Research Notes · 01/17/2014

Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Phong Nguyen writes about Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History from Queen’s Ferry Press.

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Ground Rules

At a certain point, during the writing of Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History, I realized I would have to choose between maintaining a consistent narrative thread and playing freely with historical myths and characters across geography and era. In the end it was hardly a choice at all: I abandoned the constraint of the novel form in favor of the freedom to endlessly explore my vast subject. My need for play, however, didn’t absolve me of the need for writerly constraints. This is a problem familiar to every writer: the daunting limitlessness of potential subjects to choose from, which is only compounded when you zoom out the lens of the camera to include infinite possible worlds.

To stave off writer-angst, I committed myself to four ground rules:

1) For each story, I would do copious, but limited, research. I needed to know enough about the historical personage, the era, and the most current understanding of that personage and era, so that the story would have something interesting to say to the historian. But if I got lost in the research, and found myself speaking only to the historian, I risked becoming obscure, arcane, over-specialized. So I settled into a rhythm of reading at least 3 but no more than 5 books on the chosen historical figure and his/her era, so that I had a stake in the historical conversation, but not so great of a stake that I became a partisan in it; I needed just enough knowledge to tell a compelling story set in another milieu, and no more — my duty and allegiance being the art of the story. (If you are tempted to be impressed by the amount of research that went into this, don’t be. Research was such pleasure and distraction that it more often took me away from the writing than drove me to it. As a result, I had to become a research mercenary. I scoured these books with one question in mind: what can I use?)

2) My alternate history stories would not be idle “What ifs?” that speculate about historical outcomes. I have no specialized knowledge, after all, of the way that societies grow and change and develop, and therefore I have nothing to add to the literature of “What if the South won the Civil War?” and “What if the Nazis won WWII?” This is not to say that these questions are uninteresting, only that I find them uninteresting as premises for stories. What I find endlessly, mind-blowingly fascinating, on the other hand, is the way we blithely and childishly play-pretend that we know the characters who populate our history books, as though they are old high school buddies, and not strangers removed from us by vast distances of time, geography, and experience. When the tea party patriot proclaims insight into the mind of the American revolutionary; when Antonin Scalia growls about what the constitution meant to its authors; when any priest of any faith speaks on behalf of his favorite prophet who lived thousands of years ago; the illusion of familiarity — and the subsequent certainty it confers — stuns me. I am like Holden Caulfield in his naïve outrage toward Ossenburger the wealthy undertaker “shifting into first gear and asking Jesus to send him a few more stiffs.” Yet this illusion of familiarity with the remote characters of history is a near-universal endowment. It is an authorial fallacy we all evince, like seven billion shamans inhabiting our own archetypical gods.

To idly move the chess pieces of history around the board to see what other configurations one can imagine — or to relitigate the past as a way of tea-leaf-reading the future — always seemed to me an unbearably dull exercise. But to use the myths of history as a means of accessing and revealing our universal human folly, as we chummily dream ourselves into the great-man club… ah, that’s the stuff!

3) I would write, instead, the unwritten sequels and spin-offs of history, not a canonical or authoritative version of what must have been given a different set of historical circumstances. I would write the stories that, once imagined, I could not exorcise from my brain in any other way than writing them down. Once I pictured Columbus strolling the late 15th century rutted roads of Shanghai, I couldn’t not write the story; when I pictured an angry young Hitler as a first-year art student raging impotently against the unstoppable force of modernism, I had to communicate this vision in the form of a story. My process eventually evolved to the point where I realized that each of these stories concerned the fulfillment of a character’s thwarted desire. Einstein deeply regretted his complicity in the development of the A-bomb; Joan of Arc prophesied that she would one day become a mother; Ben Franklin’s parents intended him to be a member of the clergy. In each of these instances, my mind circled endlessly around each dying myth like a buzzard around the corpse of an antelope.

4) The subjects I chose were, with the notable exception of Joan, exemplars of Carlyle’s “great men” of history — Napoleon, Plato, Jesus, the Pharaoh Khufu (who commissioned the first great pyramid) — each story told from the vantage-point of one of history’s witnesses, rather than its actors. Ho Chi Minh’s life in Harlem, given from the perspective of amateur boxer Ed Winston; Siddhartha’s confinement in his father’s palace/prison, told by his groom and chariot-drive Channa, etc. This format allowed me to include the subtlety and insight afforded by points of view that are both outside the familiar realm of a canonical historical account and variable enough to keep the book dynamic and multi-dimensional — to move from straightforward observational storytelling, to earnest philosophical and theological exploration, to sly commentary on contemporary events, to weighing the historical significance of a moment.

In conducting my research, I developed a deep aversion to Carlyle’s “great man” thesis, or any characterization of human history that implies that the progress of civilization comes about exclusively through the forceful actions of unprecedented visionaries, which strikes me as a profoundly anti-democratic vision of the world. I don’t have a pet theory of my own to assert in its place — nor do I have an interest in doing so — but I did learn that I possess the iconoclast’s mistrust of hero-worship. I agree with Albert Einstein, who wrote that: “When a man after long years of searching chances on a thought which discloses something of the beauty of this mysterious universe, he should not therefore be personally celebrated. He is already sufficiently paid by his experience of seeking and finding. In science, the work of the individual is so bound up with that of his scientific predecessors and contemporaries that it appears almost as an impersonal product of his generation.”

And what is true of science is also true of history. That every individual owes more to the world than the world owes to him is by no means the thesis of the book. Yet a strong bias against the false authority of the makers of history — and the myth-makers of history — inescapably informs the work, and forms what I now understand to be a central theme that runs through the book like quartz veins through sandstone.

Every writer I know who depends heavily on research, when asked about that phase of their writing process, remarks on the disparity between the vast amount of research they conduct and the paltry couple of paragraphs that make their way into the finished story. The pay-off for all this research is not always the exact tidbit of usable material you are looking for, but the less tangible benefit of insight. The wider your perspective, the more inclusive the context for the work you are doing, the more illuminating the result will be. So, while you may go hunting after the small game of details, as I did, you might accidentally catch the big game. Or you might just trap the woods.

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Phong Nguyen is editor of Pleiades and author of Memory Sickness and Other Stories. He directs the Unsung Masters Series, for which he edited the volume, Nancy Hale: On the Life and Work of a Lost American Master. Nguyen teaches fiction and American literature at the University of Central Missouri, where he lives with his wife, the artist Sarah Nguyen, and their three children.