At LJ’s 18th annual Day of Dialog, a sold-out event held on Wednesday, May 27, at New York University’s Kimmel Center in lower Manhattan, over 200 librarians gathered, along with authors, editors, and publishers, to talk books, business, and best practices. Panel topics ranged from “Editors’ Picks” and “First Novels” to “The Immigrant Experience” and “Top Thrillers.”
The day’s penultimate session, on historical fiction and moderated by LJ’s Prepub Alert Editor Barbara Hoffert, began in lively fashion as panelist Gregory Maguire, best-selling author of Wicked and the forthcoming After Alice, exclaimed, “I’m a fantasist, not a historical novelist.” To which Hoffert replied that she may have stretched the term historical fiction just a bit to include the titles she’s most excited about on one panel: Charles Belfoure’s House of Thieves (Sourcebooks Landmark, Sept.), historical crime set in 1886 New York; Geraldine Brooks’s The Secret Chord (Viking, Oct.), a reimagining of the life of the Bible’s King David; Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s Balm (Amistad: HarperCollins), a novel of lives rebuilding in post–Civil War Chicago; Gregory Maguire’s After Alice (Morrow, Oct.), parallel stories of Alice’s friend Ada in 1860s Oxford and Wonderland; and Adriana Trigiani’s All the Stars in the Heavens (Harper, Oct.), loosely based on the real-life affair between Clark Gable and Loretta Young, whose unlikely secretary is a former novice.
Whether “Hoffertical” (as the panel was later coined by LJ’s Bette-Lee Fox) or historical, the panel presented works that will resonate with a wide audience and evoke a singular time and place while telling an important story that will enlighten and enrich the lives of their readers.
“Why this book and why now?”
Hoffert’s first question elicited a range of replies that librarians will have fun sharing with colleagues and patrons. Author and architect Belfoure was fascinated with Gilded Age New York and the historical figure George Leslie, who became the model for his main character, an architect-turned-thief.
“I was bored in synagogue” explained a placid Brooks, recalling the seed for The Secret Chord, which Hoffert praised as the Pulitzer Prize–winning author’s best work yet.
Balm author Perkins-Valdez, whose debut, Wench, won the First Novelist Award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, found that her aha moment struck in the middle of the night after she’d spent the day in the library archives perusing a woman’s diary from 1866 Chicago, which repeatedly described the city as “really cold.” The author literally shivered remembering how she first felt “getting the feel” of the world she would later re-create on the page.
With All the Stars in the Heavens, a spirited Trigiani sought answers to two questions: “How do we survive by the labor of our own hands, and how do we love?” While Gregory drew inspiration for After Alice, published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s phrase “arresting strangeness,” aiming to transfer to the page the language and culture of childhood without undermining the original story. Hoffert noted that he succeeds beautifully.
From Fact to Fiction
As readers, we’re interested in the kind of research involved in shaping a work set in an age different from our own. And every author’s process is distinct. Belfoure emphasized the importance of his closely reading a year’s worth of newspapers from the period he was reinventing, noticing ads, headlines, international news, etc. For Brooks, departing physically and actually visiting the hills where the shepherd David tended his flock, as well as studying ancient Hebrew, were key to becoming familiar with David’s universe. Gregory felt that the bedrock for writing Alice was firmly established through his childhood encounters with Carroll’s stories. And Trigiani, whose retelling of an uncanny occasion of serendipity during her research, which included a shoemaker in Venice with firsthand experience of Clark Gable’s “GORGEOUS feet,” ignited a rich spell of laughter from the audience, which then fell to a hush as the author concluded, “what wasn’t between the pages was conjured from the wells of my imagination.”