Open Wounds

Nadi Blood and Captain Aldo

Why did you write a historical novel and why did you want to write about fencing? This is a question from Ms. Maddy Black’s 8th grade class last week.

The truth is I had no desire to write a historical novel. I had no idea I had one in me. As I realized my story was going to take place in the past I even fought against it. I knew I would not be able to rely on my contemporary point of view for the novel and since I’d never worked without that before I grew overwhelmed by the concept of a historical novel very quickly. How could I possibly speak with confidence about what it was like to live in 1936 or 1942? I wasn’t even alive back then. And the more research I did the more overwhelmed I became. It seemed in order to be an expert on the era, or to feel competence in my knowledge of the era I would have to read an incredible number of heavy, thick, dry-looking books and microfiche newspapers.

But at some point my curiosity and interest in the period overcame my anxiety and I began to write. I even became so involved in the research that I overdid it and had to cut about half of what I looked up, out. I even found I enjoyed the details of life from that time period. I found it fascinating.

Also, my protagonist, Cid Wymann, was 7 in 1936 so I either wrote about him in 1936 or wrote about a different character. I’ve written before about the vision I had of a 72-year-old Cid dueling with épées on the roof of the Chelsea Hotel so I won’t go into it here – but those were my constraints. I either wrote about him when he lived or I wrote about someone else. but no one else haunted me the way Cid did. That image wouldn’t go away.

Andrew Smith (author of Stick, The Marbury Lens, Ghost Medicine, and In the Path of Falling Objects) says his stories come through him, as if he was a medium for a story that had to be told. I see writing very much the same way. The characters gnaw at me. They worry me like a dog with a bone until I start to tell their story. Writing for me is then very much a journey to figure out who the protagonist is and what his story is that needs to be told.

And why fencing? I have been in love with swordplay since I was a kid, fenced since college, and taught stage combat to actors. I find I write about things that I do, that I feel a passion for. And so the man on the roof of the Chelsea hotel was fencing and his tale began when he was 7 – when Aldo Nadi, the greatest fencer of the 20th century, perhaps of all time, came to New York City and gave a fencing exhibition at The Plaza and on the same weekend that Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood premiered. I guess you could say I had not choice. Open Wounds would be a historical novel and there would be swordplay in it.

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2 responses

  1. I love the philosophy of where stories come from. I’ve always said much what Andrew does, but I will add this: I think good stories can come from us, but great stories only come through us, the writer acting as some kind of medium for tales from a higher plane.

    Yes, I realize that makes you and Andrew mystical creatures with extra sensory perception for stories from the gods, but I’m okay with it.

    November 4, 2011 at 8:15 am

    • You crack me up, man. One time someone asked me, after reading a short story I wrote, “Were you trying to evoke Joyce’s The Dead, when you wrote this?” My answer was a hesitant, no. But I was thinking, waking the dead? Is she asking me about waking the dead? Maybe a funeral? Who’s this Joyce character and is he dead? Does he hang out with dead people? Later I went home and looked the reference up. Oh, that Joyce. It’s rare I try to “do” things when I write. When I try to make a political statement on purpose it usually rings hollow. So I’ve found it’s best to just tell the story. This is going to sound a bit out there but I can almost close my eyes when I’m writing a story and see a thread in front of me and if I’m following the faintly outlined thread while I’m writing, then I’m telling the story that needs to be told. If I’m not I have to go back and find the damned thread. I think there are all kinds of tricks that can help, like outlines, thematic overlays, chapter by chapter analysis of plot and character – all that kind of (as Andrew would say) shit. But what it comes down to ultimately is whether you feel like you’re still on the thread.

      November 4, 2011 at 8:33 am

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