Monday, December 31, 2012

The Fiction of History


Historical fiction is huge. It roams across time and space, tethered only by the strands of history, through the Senates of ancient Rome to the shoguns of Feudal Japan, from the cloisters of medieval monasteries to the courts of the Renaissance, from the British civil wars to the American civil war, across all oceans and across all continents.
Historical fiction toys with genre from the epic sagas of James Michener to the alternate histories of Harry Turtledove, the historical adventures of Bernard Cornwell to the romances of Georgette Heyer, and the inter-textual allegories of Umberto Eco. Historical fiction also explores national politics, helping nations understand their past and their present, the glories and the traumas, as seen in Gore Vidal’s AmericanNarratives of Empire series, Eleanor Dark’s Australian Timeless Land trilogy, and such Latin American works as Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s100 Years of Solitude. And, in recent years historical fiction has continued to make strong appearances on bestseller lists, and regularly dominate literary awards.
And this brings us to the Historical Novel Society (HNS), an organisation devoted to celebrating historical fiction in all its forms for all devotees, from the professional writer through to the enthusiastic reader.
Speakeasy recently caught up with James Vella-Bardon, co-founder of the Historical Novel Society Sydney (HNSS), to talk all things historical fiction, and to generally nerd-out about a genre we all love in some form or another.
For details on how to join the HNS and subscribe to the Historical Novel Review, visit the HNS website.


Speakeasy: Can you tell us a little about how the Historical Novel Society (HNS), and the Sydney chapter, came about? Can you also tell us a little about what it does, and for whom?
James Vella-Bardon (JVB): The Historical Novel Society (HNS) was started in the UK by HNS founder Richard Lee, in 1997. In my view he’s a true visionary, because his movement has harnessed all of the passion for historical fiction that exists out there. In fact, the demand for HNS publications increases year after year, and several HNS chapters have sprouted up across the UK, USA and Ireland.
I describe the quarterly magazines published by HNS further on in this interview, but I should also add that HNS organises two annual historical novel conferences in the US and the UK, which are huge events and bring fans, authors, agents and publishers together under one roof, to celebrate their passion for historical fiction.
I discovered HNS online when I moved to Sydney from Europe, at which time I was trying to understand how best to market my work in progress or WIP (which is still in progress). For the great unpublished, like me, and for fans of the genre, being an HNS member is a great way to understand the latest occurrences in the world of historical fiction, and HNS serves as your insight into that world.
I was also disappointed to find out that there was no similar society in Australia, so in January 2012 I got in touch with some fellow HNS members to start an Australian HNS Chapter. It was a great decision, because HNSS has got me in touch with so many fascinating people. We have since created an active blog, and two busy social media profiles via Facebook and Twitter, and we are in constant touch with many interesting authors and fans of the genre. We also organise monthly chapter meetings, and two of our members headlined ‘Authors’ Alive’, a literary event organised last month by the Balmain Institute.
The HNSS is a voluntary organisation. Membership is free, since our members are the bedrock of our society, and we are always delighted whenever someone new joins us, thereby further enriching our society. Everyone’s views are important to us, from the international bestselling novelist, to the busy mother of four whose only escape is reading novels, to agents always looking for the next big thing, to publishers who are keen to address a fixed circle of clientele in these challenging new times.
Formally speaking, you could say that our primary purpose is to highlight Richard Lee’s amazing society, but we also get so much back from the society ourselves. Personally speaking, HNS and HNSS have helped me to develop my writing and discover new reading material in ways that the best writing course could not have done. One example of this: when I completed an earlier draft of my current WIP, HNS publications helped me to identify the best agents to market my work to. One of these was a super-agent, who I would never in a million years have expected to get back to me. But get back to me he did, and with a considerable amount of feedback and suggestions. I need not explain that I was bouncing off the walls when I received this, and it was an experience that changed my whole perception about myself and my writing.
HNS has deeply affected my life, and it will do the same for you, if you reach out to it. Our aim is to make other Australian ‘historical fictionistas’ aware of this fantastic movement.
Speakeasy: I know from experience that historical fiction is a genre that can be difficult to pin down, particularly as it sprawls across a variety of other genres (e.g., lit fic, SF, romance, etc.) Can you talk a little about how you might define historical fiction and how the HNS embraces or engages with the various other genres involved?
JVB: Well the hardest thing to pin down is ‘time period’. I know that the official stance of the HNS is that historical fiction includes any novel which refers to events which occurred at least fifty years ago. In this precise moment that means any event occurring precisely before 4.11pm AEST on 1 October 1962. So does that mean that events surrounding the Vietnam War, the first and second invasion of Iraq, 9/11 etc. are not historical events? Tough one isn’t it? But the HNS had to draw the line somewhere and that’s their position.
As for fiction, romance, lit fic – anything falls under the ‘historical fiction’ umbrella if it refers to events occuring pre-October 1 1962 – oh it’s 4.12pm AEST now! The HNS embraces crossovers between historical fiction and all other genres, but the lowest common denominator remains ‘historical fiction’.
Speakeasy: Who can/should join the HNS and how do they go about it?
JVB: The HNS caters for all those connected to historical fiction, be they readers, fans, writers, agents and publishers. Their quarterly magazine – the Historical Novel Review (HNR) – is phenomenal. At the front of the mag you’ve got industry updates telling you which manuscripts have been sold by which agent to which publisher and this helps aspiring authors to know which agents to target (and therefore save everyone’s time). The way I see it, this is in itself more than enough reason to buy it.
But that’s not all. HNR provides in-depth interviews with various authors about the writing process, interesting articles about different genres and categories of novels. The real cherry on the cake however, is the review of novels published during the quarter, which are divided according to century – I kid you not!
There is also a wealth of other information on their fantastic website:
Joining the HNS and receiving the HNR at home could not be easier: you just hop onto their website. Annual membership costs AU$80 and you can pay via credit card or paypal.
Speakeasy: In recent years Australian historical fiction has gone from strength to strength (one need only look at publisher lists, best seller lists, or the last 15 years worth of Miles Franklin shortlists). Why do you think historical fiction is so popular in Australia (and in publishing in general) right now? What do you think this preoccupation with history says about Australian writers and readers, or Australian society at large?
JVB: I believe that the reason that historical novels are popular in Australia is the same reason why they are popular elsewhere, and that is because of the ‘infotainment’ that these novels provide: i.e., enjoying oneself while learning about a particular period.
The examples are too many to mention, but why read dry and dull history books about the intrigues of the Elizabethan court when you can pick up Hilary Mantel’sWolf Hall? Why numb your mind with all of the dates about the Peninsular wars when you can read Bernard Cornwell’s brilliant Richard Sharpe novels? Not to mention Perez-Reverte’s Alatriste novels if you want to discover the world of 17th century Imperial Spain. The list goes on and on and applies to the entire history of the whole world.
Truth be told, it sometimes baffles me how readers can consume so much fantasy and sci-fi when ‘real’ history is already so engaging. As they said in the X-files, ‘the truth is stranger than fiction’ – this is certainly true of ‘real’ human history.
What is certainly true of Australian writers is that they have the advantage of approaching a period – be it in Australia or overseas – with ‘fresh eyes’, since they’re generally free of cultural baggage given that Australia is the world’s youngest continent.
Another reason for this resurgence in interest in historical novels is, perhaps, the times we live in. Ever since the global financial crisis that followed the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the general feeling in the developed world is not one of certainty and perhaps it’s during times like these that people like to look back.

Speakeasy: Just for fun, can you tell our readers about a few of you favourite historical fiction reads and/or favourite historical fiction authors?
JVB: My top five favourite novels are the following:
The Last Valley (J.B. Pick) – this story was also portrayed in a brilliant movie featuring Omar Sharif and Michael Caine, and was directed by none other than Sydneysider James Clavell. Although not a commercial success, the movie did justice to a very touching and finely crafted novel.
Captain Alatriste (Arturo Perez-Reverte) – my hair rises just thinking about the brilliance of this novel, set in a wonderfully decadent Madrid that is capital to the crumbling Spanish Empire. Also converted into a great movie starring Viggo Mortensen.
Q (Luther Blisset) – an extravaganza that will keep you entertained for days on end, huge and allegorical in scope yet at the same time unpredictable and intimately personal, but always intelligent and engaging! A must read for all 16th century Renaissance Europe fans!
Beau Geste (P.C. Wren) – novel about the Foreign Legion that is meticulously constructed, and you’ll never see the twist until you read the last word on the last page of the novel, which will leave your head spinning.
Sharpe’s Tiger (Bernard Cornwell) – the work of a master craftsman, the best Sharpe novel in my opinion. It’s gritty and gutsy, and bursting with nail-biting suspense.
Other historical novelists whose work I have greatly enjoyed include James Clavell, Elisabeth Storrs, Dorothy Dunnett, Harper Lee, Tim Willocks, Robert Low, Nikos Kazantzakis and Sven Hassel.
Speakeasy: Is there anything else you might like to mention to our readers?
JVB: Firstly I would like to thank GenreCon for the exposure that they are providing us, and also a big thanks to the people that have helped to breathe life into HNSS over the last nine months.
Anyone out there who is a historical fictionista and wants to join in the fun, please drop us a line at hnssydey@gmail.com. Also please feel free to check out our blog and become members via Facebook and Twitter.
The dream we’re currently working on is launching the inaugural HNS conference in Australia – anyone who wishes to get involved is more than welcome!
Julian Thumm is a freelance editor and writer. He has degrees from The University of Queensland and The University of Adelaide. He has worked with the Australian Journal of Communication, The University of Queensland Press, and Corporate Communication International through The City University of New York. He is currently based in Brisbane.

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