Copyright Brian Kiteley
Q & A about The River Gods
Some of Eric Melbye’s students asked me a few questions about my book The River Gods in 2006. Eric Melbye is the editor of Segue. He teaches at Miami University-Middletown, in Ohio. Here are my answers.
What concerns did you have about a writing a book embedded in a history/place that many people are unfamiliar with, and may not be able to "connect" with? More generally, what do you see as the key to connecting with an audience that may be unfamiliar with your subject matter?
I always worry that readers won’t be able to see what I see, so when I revise I work to make concrete and visible the spaces I’m trying to evoke. Many of the characters of this book walk through Northampton, even in contemporary times. A few ride bikes or motorcycles, so, I hope, readers can see the lay of the land and the organization of streets by this method of travel as well. I hope that readers feel the place, the river, the river valley, the fact that this was once a lake bed. As far as history readers may not know much about, I am less interested in the larger narratives of history in this novel and more interested in the repetitions of small behaviors—human responses to tragedy, terror, lust, love, and change. The River Gods is a book about recurring moments, unique individuals living out their lives in eerily similar ways, even 300 years apart.
Regardless of the variety of genres and subject matters a writer works with in his life, many writers’ writing is driven by a single theme, question, problem, interest, etc. What, specifically, drives all of your own writing?
In The River Gods, at least, I am very interested in how history works—or how individual characters (both my own fictional creations and historical figures) come alive against the grain of the events we often think of as historical events—and they come alive by means of what they say or write—or what I write for them. In my fiction generally, language is the key—language lives us.
Given that The River Gods is a mix of fact and fiction, research and imagination, where the lines between the two are blurred, how do you intend for The River Gods to be read? As fiction? History? Alternate history?
I hope that The River Gods is all three of these—fiction, history, and alternate history. Historical fiction often inserts fictional moments into what is relatively accepted as factual events (which can be verified by first-hand accounts, although who’s to say how accurate first-hand accounts are). Fiction slows history down and therefore it has to fictionalize events, because no matter how thorough a historian is, there are still yawning gaps between moments, multiple and contradictory explanations for causes and effects.
In Fiction as Mixed Media, you note how writing historical fiction has always intimidated you. For creative nonfiction writers, the past often seems like a permanent, factual record, set in stone, and not something that can or should be altered. How do you work past that and begin re-reading and re-imagining history?
I should have said that “writing historical fiction intimidated me at first.” When I got used to the process, I no longer felt as much anxiety about expanding upon these moments of history. I did a good deal of reading—both general and specific—diaries, letters, memoirs. Once I’d become familiar with the patterns of the past of this small town, I felt a lot more comfortable writing it out, filling in the blanks between the moments and literally between the sentences of other writers.
How did the idea for The River Gods begin, and how did it evolve? Did you start with the idea, or with research? Is the writing process you used for this novel typical for all of your writing?
I wrote a story about Jonathan Edwards, a minister in Northampton in the 1700s. The story was part of my second novel, I Know Many Songs, But I Cannot Sing, which was originally going to be three novellas linked by the narrator of Songs. I’d returned from Egypt, where I taught between 1987 and 1989, to Northampton, and the place seemed quite different from the town I’d grown up in—everything in the United States seemed foreign for a while. I had done some reading about Edwards in 1989, fascinated by his combination of stern authority and intense absent-minded intellectualism. I decided fairly early in the writing of Songs that the Edwards piece did not belong in it. When I finished Songs, I rediscovered the piece, five or six years after I’d last read it, and coming upon it this way provoked an interesting response, something like being a foreigner in my own country again so many years after I’d felt that way. Also, it was not recognizably my own writing, which is how we all ought to read our work. A revised version of this story is among these pages.
What do you find most enjoyable about writing historical fiction, and what do you find most challenging?
The frames for stories are often already there, already set for you. You don’t have to do the work of finding interesting plots and characters. I prefer filling in frames, rather than designing the frames myself. I like finding characters’ voices in other places. I don’t object to creating characters myself, but it is wonderful to have a little help finding them through reading. Writing is applied reading. Thank you for asking these wonderful and penetrating questions.
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