Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Notes on Skidmore, Adam Braver

A Q&A with Adam Braver on historical fiction was an unusual event because it was scheduled for early morning (10 am!) on a Saturday. At the beginning of this session, there were maybe 10 of us in the audience, but people kept straggling in, so at the end of the hour the room filled up to maybe 25. The smaller than usual amount of people meant a more in-depth and relaxed conversation than on any other occasion.

Bob Boyers opened with a throw back to the Q&A with Caryl Phillips, who had said that he didn't consider himself a writer of "historical" fiction. Adam responded to this with understanding: he said that he had resisted the (marketing) label for a long time. He sees the point of dramatization of historical events (i.e. the battle of Saratoga) to be a vehicle for exploring contemporary issues.

According to Adam, meanwhile, historians define "history" as something that happened more than 20 yrs ago. I wonder how universal this definition is.

His personal interest with history is to take an event that seems "larger than life," an event "that already has a mythology around it" (like JFK assasination, the subject of his most recent novel), and to make an "attempt to deconstruct [this contemporary] mythology." I wanted to clap when I heard him say this. This was the first and the only time during these four weeks when I heard the word "deconstruct" used in a positive context (altogether it was maybe used two other times). Having said this, I am not at all sure if when he referred to the "contemporary mythology" he was specifically doing so in the context of Roland Barthes, or that his brand of deconstruction was informed by the notion of differance, but then, of course, even if indirectly, it was.

Adam was asked a lot of questions about how he does his research. He talked about how for his JFK book he has purposefully chosen to consult only primary sources, oral history, the White House archives, because the amount of the secondary data is simply overwhelming. However, he was also weary of the possibility to veer too far away from the facts; the whole process of deconstructing mythology depends very much on the ability to access and use reliable information.

He brought up a very provoking notion about an author choosing subjects that were appropriate within the arc of his career. That also at a certain point one's "privilege of authority" might also cloud one's self-awareness in the relationship with the source material. He mentioned Philip Roth's "Northern Pastoral" in this context, I think. That Roth relied too much on the stereotypes of radical figures in this novel. But I haven't read Roth, and so blindly typing up my notes on Adam's argument about it somehow doesn't seem fair.


  1. re: historical fiction, Adam made the comment that almost everyone coming through Skidmore had written something within particular historical context. I'm paraphrasing and don't think he named specific writers, but Moody, Banks and Phillips come to mind immediately.

  2. ps I meant Jayne Anne Phillips

  3. Right! I remember that! That's when he also had to note the thing about 20 years. My notes from that Q&A are not great, because I got so excited about the idea of deconstructing contemporary mythology, that I immediately started to think of questions to ask him.