Thursday, March 11, 2010

Guest Post: Pam Jenoff, author of Almost Home

After reading and enjoying all three of Pam Jenoff's novels, The Kommandant's Girl, The Diplomat's Wife, and most recently Almost Home (click here for my review), I am thrilled that Pam is taking over Diary of an Eccentric today.  I want to thank Pam for taking time out of her busy schedule to talk about how much truth is necessary in historical fiction.  Please welcome Pam Jenoff.

Putting the History in Historical Fiction

The nasty e-mail was not what I expected.

For months before my first novel, The Kommandant's Girl, was released, I braced myself for the backlash that would inevitably come from writing about a Jewish woman (Emma) who becomes involved with a Nazi.  To my surprise, no one seemed bothered by that.  Instead, the irate reader wrote to angrily ask:  how could I possibly say that the Sachenhausen concentration camp was near Munich, when it was in fact near Berlin?

I paused, considering the question.  To be fair, I hadn't depicted the camp there.  Rather, Krysia, a Polish character who had never been to the area, had simply made the comment erroneously.  But other e-mails came, too, from readers taking issue with my portrayal of various historical details:  An Orthodox Jewish family would never have named their daughter Emma, one wrote.  A secular Jew like Emma's husband Jacob would not have worn a yarmulke, insisted another.  Thankfully, there were only a few negative e-mails, dwarfed by hundreds of positive messages.  But they were enough to make me wonder, how far are we as writers obligated to take the "history" in historical fiction?

It is an issue that I continually wrestle with as a writer.  Sometimes, I choose to stay accurate (keeping the geography of Krakow in tact was particularly important to me.)  Other times the needs of plot and narrative thrust dictate that history be bent, such as reducing the approximately eighteen months between the German invasion and the creation of the Krakow ghetto to six weeks.  (I felt better upon reading recently that the true story of the Von Trapp family was similarly cut from twelve years to a few months in The Sound of Music.)  I have found editors to be similarly sensitive to historical detail – with my second novel, The Diplomat's Wife, we spent much time debating whether a bus would have had doors in 1946 London and would it have cost a two pence or five pence to ride.   Though my latest novel, Almost Home, is modern romantic suspense, I struggled with the same issues, both in terms of the historical back story and also with the accuracy my depiction of Jordan's life as an intelligence officer required.

I'm mixed about the intensity readers seem to place on "real life" details.  I'm not saying that historical writers should not be diligent in their research with the goal of creating a realistic time and place.  And a historical world, like a fantasy realm, should have rules in order to be believable.  But this is fiction, not memoir.  But at the same time, there seems to be a "gotcha" mentality that can at times feel, well, a tad adversarial and perhaps take away from the author-reader connection.

On one hand, I'm glad that my readers are intelligent and pay attention.  I do think a degree of accuracy is important to create and keep the trust that is necessary between the author and reader, and I’m glad my readers care as much as I do.


Are you interested in reading Almost Home?  Well, you're in luck!  Pam is generously offering a paperback copy to one lucky reader.  To enter, you must have a U.S. or Canada address and answer the following question(s):  How important is it to you that historical fiction is factually correct?  Do you think it's okay for authors to "play" with events a bit, given that it's fiction?  Please include your e-mail address.

This giveaway will end Sunday, March 21 at 11:59 pm EST.


Esme said...

Wow-what a good day to pop by-I want to read all her books-Anna I hope to get to see you in NY. I think historical facts accuracy is important-certain details can be off but if a novel is based on history I like to see some accuracy. I hope I get to read this.

thank you

chocolate and croissants at yahoo dot com

Mystica said...

I also think the accuracy part is particularly important in historical background kind of literature. Maybe in other kind of books it wouldnt matter so very much.

I'd like to be counted for this book. Thanks for your generosity.


Linda said...

Historical accuracy is very important to me. When authors need to compress time or make minor changes I would hope that it would be explained within an "authors notes" section.

bermudaonion said...

I do think historical accuracy is important to a point. For many readers, historical fiction is where they learn history!


DarcyO said...

I also think historical accuracy is important.

This book sounds like a great read. Please include me.

dlodden at frontiernet dot net

Stephanie said...

Great giveaway!!

Well, it is called Historical "Fiction" right? I think that you can bend the facts a little to better fit a story.


Anonymous said...

I don't mind if the author plays with the facts alittle to enchance the story. If I wanted detailed accuracy, I would read a textbook.


Darlene said...

All posted at Win a Book for you Anna :)

Pam said...

It looks like I may be a bit of an oddball - when I read fiction, I don't necessarily worry about how accurate the book is though I suppose some semblance of accuracy is a nice touch. Having said that, though, I do like when an author takes the time to tell a reader that they have taken liberties with some actual events/settings/timelines, etc.

melacan at hotmail dot com

Katrina said...

I LOVE historical fiction and I am ok with changing just does not bother me. Of course I also like to know when it isn't real.

ykatrina at hotmail dot com

Staci said...

I am a huge fan of historical fiction but I certainly don't go and check everything that the author wrote..because come on people, it is fiction! I appreciate the time, detail, and dedication that an author gives to their craft...why would someone want to debate how much a bus ride actually was in 1945, aren't they missing the point??? Anyway, Pam is an author that I haven't read it but she's on my list for 2010!!!

Dana said...

What an interesting post! I think that author's should be as accurate as possible when writing historical fiction, but only to a certain degree. It's important to me, when I'm reading a historical fiction novel, that the author have done his/her research, but at the same time I don't get annoyed if there are little inaccuracies, as long as nothing's glaringly out ofp lace.

Please enter me!


Isabel said...

I enjoyed the author's views.

An author can't be 100% correct. And since most publishing companies are cutting back on junior editors, there is no one to do fact checking. I am even finding spelling errors in final prints of books.

Maybe the publishing company needs to send ARCs to readers who have knowledge of the facts of the era.

To make the work a novel, the author can't be 100% historically accurate. So, it's ok to be "off".

Margie said...

Since it is labeled fiction, I think a little leeway with the facts is acceptable. However, I think the author should comments on these events in the beginning of the book.
mtakala1 AT yahoo DOT com

Anonymous said...

i alway enjoy learning from history...especially in novels.


Carol M said...

I think it's important that historical fiction is as factually correct as possible. I learn a lot from this kind of reading. This book sounds really good! Please enter me!
mittens0831 at aol dot com

MarionG said...

I think it's extremely important for author's of historical fiction to get the facts right. After all wouldn't it otherwise just be fiction.
Any way I would love to read the book. Cheers.
polo-puppy-fluffy at hotmail dot com

Vera said...

I guess historical accuracy is not super important as long as the author is up front with this fact. Having a little disclaimer in the front will help me to have realistic expectations. That said, the majority should be accurate since it would not be "historical" otherwise.

Jo-Jo said...

I would love a chance to win this book! For the most part I do prefer that historical fiction stays accurate, but I don't mind a few changes. If there is a change that is not true to history I appreciate it when when the author brings this to your attention in the author notes and gives an explanation as to why it was changed.
joannelong74 AT gmail DOT com

Sue said...

I don't think everything can be accurate. Major facts should be, but it is fiction...
Thank you for the giveaway.

s.mickelson at gmail dot com

Serena said...

I've often discovered that many readers of historical fiction forget that they are reading FICTION. With that said, I think authors should pay close attention to details, but readers should not jump to negative emails either.

Great guest post. No need to enter me.

traveler said...

Thanks for this wonderful giveaway. I enjoy historicals greatly and accuracy is important as long as the story fits into the era and the details correct. saubleb(at)gmail(dot)com

lag123 said...

I like for the history to be factual. It is important to me. Thanks for this wonderful giveaway!

Sarah E said...

Being a history major as well as a lover of history, it is important to me that historical fiction be factually correct. I think it's alright if authors play with events a little bit, as long as they stay within the general framework of historical accuracy.

Please enter me in this giveaway!

saemmerson at yahoo dot com

Sarah E

Anna said...

This giveaway is now closed. Thanks to everyone who entered, publicized the giveaway, or just stopped by to join the discussion. I will be choosing a winner soon using

I think the fact that a book is labeled as fiction gives the author a little leeway, but I do prefer that an author's note is included to let readers know what is fact and where they filled in the gaps.