New Voices: Melissa Fu, Tammye Huf, Elena Gorokhova & Samantha Greene Woodruff
BY MYFANWY COOK
Research, family histories, and imagination are blended into insightful historical fiction by debut novelists Melissa Fu, Tammye Huf, Elena Gorokhova, and Samantha Greene Woodruff.
Family history was the initial source of inspiration for Elena Gorokhova’s A Train to Moscow (Lake Union, 2022), which is set during and after WWII. This period, Gorokhova explains, “is still known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, the war where one in every seven Russians was killed by the enemy. Because of such immense loss of life, the war was (and still is) the glue that has held the country together. There is no family in my Motherland that didn’t lose someone in the maw of battle, and mine was no exception.”
Gorokhova’s mother’s younger brother, she says, “went to defend the country and never came back. He was an artist whose story I learned from old letters and family conversations, the story that is fused into the book. Like the protagonist’s uncle, he graduated from the Leningrad Art Academy and, when the war broke out, was drafted to the front. Unlike her uncle, he was mortally wounded and died in his home in Ivanovo in 1942.”
As she was plotting the novel, which is told through the eyes of Sasha, a young rebellious woman, “all those what if questions sprang to mind, laying the groundwork for his story. What if he hadn’t been killed and had made it all the way to Berlin? What if, unlike his staunch communist father, he had questioned the infallibility of my righteous country and the façade of lies erected by its leaders?
“My older sister, an actress, was born in 1942, so the novel’s post-war shortages—both of food and men—are burned into her memory. It was also the time of grief and fear, of Stalin’s purges and Gulag labor camps. Everyone knew of someone executed or sent to the northern fringes of the country to serve time as a political prisoner. In my family, it was my grandmother’s brother, sentenced to eight years in a labor camp for telling a joke. He never returned.”
It was the story of Gorokhova’s uncle which, she says, “sifted through the filter of memory, became the foundation for this book. So did my sister’s acting career, which highlights the novel’s conflict between the truth of art and the official curtain of lies. The cast of characters became a microcosm of our Soviet Motherland. Based on my family history, A Train to Moscow became a novel of family secrets, artistic struggle, ambition, loss, and strangled love.”
Samantha Greene Woodruff’s novel The Lobotomist’s Wife (Lake Union, 2022), like Gorokhova’s, is also at its heart “a novel about the struggle—particularly for women—to be true to themselves in the face of society’s oppressive norms, and the lengths people will go to fit in,” she says. “This is my first novel, and initially I was writing a more personal contemporary fiction about a woman who is unsatisfied with her idyllic suburban life. Concurrently (but unrelated) I was reading the non-fiction book Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright.”
It was when she got “to the chapter about lobotomy and Walter Freeman II (1895 –1972), the doctor who popularized the procedure in the United States,” she says, “I became utterly enthralled, and knew that this was what I wanted to write about. I began my research for The Lobotomist’s Wife.
“I had a vague notion of what lobotomy was, but I had no idea that the heyday of this gruesome treatment was in the middle of the 20th century. Or that, by the early 1950s, Freeman was travelling the country like a salesman, lobotomizing dozens of people daily with his outpatient ‘ice pick’ technique. At home, he was prescribing lobotomy for everything from migraines to depression, and more than half of his private patients were women—Rosemary Kennedy being one of the most famous.”
As a result, Woodruff says, “I began to re-imagine my contemporary story through the lens of lobotomy. I started by creating the character of an unfulfilled 1950s housewife yearning for more, in the brief period when lobotomy was considered a miracle cure. Initially Margaret (the housewife) was my protagonist, but when a friend asked me about Freeman’s wife I started to think more broadly. What kind of woman could be married to a mad doctor who was more like a serial killer? Freeman’s actual wife, Marjorie, was an economics professor and an alcoholic. Their distant relationship was marred by his infidelity and the tragic loss of one of their four children. That didn’t suit my story.
“I invented Ruth Emeraldine, and she became my protagonist. Ruth is a foil for both Robert (my fictional lobotomist) and Margaret—a character who gives humanity to how and why lobotomy rose to prominence and an example of how a woman can buck convention and stand on her own in a male-dominated world.”
Tammye Huf, author of A More Perfect Union (Forever/US, 2022; Myriad Editions/UK, 2020), describes how she found the inspiration for her novel. “When I first heard the story of my great-great grandparents, I was amazed. My great-great grandmother had been enslaved, and my great-great grandfather had come from Ireland. When they met and fell in love, he bought her freedom to marry her.
“Their incredible story took hold of my imagination and wouldn’t let go. I loved the heart-swelling, romantic idea of two people so in love that they would defy society and the law to follow their hearts, but the more I thought about them, the more I wondered, how on earth did they do it?”
Huf was particularly moved by their interracial love story because of her own situation. “Being an African-American woman married to a white European man, I felt an affinity to them. I could only imagine the risks and dangers they must have faced. The disapproval that my husband and I encountered as an interracial couple would pale by comparison. I was fascinated by the courage and strength of character that they must have had to pursue their relationship and the deep love they must have felt for each other to persevere despite the odds.”
Huf felt that their story needed to be told. “Despite our country’s inglorious history of racial terror and intolerance, woven throughout our past are other, more hopeful stories too. To me, my great-great grandparents’ example is an encouraging reminder that love has the power to break down barriers and build bridges to overcome the racial divide that we still grapple with today.
“A More Perfect Union is the result of imagining what it might have been like for them. Placing my characters in the reality of the day, I explore the seemingly impossible love of two people who refuse to let the circumstances of their world keep them apart.”
One of the great powers of historical fiction for Huf, she relates, “is the way it can help us look at the past in a new light, shifting the viewfinder to see what was always there but out of focus. I think this 19th-century interracial love story offers new perspective and encourages us in the here and now, making A More Perfect Union a story for our times.”
When Melissa Fu, author of Peach Blossom Spring (Little, Brown/US; Wildfire/UK, 2022), was a child, her father was, she says, “always trying to grow fruit trees. Somehow, they seemed a perpetual disappointment—tent caterpillars ate the leaves, summer hailstones damaged the crop, birds stole the fruit, or the harvest was small and sour. A few years ago, when I became more serious about writing, I drafted a short story about my dad and his trees. I shared it with some writer friends and their consensus was that the story was fine, but there was more to tell.
“If there’s more, where does the story begin? I thought, and soon found myself going back in time, to my father’s childhood in 1930s China.”
As children, Fu and her brothers, she continues, “learned that our father was ‘born in China, moved to Taiwan and is now an American citizen.’ If we asked for details, he would say that he couldn’t remember or that ‘Chinese history is sad.’ He wouldn’t say anything else. Except once. One day in, 1998, for some reason, he decided to tell us more. That afternoon I wrote down everything he said. Every date, every city, every scrap of memory he recalled from his youth. Since then, I have lived in six different houses and two different countries. Throughout all the moves and miles, I have always known exactly where those notes were. I knew they would be important someday; I just didn’t know when.”
Fu asked herself, Where does the story begin? and her answer was: with those pages. “As I tried to connect my notes to the story of his trees, I started to imagine a boy and his mother, who survived both the Sino-Japanese and Chinese Civil Wars through a combination of good luck, heartbreaking choices, and great loss. I wondered if a childhood sown in displacement could grow into a life of abundance.”
In early 2019, Fu’s father passed away. “Although I’m sure he would have told a different story than the one I have written, his life inspired my novel, and I hope Peach Blossom Spring celebrates the happiness he eventually found.”
Debut novelists Fu, Huf, Gorokhova, and Woodruff have all illustrated the art of utilizing family history, inspiration from stories they heard, and how to combine these with historical research to create their wide-ranging historical novels. These are novels that, as Huf points out, introduce their readers into ways of looking at the past in a “new light.”
About the contributor: MYFANWY COOK is an Associate University Fellow and ‘a creative enabler’. She is a prize-winning short story writer who facilitates creative writing workshops. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have been captivated by the writing of a debut novelist you’d like to see featured.