History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

03 October 2007

"Fictional" History

Since I'm not currently working on a historical manuscript, most of my 'historical musings' these days stem from real life--and a big part of 'real life' for me right now involves taking my youngest daughter down to Lincoln Center, to the School of American Ballet (SAB) for ballet class twice a week. Even though the current facilities are fairly new, the place is simply steeped in history. Upon stepping off the elevator, visitors are greeted by bronze busts of George Balanchine (a Russian emigre who would go on to become America's greatest choreographer) and Lincoln Kirstein, SAB's founders (also the founders of New York City Ballet--SAB is the company's 'training school'). Walking down the halls between the studios, there are huge photographs of Balanchine teaching class, working with children who might have grown up to be Suzanne Farrell or Gelsey Kirkland or Darci Kistler (who, amazingly enough, is my daughter's teacher! I'm simply in awe!). Honestly, I get chill bumps walking those halls.

Lincoln Center itself is such a integral part of New York City's cultural landscape that it's hard to imagine that it didn't used to exist--but it didn't, until 1964. At that time, it was built as part of the World's Fair exhibition space, but the New York State Theater was entirely designed to George Balachine's specifications, as the future home performing space of the New York City Ballet. For that reason, it's perfectly suited for viewing ballet.

But the New York City Ballet (and SAB) had been around long prior to the opening of the New York State Theater. Actually, the school came first. Upon arriving in the United States, Balanchine insisted that his first project would be to establish a ballet school, and with the support of Lincoln Kirstein and Edward M.M. Warburg, the School of American Ballet opened its doors to students on January 2, 1934, less than 3 months after Balanchine arrived in the U.S. The students premiered Serenade at the Warburg's summer estate later that year. Although Balanchine had started several previous companies, what we now know as New York City Ballet didn't come into being until 1948. Balanchine's 1954 staging of The Nutcracker, performed every year in New York City during the Christmas season, is largely responsible for making the ballet a Christmas tradition in the United States.

Anyway...in a roundabout way, I'm coming to a question! Recently I read a book called The Sleeping Beauty, by Adrienne Sharp. It's one of those 'fictional' history books where real, historical people and events are put into a fictional plot along with fictional characters. The story took place near the end of Balanchine's life (he died of the rare Creutzfeld-Jakob disease in 1983) and centered around him staging the full-length ballet Sleeping Beauty (something he never actually did). Other famous New York City Ballet icons made cameo appearances--Suzanne Farrell, Peter Martins (he succeeded Balanchine as Artistic Director of City Ballet and head of SAB), among others.

I've read and enjoyed many books where true historic figures' lives were fictionalized--Tracy Chevalier's Girl With a Pearl Earring, for one. I haven't yet seen the movie Becoming Jane, but I'm certain I would enjoy it. There are scores of very successful, very popular examples, many of which I enjoyed. Yet somehow I was vastly bothered by Sleeping Beauty. Somehow it didn't seem right that the author was putting words in Balanchine's mouth, motivations into his mind (the book used his POV). I didn't like seeing Suzanne Farrell--my all-time favorite ballerina and still living today!--as a throwaway character.

Is it because ballet is something that is so close to my heart? Because I remember the day Balachine died--I was at a regional ballet festival, of all places, and just before the curtain went up on a performance, an announcement was made, stunning the audience to tears? Or is it because it's recent history, with some of the 'players' still alive?

My question to you is this: how do you feel about books fictionalizing the lives of true, historic characters? Does it bother you, or do you enjoy it? Do you think it matters if the historic characters lived hundreds of years ago, or if the history is more recent?


Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Hi Kristina, I've read many historical novels that used real historical figures as the main characters and I've loved most of them, although I think I enjoy them more if it's about a character that I know little about like Lettice Knollys who was Elizabeth I's cousin, and the mother of the Earl of Essex. I think I would have a hard time if the historical figure were more recent like FDR or Eleanor Roosevelt. Perhaps you're right and it's because ballet is so close to you that the book hit you the wrong way. I've read White Swan, Black Swan by Adrienne Sharp, and she has a story about Fonteyn and Nureyev that I remember being bothered by. Because dancers use their bodies to create, it seemed strange to have them given fictional thoughts and words.

12:10 PM  
Blogger Georgie Lee said...

I love a well-written historical fiction involving true characters. However, I think they work better if there are a few hundred years between me and the character. Also, the closer the author stays to the facts of the person's life, the better. I enjoyed The "Other Bolyn Girl" and "Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne" by David Starkey.

1:20 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Since I earn a living writing books about people who actually lived, albeit a few centuries ago, I am understandably biased. But when it comes to fictionalized versions of people who lived during my lifetime (and I grew up as a devotee of Balanchine and NYCB) and who still live, like the brilliant Suzanne Farrell, I wonder if I would appreciate the fiction. And I wonder how the still-living personages feel about being turned into characters.

It's different with something like the film THE TURNING POINT, which comes very close to real people's lives, but fictionalizes them by making some of them amalgams of people who ballet fans might recognize.

1:46 PM  
Blogger Kristina Cook said...

Amanda, you hit on a point that kept going through my mind as I read the book Sleeping Beauty. The author could just have easily made it a fictional "City Ballet" with a Russian ballet master who was obviously Balanchine...yet wasn't. You know, keep it fiction, even if clearly based on a company and people that some readers would recognize.

I think I might have enjoyed it much better had it been written that way!

3:21 PM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

I love books that intertwine really events and people with historical figures and events. I tend to prefer stories where the main characters are fictional. As a writer, I do agonize over being "fair" to real people-I try to stick with things they *might* have done, even if they didn't actually. I try to write words they *might* have said. And then I write copious historical notes explaining any liberties I've taken :-).

4:31 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I work pretty much the way Tracy does. I try very hard to stick to the facts and then place myself in the scene as if I were that person. What would I say? How would I say it? What would I be feeling? Thinking?

4:44 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I read Gelsey Kirkland's "Dancing on My Grave" years ago, and even though it is too soon to be considered a "historical" and she is still alive, it changed the romantic veiw I had of ballet forever. Baryshnikov is a major character in it and the picture she paints of him is not flattering...guess there are some things I would rather not know about romantic contemporaries! I'll take fictinalized accounts of them any day.

A hundred years from now, someone will write her story relying on her bio, and make it a bestseller, with all the drama and the hearbreak. They'll Fictionalize it a little I hope, and give her a happier ending.

8:33 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

The character Leslie Browne plays in "The Turning Point" is supposed to be Gelsey, more or less; and the way Baryshnikov, playing a fictionalized version of himself is a fictionalized version of their relationship and the way he treated her.

8:42 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

The writer Adrienne Sharp was a dancer at City Ballet when Balanchine was still alive, so I think this story in some way was close to her, and Balanchine did actually want to choreograph a Sleeping Beauty (which Peter Martins later did for the company). I think that's why she didn't fictionalize the ballet company, because she knows the world of City Ballet so intimately. Plus the company is so recognizable.

5:24 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

The only problem I have with historical characters in fiction is when they are more interesting than the fictional characters. I finally finished a historical mystery where Freud was one of the characters during his only visit to America, and he completely overshadowed the fictional hero.

5:29 AM  
Blogger doglady said...

Elizabeth, I read the book to which you refer, and I totally agree. Freud is already so much larger than life. The book was quite good, but the hero spent the majority of his time in Freud's shadow. The distance of time makes this sort of thing more palatable and a lot of fun IF it is well done.

6:54 AM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

Like others, I'm generally comfortable with fictionalized real people as long as they've been dead for a good while, at least 50-100 years.

My WIP is an alternate history with a mixture of real historical figures and invented characters. So far I find that I'm comfortable with the ones who are relatively little-known. I can take broad traits--X was headstrong, Y was competent and well-liked--and build whatever seems right for the story on that base. The extremely famous and well-documented ones are tougher. Even though I'm inserting them into events that never happened, which gives me a little more freedom to speculate and even change them a bit, I still feel this enormous pressure to get them right. I'm having to learn to let it go and focus on the story, or else the super-famous characters come across as flat and wooden.

9:52 AM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

I like reading about historical characters in a novel, as long as I get a feeling that the author a) has a clear image of the character, and b) treats him/her with respect. Sure, the image may be wrong, but since we will never know for sure how a real person dead some 500 or 2000 years thought, a well made up historical character works better in a novel than one who's a Frankenstein of contradictory sources all brought into the picture with no regard to continuity. Episodic novels like most of Sharon Kay Penman's books leave a bit more leeway in that aspect.

What I don't like is glorifying a character, and much as I like McCullough's Rome books, her Caesar image is too positive. But at least she doesn't butcher the facts like Iggulden, at best, she glosses some less flattering things over (and they sneak in nonewithstanding). Penman's Richard III poses the same problems, but in the context of the way his character was seen in history, it's understandable she so clearly contrasts him to the image Shakespeare gives.

But I'm fine with fictional characters as well. *grin*

When I started writing historical fiction, I used fictional characters as MCs because I had more leeway with them. I still do most of the time, but in one NiP two of the historical characters have stepped into the spotlight, dang boys. At some point, I gave up arguing with them and elevated them to MC status. I only hope I won't end up glorifying Arminius.

And I always try to do the historical characters justice, even if they only play a minor role in the book.

1:28 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Leslie Brown's character in "The Turning Point" was likened after Kirkland? Hmmmm, food for thought.

Kirkland portrays herself and young and inexperienced in the book, but not nearly like the Brown character----and I would never have predicted from TTP movie, that the Brown character's career would have gone up in flames like Kirkland's did---via her self-destructive behaviors.

Hmmm, thanks pointing out that fact, Amanda!

4:26 PM  
Blogger Kristina Cook said...

Interestingly enough, as I continue to ponder this, I remembered one of my all-time favorite books is also a 'fictional history'--The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. I love, love, LOVE that book. Takes place over the course of the Battle of Gettysburg, using all the 'real' players and events, yet it's still fiction.

And I was 'close' to that subject, too--I have a graduate degree in American History and the Battle of Gettysburg is one of my 'specialties'.

Again, I think it's just time's passage--Robert E. Lee has been dead a LOT longer than Balanchine.

4:42 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Kathrynn, the character Leslie Browne played in TTP was a Hollywood-ization of part of the Gelsey story -- in the sense that it covered the manipulative romance she had with Baryshnikov, but of course didn't introduce drugs or eating disorders into the picture. The central character wasn't Gelsey K., but meant to depict a woman very much like her and balletomanes, particularly those who followed the American Ballet Theatre stars, or NYCB dancers, would have gotten the parallels.

Of course the movie had to have a happy ending. Basically, TTP is a totally fictional story that comes very close to things that actually happened to real people.

8:34 PM  

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