New Voices: Carol Bodensteiner, Grant Bywaters, Andrew Latham & Andria Williams
by Myfanwy Cook
Weaving tales to intrigue readers, debut novelists Carol Bodensteiner, Grant Bywaters, Andrew Latham & Andria Williams illuminate some hidden corners across a wide swathe of history.
“The first inkling for The Red Storm (Minotaur Books, 2015) came during a history class I was taking in college,” explains Grant Bywaters. The class was an African American history course, at which time, he says, “I was also in the process of getting my private investigation license, so the two aspects kind of merged into the rough outline of my story.”
Bywaters continues, “I chose New Orleans because of the city’s rich history and more lax regulation of Jim Crow Laws, which would have made it possible for a black private detective to somewhat be able to do his job in such a difficult period of time.” he first inkling for The Red Storm (Minotaur Books, 2015) came during a history class I was taking in college,” explains Grant Bywaters. The class was an African American history course, at which time, he says, “I was also in the process of getting my private investigation license, so the two aspects kind of merged into the rough outline of my story.”
Bywaters notes that the history of boxing was “always intended to be interwoven into the main character. The backstory of him not getting the chance to fight for what was then considered the greatest prize in sports because of fear. After all, during this period the first and last black heavyweight champion inspired an entire nation to search out for a Great White Hope.”
As with Bywaters’ novel, Andria Williams’s The Longest Night (Random House, 2015) also highlights the role of the individual in making history. Williams says, “Like most Americans, I had heard of the infamous 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island and the public panic it had caused. I’d assumed it was the U.S.’s major nuclear accident (Wikipedia calls it the “worst” in U.S. history), and that fatalities had occurred.”
However, Williams admits, “I was surprised to learn that, thankfully, no one had died at Three Mile Island. Instead, the nation’s first and only fatal nuclear reactor accident had occurred eighteen years before — in Idaho Falls, Idaho in January of 1961.” Williams wondered why she had never heard about it.
Williams discovered through research that “the SL-1 had been a small nuclear reactor on government land and that all three operators working at the time of the accident had been killed. The lack of a survivor’s story allowed various rumors to take hold, the most notable being that the meltdown was actually a murder-suicide caused when one operator, distraught over his crumbling love life, pulled the central rod too high and caused the reactor to go ‘supercritical’ in a fraction of a second.”
“Now we know,” Williams explicates, “that it was probably mechanical failure that doomed the SL-1.This explanation absolves the operators of some guilt, but can also feel sterile. I wanted to re-humanize, re-populate, the story. It wasn’t just the tale of a machine that went haywire; it was the story of the people struggling desperately to control it. What characters could I create, and what tensions build between them to mimic and illuminate the events of January 3, 1961, a night when three very young, enlisted soldiers tried, with no higher-level oversight, to restart a temporarily shut-down reactor on one of the coldest nights of the year? That was how Paul, Nat, Jeannie, Mitch, and the other characters came to be, popping into my head and each telling me: It was like this, or No, you’re wrong, it was like this.”
The Longest Night is Williams’s “attempt to walk a reader through a fascinating and little-known event in American history while giving the story a human dimension, putting man at the center of the story where he belongs, back inside the machine.”
In contrast to The Longest Night, Andrew Latham’s The Holy Lance (Knox Robinson, 2015) takes the reader back to the period of “warrior-monks.” Latham never dreamed he’d write an historical novel. He had always loved reading historical military adventures, but it simply never occurred to him that he might write one someday: “Scholarly books, yes. But a novel!” All that changed, however, as Latham was working on his recently published non-fiction work, Theorizing Medieval Geopolitics. Latham says, “I had been reading pretty widely about war and political violence in later medieval Europe and had just begun to get a handle on the Crusades when I first encountered the Templar knights. Like most people, I thought I knew what these guys were all about: either religious fanatics or cynical thugs using religion to camouflage their all-too-worldly motives. Like most people, though, I was wrong. The more I read, the more I became fascinated by these warrior-monks, the Templars in particular – not by the caricature of them that is so prevalent in popular culture, but by the historical reality.”
Latham’s first thought was to write a non-fiction book on the military religious orders, but he says, “I ended up writing something very different instead – a work of historical fiction. The more I thought about what I wanted to achieve, the more it seemed that non-fiction would not be the best tool. I was interested in the Templars, not because of their supposed secrets or mysteries, or their fabulous wealth and influence, but because of what they were: warrior-monks.”
Latham continues, “On the one hand, Templars, like all medieval knights, were warriors, bred to be brutal and merciless killers. On the other, they were pious monks, committed to a life of prayer and works of charity. How was that possible? How did they reconcile these two personas? Answering these questions, it seemed to me, required reconstructing the imaginative world of these self-styled ‘knights of Christ.’ And the best medium for that sort of project has always been fiction.”
Carol Bodensteiner’s Go Away Home (Lake Union, 2015) was inspired in part by family photographs rather than academic research. Bodensteiner describes her novel: “Set in the years leading up to and including World War I, Go Away Home is the story of Liddie Treadway, an Iowa farm girl who wants more out of life than her family and society envision.”
As Bodensteiner says, she discovered that: “Women of that time, particularly rural women, didn’t recognize a lot of options for their lives, which does not mean they lacked opinions and aspirations. Young women were expected to get married and raise a family. A girl might teach school for a while but when she married, she was not allowed to teach any longer. Liddie wanted to be a seamstress but the expectation was that she’d do that only until she married. Women were dependent on men for respectability and security, but they were pushing the boundaries. Liddie wants adventure and a career and to pursue these as a single woman.”
The seeds for her story, Bodensteiner notes, “were planted through family stories and picture albums. From earliest memory I knew that my grandfather died of the Spanish flu in 1918. My connection to that major world event and the grandfather I never knew stuck in my mind. Even though my grandmother lived until I was in my 20s, I never asked her a single question about him or their lives together. And she was not the type to share. Yet tidbits of her life were elemental to creating Go Away Home.
“One example: A significant plot line in the story was inspired by my grandmother’s interest in taking pictures. Like many people at the turn of the century, she owned a Kodak box camera with which she took a wealth of pictures of everyday farm life. Those pictures of livestock, clothing, horses and cars helped me visualize the people and places in the story. I felt incredibly fortunate to have a visual record of farm life at the turn of the century.
“Small anecdotes my mother shared about her mother also fueled my imagination. ‘She went to sewing school in town,’ is one of those anecdotes. From that thread, I wove the story of Liddie’s interest in becoming a professional seamstress.”
Bodensteiner says, “I enjoy reading historical fiction because it transports me to another place and time where I learn a lot while reading a good story. When I set about writing historical fiction, one of my greatest joys was the research. The anecdotes and photos that inspired the story led to countless rounds of research. Having grown up on an Iowa farm, I knew a good deal about Liddie’s environment, but the research ensured I turned the clock back to the right years.
Go Away Home offers the story of a woman striving for independence, making choices she must live with, and finding love. Liddie’s story is one that may ring true with women of any era.”
By creating characters that “ring true,” Bodensteiner, Bywaters, Latham, and Williams have been able to “re-populate” some tantalizing historical events.
About the contributor: MYFANWY COOK admires the creativity of debut novelists and their different approaches to transforming historical fact into historical fiction. Email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or tweet (twitter.com/MyfanwyCook) about debut novelists you have enjoyed reading.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 75, February 2016