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.