Author2Author: Mary Sharatt & Katharine Weber

In the latest Author2Author exchange, Katharine Weber and Mary Sharratt talk about historical fiction. Mary’s most recent novel, The Vanishing Point, is a suspense tale set in early colonial Maryland, while Katharine’s Triangle revisits one of the worst industrial accidents in American history, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, in which 146 garment workers died, unable to escape the ninth floor of their burning factory. Katharine is reading tonight at the Tenement Museum, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—a perfect venue to discuss the historical elements of her novel.

katharine-weber.jpgKatharine Weber: When you were researching The Vanishing Point, did you discover information that took your novel in some way, large or small, off the path you had in mind? Did you discover historical details that surprised you and inspired you to add certain elements in the plot or certain features to your characters?

mary-sharratt.jpgMary Sharratt: The story was based on a novella I wrote in the early 1990s before I did much research. From the very beginning, I had the two sisters—May, who is lost, and Hannah, who is searching for her—and Gabriel, the man who is in turn May’s husband and Hannah’s lover.

However, my original plot became much more complex when I realized how harsh life was in 17th-century Maryland and how isolated the English settlers were. We tend to base our image of American colonial life on the New England model, but the Chesapeake was an utterly different world. Instead of the close knit New England village, you had far flung plantations mimicking a wilderness version of English feudalism. The gentleman landowner had nearly absolute power over his family, indentured servants, and slaves. Yet, paradoxically, it was a very perilous place for a landowner to be—isolated in the back country where, in some cases, blacks far outnumbered whites. As I was writing, I became intrigued with the possibility of mutiny on these remote plantations. What if the servants overthrow their master? This became a crucial part of the story.

Also, the mortality rate was incredibly high. The slave trade brought malaria and yellow fever to the region. English settlers, who had no natural resistance to these diseases, died in droves, leaving countless children to be raised by step parents and servants. There were no English physicians in the Chesapeake in this era. If you needed medical attention, you did for yourself or went to the blacksmith for surgery. Ships sailed from to and from England only once a year. Thus, it would take a year, sometimes more, for a letter to English relatives to arrive.

This research made it all the more poignant for Hannah, who remained in England to take care of her aging father, while her beloved sister sailed off to Maryland to wed a young man she had never met. I thought about how these two sisters would long for each other and how difficult any communication between them would be until Hannah was free to sail to America and join her sister.

After three contemporary novels, what inspired you to base your new novel on the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire? How did the experience of writing this differ from that of your previous work? Would you consider Triangle to be a historical novel?

Katharine Weber: I have had a lifelong fascination for the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, because my paternal grandmother worked in the Triangle as a buttonhole finisher, in 1909. I grew up in New York knowing about that fire, knowing that the women who died there were young immigrants just like her, fresh from Ellis Island. I have long had in mind to write something about the fire. But then, in 2001, two things happened which brought it into focus for me. In March of that year, the oldest survivor of the fire died, at the age of 107, and her obituaries fascinated me in all sorts of ways. What was it like to be famous all your life for not having died in a fire ninety years ago? What would it be like to tell your story over and over? And then the novelist in me asked this: What would it be like to tell your story for ninety years—if your story was a lie?

The other galvanizing event for this novel in 2001 was of course September 11th. Once again, New York City saw dozens of desperate people making that same choice, burning to death or jumping to a certain death. The ninth floor or the 90th floor, it was the same dilemma and the same instinctive choice for those tragic people.

What made this novel different from my first three novels was my intention to honor actual events with as much precision and accuracy as possible, and weave my fictional narrative through this framework of history. Although my three previous novels are located in actual times and places and are as accurate as I could make them when it came to the details of those settings, I had no historical event of record that I had to honor.

I did no systematic research for those books, beyond my usual crackpot magpie methods that wouldn’t look like research to anyone else. (Fly to Geneva and order grilled marrow bones in a cafe. Study newspaper accounts of two major art thefts,and get to know the lingo of the IRA. Read Little Women ten times and ask aggressive, challenging questions on the Orchard House tour.) For Triangle, I read about the fire obsesively and amassed quite a significant Triangle fire collection of books, 1911 newspaper accounts, and ephemera. I kept a dish of pennies, nickels and dimes minted between 1900 and 1911 in front of me as I wrote. My biggest score was a sweatshop-produced shirtwaist, found on eBay, which was photographed ingeniously by Susan Mitchell, the FSG art director, for the beautiful cover.

Is Triangle a historical novel? Yes and no. Yes because significant events in the book take place in 1911, and I have reconstructed those events with all kinds of fictional documentation, from trial transcripts to oral histories. So my documentation is all fictional, but it documents true historic events. But the central story plays out in 2001. So, no, it is a contemporary novel about the way the past is present, about the way historic events that linger in the public mind may also continue to ripple outward and signify in private lives.

What draws you as a writer to the historical setting in the first place? I mean that in general—why write a novel set in the past? And specifically, why write a novel set in THIS past? Do you think you will always write historical novels? Why or why not? Can you envision ever writing an entirely contemporary story?

Mary Sharratt: I’m intrigued by history, especially women’s history, because I believe our view of the past is often distorted. We tend to have lazy stereotypes that women in the past were completely helpless and disempowered, but if you actually sit down and do the research, you learn about movers and shakers such as Anne Hutchinson, the religious dissenter who helped found the colony of Rhode Island. How many more women were there like her whose lives and deeds were never recorded?

The late, great Mary Lee Settle wrote, “Recorded history is wrong. It’s wrong because the voiceless have no voice in it.” So many people have been written out of history: not only the vast majority of women, but also people of the peasant and laboring classes, and most people of non-European ancestry. My goal, from my first novel onward, has been using fiction as a tool to rewrite women back into history and to give voice to the voiceless.

Why is The Vanishing Point set in this past? I was first inspired to write this book when I visited Philadelphia many years ago. On the tourist trail, I discovered a tiny row house where two 18th-century seamstresses once lived and plied their trade. I felt immediately drawn into their world. Even in that era, when nearly every factor of the dominant religion and economy herded women into marriage and domesticity, some women still succeeded in carving out independent, masterless lives. The idea of finding out the hidden history of these two seamstresses provided the initial inspiration for The Vanishing Point. I also wanted to use the book to explore the 17th century, which was one of the most dramatic periods of social transformation. I became intrigued by the idea of a late 17th-century woman who was determined to carve out her own destiny and who demanded the same liberties, both social and sexual, as a man. This was how May’s character was conceived.

Do I think I will always write historical novels? I think I will continue to write them long into the future, because there are so many different periods of history that intrigue me. However, The Art of Memory, my current novel-in-progress, is contemporary, at least in part. Inspired by the 19th-century English gothic novel and pre-Raphaelite paintings, the book is a literary ghost story set in and around Manchester, England during the Industrial Revolution and the present day. The theme is that the past never dies—the souls lost in the tumult of historical progress and change keep haunting and exerting their influence on contemporary lives.

Your central character in Triangle, Esther Gottesfeld, has spent ninety years telling the story of how she escaped the Triangle fire, but she has never revealed the truth. Her granddaughter and the young woman’s fiancé seek to untangle her story, as does Ruth Zion, a feminist historian with an agenda of her own. In your opinion, can anyone truly claim to understand the objective truth of an event when filtered through such oral history?

How reliable is memory, even if we do intend to tell the truth? How do you believe our perceptions and misperceptions about the past shape the present?

Katharine Weber: I think eyewitness accounts are essential for our understanding of history. That testimony, that bearing witness, those voices—that’s how we really, deeply understand anything we know of human experience. The form that some of Triangle takes was very influenced by the Holocaust video archive at Yale (I knew the late Laurel Vlock, who founded that project). Those videotapes are deeply moving. Part of what makes them so compelling is that in numerous cases that taped testimony was the only occasion for those survivors to tell their whole, complete story, and to feel truly heard.

In “The Plague,” Camus writes that the narrator of a story “can never take account of…differences of outlook. His business is only to say “this is what happened.” And so “This is what happened” is the first sentence of my novel.

Memory is fantastically reliable and unreliable! That paradox is also at the heart of my story. I think it is inevitable that we are always looking back at the past through the lens of the present moment. We are always searching for lessons and examples that mirror our contemporary predicaments and events and issues. (A perfect example of this is the new biography of Lincoln suggesting his homosexuality.) One temptation with which writers of historical fiction must struggle is putting anachronistic modern-day thought in the minds of characters from another time. The trend in recent years in a number of novels has been to imbue women of the past with improbably feminist beliefs and feelings. We are always bringing our own agendas, conscious or unconscious, to our research into the past. (Think about it: “re-search” means, literally, to search again.) Just as every story is told with a set of agendas, so, too, do we listen and read with our own agendas.

In Triangle, everyone over a span of ninety years who hears Esther Gottesfeld’s story of the day she didn’t die in the Triangle Waist Company fire of 1911 has an agenda, which is revealed as they listen to her words, ask her questions, hear or read her answers, or sift through her personal effects. Our sense of the present is always seeking assurance and justification, always seeking reality checks from the past. What do we know, and how do we know what we know? The historian must prove his thesis with documented facts, while the novelist must convince his reader with authenticity, just enough reality, but not so much as to swamp the novel in facts and facts. The last thing I would ever want to hear from a reader is, “My, what a lot of research you must have done to write this novel.”

28 June 2006 | author2author |