My EIBF event yesterday featured two writers, each one taking real people or events as the raw material for their fiction. Courtney Collins was there to talk about her debut The Burial, described as "a dark, swooning upgrade of the Australian gothic genre", while from closer to home, Rosemary Goring's book After Flodden features a young woman's search for her brother in the aftermath of that infamous battle.
Courtney's book is on my TBR pile and so I was very keen to hear her talk about it and read from it - she chose an early passage that was intense, beautiful, atmospheric and dark; Rosemary's novel is new to me but very much 'of the moment' in that the 500th anniversary of the battle is just days away. Although clearly very different in period, subject matter and style, both books aim "to put flesh on a woman", in Courtney's case the circus rider, bushranger and horse and cattle rustler Jessie Hickman, in Rosemary's a fictional character, Louise Brenier, a pivotal figure one of whose functions is to correct an imbalance, for as Rosemary said, "women play a great part in war but you never see them; in the aftermath, they pick up the reins."
Critic Allan Massie describes After Flodden as "a tremendous Romance, the work of a wild and turbulent imagination, a tale of blood, slaughter, treachery, devotion, and adventure", while Elizabeth Gilbert says of The Burial, "this extraordinary novel - propelled by the dark, rich talents of a truly brilliant writer - dazzles, staggers and amazes".
Courtney grew up in Australia's Hunter Valley, where Jessie herself lived, and her familiarity with the place, its landscape, its folklore even, led her to choose that real woman - about whom not much hard fact is known - as her central character. Her difficulty was in how best to tell her story, from which point of view? In what Jackie McGlone, the event's chair, described as "a daring magical realist twist", Courtney eventually settled on the voice of Jessie's dead baby, and this unorthodox solution helped ease what Courtney described as "the creative tension between the facts of Jessie's life and the writing of fiction per se".
Rosemary then set her book in its historical context, describing the background to Flodden and its effect on the fortunes of Scotland. Disastrous for the Scots, it saw the death of King James IV and the loss of 10,000 men in two hours, and through her research Rosemary wanted to better understand why this happened. Though working with real events, it's fiction, not history, she's writing, and so she says, "I use facts like a trampoline - to bounce away from". Interestingly, both writers were keen to reject the label "historical fiction" for their work. Rosemary explained that she was not a fan of the genre, while Courtney thinks place, rather than period, is key to her book; neither wanted to be pigeon-holed, but while Courtney described her novel as "a project of empathy with Australia's [dark] past", Rosemary admitted her dislike of the 'hist.fic' tag was based on snobbery: "it's a lazy label and too easily thrown around," she said.
Whether or not these books are assigned to a category, what was evident from what their authors had to say was, as Courtney put it, "[one's] faith in fiction acts like a force - to find the way to the truth."