My e-book’s publication has been pushed back at least a day by a formatting error that I have now remedied. While I wait for Amazon to process the corrected version, I thought I would blog about my favourite authors of historical fiction. A writer is first and foremost a reader. Reading great books eventually inspires you to write one, and whenever I sit down at my computer I know I am standing on the shoulders of giants.
I’ll confess I was originally going to put them all in one long post, but after the first four I was at 3800 words, and I didn’t think anyone would hang in there with me for a 10,000+ word blog post. Instead, you’ll get them a piece at at time. The list is by no means exhaustive. I decided to whittle my pantheon of authors down by a few simple criteria. First, the writer needs to be known predominately for historical fiction, and I am going to narrow the definition of historical fiction to include only novels set before the author’s own lifetime. Second, I am only including authors who have at least three books that I consider some of the best that I have ever read. There are dozens of authors I admire for one or two works, but to make this list I am including only those who consistently produced triumphs of the written word. Third, I am only including authors who are either still alive or who have died within my lifetime. I take nothing away from the amazing writers who passed away before I was born, but I need this list to be of manageable proportions; taking that razor to my selection drops away dozens of worthy novelists whose work doesn’t need further praise from me. Finally, all of these authors are people who I know at least something about as individuals, either from biographies, interviews, or articles. Their work inspires me, but I also admire something about them as people.
With those conditions in place, I still couldn’t bring my list down to an even ten. I’m sorry about that, but eleven is just as good as ten. Better, in fact, because it’s one more! Let’s get started…
#1 – James Clavell
Any list of historical fiction authors, for me, has to begin with James Clavell. When I was nine years old I read Shogun, and it changed my life as a reader. I make a point of reading it at least once a year, and I always learn something new about the craft of writing. I have gone through easily seven paperback copies of that novel: They fall apart from reading and re-reading. Clavell says he came up with the idea while helping his daughter with her homework. She was reading a textbook that included a single sentence about an Englishman who washed ashore in Japan at the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate and eventually became a samurai. “Wait a minute, go back. What happened to him?” Clavell asked, but there was nothing else about the man in the book. After a great deal of research, Clavell wrote a book that changed the way the West thought about Japan. I know it’s not hard historical fiction –Clavell changed names and dates and heavily fictionalized the true events to add apocryphal content that was more exciting– but the book is the definition of an opus for me. It has a cast of hundreds, and all of them are knowable individuals with their own perspectives, desires, motivations. At the end of that book I knew about fifty phrases of polite phonetic Japanese. It has love and war, politics and intrigue, characters in constant conflict with who they are and what they could be. People I care about die, and some who I hate in the beginning are redeemed as heroes and heroines at the end. My only complaint with Shogun is it is too short, and when you think that as a paperback it clocks in at between twelve- and fourteen hundred pages, that’s saying something.
There’s one interview by Clavell that always grates on me. He says he never plotted anything out or made notes about where he was going. If that’s true, he’s a savant. I prefer to think he’s just a bad liar. The man made a living as an author and a screenwriter in Hollywood. His process must have had notes. I refuse to believe he didn’t have a plan when he put these books together.
My second favourite Clavell novel, strictly speaking, shouldn’t count towards this collection: King Rat was written about events that took place within his own lifetime. Indeed, the novel is based in large part on his own horrific experiences in the Japanese prisoner of war camp Changi. I’m making an exception for Clavell, because he’s that good. His wife convinced him to write that book to deal with his nightmares, and he never admitted which parts were true and which were false, although I believe it’s safe to say that the character of Marlowe is the Mary Sue of Clavell –without any of a Mary Sue’s failings– and Corporal King is definitely based more in truth than in fiction. The story is one of absolute suffering and moral ambiguity. You are left wondering how anyone survived, and then feeling unclean about the aftermath of that survival. If you want to see what a book can do to your soul, read King Rat.
My third favourite Clavell novel is Tai-Pan, again loosely based on true events about the founding of Hong Kong in the age of the Clipper ship. It is a no-holds barred adventure with a protagonist so perfectly formed that I often sigh and shuffle through my own scribblings wishing I could produce a legend half so plausible. We have East colliding with West, misunderstanding and slow comprehension, sex and violence, and moments of terror about the future of entirely fictional characters. The conclusion is particularly strong.
What I admire most about Clavell’s work are his characters. Men and women are written as real people, and the good do not always win, nor are the bad ever without some shred of redemption, empathy, understanding from where they have come from. I think it’s fair to say one of the major developments in fiction within the last fifty years is that villains are no longer allowed to be evil without an explanation that forces the reader to see their side of it, and Clavell led that charge.
I’m not universal in my praise of Clavell, although I hold him first among all my favourite authors. Gai-Jin was published after his death, and I would be very curious how much of it was done by his editor, because the last two hundred pages are an unsatisfying mess. Noble House is an amazing read –Hong Kong in the 1960s, a contemporary novel at the time– but the author missed a major opportunity to make the American tycoon character Corporal King from King Rat (read both books and tell me you don’t ache at the lost opportunity). Whirlwind is meant to be a continuation of the Tai-Pan saga into Iran during the Revolution, but it focuses at great length on the things that have nothing to do with the rest of his work. Most selfishly of all, James Clavell passed away before he could give us more. He lived a long full life and produced beautiful works of fiction, but I will begrudge his demise until the day I die. There were pieces mentioned in his novels alluding to books he was yet to write –I’m thinking particularly of The Hag Straun running the Noble House at the beginning of the 20th Century– that I would give my eye teeth to read. Ah, well. If I ever reach a point where I wouldn’t be laughed out of the room, I’ll ask the Clavell estate’s permission to write that book. It would be an honour and a privilege to continue that man’s legacy.
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