Back in the eighties and nineties, the Annoying Question I Most Often Found Myself Obliged to Answer was the following: "Do you consider yourself a gay writer?" Now that I'm about to publish The Indian Clerk this question has given way to another one: "Do you consider yourself an historical novelist?"
In both cases the answer is, more or less, the same.
Answer to "gay" question: "No, I consider myself a writer who happens to write, often, about gay men and lesbians."
Answer to "historical" question: "No, I consider myself a novelist who happens to have written a novel based on real events and concerning real people who are now dead."
The term "historical novelist" carries unhappy connotations. To me it calls up yellowed paperbacks from the seventies, with pictures of high-bosomed ladies on the cover and first lines along the lines of: "It was a quarter to twelve in the Petit Trianon, and Marie Antoinette was in a huff." For a long time it seemed that most writers I knew shied away from the past, and from real people; indeed, that they shied away from history itself. Then, in the nineties, this started to change. I credit this change, mostly, to Penelope Fitzgerald.
As she recounts in her book The Knox Brothers, Fitzgerald's father was the editor of Punch. Her Uncle, Dilly Knox, worked with Alan Turing on the breaking of the Enigma code at Bletchley Park. She herself did not start publishing fiction until she was in her sixties, and then she published with alacrity until her death, in 2000, at the age of 83. All her novels are great, but the greatest are the trio that take place in the past: The Gate of Angels, set in Cambridge just before the Great War; The Beginning of Spring, set in Moscow at the same moment; and The Blue Flower, which is set in Germany in the age of Goethe and tells the story of the poet Friedrich von Hardenberg (known as Novalis) and his mysterious passion for a seemingly unremarkable twelve year-old girl named Sophie von Kühn. The Blue Flower gave me the courage to wrestle, in my own way, with the muse of history, and led me to read a number of other very good "novels based on real events and concerning real people who are now dead," among them Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy and Joanna Scott's Arrogance, which is about the life of the Viennese Secessionist artist Egon Schiele and which I had the good fortune to read in Vienna, much of it at the Konditorei Aida, while eating gugelhupf and drinking a melange.More to come...