For The Creation of Anne Boleyn, I interviewed a number of well-known authors, historians, and scriptwriters on the tension between fact and fiction and how they dealt with it in their own work and evaluated it in the work of others. Over the next months, I’ll be posting portions of these interviews on this website.
Today, I’m thrilled to present a Q and A with Nell Gavin, author of THREADS: THE REINCARNATION OF ANNE BOLEYN (2003), a William Faulkner finalist for Best Novel and an Amazon.com bestseller with legions of devoted fans.
If you want to learn more about Nell, her research for Threads, and her most recent book, Hang On (2011), see her website: http://www.nellgavin.net/
SB: We all know that any work of imagination has to go beyond the recorded facts. I take that as a given. But do you think that there is a point at which historical fiction can go too far? If so, how would you describe the boundaries of what is acceptable and not? Or don’t you think there can be a hard and fast rule? And if not, do you think “anything goes”? What historical standards do you hold yourself to?
NG: I would never say, “anything goes.” I don’t know what the boundaries would be, precisely, but you can write a story around known truths, bend them a little, and inform your audience when you’re taking liberties. I did that in my Foreword, as well as in a list of known historical discrepancies I put at the back of Threads: The Reincarnation of Anne Boleyn.
The difficulty with the Anne Boleyn story is: What is the truth? The more you know about the Tudors, the less certain you are about anything. If you’re adamant about a Tudor fact, you perhaps haven’t read far enough, in my opinion. If you’ve read everything, you have probably formed your own opinions – but you could still be wrong.
Historians agree on some things – or perhaps two agree and the rest have their own wildly differing opinions. Always lean toward scholarship, and less toward speculation, or perpetuating things that the majority dismiss as implausible. However, you can latch onto an implausible item occasionally, if you need it for plot. I did that with Anne’s “sixth finger” – I needed it. I was careful to explain that it was “a growth more than a true finger.” Then I stated in the back of the book that it “probably” wasn’t true because it probably wasn’t – but nobody knows with absolute certainty.
You have to own it, whatever you decide to put into your story. I pored over biographies of Anne Boleyn, and decided at least ONE historian had to earnestly believe it was fact, or it did not go into the book. Since there were very few instances when I could find two or more historians to earnestly believe anything at the same time, it was the best I could do. They agreed when she was executed. That was perhaps the extent of their cumulative certainty. The rest of the time, I cherry picked the facts – all earnestly presented by at least one biographer – based on what I required for the plot.
If I had had an easier subject than Anne Boleyn, I might not have had to do that at all.
SB: Philippa Gregory, in various interviews and Q and A sessions, has claimed that everything she writes is based on “historical probability.” While she admits to “filling in the gaps”–which seems exactly appropriate for a fiction writer—many would argue that she does much more than this, that she ignores the historical record to create an alternative narrative, which she then passes off as grounded in history. She seems to want to claim for herself both the status of historian and the prerogatives of a fiction writer. Care to comment?
NG: There may be Spell Check and Grammar Check, but unfortunately there is NO “History Check,” aside from long, grueling and painful hours of combing through reference books, and proofreading what you wrote a hundred times. On my website, I wrote an essay in which I described my own techniques for deciding on which “facts” to believe, and which to discard:
I study the methods that a researcher, biographer or writer seemed to be using to draw a conclusion, and consider his or her approach. Are the methods objective? Do they weigh all the facts? Do they rely heavily on unproven supposition and speculation? Do they quote a clearly prejudiced or uninformed source? Do they interpret the evidence in a manner that contradicts the obvious? (For example, one biographer asks us to agree that the handwriting in the example I provide on my website of Anne Boleyn’s handwriting in 1514 is “obviously juvenile” when it clearly is not!)
So, for example: I believe that Anne Boleyn was born between 1499 and 1502 because I don’t trust the sources who claim she was younger. These sources were either born after she died, or didn’t know her personally. The people who knew her said she was older. People who support a later birth year rely exclusively on speculation. That was an easy conclusion for me to reach.
As to The Other Boleyn Girl, I have not read Philippa Gregory because I heard that she relied mainly on Retha Warnicke as her historical source, and was not as confident in the Warnicke conclusions as I was about the conclusions of several of the other Boleyn biographers.
SB: Your Anne, in Threads, exists across centuries and cultures, and clearly is a work of creative imagination. Yet to my mind, there are deep truths about the historical Anne in the novel, far deeper than some novels that stick more closely to recorded dialogue, specific dates, etc. Can you describe a little how you accomplished this impressive “dance” between the historical Anne and the Anne that is reincarnated again and again in your novel?
It’s hard to find the real “Anne Boleyn” in the midst of lies. What we know about her is that her history was written by her enemies, and is therefore largely untrue or extremely distorted. Henry VIII made it a crime to speak well of her after her death, so her enemies had a field day with her. They said whatever they wanted, without any restraints. What they said is all we know about Anne Boleyn, and what many people declare is “fact.” Others disagree. As I recall, Philippa Gregory relied heavily on these “facts” in her fiction, probably because they were so sensational and damning. They make for a good story, but don’t really have much substance, if you dig a little.
However, every lie perhaps contains a grain of truth, so I began there. This woman, who spent a fortune on the poor, and who sewed – and forced her ladies to sew – garments for them, was not a bad person. When the royal court was on progress, she sent someone ahead to every town to find out what they needed so she could provide it. I asked myself, “What kind of person could she have been, to anger and alienate so many people, while still being well-intentioned?” The answer was: “nervous, insecure and emotionally flippy.” You probably would be that way too, married to Henry VIII.
Henry VIII drove her nuts, in my opinion. Did she love him? I’m sure she really did because a woman who is only in it for the crown does not try to scratch out the eyes of her successor, as Anne did to poor Jane Seymour. She is controlled and cunning and manipulative to ensure she keeps what she has, whereas Anne was frantic over losing her husband, and she acted like a frightened and jealous wife. So I presumed Anne was in love with Henry, simply based on her behavior when she was losing him. I could be totally wrong because I wasn’t there and wasn’t her, but I “filled in the gaps” with “historical probability” based on what I know of human nature. I didn’t use someone else’s description of what Anne “must have felt,” or “probably felt” to define her. I saw someone who was clearly (to me) losing the man she loved. So, that was my “Anne.”
I also saw evidence that she had a very dark sense of humor. I have a dark sense of humor as well, so I can appreciate jokes that fall flat or make people wince because you’ve pushed it just a hair beyond the pale. She was probably always misinterpreted or taken literally, or quoted out of context when she was merely trying to be funny. She was still cracking wise while she was waiting for her execution, calling herself “Queen Lackhead,” and laughing. This is NOT someone everyone is going to understand and approve of. It also means she gave her enemies ample ammunition. But that does not make her an evil person, which is how she has been frequently depicted.
As to the reincarnation theme in Threads, I should start by saying that I do believe in reincarnation, just as I believe in Physics. We know from physics that energy cannot be destroyed, and it seems odd to me that human energy would or could be subject to laws that are significantly different from the laws that govern the rest of the universe. I am going to require scientific proof that it does NOT exist, and a description of the physical laws that prevent reincarnation, before I would ever change my mind. Religion pro or con has no bearing on my opinion of it.
I had actually been studying reincarnation and mulling it over for a number of years before I began writing. I obtained a pretty good grasp of karma, and so forth. Our objective, in this lifetime, is to learn and evolve. In order to do this, we encounter lessons that teach us what we need to know, based on our past mistakes and our own personal goals.
Clearly some folks are more evolved than others, and clearly we don’t go from being cavemen to being Gandhi in one lifetime because learning is painful and takes time – it takes more than one lifetime. Ultimately, we all are on our own individual paths, at different stages in our development. Old souls intermingle with new souls because they’re here to teach and set an example. New souls test old souls (and everyone else), and give them an opportunity for growth. So it’s actually a very effective setup for evolving.
In Threads, I took what I knew of Anne’s history, and I took what I know about karma and reincarnation, and built a story around it. I tried to make it as easy as possible for someone to understand the cause and effect by linking Anne’s past life behaviors to her current problems and current neuroses.
In Anne Boleyn’s case, she was hated by women. There was even an incident where women invaded the place where she was staying, and frightened her into leaving the back way out of fear for her life. She was accused of being a whore when there really was little evidence of this. Why? I built a story that had her, in one lifetime, being harsh and cruel toward women, and judgmental toward the ones who were accused of sexual misconduct. The key point in the story was that she once had the power to send a woman to her death, and followed through. Why? I made the source of it self-loathing. Why? Because most hatred is based on self-loathing. Then I wrote about a situation that would make her repeatedly judgmental, with the source of this an earlier lifetime that made her ashamed. She might have evaded extreme punishment by learning tolerance and compassion through her subsequent lifetimes, but she did not. Consequently, she met her fate at the block as Anne Boleyn, after enduring the kind of torment she once dished out.
There were two timelines in Threads. One moved forward in time; this was her lifetime as Anne Boleyn. The other moved backward in time; this was her experience in the afterlife, where she examined her past lives. Each time we visit a past life, Anne is seeing it because it relates to a situation she’s reviewing in her lifetime as Anne Boleyn. The past life shows her the lesson she was supposed to have learned, and perhaps missed. They go further and further back, until she finally hits the source of her problems, in ancient Egypt. As she goes further back, she spiritually regresses so you can see the progress she’s made over these lifetimes. You see that in her earliest lifetime she had very little self-awareness, and was cruel. In her subsequent lifetimes, her primary focus was in helping other people. She carries fears with her to each next lifetime, without knowing what the source of this fear is. We can see how it impacts her decisions, even though she does not know the reason herself – at least not in her conscious state.
What I was trying to demonstrate is that Anne is just one of us – any one of us. I wanted to apply the laws of karma to a story that most of us are familiar with in order to examine it. Why? Because most people think they’re going to “heaven” no matter what they do, and others think there is no afterlife. I’m suggesting that we reap what we sow, what goes around comes around, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If we really thought about it, it would make us nicer.
SB: In our “post-Oliver Stone, post-O.J. Trial” era, in which (it seems to me), viewers/readers no longer have much ability to distinguish between different kinds of narratives, do you think the fact/fiction issue has become more problematic?
NG: Historical fiction is a very emotional genre, and it’s fraught with pitfalls for the writer, and covered with landmines because its readers have expectations we may or may not meet, despite our best efforts.Readers are just as likely to interpret what they read as writers are likely to interpret history when they write about it. Nobody reads the same book because nobody knows the same “truths” in historically ambiguous situations. Lots of times people believe whoever is the most persuasive, or simply whoever gets to them first (this was once verified in a scientific study). Very few fiction fans are going to do their own research, to sift through the facts. They just want a story. They fall into the story, and it’s as true as it needs to be, for them. After that, they may feel they “own” the characters, and they are highly possessive of them (I am as well!) They tend to believe whatever book they read first. If the second book has a different interpretation, it’s “wrong.” Perhaps its readers describe its “wrong-ness” in very adamant statements, but they may or may not really be knowledgeable.
Once, at a book signing, I had a woman very proudly tell me that she knew “everything” about Anne Boleyn. She recited a list of virtually all the things that have been disproved or dismissed, or deemed highly improbable by historians, and stated them as fact. I couldn’t correct her and educate her in that timeframe. She knows what she knows, and to her it’s the truth.
Once, a reader actually did find a mistake in Threads, and I gratefully corrected it. However, a blanket “historically inaccurate” statement in a review is unhelpful to both the author and other potential readers. We don’t know what the reader knows, or thinks he or she knows, and how it differs from what the writer wrote. You see these reviews on every piece of historical fiction, and you should approach them with suspicion and skepticism. Look for reviews that contain actual examples of these “inaccuracies” so you can decide if you think the book is worth reading.
SB: Some defenders of Philippa Gregory have argued that “all history is interpretation anyway.” This was said, for example, by Natalie Portman, who played Anne in “the Other Boleyn Girl.” Neither she nor Scarlet Johansen nor Eric Bana did much research beyond readed PG’s novel, and seemed to think that getting the costuming and accents right was sufficient, because “all you got from historians was competing views, anyway.” Care to comment?
NG: Certainly it’s true that all historical fiction is interpretation. But interpretation has to be based on something more substantial than a costume and an accent. It may be true that the views are all “competing,” but you don’t need to be lazy, and you shouldn’t be.
As to The Other Boleyn Girl, I didn’t see that movie. And, as I mentioned before, I didn’t read that book. But based on what I’ve heard, I’m sure Philippa Gregory wouldn’t care for my interpretation of Anne Boleyn, and I’m certain from what I’ve seen that I would not agree with hers.
For those that are interested, I document my thoughts on the subject at http://www.facebook.com/l/eAQDnRTZvAQBpExDYjzfU8sBY5SsVDHBwiY8_kXg_Ln78gw/www.nellgavin.net/reincarnation.htm