What if it’s your own head you are trying to get into?
March 4, 2014
So, I’m working on a book set in the late 1960s that deals with the time the schools in East Texas were integrated by federal court order.
The book is not a memoir per se, but I was in high school then and lived through the experience.
The problem is that it is now forty-five years since the events occurred.
I have trouble remembering what I had for breakfast.
You catch my drift.
The events of 1967-1968 made a lasting impact on me, one I think of often and which formed many of the views I hold to this day about social justice, religion, politics and racism.
However, the lasting impact of those events on me in some sense blur many of the lesser events of my teenage years.
Therein lies the problem for a novelist who would re-create a specific time and place as the backdrop for a story.
I have already decided to make the story more of a parable than a work of historical fiction. I am comfortable with that decision, but I still find myself grappling with the process of becoming one with that distant time, a world before the trappings of digital, before cell phones, before the Internet.
It was not a simpler time as some today might have us think. It was a time sandwiched between the bomb, the pill, Vietnam and 9-11, smack dab in the middle of the bloodiest century of human history. It was a time when the Holocaust was a close and ever-present memory, when fire hoses marked a possible solution to integration, where Roe versus Wade was not yet the law of the land, where AIDS was a still distant plague.
And there is the change in language.
Yes, the English language has changed a lot in the last forty years. Those changes include new words, the passing away of other terms that used to be common.
Dialect in a book always puts me off because it gets in the way of the story.
One of the reasons I am a fan of Hemingway and not so much of Faulkner was because I could read Hemingway without having to develop fluency in a dialect; whereas in Faulkner, even though I am a southerner as he, I could not penetrate the regional dialects with which his work was rife.
On the one hand toeing the line with historically accurate dialogue and other details gives a book a quantum of reliability and genuineness. But on the other hand those details can erect a barrier to the contemporary reader’s enjoyment and understanding of the story, and thereby detract from the power of the book’s message.
All this brings me back to the original question.
How does an author take himself back to a time ancient in his own memory and do it justice?
I welcome your thoughts.