Moving from nonfiction to a first novel— 12 lessons on writing historical fiction from author Judith Hooper

judyhIs there a nonfiction wordsmith—magazine journalist, newspaper reporter, editor, essayist or blogger—who has never harbored the notion of writing a novel? Possibly.

Indeed, Judith Hooper, a veteran science-magazine writer and author, had no such thoughts, when she began work on what she assumed would be her fourth nonfiction book. Hooper and her husband, Dick Teresi, one-time staffers at Omni magazine, had collaborated on two science-centered books before Hooper wrote a third—Of Moths and Men (W.W. Norton, 2004), about controversial experiments related to the theory of evolution—on her own. The next work, though, failed to cohere. When Hooper finally published her fourth book, she had become a novelist. Alice in Bed (Counterpoint, 2015) was released in paperback two months ago.

Alice is Alice James (1848-1892), younger sister of philosopher and “father of American psychology” William James and novelist Henry James. Today Alice James is renown for her posthumously published diary, a journal teeming with progressive thinking, sharp commentary and great humor. During her life, she suffered from recurring mental issues alicecoverbefore dying of breast cancer.

On a trans-Atlantic voyage to England in 1885, Alice fell ill and became bedridden. Hooper opens her novel in 1887. Alice, age 38, resides, under the care of a live-in nurse, in a lodging house in Leamington, in the English Midlands. As Alice recalls her life, the story moves back to her adolescence in greater Boston, follows her as an intellectually curious but socially sheltered young woman both at home and abroad, and explores her relationships with her family, including her famous brothers. Eventually Hooper returns the story to Alice in Leamington during the final years of her life.

Here’s a sampling of blurbs from critics about Alice in Bed: “Hooper’s construct of one brilliant woman’s life is truly elegant,” said the website Booklist gave the book a starred review and called it a “mesmerizing first novel.” And The Wall Street Journal wrote, “The pleasure of Ms. Hooper’s novel comes from its ability to summon [Alice’s] warmth and vitality. . . .Ms. Hooper splendidly captures the humor and equanimity with which James faced her ailments.” You can read an excerpt here.

Judy Hooper is a native of the same tiny northern California town—one in which you knew pretty much everybody else—as your FWB correspondent. Both of us, and our respective siblings, are members of the 1960s alumni cohort of the Ross School, perhaps most famous for its cameo as filming location No. 23 in the movie “The Godfather.” We spoke by phone in October about the shift from writing nonfiction books to novels, and how to make historical fiction based on real people not only come to life but also walk a plausible line between what actually did happen and what might have happened.

1. Keep an eye out for a good story. A nonfiction book is sold to a publisher on the basis of a proposal, not the completed volume, and the author receives an advance payment. Sometimes the work doesn’t pan out. That’s what happened to Hooper, leading to Alice in Bed. “I went to Boston where I rented a room in someone’s house for two-and-alice-james1a-half months and worked at the Harvard libraries and the other academic libraries, researching [the nonfiction] book,” she recalls. “It had to do with 19th century psychology in Boston. William James was part of it. While researching, I came across Alice James’ diary. Then I came home and tried to write and I realized, this nonfiction book is not coming together.

“So I thought, I am going to make Alice (right) the center of this story. Well, yeah, but there’s already Alice James: A Biography [by Jean Strouse, Houghton Mifflin, 1980], so I didn’t want to write a biography.

“Then I thought, what if I write it as a novel? Then it was, can I write a novel? So I started on my own—very secretly, unbeknownst to my publisher—writing a novel. Then my editor at that publisher emailed me and said, where’s your book? I said I’m writing a novel, and she said, send me what you have. So I did. She read what I had, which was very preliminary. She loved it. She went to her publisher and the publisher said, no dice. So I had to pay the money back. It was a pretty good advance. But I was OK. I knew it was what I had to do. I worked on the novel five, six, seven years on my own.

“How does one select a character from history to write fiction about; how do you find a story for the character? I don’t know of any guidelines. I wasn’t thinking about it that way. I just fell in love with Alice James. I thought she’d make a great heroine. She was sort of quietly revolutionary. And she was so funny.”

2. Be open to help. As a published nonfiction author, when it came time to send the manuscript of her debut novel out into the world, Hooper says, “I had an agent already. So when I finally got to what I thought was a finished manuscript, I sent it to him. He was wonderful because, number one, he loved it, and number two, he loved it enough to tell me that it had to be completely rewritten,” beginning with cutting the first 14 chapters. Beyond that, “I needed someone to tell me what to do. He turned me over to a woman who had worked in his office and now lives in Oregon and is now a book doctor. And she was great.”

3. Draw from your nonfiction methods. Even before the blossoming of the New Journalism in the 1960s and ’70s, skillful reporters told their stories in narrative form, i.e., as a sequential account of connected events in detailed settings. “Of Moths and Men didn’t sell well,” Hooper says, “but it was nominated for two major prizes. I really like the book. It was a way station between fiction and nonfiction because it was a narrative. There were two main characters, and there was tension between these two different characters. It also had an interesting story world, which was Oxford in the 1940s and ’50s.”

4. Anchor your story in facts. . . From personal experience, the FWB can attest to the difficulty of turning off one’s journalistic instincts for saturation research and reporting when it is time to write fiction. Says Hooper, “Writing nonfiction—about science—I’d spend anywhere from nine months to five years researching everything in the field. Interviewing people. Reading books and scientific papers. Then I’d sit down and write the book.

“In the case of my novel, a lot of the research was reading thousands of letters of the Jameses and their friends. . . .So, yes, I did do research like that. But when I realized I was writing a novel and not nonfiction, I began to learn how to hang out more in my imagination. . . .Sometimes I felt it was like dreaming the characters into being. When I needed specific texts, I’d go get them. . . .So I did it as I went along. . . .

“I loved re-creating the 19th century. I wanted to find out about women’s clothing, and how uncomfortable it was, what corsets were like, how women did their hair and things like that. That was pretty easy to do. I live in an academic town where there are big academic libraries. So I was able to get copies of Godey’s Lady’s Book, which was the magazine that Alice James and her mother and other women read. It has fashions in there.”

5. . . .but use literary license. “I think different writers allow themselves different amounts of license,” Hooper says. “My rule was, not everything in the novel is factually true, or not everything is something you could find documentation of somewhere, but I would say that maybe 70 percent of what happens in the novel is actually true. And there are letters or other things with which you can document it. Alice had to go to Paris in 1874. I couldn’t have her go in another year. In my novel, Alice totally falls in love with Paris. She has what I would describe as a kind of spiritual experience there, and she starts to envision a life of freedom for herself where maybe she could live in Paris, as Henry is intending to and does later. She has a pivotal experience in Montmarte. I made this up.

“Similarly, she had to go live in England in a certain year. Her illness had to be as it was. She had to see the doctors she saw. All that had to be factual; that was my rule.

“But I would allow myself to fill in the blank spots. The things that I made up were plausible. They had to be plausible according to what is known about the Jameses. That was my criterion.

“Do we know that Alice was a lesbian? I feel totally confident that Alice and her lifelong partner Katherine Peabody Loring were lovers, even though there is no smoking gun. We know that they acted like they were in a marriage. It was that serious for both of them. There was the way the brothers, Henry and William, talked about Katherine when she was with Alice. I have Alice, at 18, having a love affair with Sara Sedgwick, an actual friend of hers. I don’t know if they had a sexual relationship. But I wanted Alice to have the experience of being head-over-heels in love when she was younger. I didn’t want her to have to wait that long, until she was with Katherine at age 30. I just thought it would be more interesting.”

6. Channel your main character. When your fictional protagonist is based on a real person such as Alice James, you virtually become a medium through which she or he speaks. For Hooper, writing in Alice’s voice “almost felt like ventriloquism. Alice’s voice is very distinctive. And there is also a James family voice. They didn’t talk like anybody else. I can’t quite explain it. But after you immerse yourself in the James family and in Alice’s letters and Henry’s letters and William’s letters, you just pick up certain things. . . .I was able take that and run with it. I felt like the voice that I had for Alice was close to her actual voice. I took a lot of jokes she made, or her actual phrases, something she had said in a letter, and used them in conversations.

“I’m not saying I was channeling the actual Alice, but I feel like fiction is much closer to channeling than nonfiction. It’s almost like you open the gates and someone starts talking through you.”

7. Try short stories first. Writing fiction is a craft you learn by doing. “I didn’t take any [fiction] courses, but I was in a writers’ group,” Hooper says. “We would meet once a week, write, then read what we wrote in the group. [Before Alice] I had actually been writing short stories—on the side—for about five or six years. So I was teaching myself to write fiction gradually.”

8. Rely on an all-time piece of advice. Her nonfiction experience notwithstanding, Hooper “learned a lot [about novels] from books about writing.” Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life was one of those. “One passage [on page 18] helped me enormously. It was:

‘E.L. Doctorow said once said that “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.’

Hooper continues, “Before I started writing fiction I sort of thought that someone who wrote a novel had the whole novel in their head. That they had all the characters, and it was almost like transcribing God. So I felt I couldn’t write fiction before I started writing it. I would tell people I had no imagination. That’s not true, but I didn’t know how the process worked. It was liberating to find that out.”

9. Should you think of your reader? “Honestly, I didn’t think about who my reader would be,” Hooper admits. “I just don’t think that way when I write. It may be that some writers do. I knew I was writing literary fiction as opposed to popular fiction. That’s about it. Interestingly, I thought I would have a large following among lesbians. That did not turn out to be the case. In fact, I’m surprised by the number of men who’ve found it interesting.”

10. Learn from your readers. Elmore Leonard once said, in jest, that he would eventually learn the theme of his newest novel by reading what the critics said about it. He wrote to tell stories, not address themes. Hooper says, not in jest, that “people wrote me these amazing letters about their experience of reading the book. Actually, they told me things about the book and about Alice that I didn’t even know was in there. A friend—who is also a writer and read Alice at the end, after she had been with me at the beginning reading bits of it—said, ‘You know, what I like about Alice is that she’s so subversive.’ I hadn’t thought of that adjective, but when she said that, I went, ‘That’s right! She is! That’s exactly what she is, she’s subversive!’

“It felt great to publish my first novel. It takes a long time. I kept thinking I was finished and then I wasn’t. At each point, you start to lose faith. Or you start to question it. The nicest part for me was having friends who read, read Alice carefully and really loved it.”

11. Do something different the next time. Hooper is at work on a second novel, a contemporary story about three high school girls and a young woman who is a newspaper reporter. Because the story is not grounded in history and not based on real events, Hooper is facing a new challenge: “I have a plethora of choices with this book. That is confusing. I can do anything with these characters. I can have them be anybody. I have to construct their family situations. It’s almost like I have too many ideas at this point.”

12. Be patient with yourself. When you are writing fiction, Hooper says, “You can’t force it. [There’s an element of] waiting. It’s almost like [the story] has to appear to you.

“It’s about trust. You are going into the unknown. Even with known characters, like Alice and her brothers, you are still telling a story, and you still have to make it live on the page. You have to create scenes that are convincing. You have to create a believable world, from scratch.

“The novel I’m working on now, I’m stuck in certain points. But I’ve written enough fiction now that I trust that I won’t be blocked there forever, that I will see past that. It will just come to me at some point. That’s a difference [from nonfiction]. It’s really different, and I’ve come to love it.”—Alex McNab

Published in: on December 14, 2016 at 11:33 pm  Comments (2)