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Memory and Fiction

Why historical fiction is also contemporary fiction

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

I’ve been reading Wounds by the war correspondent, Fergal Keane, in which he explores his family’s participation in the conflict following the Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916. The story he uncovers is at the root of his subsequent fascination with war. And his impassioned connection with the story it tells is precisely what makes any exploration of history, including fiction, astoundingly relevant.

It’s a truism, of course, that we live in such fast-moving times that every novel is historical fiction by the time it’s published. But more to the point, even a novel set in the Iron Age cannot help but be fed by the contemporary imagination of its author. Fiction springs from and is nourished by all that an author sees, reads, touches, and feels. In that sense every word I write, even if ostensibly dealing with the French Revolution or eighteenth-century alchemy, is brutally up to date. I don’t keep a diary. I don’t need to. I spend several hours each day tapping out words from a wellspring of bang up-to-the-minute events and feelings. The art lies in the translation.

In a work of fiction there are a thousand ghosts. Most of them are only visible to me, the writer, but they are all the encounters, places and events that influence me while I write.

Why, for instance, in 2014, given that I could have located a new book anywhere, and at any time, did I choose Belgium during two world wars? Because something very particular set my creative sinews twanging. At that time, in that place (the back of a car on a crowded highway heading for a weekend break in Amsterdam), reading that book (Andrew Wilson’s biography of Sylvia Plath: Mad Girl’s Love Song), at that juxtaposition of personal circumstances (father dying, mother dead of Alzheimer’s, grown-up daughter suddenly returned home), the thought occurred to me: hey, Anne Frank and Sylvia Plath and my mother were born within five years of each other, but look how differently life turned out for each of them. Accident of birth became my theme.

Visiting Anne Frank’s house was a particular pilgrimage for me. Her diary, lucid, passionate and intensely human, was one of the reasons I became a writer. And it gave me the theme of all my work: hidden history. What did women and girls really get up to in the past? At last I’d arrived at Anne’s hiding place, so lovingly and tragically preserved, my arm linked through my daughter’s and my own mother’s presence a kindly memory for once, rather than a sorrowful one.

I’d never talked to my mother about The Diary of Anne Frank, which she’d given me as a rare non-birthday present. If it had been a momentous read for me, how much more so for her, Anne’s near-exact contemporary, who’d had a positively happy war as a schoolgirl? Plenty of hardship and making do, but no direct hit, and joyous summers helping out on a Hertfordshire farm. Compare and contrast with Anne Frank, living a day’s journey away, born into a similarly secure family, similarly kitted out in white ankle socks, and equally obsessed with reading.

I can go deeper. In Anne Frank’s attic I met my younger self again. What sort of little girl was I, when I first read that diary? The short-sighted type whose idea of a half-term treat was a bag of wine gums and a good book. Who read Anne Frank with the same voracious appetite and lack of critical nous with which I consumed Ballet Shoes, Heidi, Little Women and Jane Eyre. And why, in 2014, had I chosen to read a biography of Sylvia Plath, who I’d first discovered in my twenties? Because her poetry tapped into a side of me that is kept well under wraps. Because she found the exact words for things I couldn’t (and wouldn’t wish to) say. Because she was a young mother who’d broken the final taboo — abandoning her children.

I began my research. There’s always a moment, at the start of writing a book, when my pulse quickens because everything else that happens in my life becomes ridiculously relevant. As I read more about resistance in two world wars, and as I started to write, the country was caught up in a bitter debate over Brexit. Our relationship with Europe, the legacy of twentieth-century conflict, the meanings of nationalism and patriotism, became excruciatingly pertinent. Everyone was claiming history to be on their side. The Hour of Separation is an intimate love story. But its writing was fuelled by the remorseless sweep of current events.

Three years into the writing of The Hour of Separation my father died. He was very old and weary. He’s there in the book, in his accounts of his time as a soldier in the war. ‘Some days you’re so frightened you can hardly stand up,’ he’d told me. ‘On others I never even thought about death.’ When I introduce the fictional character of Pa in my book I write: ‘My father had darkness in his soul…’ It was true of my own father too. He had a double darkness; the war, and a more deeply hidden part of him, Ireland.

Dad hated speaking of Ireland because his nefarious Uncle Will had lured my grandfather, his wife, and his four young sons (my dad was probably about ten), over to Dublin to set up a bus company. Within a year they were bankrupt and my grandfather – who’d emigrated from County Clare to England in the 1890s – returned the family to London, destitute and broken.

In the thirties my father had been sent out to Ireland again to help on the family farm and had disliked it so much that when on the last day he’d dislocated his shoulder, he’d hidden the pain and journeyed home rather than delay his departure.

Last summer, for the second time in my life, I made the pilgrimage to the farm where my grandfather was born. As a student I’d passed through with a carload of friends. By last summer I’d forgotten the exact location of the farm so we asked in a local pub, and were directed, by a process of discussion and elimination, to the right place. And there, before the peat stove, in the exact spot where I’d met him decades before, was my father’s cousin, who’d clung to his bit of land and tended his few head of cattle all those years, and in all probability scarcely left Clare. But the world around him had changed beyond recognition. Instead of the shabby town I remembered was a smart little hub for tourists, its innumerable bars replaced by delicatessens and art shops.

Afterwards we visited Clontarf, on the outskirts of Dublin, where my family had rented a big house during their ill-fated sojourn in the 1920s. And we went on a walking tour which took us past the General Post Office and told us the story of the Easter Rising in 1916.

Were my Uncle Will and my grandfather out of their minds? At last I understood the historical context of their crazy business venture. The Easter Rising was followed by years of revolution and a vicious civil war that ended in 1923. Yet, just a couple of years later my family turned up in Dublin, expecting to thrive. Once I’d started reading I couldn’t stop. My novelist’s hat was crammed down over my ears. My antennae were twitching. Brexit was still in the news, and the intransigent problem of the Irish border. Every word I read about the past resonated not just for me but for the particular historical moment in which I was working.

From this melting pot, from the internet and newspapers, from the piles of books on my desk, from my own DNA and memory, characters begin to grow and a plot to form. Not just any characters but ones passed through my particular lens of imagination and experience. Some other writer, at some other time, would come up a with different story. But I am writing in 2018, after the death of my father, after the Brexit referendum, with Ireland’s fragile peace a feature of blogs and tweets and news articles, equipped with my own particular obsession with what women did during tumultuous moments in history. My book will be the one that only I can write.

It will be a novel set in the past. And it will be contemporary fiction.

Katharine McMahon’s tenth novel, The Hour of Separation, is an ‘epic historical love story’ concerning resistance and betrayal in two world wars. Other novels include The Rose of Sebastopol, set during the Crimean War, and The Crimson Rooms, featuring pioneering woman lawyer Evelyn Gifford.

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