Guest post for Waterstones
Here is a piece I wrote as a guest contributor to the Waterstones blog. You can read the article here, or below.
History is tangled in myth
There is a question I get asked by journalists all the time — a question many writers find themselves being asked at some stage. It goes like this: “why did you write an historical novel? Would you not consider writing a contemporary one instead?”
It’s an odd question, but as a former journalist, I think I can understand it. The journalist, caught up in the narrow tumult of rolling news, looks to the novelist to explain more widely the times we are in. The novelist, they believe, is freed to take a look at the bigger picture; they should hold a mirror to the moment.
My answer, of course, to that question is this: I did write a contemporary novel. I’m not even convinced there is such a thing as an historical novel. There are, of course, novels set in the past. But all novels written today are contemporary. They are all mirrors to the moment. They come from minds that have been forged by the heat of the present. They can only speak of the current age.
I have often wondered what it would be like to show Red Sky In Morning to one of my characters. An Irishman hedge-schooled in English or to a second-generation Dutch settler in Pennsylvania in 1832. Some of them would, perhaps, quietly suck on a pipe and give me a squinty-eyed look before turning silently away. Others, more fervent, might have me hounded for preaching the work of the devil. To them, little of what I write would make sense.
Contemporary writers use history in the novel to speak of contemporary things. They may not even mean to but they do. Historical settings are like a stick held in water: they are a refraction — the stick looks crooked but the line is true. It is just a trick of the light. History can be used to allow us see the current moment in a different way. Novels set in the past can speak to us of general human truths — of what it is to be alive. For what is most essential to be alive on earth in 1832 is the same as it is today. It is both myth and fallacy to think that life changes.
When I came across the story of events at Duffy’s Cut near Philadelphia in 1832, I was struck by something powerful. Here was a moment of history that speaks directly to the present. The story behind Duffy’s Cut is this: In 1832, 57 men from Ulster were selected on the quays of Philadelphia by a man called Duffy and taken to work on a railway dig. Not a lot is known after this — they were strange men in a strange country and few cared about them. What we do know is that a few months later, all of them were dead, most likely buried in a mass grave, and their story seems covered-up.
The true story of what happened has over time become a mystery. What we try to understand as history is tangled in myth. What archaeologists working at the site increasingly believe is that the men at Duffy’s Cut were murdered. Cholera was sweeping across America and had struck the camp, though the death rate of cholera reaches to about 60%. Cholera can not explain the deaths of all of them. Some of the remains that have been found show evidence of violent trauma to the head. The theory is this: the men were murdered en masse to stop the disease getting out.
Part of this story features in Red Sky In Morning. It is up to the reader to make of it what they will. What I know is this: when I began writing the novel, I lived in a house with a family on one side and a middle-aged lady on the other, both of them settled in the area a long time. As I look up today from my computer, all of them are gone. The woman sold up and moved to America. The family abandoned their home for Canada. I know I will not see them again. These are the times we live in. Everything and nothing has changed.
Paul Lynch, for Waterstones.com/blog