Sticks n’ Stones

I’ve gotten more angry letters about Death Was in the Picture than I did about my first four novels combined. People have accused me of… well, of all kinds of things. Chief among them has been the idea that I distorted the truth around the way the Motion Picture Production Code -- the Hays Code -- came first to be written and then to finally be applied and, more or less related to this, some readers have been upset that I seemed to have smeared perfectly innocent religious types along the way.

The letters, while sometimes hurtful, have caused me to think about story. That is, it’s made me muse on the creation of fiction and the choices we make. One reader wrote and asked if I had some ax to grind with the church. I told her that I do not. I don’t even have an ax or anything with which to grin it. She said it had ruined the story for her. I told her I was sorry she felt the story had been ruined, but that I couldn’t apologize for that story itself because, well, the part of the story she hated was part of the story I was telling. From my perspective, you couldn’t have one without the other: they’re part of the same whole.

Here’s another thing: even though Death Was in the Picture is fiction, the back-story she had trouble with is the truth as I believe it to be. Not necessarily the truth as found in the history books, but the stuff you find between the lines if you do enough research and immerse yourself deeply enough into bringing some aspect of the past to life. And that’s the license you get when you write fiction. Some of it I get to make it up as I go along.

That said, the type of fiction I write is closely tied into history so sometimes there is overlap. The edges of everything are true. I’ve filled in some of the stuff in the middle. If I’ve done it well, it will be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. But, when I’m writing historical fiction, I don’t see it as part of my job to educate you. I do see it as part of my job to enflame you if I can. If you write to me and tell me that, after you read my book, you jumped off the couch (or out of the tub or off the subway) and ran to the library to find out more about the period or the topic or something in the book, I’ll have done what I do as well as I can. Because in my fondest wish, you leave one of my novels feeling the journey was a good one for you. And maybe you leave feeling slightly richer than when you entered. That’s what I hope.

I know that, for this particular book, the more research I did, the more I realized that the stories being told around the topics at hand weren’t complete. Perhaps because, as history goes, this is fairly recent. But there seemed to me to be a lot of inconsistencies in the written history and, in some cases, a lot has been left unsaid. More: sometimes you’d add up two and two and come up with five.

The deeper I got with the story, the more I realized that I was tackling a really important topic, one that had never been fully probed before. And, truly, it still hasn’t been. The scope of a story told from Kitty Pangborn’s perspective doesn’t allow it because we see the world through her eyes and from her experience.

The result is -- must be -- that you see shadows around corners. You see things lurking that you never really come to understand. You are given hints of things; pieces. Then you’re left to draw your own conclusions, in a way. The mystery is locked down in the end, but, in this case, some of the things that contribute to it simply can not be: not if it’s to stay true to Kitty’s perspective and what we can reasonably expect her to see and understand.

I guess I’m still musing on all of this and I’m still thinking about story. Your input sends me there. And whether you’ve sent me literary rocks or flowers with your letters, I thank you very much for writing. Making books can be a lonely business. It’s gratifying to see how much you care.


Jena said…
"Some ax to grind with the church"?

Yeesh. Sounds like a reader who only wants the truth to fit her version of it.

I think the best books are the ones that challenge us to think, to question our views and beliefs, to consider different sides, and hopefully reach the end with new understanding. Sometimes what we learn isn't pleasant, or flattering. But smart readers will keep reading and keep learning, and good writers will keep challenging and pushing.

Sounds like you're doing it right. Keep it up.
Anonymous said…
There was much to be offended by in the book under discussion. I was surprised at how casually the homosexuality of two major characters was taken. When I read those parts of the book that dealt with the relationship of those characters it made me think that that would not have been the case at that time. The fact that an organized religion was pointed at as a "bad guy" made alarm bells go off for me too. Yes I Was one of those who are probably meant as having written in this note but this is a very offensive book.
Kaye Barley said…
Jena - that is exactly what it sounds like, doesn't it?

Anonymous - you are absolutely most assuredly welcome to your opinion, and I would (as would Linda Richards) fight anyone who said differently. I have a way of dealing with books I find offensive - which you, on the other hand might find to be just your cup of tea. I don't read them. All books written just simply aren't going to be universally loved.

This is just a personal aside. Personally? I think it's tacky to come to an author's blog and say she's written an offensive book. And then sign it "anonymous." I'm just saying . . .

BUT. On the other hand. A little bit of controversy will ALWAYS bode well, I think for the author, so I should just shut up and let Linda Richards say "Thank You!"
Clea Simon said…
Personally, I loved the book. I felt that it rang true. I'm not saying it WAS true -- Linda did the research, i didn't. But I believed everything as it was presented and that is what makes a good book. (And from what I do know about, say, Errol Flynn, I believe the bisexuality of the characters would have been accepted, as long as it was somewhat closeted. And I didn't feel any religion was attacked - I felt that an activist branch of a religion that wanted to impose itself on the rest of the country was implicated, and rightly.)

In brief, the world as it was presented made sense with what little I know, and certainly in the context of the fictional world, and so I think the book is a resounding success.

I also think it is a sign of that success that some people are arguing about accuracy of this fictional world. In other words, they bought it, too. So I say it worked as historical fiction, and let those who don't like it read something else.
Actually, I love hearing from readers. Always. So, you're right Kaye: thank you to all of you for taking the time to stop by and say "Hey."

And I'm actually not dismayed that some people might find, well... aspects of any of my books offensive on some level. I should explain that (it sounded a bit funny the way I said that!). When I'm writing, I never think "will someone be offended by that?" and stop. In fact, I think there's been a part of the pre-publication process on all of my books when someone -- an editor, a copyeditor, a friend -- said "Whoa! You should change that. It will offend someone" and I've opted not to change it. My argument -- and I'm sure I've said it in this space before -- is that I want to avoid writing books that are nothing but pudding. And it strikes me that pleasing everyone is a sure way of making pudding books. So some people will always be offended by something. And that's okay. In fact, in a certain way, I guess I think that's good. But with this book... well, there's just been more than usual, I guess because it touches on some fairly controversial topics.

Thanks to everyone for their input!
Thanks, Clea. (We must have been adding our comments at the same time!)

It's lovely to hear you enjoyed the book: coming from a writer whose work I admire as much as I do yours... well, it's really appreciated. Thank you.

Again, thank all of you. As I said, though the not-so-supportive words can sting, it's lovely when they also give a writer space to stop and think. I've enjoyed this. Musing. With ya'll.
Tara said…
I'm looking forward to reading it Linda - delicate sensibilities & all... ;)

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