The Historian as Novelist
Virginia Scharff, interviewed by Donald L. Miller
Miller: Virginia, you're my hero. You're an historian who's taken on fiction, and successfully taken on fiction: you've written a novel. Now, history and fiction both deal with storytelling devices, they both deal with character. How do you go about writing fiction after writing history? How do you change gears? Do you do things differently? Do you treat character differently? Do you treat storytelling differently?
Scharff: Not completely, Don. You use a lot of the same kinds of devices. But the difference with fiction is that fiction doesn't have to answer to a kind of cruel logic, I think, that history has to answer to. And when I write history, I feel like I operate in the same way. My mind has to operate the way a computer operates, on a kind of binary logic.
Scharff: Well, because history has to answer true/false questions all the time. We have stuff that we don't know, and our objective is to get a zero or a one, to get a true or a false, and if something can't be ruled strictly true or strictly false, it's intensely frustrating to us. I think that's the part that becomes difficult. But with fiction, that stuff that isn't strictly true or strictly false -- or strictly decidable -- is what we're going for. I think it's what we want. It's the realm of the undecidable, it's often the realm of the moral.
Miller: But historical characters are supple; I mean, they're subject to many interpretations. There's no true/falseness about Napoleon, or Antoinette, or anyone else. They had their complexities, their many sides; I mean, there's no true/false answers there.
Scharff: I guess my problem with writing history is not that characters aren't complicated and that people can't change over time, but I do think that what history wants us to do is to establish in a character, for example, some consistent thread of identity. We feel uncomfortable to imagine that Napoleon, for example, could be many people at the same time.
And I think when I write fictional characters, most of them are many people at the same time, I have found. And the ones that have given me the most trouble -- the characters that escaped into kind of their own selves and spoke to me, and I felt like I almost was hearing them rather than inventing them -- they were always more than one person at a time. I was always trying to get to know another dimension of them, and that kind of simultaneity of different people inhabiting one body was something that came to me very, very powerfully. It was very troubling to me.
Miller: Isn't there a lot of cacophony there, though, with all those -- that compression of many types, character types, into one character?
Scharff: There is, but I think it establishes the drama and the suspense.
Miller: How do you get one voice there?
Scharff: You always only hear one voice coming out of a person, but that one voice that you hear can come from so many different places. That's how the human mind works. And I don't think I understood that fully until I made a decision that I wouldn't have to answer a true/false question about every single thing that one of my characters did, because first of all, they're completely made up. But, second of all -- and I use a lot of historical material in the work that I do, in the novel writing that I do -- but I can make things up that get to places that can't be determined true or false.
Miller: Can you give me a for instance?
Scharff: Probably the character I had the most difficulty with in my first novel is a man who was a German man, he is the lover of one of the sort of internal-plot heroines of the book, and he may or may not have been a Nazi, he may or may not have been a double agent. We really can't know, we'll never know, really, what he was all about. But he's a person who I found compelling. I sort of walked into the heart of this book, or wrote my way into the heart of this book, and I kind of discovered him. There's a moment when I discovered him, and I just thought, "Oh man, he's going to be a lot of trouble." And he was troubling to the very end of the book. And I think that that tension, the tension of this troubling, ambiguous, potentially monstrous, potentially marvelous character, drives that book to a place that was deeper than, at least until this time, I've been able to go with history.
Miller: So you don't plot this thing out beforehand. I mean, do you plot your outline before?
Scharff: I did, but --
Miller: The character got away?
Scharff: Yeah. It was sort of my best intentions... and I found that the characters -- fiction writers, novelists, always say this; they always say -- the characters walked away from me, and then I just kind of followed them along on the page. And I really found that to be true. Whereas writing history, I do feel that I have to kind of establish control at the beginning. This isn't to say that I don't find out what I think.
Miller: What kind of control do you feel you have to have?
Scharff: There are certain things that I want to be able to talk about in a piece of history. I want to talk about how people move around through space, or I want to talk about the ways in which human actions matters for places, or I want to be able to talk about the ways in which places are transformed, in American history particularly.
And so I know that no matter what is happening to the people whose lives I'm writing about, that those messages have to come through. And I think, with the fiction, I didn't have those kinds of agendas. Which is not to say that writing history, you don't find out what you were thinking by writing it. I think we all do. I think producing narrative is always a learning experience.