Most of What Follows is True

Fisherman drying cod in St. Johns, Newfoundland, c. 1900.

Fisherman drying cod in St. Johns, Newfoundland, c. 1900.

I’ve posted before about the CBC Ideas Podcast, a series I discovered when they devoted two episodes to the Icelandic sagas. I hope they do more of those, but in the meantime I’ve listened to some very good episodes. One of the latest covers a topic near to my heart: historical fiction.

The talk, “Most of What Follows is True,” takes its name from the opening of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a film much loved by author Michael Crummey, the lecturer. Crummey, now a writer and an author of several historical novels, describes catching documentary on TV about the real Butch and Sundance, and his disappointment at the pair’s real-life fate: no Bolivian army, no glorious final moment, guns blazing, but a murder-suicide after being cornered in a miserable hovel. Which raises the question of what most means when you say that “most of what follows is true.”

Crummey, a native of Newfoundland on the Atlantic coast of Canada, considers several novels that purport to be historical but mangle the time and place in which they take place, and presents his own approach to some of his own writing. How much, he asks, does the historical novelist owe the past? How far should the historical novelist go in massaging history to make a compelling story? These are questions I’ve been thinking about for years and, with Griswoldville freshly released and still very much on my mind, I appreciated Crummey’s sensitive and thoughtful discussion, especially as it applied to accurately depicting a specific place and authentically evoking another time. Place and time are, of course, connected, since the past itself is a foreign country.

I’ve embedded Crummey’s talk in the post, above. It’s well worth your while to listen to! And do check him out on Goodreads. I’ll be looking for some of his work. River Thieves sounds particularly interesting.