free Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Motor Speedway, in California. Call me a purist, but with only one small exception, I stuck to facts. (The intensity of the Alaska pipeline field survey efforts was higher in the summer of 1969 than in 1970.) But that’s about it.

In areas where experienced writer mentors urged me to bend reality to suit my purposes (no one is ever going to notice or care about that!) I resisted—slavishly, they might argue. The Massachusetts weather on December 1st, 1969 was one such detail. The Turnpike really was covered with snow by early evening. Not a lot, but enough to shed light on what I believe to be a powerful hidden meaning behind James Taylor’s song, Sweet Baby James. Detail is pivotal.

Sometimes my self-imposed discipline made for more work. But I love truth and with it the pleasure of knowing that a young reader like my superlative, aforementioned reviewer can trust Covered With Snow as a place to learn hard-true factual things about that era. I hope you enjoy it also.

By Art

Art’s writing career burst forth at age eight when he won a creative essay contest at his local public library. Shortly thereafter, he learned about paying bills. Leaving the famous leafy Boston suburb he’d always called home, he earned his BA in geology at a bucolic, erudite college not too far away where he met and hung out with guys talented enough to actually climb the big mountains that still intrigue him. After that, he embarked on a career telling CEOs what to do. Over several illustrious decades—maxing out on frequent flier miles, but never quite mastering jet lag—he penned countless corporate treatises, each of which seemed weighty and potent at the time. Mercifully, that part of Art’s literary oeuvre remains cordoned behind non-disclosure agreements. He has published in places as diverse and obscure as Computer Reseller News and Ultrarunning Magazine. Shortly after 9-11, without ever really intending to, he became a Christian. Art and his wife of 30+ years remain planted near Boston where they walk their dogs alongside an expanding flock of grandchildren. Covered With Snow is his first novel.