The longlist for the 2018 International DUBLIN Literary Award has been released, as we as proud as punch to learn that, among the sixteen Canadians on the list of 150 (!) amazing authors, our own Michelle Butler Hallett has earned herself a berth with her lovely novel This Marlowe.
Michelle took time off from a well-deserved celebration to answer a few questions for us.
What was the impetus behind This Marlowe?
An accident. A discovery. In 1993, I was studying Elizabethan playwrights not named Shakespeare, and I glanced at an introduction to Thomas Kyd's seminal play The Spanish Tragedy and found these two fascinating details about him: at one point, he shared rooms with Christopher Marlowe, and in 1593 he found himself arrested on the accusation of writing a seditious poem that alluded to Marlowe's plays.
I just stared at the page, read the text again and again. Something tangly here, I thought.
Have you always had an interest in historical fiction?
I'm not sure I even understand the term 'historical fiction'. Most fiction has a setting, and most plots play out in moments of time. Even fiction written in the present tense, meant to reflect the author's present moment, quickly becomes if not historical then an historical document. As for fiction which sets a story against or within some huge conflict or social change: that draws me as much as any other type or genre. I crave good storytelling—set on Jupiter in 3004, in 1920s Prague, 1960s New York, present-day Edinburgh, whenever. Wherever.
Details of setting are important in what gets called historical fiction if one wants to set up a plausible version of time and place—and for understanding threats of the conflict, especially those threads that throw the characters together—but a focus on details can soon turn tyrannical. Setting needs to serve the overall story, not story serve the setting.
When it comes to historical fiction, where does the history end and the fiction begin (if you get my drift)?
For me, it's about the struggle to understand the story as a whole, as a unified thing. Historical setting is just one aspect, like character and plot. My ideal, what I want to reach, is fiction where setting, plot, and character become so intertwined that one could not exist without the other. Historical setting drives character, character drives lot, plot drives character, historical setting feeds plot ... and so on.
Sometimes I read about people getting quite disgusted when they think a detail is wrong. I can sympathize. Story is delicate. The slightest tap can shatter the glass. My father, for example, has turned off movies in disgust over details like a 1958 Chevy used as a prop in a movie set in 1955. He's also called me out over details in my fiction that jarred him—details, it turns out, that I got right. He thought they were wrong. Sure, he finds out I was right all along, nyeah nyeah nyeah, but that almost doesn't matter. The storytelling spell broke for him. What interests me about that is how and why we think a detail might be wrong.
One can spend the rest of one's life researching a setting; that's what historians do, and they uncover more and more of the picture, sometimes overturning what we'd misunderstood. The more history one studies, the less history one knows. I'm not an historian. I want to write novels. I feel I've got a responsibility to create a plausible version of, say, 1593 London in This Marlowe—what my characters might eat (though that's a hazardous rabbit hole for fiction), how they might travel, how they organized their time —yet I've also got a responsibility to the story. So I've got a decent grasp on an historical setting. So what? Who are my characters? What moves them? What drives them? What frightens them? That's where the story is, not in my precise placement of a church bell, a gate, or a dish of pie. I can't just show off my historical knowledge with a flourish of the cape and a quick 'Oh, the cleverness of me' and expect it to be enough.
I've noticed a tendency to think of people in The Past as a homogenous group. I am not convinced that human beings in 1593 England lacked diversity of thought and opinion. Yes, they organized their lives differently from us here in 2017 Canada, and they valued some different things, but have humans really changed much in four hundred years? That's where the story is, for me, in the characters, in the people.
My character Kit has an older sister, Manna. Though they never meet up in the novel's timeline, they love and worry about each other, and those emotions help drive the plot. Consequences of Kit's choices play out in Manna's life back in Canterbury, and she's none too pleased about it. All well and good. The real Christopher did have an older sister, Mary; she died when Christopher was four. I discovered this fact fairly late in my writing. I demanded of myself an explanation of how and why the hell I'd missed such a detail, but then I decided to keep Manna. Kit needs her. The story needs her.
How do you feel about the Dublin honour?
I'm gobsmacked. My work's been under the radar since I started, and I see myself as a background player, adjudicating solo and on committees, reading fiction for litmags, that sort of thing. I've developed an aggressive and sometimes disabling autoimmune disease, so I don't get out much,and that leads me to feeling pretty isolated. Thank God for the Internet. So, while of course I hope to reach an audience, I'd gotten used to a certain obscurity. The DUBLIN nomination is, as you say, an honour. It's also a delight, and a surprise. It's a chance to reach more people with my work. I'm still waiting for someone to say Yeah, sorry, there's been a mistake.
Have you read any of the other nominees? Thoughts?
The list has reminds me of just how much fiction is out there—just how many novels were published in 2016 alone, this list but 150 of them—and how little I get to read. I read so much history that sometimes I lose sight of fiction. I really want to read Yewande Omotoso's The Woman Next Door, Roy Jacobsen's The Unseen, Karen Maharani's The Association of Small Bombs, and Sarah Perry's The Essex Serpent...for a start.
The shortlist for the 2018 International DUBLIN Literary Award will be announced in April 2018, and the winner on June 13th, 2018.