No writer begins a book out of a wish to dig over difficult, painful issues. Or at least, not for that reason alone. Books arise, usually, from one particular, personal conviction: we want to bring something to light, to illuminate characters and stories and places which we feel deserve to be written about - simply put, to tell a story. It is only much later in the process that the story finds its themes. Therefore, when I set out to write The House at the Edge of Night, I didn’t think that it would involve my writing about one of the darker moments in Europe’s history. Instead, I wanted to tell a story about a particular family and their bar. It was only as I traced the various threads of the story back to their roots that I became aware that the story dictated that at a certain point my characters would wake up in 1922 in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, and would be compelled to live in this Italy for the next twenty years. These are some thoughts about what it’s like to write historical fiction: about what it’s like to do the writer’s job, which is and should properly be the breaking of new ground, when that ground is problematic, contested, sensitive, or better left unturned.
Writing fiction about history is a strange enterprise. As the historian Antony Beevor has put it, ‘The power of historical fiction for bad and for good can be immense in shaping consciousness of the past.’ My books aren’t exactly historical fiction – they are alternate stories of the past, most similar to the magical realist tradition or to family saga or to those British novels typical of the 1990s where the history is secondary and the characters central, like Birdsong or Atonement or Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Not about history, but about people living in it. And yet an encounter with history is an inevitable part of the writing process. The initial research alone takes me four months, and all of that is historical research. The past is where I find most of my ideas, and where the story begins.
And yet, historical research brings you face to face with the inadequacy of our accounts of the past. The times that came before us are mostly foggy and contested territory. To find a reliable account of life on Fascist prison islands, at a time when all the Italian newspapers were censored, I had to turn to American newspaper accounts from the 1920s and 30s, written in English, by survivors who had escaped to the States. To find this solution took a week of searching. And even when you’ve found a source, there are a hundred doubts about how representative that source really is. How much freedom were these voices given by the news editors who published them? Did the writers translate their own work? Did the editors? Were others with different views also given a platform? And so on. History is a battleground where conflicting stories struggle to be heard, and the narrator’s voice, problematically, can only represent one version of events. And yet fiction, implicitly, is also expected to be representative. The story that a writer chooses to tell about the past is assumed to illuminate some greater, transcendent truth. A fictional account is never just one story, as a factual account can be. It is also a story about what it means to be human.
When I try, as a writer, to wrestle with history, it divides itself into three parts. Firstly, the part nobody is alive to remember, broadly speaking pre-1918. Secondly, recent history, the part of history I have personally lived through, which isn’t really the past at all but a sort of backwards continuation of the present. For some writers this is a decent stretch of time, but in my case it’s impractically short for research purposes, beginning in 1989. Then, third, comes the hardest part of all to write about: the years, roughly spanning 1918 to 1989, that I haven’t lived through but other people, still living, have, and about which, therefore, they have more authority than I do. These years are also, in many ways, the most interesting. They are close enough to be, as Eric Hobsbawm has put it, ‘the road that led us here’, the cause-and-effect backdrop of our present situation, and yet far enough away to also be an allegory, a mirror, a useful prism through which to examine present times. Because that, I have discovered, is why we write about the past at all, because it is the only reliable light by which we can illuminate our current predicaments. Except, it turns out, it’s not a reliable light at all but a light which flickers and changes aspect depending on how you behold it.
In Italy, not many writers, not even Italian-language writers, write directly about Fascism – it’s a topic which is often addressed subtly rather than head on. So to write about characters living through the Fascist era, in English, was to tread ground across which few other, more experienced writers had yet blazed a trail. To attempt to write about this time was to navigate a space whose main atmosphere was silence. At some point early in the writing process, therefore, doubt set in. Was I really going to write about this time about which, as an outsider, I could only ever hope to have an imperfect, clumsy understanding? There was a lot at stake here. Many of my extended family have lived through these years first hand. It was not an account I could afford to get wrong, to misrepresent, to alter – it was too important for that.
In the end, however, the voices of the past have their own authority. I uncovered a multiplicity of sources as I researched, and gradually my priorities changed. Gradually, the aim became not to capture and understand but to evoke and represent, to step back and bring the disparate voices of the past to light – those who resisted, those who conceded and those, probably most of us, who trod some uneasy ground in between and waited for it all to be over. There was no need, I realised, for the narrator to pass judgement or attempt to summarise, to know everything about what happened. The very openness of the past is its great strength, because it already contains all possible stories.
This week I received one of my favourite reviews of The House at the Edge of Night. It wasn't from a newspaper or critic; it arrived via WhatsApp, it was only a couple of sentences long, and it was from my father in law. He wrote that the way I had portrayed the mood of the Fascist era in Italy – its dilemmas, its conflicts, its ambiguities, its open-endedness – seemed to him exactly right. This, really, is a compliment not to the work but to the sources. It honours the first-hand accounts, the memoirs, the historical studies, the diaries written by those who lived through those remarkable times, which I discovered along the way. As a writer, that’s the most you can hope for in life and work. To step back, and to write about the inhabitants of the past in a way that effaces the writer as much as possible, which allows the voices of history to speak for themselves.