Published March 18, 2021

As part of the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, novelists Rachel Beanland (Florence Adler Swims Forever), Brian Castleberry (Nine Shiny Objects), and Lauren Francis-Sharma (Book of the Little Axe) discussed their sweeping works of historical fiction, ranging from 18th-century Trinidad to 20th-century America, and grappling with colonialism, family secrets, racism, and questions of belief; moderated by Lisa Grimes.

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“Beanland’s novel draws the reader in. The situation she describes is poignant and the characters she develops win us over with their private grief. The historical moment is fraught as American Jews try to save relatives in an increasingly untenable Nazi Germany. We see cruel obstacles to immigration, and the growing chasm between European Jews and their increasingly prosperous American counterparts. This is a book about the American dream. The dream is not without costs, and the dreamers are not immune to tragedy.” —New York Times Book Review

“Discovering the nature of the characters’ associations and intersections across the chapters is one of the richest pleasures of the book. Another pleasure: the detailed portraits of 20th-century American life. Each chapter [of Nine Shiny Objects] is a neatly packed and well-researched time capsule… the close-clinging omniscient narration nimbly taking on the voices of each decade.”—New York Times Book Review

“Francis-Sharma… offers fascinating characters across the broad sweep of the American continent at a time of great tumult, warring colonial powers, the spread of slavery, and expansion West. This is a compelling saga of family bonds, ambitions, and desires, all subject to the vagaries of powerful historical forces.”—Booklist, starred review

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Transcript

SARAH LAWSON: Hello. Welcome to Historical Fiction, a program in the all-virtual 2021 Festival of the Book. I’m Sarah Lawson, associate director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us. A couple notes before I hand the program over to our speakers. Please share your questions using the Q&A tab on Zoom. This event also has optional closed captioning which you can turn on and customize at any time using the closed captions tab at the bottom of your window. If you haven’t already read today’s books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy them from our partner bookseller for this event, look no further. Visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the festivals ongoing work at VaBook.org/give. Thanks to our community partner for this event, James River Writers. We also greatly appreciate the support of all festival sponsors, donors, and community partners. 

Now I’m pleased to introduce our speakers. Rachel Beanland, author of Florence Adler Swims Forever, writes fiction and essays. Her essays have appeared in creative nonfiction in Bradstreet among other places. She has an MFA in creative writing from Virginia Commonwealth University, and lives in Richmond, Virginia with her family. Brian Castleberry, author of Nine Shiny Objects. He has had stories published in The Southern Review, Day One, Narrative and other literary journals. He lives in Virginia where he teaches literature and creative writing at the College of William and Mary. Lauren Francis-Sharma, author of Book of the Little Axe, also wrote Til the Well Runs Dry. She resides near Washington, D.C. with her husband and two children, and is the assistant director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. And our moderator, Lisa Grimes grew up in the Shenandoah Valley. After many years in Williamsburg, she now lives in Charlottesville and works at UVA. Thank you all for joining us today. Lisa, take it away.

LISA GRIMES:  Thank you, Sarah. And thank you and Jane for all the work you’ve done with the Festival this year. It’s been fantastic. And I know you’ve reached a lot of people and they’ve enjoyed it. So I am delighted to speak with our writers today. We’re going to open up with each of them giving introduction to their novel and just giving you a sense for the time, and place, and voice that they wrote it in. And we’re going to be bringing you through time, starting with Lauren, who’s going to take us to the 1800s. Lauren.

LAUREN FRANCIS-SHARMA:  Thank you. Lovely to be here. Book of the Little Axe is my latest novel. It is set partly in Trinidad in the 1700s, late 1700s, and also in Montana in the early 1800s. And it follows a woman who travels from her homeland in Trinidad to Montana. I’m going to actually read an excerpt that’s set in Bighorn. Rosa is my protagonist and she is married to a black member of the Crow tribe. Something has happened at camp and Rosa rushes her son, Victor, away in the middle of the night and they’re on a trail in the woods when Victor begins to grow impatient with his mother.

That night as Ma slept and Victor kept watch over Martinique, it felt like the sky’s fire had pestled itself into his chest. He thought of home, his sisters, all that he believed lost to him, and felt his thoughts like a rope, its strands swollen and tangled.

“Wake up, Victor.” Ma was kneeling over him shaking his shoulder. “You mustn’t cry in your sleep like so.” She seemed sore, like she’d seen something she hadn’t wished to see. 

Victor rubbed his eyes, startled, before realizing Ma was upset with him. “Then when, Ma? When can I feel what I’m feeling?” 

Victor thought of the coyotes, now gone, as Ma sat down, her knees to her chest, staring at him over the dying fire, in a way she’d done only when she thought he did not notice.

“Something feels wrong. I need to get back home,” he said. 

“Your home is with me.”

“What does that mean?” The way Ma spoke was never plain, the words always masks. 

“What do you think a mother does, Victor? What do you think I am?”

“A mother.”

“Not a mother, your mother. Your mother who drips the world into your mouth like milk from a teat. Making sure the host is healthy, making sure you don’t get too much or too little. How does that host get fed, Victor? I bring her grain; I fatten her up. You want the whole world? When you see how big and ugly it is, you’ll wish for me to break it into pieces and feed it to you so you don’t choke.” 

“This is not Trinidad,” he said to her. “I’m not a little boy in knickers, eating tea sandwiches or whatever it is you dream about that place no one has ever heard of.”

Ma doused the last of the embers with water and settle back onto her mat. “You’re just a child.”

“A child? Then it’ll be a child returning home in the morning.”

In the days before their disagreement, they had alighted upon the Missouri River path. Its woodlands were thick with brambles and brush and fat rattlesnakes. They’d had to detour, for Shields River was bloated and impassable at each end, and mud had cascaded down the sides of the Elkhorns, trapping them from the east and from the west until rain mercifully washed away the sludge. All this they had managed with aplomb, and yet it was upon Victor’s return to his sleeping mat after relieving himself that he stumbled, like a small boy, onto a coiling, clawing branch that held onto his flesh, ripping it, as though starved. 

“Victor?”

He bit back the pain and assured Ma all was well. But Victor couldn’t return to sleep, and at daybreak, his leg—from ankle to hip—bulged with fever. He wrapped the wound and wished not to have Ma mother him, prideful and too embarrassed to need her.

But his fever raged. 

A breeze blew, sprinkling ice onto his cheeks as Ma propped a musket against the tree trunk. She scooped up his leg and set it under her armpit. The leg was plump and shiny, and Ma didn’t seem to like it. She wanted to hurt it. For being so shiny.

“What are you doing?” Victor thrashed and pushed Ma back into her musket, which tipped and slithered inside a brittle clump of leaves. Ma gripped his leg again as if it was a growing threat. “No! Ma, just tell it not to shine!”

Ma choked it. With her clay pot. Told it to quiet down.

It was early the next morning and still Ma suctioned Victor’s leg, leaving a trail of bruised ovals atop the shiny. By dusk, the shiny dulled, and Victor’s head regained its  weight, and when he could think clearly again, Ma shoved a cut of sheepskin into his mouth and sliced open his thigh until the blood stood raised and stiff like tomato seeds forced to applaud her. 

She lifted his head to the pouch filled with another bitter tea. Her eyes were shadowed, and she slouched like an empty, twisted sack before him. “Drink up,” she said. 

“Is this your Mamá’s tea?”

“No. I don’t have what I need for my mother’s tea.”

“Why don’t you ever talk much about your home, about Trinidad?”

“Because children use your words against you. Like tea sandwiches and knickers.” 

Victor grinned, but he knew he’d hurt her. 

“The way you spoke to me, I would have never spoken to my Mamá like that,” she said. 

“I’m sorry. I am.” Victor watched her expression trying, to discern if she was open to another question, but could not be certain. “Why did you leave home?” he asked. 

Ma wiped the lip of the pouch with a worn hemp cloth and placed her hand across his forehead, flipping it over, hoping, it seemed, that at least one side of her hand would register the relief she desperately sought. “I left because there could be no more dignity. Without dignity, living becomes unworthy of life.” She avoided his eyes, placing the cloth back onto her waist, storing the pouch in the sack she would forget later to haul into the branches of a tree.

The smoke from the fire still billowed as the sun broke through like a gorged udder. It was the fourth day of their delay. Victor had been awake for some time, watching Ma’s lips move in her sleep as though she were in prayerful recitation. She woke panicked, smothered the ember chicks, checked him for fever. “We may have to stay here one more night.”

They had left to eat only a small bit of wild rice, and Ma, who never wished to be without at least one day’s supply of food, was growing concerned. That morning, Victor told her she could hunt, that he would be fine, and though Ma, at first, hesitated, she decided, after surveying the area, that it was best to leave while the world still felt quiet beneath them.

Victor slept and dreamt, awakening on occasion to slap critters licking sweat from his collarbone. When Martinique first began to stir, Victor did not open his eyes, but the old gal was persistent, and finally when Victor sat upright he saw that Martinique, who stood some distance from him, had pinned her ears and held her head cocked at some sound. 

“I’m listening now,” he whispered to her.

Dead branches spit at the earth. Their teeth clacked. Victor’s bow and arrow lay in a sack upon Martinique. He wouldn’t be able to reach them in time. 

Clack-clack.

Victor peered up into the grandfather fir’s canopy. Its branches were colossal spider’s legs, with with sharp angles and plunging slopes. This is what Ma must have noticed when she chose it to shelter them during their delay. Climb it. He thought this as he pushed himself up from a ground blooming cream-colored mushrooms. Martinique’s ears twitched like parchment fans in the wind. Maybe Ma had changed your mind, he thought. Victor listened for the lilting rhythm of Ma’s stride, upright on her toes, the walk of a farm girl who knew of the sea. But it was not Ma coming.

Thank you.

LISA GRIMES:  Thank you, Lauren. That was fantastic. Now if you haven’t read the book, I know that you’ve got to get it to know to find out what happened. Now Rachel is going to bring us to 1930s Atlantic City, Rachel.

RACHEL BEANLAND:  Yeah. I’m just going to read from the beginning of the book. So you don’t need to know anything. 

Gussie Feldman didn’t enjoy swimming, but she did like to lie on the wet sand, in the shadow of Atlantic City’s Steel Pier.

You know what? I should have said what the book is about. You did a nice introduction, Lauren, and I said nothing about mine. I’m going to stop and say briefly. The book is set in Atlantic City. It follows a family, the Adler family, as they’re grieving the loss of their daughter, Florence, who was training to swim the English Channel when she drowned. Her sister is on bed rest in the hospital. She’s recently lost a baby the previous summer, and is pregnant again, and her family makes the decision not to tell her that her sister has died. And the book is fiction, but it is based on a true story that happened to my family about 90 years ago. 

So with that being said, I will continue. Okay. We’ll start afresh. 

Gussie Feldman didn’t enjoy swimming, but she did like to lie on the wet sand, in the shadow of Atlantic City’s Steel Pier, and wait for the tiniest ripple of a wave to wash over her. If she positioned herself just so, her body rose with the incoming tide, and for a brief moment, she felt weightless. 

She was lying in just such a manner, staring up at the bright blue sky, when her aunt Florence’s face came into her field of vision. “I discovered a lovely note when I arrived home,” Florence said. “I want to give my compliments to the artist.” 

Gussie grinned. She had devoted more than a quarter of an hour to writing the note, which she’d  carefully positioned on the Oriental rug in the entryway of her grandparents’ apartment, where Florence would be sure to see it. With her colored pencils, she had written in big purple letters, Dear Florence! And Anna. We are at the beach. Come have fun! Love, Gussie. At the last minute, she decided she had not used enough exclamation marks, so she added three more after Florence’s name but stopped short of allocating any to Anna. Maybe, if her grandparents’ houseguest noticed she hadn’t been awarded any, she’d decide to stay at the apartment.

“Do you want to be a mermaid?” Gussie asked Florence now, hoping to capitalize on her aunt’s good mood. Sometimes, if Gussie asked sweetly, Florence would cross her legs at the ankles and pretend the two of them were merpeople, out for a swim around the Tongan Islands, which Gussie had read about in her picture book, Fairy Tales of the South Seas

“For a few minutes. Then I’m going to go out for a swim.” 

Florence lay down beside Gussie in the surf, and the two of them bumped against each other as the waves lapped at their ankles and hips and shoulders. When their skin touched, Gussie felt shy. It was always like this when her aunt returned home from college. It took time for Gussie to relearn Florence’s face and the amount of space she took up in a room and the funny way she talked to Gussie like she was both a beloved child and a trusted grown-up. 

“What do you think of Anna?” Florence asked as she propped herself up on her elbows and gave Anna a wave. It was a hot day and the beach was crowded with people, but Gussie spotted her right away. 

“I think it’s her fault I have to sleep on the sun porch.” 

Florence let out a loud cackle. “Nonsense. I spent my entire childhood begging your Nana and Papa to clear out that sun porch. Mainly so I could get away from your mother.” She reached out and pinched Gussie in the ribs, “You’re a lucky girl.” 

Gussie didn’t know about any of that. The sun porch was fine—no tinier, in actual fact, than her bedroom in her parents’ apartment. The room had a bank of windows that faced the ocean, and if she stood on her tiptoes, she could see beyond the pitched roofs of the homes that lined Virginia Avenue, all the way to the beach, where the blue-and-white umbrellas looked like tiny pinwheels. The view was nice, but on summer mornings, when the sun rose over the Atlantic Ocean, and its long rays bored through the glass, the room became unbearably hot. In those moments, Gussie wished her grandparents had remained in their house on Atlantic Avenue for the summer.

“I wish we weren’t in the apartment,” she allowed herself to say out loud since her grandparents were yards away in their beach chairs. In the summer months, Esther and Joseph rented out their house—just one block from the beach—to tourists and moved back into the apartment above the bakery, where, Esther reminded anyone who complained, the family had lived quite happily when Florence and her older sister, Fannie, were small. 

“Do you know how many summers I spent wishing I weren’t in that apartment?” Florence asked.

“How many?”

“God, I have no idea,” she said, sending a small splash of water in Gussie’s general direction. “It was a rhetorical question.”

“What’s rhetorical mean?”

Florence looked up at the sky and thought for a moment. “Something you say because it sounds good but not because you actually expect an answer from anyone.”

“Then why say it?” 

“Because it’s better than saying nothing at all?” She squeezed a handful of wet sand through her fingers. “But when you put it like that, it makes me wonder if we shouldn’t all just tell each other what we mean.”

Gussie scrunched up her nose and grabbed at her own fistful of sand. What Florence seemed to forget was that, since Gussie was only seven, no one ever told her anything—one way or the other. Everything she’d ever learned about anything, she had learned by keeping quiet and paying attention.

Take her mother’s confinement, for instance. She first learned her mother, Fannie, was expecting another baby because she’d overheard her say something to Mrs. Kingman when they had stopped by her shop for a pair of stockings. She guessed the pregnancy was risky because she’d heard her grandfather warn her mother to be careful on several different occasions in recent months. And she knew Dr. Rosenthal had recommended strict bed rest at Atlantic City Hospital because her mother had repeated his prescription to Esther when she returned from a recent doctor’s appointment.

There had been a good bit of debate between Gussie’s mother and grandmother over what to do with Gussie while her mother was on bed rest. Remaining with her father, Isaac, had turned out to be out of the question. Gussie knew this because she had overheard Esther tell Fannie so in precisely those words. “Gussie remaining at your apartment is out of the question.

Gussie was sure her father would balk when he learned that her mother intended to send her to live with her grandparents for the summer but, as her mother’s confinement neared, not a word was said about the plan, one way or the other. The day before Fannie was to be admitted to Atlantic City Hospital, she packed Gussie’s summer clothes and bathing suit, some of her books, her jacks, and coloring pencils away in an old suitcase. The bag sat in the apartment’s narrow hallway, a boulder that Isaac had to step over to get to the kitchen. When Gussie could no longer stand his silence on the subject, she begged, “Father, can’t I stay with you? Here?”

“Gus-Gus,” Isaac said, as if he were going to give her a straightforward response, “what in the world would we get into, knocking around by ourselves?”

Gussie had begun to wonder if her entire life might be rhetorical—no answers for any of it—when Florence pulled her back to the present, “Remember, knees and heels together. If you’re a mermaid you can only move your feet. I mean, fins.”

Gussie pushed off the sandy bottom and scooted through the waves, using her arms to steer and kicking her tail fiercely. Always, she was careful to keep her chin above water. “How do I look?” she called over her shoulder, but Florence wasn’t watching her, wasn’t even looking in her direction. Instead, she sat in the breaking waves studying the shore. 

Gussie circled back waving a hand in front of Florence’s face. “Let’s pretend you’re the mermaid in the glass tank at Steel Pier, and I’ll swim from Australia to save you.”

“Why do I need to be saved?” said Florence, who still looked very far away. “Don’t I like my life at the Pier?”

“You want to be free to swim about in the ocean, silly.”

Florence turned to face Gussie then, giving her niece her full attention. “Yes, you’re quite right. I nearly forgot.”

LISA GRIMES:  Thanks, Rachel. Brian, bring us farther into the last century.

BRIAN CASTLEBERRY:  Sure. Thanks, Lisa. It’s such an honor to be here with Lauren and Rachel. Nine Shiny Objects is set from 1947 to 1987. Each one of the chapters kind of leaps up five years and follows a different character and pretty close third person. And they’re all connected by an act of racist violence that happened in the 1950s, and also to an idealistic group of people who were originally inspired by UFOs that they want to make a better world. 

The chapter I was going to read from is chapter seven. It follows a character named Joan Halford. It’s set in 1977. She’s waiting for her son Scott to come and visit. She should be here sometime today. She’s the type of character who is a kind of … she’s a bigot. She’s kind of a soft, casual racist of the type that’s often forgiven by people, and she’s about to see this son she hasn’t seen in a long time who’s bringing home his Korean-American wife that she hasn’t met. So I’ll just start from the beginning of the chapter. 

What did it matter? Oh, what did it matter? The boy out on the lawn cutting grass when she’d told him, told him straight to his face just last week that she wouldn’t pay him, that she didn’t need the grass cut in the first place. Her son was coming home, would be here any minute. She didn’t need the lawn cut. And so she’d gone out there, she’d talked to him, and he’d said that wouldn’t her son like it even better if the lawn was cut when he got home, if he didn’t have that little chore to do, if things looked all nice and neat when he parked there in the driveway. The boy, the Mexican boy, had pointed at the drive where Scott would be parking his car later that day. All right, she’d said. But down the hall she’d stalked from one window to the other. What did it matter? There was the boy now, his mower glinting in the noontime sun, his elbow on its handle. There was the boy fanning himself with his ball cap and taking a long drink from the soda bottle she’d brought out to him when he had ignored her and started up the mower. And now he was taking a break, shining wet in the August heat, a blotch of sweat darkening his T-shirt. He was some relative of that Vasquez girl down the street, her cousin or second cousin or something. Scott knew. Scott had told her. Told her, “Hey, Mom, do you remember Vasquez and his kids you ran out of town? Well, that boy right there’s his nephew.” Said it out loud the last time he visited, years ago, and said it to hurt her right in the middle of the pharmacy with Olive Dunning looking at them and Dr. Raeburn up in his white suit looking, too, and they remembered Vasquez, of course they did, they’ve been there that night. 

This boy then, this Mexican boy, just out of a stroller, clinging to his mother’s arm, walking like his legs belonged to a stranger. 

That is how long it’d been since Scott was home. He didn’t even come when Rob died. Only her and Jason, who of course had come, who always came, the younger son, the respectful son. Jason had only moved to Hempstead, a couple of towns over, ran a successful plumbing business of his own there, Halford’s Plumbing, his father so proud to see that name on the van every time he came home, and he was there at home, before the doctor had even lifted Rob out of his chair. It had been Jason who had the self-possession to walk up to his father, and close his eyes, to shut off the television, to pull the front curtains. She had been slumped in the dining room crying in hysterics by then for nearly an hour, blubbering into the phone, leaving a message with some unnamed woman at the phone number that Scott had given them when he last called for money. Oh, and it had been Jason, cleaned up in a suit and a shave, along with all of Rob’s old bowling buddies, who had carried the coffin from the church, who had lowered it into the ground at Green Lawn Cemetery. For that, even Paul Penrod had shown up, followed sheepishly around by his young son, Bradley, his face blotchy with acne, his hair as shaggy as one of the Beatles’.

At first, she expected to be haunted by Rob, to walk into rooms to find him there, to catch the familiar smell of his Lucky Strikes in the garage, to hear him muttering into the refrigerator about how there was never anything to eat. Instead, these years of quiet, none of Rob’s harrumphing and cooing, or his socked feet up on the coffee table leaving white patches in the wood, none of his cigarettes in bed and his deep raspy laughter at Johnny Carson. She would still imagine him, often, his over-tall presence in doorways, and his strong hairy arms and the horseshoe-shaped scar from the war just under his left eye. None of his complaining about the blacks and Puerto Ricans during the blackout, though, none of his carping on Jimmy Carter’s weak hand when it came to OPEC, none of him, none of Rob. Just this house where they’d been forever. Her friends at church told her time and again to be sure to leave on the radio or a record or the television. A silent empty house could drive a woman mad, they said. But often she forgot their advice, and listened instead to the refrigerator’s meandering wheezes and churns, to the dog barking three doors down, to the long approach of the mailman as he clomped up the sidewalk and onto her porch. 

Or as today, listened to the growl of that mower and its silence.

The boy had pushed his machine out into the road next to the curb and set to raking. How old was he now? Twelve? Thirteen? Still a very young boy, but reaching that cusp of development in which his body takes on the rail-thin dimensions of manhood. By now his eyes were lingering on girls in his classes and they too must be looking back with some measure of longing. His drooping black hair brushed back over one ear, his angle of a jaw, those surprised eyes. She could remember Scott at that age with clarity, spending all his time over at the Feldbergs’ house with Max, that damned Max, whom Rob wouldn’t allow Scott to speak to again. Of course he did, though. He spoke to him at school and then surreptitiously over the phone when his parents sent him off to that institution in Connecticut. She’d seen the telephone bill, after all. And later, after high school, when Scott was at NYU on his father’s dime, she discovered and not told Rob that he was letting the boy live on the floor of his dorm room. Soon after that time it didn’t matter anyway. Max Feldberg, through some Jewish channels even Rob couldn’t understand, had been made into a rock ‘n’ roll star, a heartthrob wearing a tan sweater, his hair like a thick cloud on top of his head. He was always pictured snapping his fingers, mouth open, eyes dreaming into the distance. Scott, instead of going to law school, ran off to join him. First as a hanger-on and later as a member of his band, whatever that nuisance had been called, playing the drums.

Scott with a stick and a block keeping rhythm in the first-grade music assembly. Scott drumming pencils on the narrow desk Rob had built him, a portable record player in the corner. Scott going out for marching band, and they were so proud to see him in his uniform with that gleaming drum, the sin and sickness of Max and all that meant so clearly behind them all. But with Max it had been a cycle, like everything in his life, an endless process of return. Adult Scott, “adult” Scott, dressed in black on a television program, hammering away at the back of the stage while Max in sunglasses snaked over a microphone, singing something about meeting a woman in a parking lot with all the lights out. The Mercy Trips, they called themselves. A name that made no sense at all.

I’ll stop there.

LISA GRIMES:  Thank you. I’m going to shift from the questions that I shared with you all a little bit because we have a good question in the Q&A. Yesterday in a panel, one of the panelists mentioned that as they were writing their book, they didn’t consider it historical fiction, but it’s subsequently been marketed as historical fiction. And one of our audience members writes, “How do the authors distinguish fiction from historical fiction? Did you consider your work as such while writing or is this more of a matter of marketing?” Brian, you’re on my screens. Do you want to go first?

BRIAN CASTLEBERRY:  Yeah. I guess I can. I didn’t necessarily think of it as historical fiction, at least fitting any kind of genre or standards for historical fiction. And I take a lot of leeway with historical details I guess, historical elements, if a lot of the details might be right I guess. It’s probably more marketing at least for me. I had a set of ideas that I was trying to understand and dig into more than necessarily write a historical novel. 

LISA GRIMES:  Lauren.

LAUREN FRANCIS-SHARMA:  Yeah. I’ve written two books there that are historical … considered historical fiction. The first was set in sort of the 1940s through the 1960s. And I never thought about that as historical fiction, but that was certainly marketed as such. This one to me, was certainly so. I knew the second I started. When you’re delving into different centuries and you’ve got to research how people go to the bathroom, I think you pretty much know that you’re in the historical fiction territory. Sometimes it’s certainly marketing, but I think for some authors they really realize when you’re deep into the history that you’re writing historical fiction piece. 

LISA GRIMES:  Rachel.

RACHEL BEANLAND:  Yeah. I think it’s interesting. I don’t know the author you’re talking about from earlier in the week, but I understand this inclination on the part of authors to say like, “I’m not intentionally doing historical fiction.” Because historical fiction is like this whole thing. I don’t know. It’s more like I’m writing literary fiction and it happens to be set in the past. What does that make it? I guess it makes it historical fiction. With my story, it was … It’s set in 1934. The real drowning took place in my family happened in 1929. I decided right away that I was going to play a little fast and loose with my year because I didn’t want to write about the stock market crash, and I worried I was going to end up doing that. 

So I certainly toyed with the idea of even setting it in contemporary times. I was more interested in the story kind of behind this family legend than I was in getting every detail right of exactly when it had happened. But in my case my problem was that, of course, you actually cannot keep a death of secret in contemporary times. It’s pretty much impossible with social media and everything we have going on. So I quickly realized, no, I do have to write this story in the past in order for it to be believable. So I think I fell into historical fiction by accident in that sense.

LISA GRIMES:  Hey, Rachel. We have an audience question for you. What are the special considerations when writing fiction based on family or personal history?

RACHEL BEANLAND:  Well, I’d be curious to know if Lauren or Brian based any of their fiction on family stories. Well, mine’s very overt, but I think a lot of us kind of draw from bits and pieces that we’ve maybe heard from our families. But in my case, I was pulling a story in its entirety, out of my family lore. It did help that I was writing it 90 years later, just about 90 years later. So most of the people who were featured in the novel are gone and were gone for years. I never knew them. And the exception is Gussie, the little girl who begins the novel. The novel is told in rotating points of view, seven points of view. And so Gussie is a little girl in the novel. She’s the daughter of the woman in the hospital bed who is my great grandmother, and that makes her my grandmother. So I did know my grandmother of course, very well, but I never knew her as a little girl. So I still felt inclined to be able to take liberties with imagining what she might have been like that summer.

The person I had to appease or that I felt nervous giving my book to was my mother because, of course, she knew many more of these people much more intimately because she’s a generation closer. We had lots of conversations where it was like … For me, I was always writing fiction. I didn’t know these people. I was making things up right and left, but for her, it was like a slower process. She read the book, and she said it took her two thirds of the way through to forget that she was reading about members of her own family. But I want to let other people jump in. I could talk about it all day.

LISA GRIMES:  Yeah. So let’s talk about inspiration. Lauren, do you want to talk about your inspiration for your book?

LAUREN FRANCIS-SHARMA:  Yeah. I was driving to pick up my kids when I was listening to NPR, and Willie Nelson was being interviewed by Terry Gross. He was getting the Gershwin Prize and he was playing his guitar. And I began thinking about sort of my childhood growing up and watching westerns. My parents are from Trinidad, both parents, and many people don’t know. Unless you know Caribbean people, older Caribbean people, that country western music is very popular in the Caribbean, or was very popular in the Caribbean. So I grew up sort of listening to country western music in my house along with Soul and R&B, but my parents were very big into westerns. And so I’m listening to Willie on Fresh Air and I’m thinking about sort of Bonanza, and Big Valley, and all the old movies that my dad and my mom used to watch and I had this incredible nostalgic feeling, this sort of desire to sort of revisit that time. 

I remember watching Little House on the Prairie and just like wanting to be Laura Ingalls so badly. And I remember thinking, as I was driving in the car, about how throughout the entire time watching Little House, there were very few characters that look like me. I began thinking about what life would have looked like for a free black family living in Trinidad during this particular time, and thinking about sort of Western themes. Sort of American Western themes, what does that look like in Trinidad? What does that look like here? So it got me really curious and that’s when I started to sort of open up the history books to see would this be possible, is this a possibility? And we’ll probably get to that point, but yes indeed it was possible.

LISA GRIMES:  Thank you. Brian.

BRIAN CASTLEBERRY:  I’m so glad to hear you grew up watching Bonanza. I watched it all the time. I grew up in rural Oklahoma. It was on 24 hours a day, it seems like, that Little House. The inspiration for this book, I guess, it comes out of a lot of the 2016 election. I was shocked. It seems odd now that we’re five years past that to talk about the shock of that moment in our lives when all that began. The shock of that got me thinking about kind of the arc of history that I’ve been taught, that a lot of us had been taught about the second half of the 20th century. That everything was progress, we’re all moving forward together in some way. And when I started the book, I started thinking about this kind of alternate, more realistic version of that history. And the only way I could get at it was to try to tell it from many different characters’ points of view and spaced them out. I also had an old idea for a novel that was all set in the 50s and had to do with UFOs. And I just stole that for myself and kind of packed it in, I kind of ran with it. I was inspired by the questions I had about us as Americans, and what we tell ourselves, and what we understand about ourselves. 

I guess more than anything, that was my inspiration. The series of questions and what I could find out by writing and discovering the characters. I don’t know that writers ever find real answers when they have questions, but they do power us through these things and when you get done, then it’s just kind of done. You’re still left with more questions. That’s kind of where I got started.

LISA GRIMES:  Thank you. And all of these books and reading them, we learned so much about the period and what’s going on in the world about politics. You’ve done a wonderful job with that, all three of you. I’d like to move into kind of more nuts and bolts questions. So I’d like to know about the research you did for your book. So moving from inspiration, the germ that you started from to the nitty gritty, the hard work. And I’d like to know, what kind of resources you tapped into, what you found particularly useful, and also because I’m getting the feeling that we’ve got some writers in the audience, what piece of advice would you give to someone who’s hoping to write a novel involving historical research? Brian, would you like to start?

BRIAN CASTLEBERRY:  Sure, yeah. Every time I get asked about this, I end up quoting my friend Hernan Diaz. I think one day he’s going to send me a cease and desist letter because it’s really his ideas that I’m always using. He talks about research for fiction especially historical fiction. Rather than research, it’s just your reading. And if you’re reading the things that you love and are interested in, you’re going to learn a lot of the details that you’ll need, at least the scaffolding that you’ll need to write about a time. It can be really hard. Lauren probably can speak to this more than I can as far as having an idea and then having to go out and research all totally new things. I was lucky. I already had all these things that I was interested in reading about, and then learning the details about these different eras and 20th century culture that I could just kind of go back to or go back to dog-eared copies of books that I’ve already read. 

Part of my advice for writers is to kind of learn from what it is you love. If there’s an era that you love reading about and learning everything about, that’s your first stage of research right there. I guess that’s kind of what I would say. 

LISA GRIMES:  Great. Rachel.

RACHEL BEANLAND:  I think everything Brian says is wise. Certainly reading widely helps. With Atlantic City, I had not grown up there. It had been several generations since my family lived there. And I had a couple of stories to go on that my grandparents had told me, but other than that, I was really starting from scratch. I might as well have picked a town I had no connection to whatsoever to begin my research on. Atlantic City was particularly challenging because for those of you who are familiar with the area, it’s changed so radically from an architectural standpoint and every decade or two, they raise all the casinos and build new ones. So the landscape, the architectural landscape is just constantly shifting, and even the blocks end up changing because of that. So you couldn’t really just drive around, and kind of take away the McDonald’s, and imagine what it would have been like in the 1930s. So I started from scratch. 

I was grateful to have a lot of really great travel guides because Atlantic City was always a tourist town from its beginning in the 1860s, 70s. It started as a place that Philadelphians could get away to on the train. So I had some early travel guides, I had a lot of really wonderful postcards because all of these hotels, and peers, and restaurants in Atlantic City would print postcards that people could send across the country.

So that was really wonderful because almost every scene that I wrote in the book if I wanted to put someone on a pier, if I wanted to put them in a hotel, I could do a quick Google search and find an image of what that building looked like, what the interior of the building even looked like. These postcards are on eBay, now they’re in archives, they’re all over the place. So that was super helpful. You can kind of see it behind me, I had a map that I printed out. And so between my postcards, and then the map, and I would have my little pins for where my scenes were taking place. It really helped me bring Atlantic City to life as I was writing the characters kind of moving around the town. 

I did do some archival research too. And that really helped me fill in some detail that I needed. By the time I went to the archives, I had a really good idea of what I was missing or what I needed more of. I think the beauty for a novelist is you can get away with using a lot of secondary research. Like someone else has already written the book on Jewish communities in southern New Jersey in the 1930s, and you can read it, and digest it, and take away what you need. Those are a few of the things that worked for me, but definitely the book was very research heavy for sure. You have to be attracted to the research to want to ever write historical fiction.

LISA GRIMES:  Lauren, how about you? 

LAUREN FRANCIS-SHARMA:  Yeah. I love what both of you said although I am not attracted to the research at all. It’s just the worst part for me. I was a lawyer in a previous life, by the way, and I hated the research during that too. So I can’t believe I ended up writing this book. I do like the idea of maps. The maps were actually really helpful for me at the very beginning. Trinidad, lucky or not lucky, there were … because of colonization, there was a lot of sort of old diaries that colonists would … or letters they would write from Trinidad back to Europe. So you kind of got an idea of what life was like at least for them living in this sort of land that hasn’t been completely cultivated and used yet. Those letters were actually really helpful, but I didn’t begin to find them until I ran across something that had been in my library for years.

I had these books written by the first prime minister of Trinidad, Dr. Eric Williams, who is a Howard grad and Oxford grad, and he’d written sort of these books. Not just about Trinidad, but sort of about the entire West Indies, the colonies of the West Indies. I sort of flipped through them a little here and there and you know find a little bit of something, but when I started really thinking about this book, I was just like, “You know what? I should actually read this whole thing.” And everything just sort of came together for me. It’s sort of what Brian said about this love thing, because I think it was sitting in my library because I’d always been really interested in it and I wanted to know more about sort of where my family came from in the history of this country, but I hadn’t actually just sat down to really like delve into it. 

Once I did that, it led me into 1,000 other places, including looking for the letters that I ended up stumbling upon and also imagining the movement of people which is happening a lot at this time. And being able to imagine black characters who are actually moving as well because so much of what’s in the history books is completely absent of people of color, but we know that they’re there. Other than sort of the documentation of slave ships from Africa to the United States and to the Caribbean, there isn’t very, very much about sort of what’s happening in the lives of people of color. Even with all my research, the void … it did feel like a void sometimes also was a great opportunity for me to be able to tell the story.

LISA GRIMES:  Thank you. Lauren, we have an audience question from someone who has been told they shouldn’t use dialect with African American characters even though it’s historically accurate, yet she’s been reading … he or she has been reading works that have used it. She ends with, “Help!” So I guess she’d be interested in hearing what your thinking was.

LAUREN FRANCIS-SHARMA:  Yeah. I grapple with that all the time myself. I did particularly with my first book knowing that I’m writing to an American audience, thinking about sort of what Caribbean dialect or Trinidad dialect would actually feel like on the page. I decided I was going to do it the way that I hear it, and so from my ear. I didn’t follow anyone’s rules. Marlon James does this in his books to great acclaim and does it so well even I can’t always get it. But he does it well, and he hears it in a particular way. And me being born in the United States, I tend to have a slightly watered-down version of the patois, but I use it nonetheless. Really poo poo on those people who tell you not to write. What you’re trying to do I think is not be performative about it and to make sure that you are not making a caricature, but you’re actually staying true to the sounds that you’re hearing, and there are ways. And this is a dangerous territory, to be honest with you, for people who are not of African American descent. So I don’t know who wrote it … who wrote the question, but you have to be careful and you have to make sure that if you’re doing it, you’re doing it in an appropriate way.

So for African Americans, in particular AAVE [African-American Vernacular English], there is a very specific dialect and there are rules. AAVE actually has rules and so you have to make sure that you’re staying within those rules. For me, with sort of Trinidadian and Caribbean dialects, I was sort of using sort of my ear and what was common in my family. So I didn’t necessarily feel like it was rules, per se, but they were … but I made it so that it was a rule in my book. So I was very consistent who spoke in what way, different characters have different ways of speaking, and different accents on different words. My characters are also multilingual. So I had some characters who know how to speak French, and Spanish, and so forth. So consistency I think is very key and also just really trying not to be offensive.

LISA GRIMES:  Thank you. I’m curious about what kinds of things you were reading, watching, listening to as you were writing your book. Some authors don’t want to read anything that’s the same type of work, set in the same period. Others are completely opposite. They want to read everything that’s more or less related to their time period. I’m curious what you all were using in the course of writing the books that we’re talking about now. And also I’d like to know what you’ve been inspired by culturally for your current work. Why don’t we start with Rachel?

RACHEL BEANLAND:  I know some authors say like, “When I’m writing something, I just can’t read XYZ or whatever.” And I tend to say like, “I want to read all of it. Just give it to me and if it vibes then it’ll be great.” With Florence Adler Swims Forever, I started out reading a lot about women who had swim the English Channel. And that was partly research and partly like inspiration too. I read a number of biographies on Gertrude Ederle who was the first woman to swim the English Channel. Especially as I was trying to build out this character of Florence Adler, who was really in many ways a woman ahead of her time, I was just looking for models of inspirational women in that era, and in particularly stories that pertain to the water. When I am writing historical fiction, I’m looking to read historical fiction. It’s not as helpful to read a contemporary novel for me because then I want to go write a contemporary novel. It sometimes works best for me to kind of stay in my era for a while.

Right now I’m working on a book that is set in the 1800s, early 1800s. And so I’m trying to read a lot more historical fiction that is set in kind of early America or in some cases other areas of the world as well. I think there’s this dearth of historical fiction that’s all set in like the 30s and 40s. We love those decades because they’re full of the stories our grandparents told us, but I needed to kind of get inspired by stories that were a little bit older. Am I answering the question? Was there another part to it? 

LISA GRIMES:  You are answering. I’m curious too about, for example, did you make a playlist as you were writing? Like are there kinds of-

RACHEL BEANLAND:  I’m a super boring person and I cannot write to music at all. You couldn’t put like a symphony on. I can’t write anything. I can write to white noise on headphones. So no playlists are allowed in Rachel Beanland’s writing school. Unfortunately, when I was writing the first novel, I kept such horrible hours because I was working full-time. I wrote the whole book from 4:30 to 7:00 AM in the morning, seven days a week. So I was so exhausted. I had three kids, but I was so exhausted by the time I got home at night. No movies got watched for those two years either, I’m sorry to say. My television habits were really bad. God, I sound like such a boring horrible person. I’m sorry, y’all. It was books or bust, I think is really what it comes down to. Yikes. Someone else is more interesting.

LISA GRIMES:  It’s okay. You got it done, right?

RACHEL BEANLAND:  Yeah.

LISA GRIMES:  Yeah. Lauren, how about you?

LAUREN FRANCIS-SHARMA:  Yeah. I can’t listen to music either. I did really bad in college dorms because I’d be like, “Stop, everyone. Too much noise.” I was reading a lot of westerns. A funny story. I’d done a residency right at the beginning of writing this book and I was sort of confronted by one of the residents and asked if I even knew what a western really meant. And he was very sort of protective of sort of this genre that he felt like … I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t have been writing in. It got me feeling incredibly insecure. So I was like, “Well, shoot. What have I been missing? I feel like I’ve read a lot.” But then I started reading more and more. I was like, “I know what I’m doing.” It helped to sort of buoy me, I guess, and give me confidence. As I was reading and I was like, “Well, I think mine is pretty doing good compared to this one. I think that in terms of writing and reading … Every book sort of calls for different things. 

My first book I actually listened to music a little bit in between writing, but this one I felt incredibly … It was an intense process because with historical fiction, you’re just not moving through sort of plot, you’re also … there’s also so much that you know, even the simplest thing like how … what kind of doorknob is in the room? And how did they store their food? And will this family have an icebox? What exactly were their clothes made of in this particular part of the world versus this particular part of the world? And so it is heavy. Rachel said it was heavily researched book, and yes. There’s so many small details that drive the story along with clutch. And for me, it felt really important to get all of that right. Horses really are a big part of my story. I didn’t grow up with horses. So I had to sort of learn horses. And so there was all this sort of additional work. So no TV, very little music, lots and lots of work. 

RACHEL BEANLAND:  Lauren and I could be friends.

LAUREN FRANCIS-SHARMA:  Exactly.

LISA GRIMES:  Brian, how about you?

BRIAN CASTLEBERRY:  Well, as far as music goes, I don’t listen to music as I write as much anymore. I used to. I feel like for a long time, I would have headphones on and be listening to music without words. Any kind of music that didn’t have words would be helpful. I don’t know when that stops and now I can’t do it at all. I can’t concentrate. The stuff I was reading when I wrote this book, I feel like I was reading a lot of … At least for pleasure, I was reading a lot of writers that did kind of edgy things like took big risks in a way like the Argentine author, César Aira, or the British author, Nicola Barker. People like that do kind of wildly imaginative things with language and form. Not so I can necessarily steal from them or anything, but just to kind of feel like, if I’m taking risks here, here’s something that’s taking much further, bigger risks that I’m taking. So maybe I’m okay, maybe I’m still not on shaky ground. So I remember reading a lot of that kind of stuff. 

I feel like I went through some stage when I was younger that … where I followed all these old outages of don’t read fiction while you write fiction, and things like that. I can’t do that. I have to read fiction all the time, constantly. I don’t know if I got all the answers to that question. I did want to circle back because Lauren was just talking about getting the details right on the little historical details. It reminds me what Rachel was saying about the luck of being around now doing this kind of work because you really can, within moments, figure this out. If you know what you need to know, when it comes down to something like what kind of doorknob would be on that door or was that building on that corner in Atlantic City in that particular day, that kind of stuff, we really can find this stuff out fast. I don’t know what we would do without internet.

RACHEL BEANLAND:  Brian, I kind of have rules for myself, I don’t know about you guys, where I won’t let myself go down rabbit holes while I’m meant to be writing. I’m big on using blanks when I’m writing. Just say like, “She turned the …” Or I’ll do doorknob in all capital letters. And that’s my clue, like go back and figure out what kind of doorknob it is.

LAUREN FRANCIS-SHARMA:  I do brackets. Yeah.

RACHEL BEANLAND:  It’s something. And then just keep going. I think there is a danger with historical research about historical novels in general. If you leave your Word document every time you need to go figure out the doorknob, you will never write a novel.

LAUREN FRANCIS-SHARMA:  That’s right. Totally. Yeah. 

BRIAN CASTLEBERRY:  Yeah. You’ll write a paragraph and find out everything else … everything that Lyndon Johnson administration did.

LAUREN FRANCIS-SHARMA:  It’s really easy to fritter away the time that way.

BRIAN CASTLEBERRY:  I got lucky. There’s a chapter set in Waterbury, Connecticut in the early 80s. I already had a set in Waterbury, I knew other things about Waterbury. I just went on YouTube to try to find somebody’s video of what an arcade in the 80s look like because I grew up and went into these places in the 80s, but I didn’t remember. And somebody had literally posted a video of a place called Crazy Eight, an actual arcade in Waterbury, Connecticut, that everybody went to in the early 80s.

LAUREN FRANCIS-SHARMA:  I love it. 

RACHEL BEANLAND:  The Internet is amazing.

LAUREN FRANCIS-SHARMA:  That’s awesome. I had a scene where someone catches a fish with their hands. And I actually watched like hours of these videos on YouTube. It is the best.

LISA GRIMES:  All right. I can’t believe our hour is up already. It’s time for us to wrap things up. Thanks to our speakers today and to everyone watching. Please consider buying these featured books from your local independent bookseller or using the link provided in the chat. You can also check out other events and the All-Virtual 2021 Festival of the Book at VaBook.org, and you’ll be getting a follow-up email from the festival. Thank you all for being here, and thank you so much for these books. They’re really wonderful.

LAUREN FRANCIS-SHARMA:  Thanks, Lisa.

RACHEL BEANLAND:  Thank you, guys.

LAUREN FRANCIS-SHARMA:  Bye-bye.

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