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When History Meets Fiction: Inside the Mind of Jenny Davidson

Posted by inkpopbecki on November 17, 2010

History and fiction, the two words seem almost antithetical. Yet there are entire genres devoted to this very type of literature. Jenny Davidson, author of Invisible Things and The Explosionist is here to discuss a form of historical fiction writing known as alternative history. Interested? Join us for our live chat with Jenny Davidson at 5 p.m. EST on the inkpop Forum Events.

Invisible Things  is an interesting mix of realistic alternative history with a mix of fantastical elements. How did you come up with the idea for this novel?
I took a couple of trips in 2000 and 2001 where I fell in love with the landscape of Northern Europe: first to St. Petersburg, then to Tallinn in Estonia and Stockholm.  As a child, though I grew up in the US, we would visit Scottish grandparents every couple of years in a small town called North Berwick outside of Edinburgh, and I was struck by how much these Baltic cities reminded me of Edinburgh.  It is something about the quality of the light and the style of building, and I was captivated: I started thinking about what it would be like if history had somehow taken a different turn and these countries (Estonia, Sweden, Denmark, Scotland, etc.) were united in a political entity that hewed to the values of the eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment, with its philosophers and cosmopolitan values , rather than having taken the route of the nineteenth century as it happened in our world (railways, parasols, interior decorating) .  Surely this world, too, would have experienced a series of World Wars in the twentieth century – what would it be like to be a teenage girl growing up in the years between the wars in this version of Scotland?

Those northern travels were one of the two major precipitating factors for me writing The Explosionist and its sequel Invisible Things; the other was my desire to write the books that I most wanted to read.  I had discovered Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy and Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy and read both avidly, but I was stymied as I tried to find more books like this – I wanted to write something that would give me the same feeling of it’s-our-world-but-really-it’s-an-adjacent-one-where-magic-works that both of those sets of books give me.

What is the greatest challenge with creating alternative history and writing characters based on real life historical figures?
I really love doing research: I go to the library and get huge armfuls of books on all sorts of obscure topics, and reading them puts me into a state of mental receptiveness that lets fresh ideas come to me.  I guess the challenge for me is putting aside the facts and starting to make things up – when I find out strange or striking true things, I want to fill my book up with them rather than making things up!  My first drafts usually have a lot more real historical stuff in them than the later ones do, and part of my job as I revise my own manuscript is to cut out extraneous historical stuff that says “I love doing research” more clearly than it furthers the story.

How much research went into creating Invisible Things and how do you interweave that history while maintaining a compelling narrative?

Basically there comes a time when a writer has to put the books aside and make up her own stories.  I use the history to create a vivid background, and occasionally I can’t resist tucking in a detail that I have gathered from my research, but it is much more important for me to bring characters to life and make their choices and feelings vivid to the reader than to stick close to the real-world history (or to my “alternate” reimagining of that history).  This is something I have really had to learn as a writer – I think that Invisible Things is a stronger novel in certain respects than its predecessor precisely because I was able to put my research aside more readily and make things up.

Want to ask a question of your own? You can! Jenny Davidson will be live on inkpop today at 5 p.m. EST. Join us in the inkpop Forum Events.

2 Responses to “When History Meets Fiction: Inside the Mind of Jenny Davidson”

  1. Laura said

    I love historical fiction!

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