Reading Pearl of China, Anchee Min’s novel about Pearl Buck, is teaching me a great deal about blending historical figures with fictional characters. I’ve been struggling with this in my own novel-in-progress, and only recently made some changes to make the work more believable.
One change was to use the real name of one of the two historical figures in the book—Elaine de Kooning. de Kooning was one of the most successful female artists in the famed New York School of Abstract Expressionism. Since I’m fictionalizing much of her life in my book, I originally changed her name. A conversation with an intellectual rights attorney convinced me to use her real name, since (1) she is no longer living and (2) I make it clear that the book is fiction.
Another change I’m making is to embellish the childhoods of these historical figures—especially the childhood of Saint Mary of Egypt—“Neema” in the novel, until she takes the name of Mary as part of her spiritual conversion.
How does Min deal with historical accuracy?
In the Q & A section at the back of Min’s book, she is asked:
“You seem to be a stickler for historical accuracy. Did you embellish or make up part of Pearl’s life?”
“In all of my historical novels… I have tried to be as accurate as possible because accuracy gives my historical themes weight. But some have been more literally true than others. The advantage of being a novelist is having the freedom to go directly after the truth of the human heart. With Pearl, I thought it important to tell her story from a Chinese perspective, but I could find no figure in the historical record that knew Pearl throughout her life. I combined a number of Pearl’s actual friends at different times throughout her forty years in China to create the character Willow.”
Since I’m fictionalizing the lives of two of the three main characters in my novel (and the third main character is totally fictional) I’m fascinated by the way Min blends historical figures with her fictional characters so seamlessly. The relationships are rich and the dialogue believable. Lots of scenes and descriptive narrative passages make me believe I’m there with little Pearl and her friend Willow in their childhood adventures, and later as their adult friendship is challenged by politics and geography. But mostly I’m impressed with the depth of Min’s story. She really does “go after the truth of the human heart.”
That’s what I’m aiming for with my novel. A high bar, yes. Don’t know if I can hit it out of the park, but it won’t be for not trying.
Back to work now. Have a great weekend, everyone.
P. S. If you haven't read Pearl Buck's works, my favorites are The Good Earth, My Several Worlds, Fighting Angel, The Living Reed, The Child Who Never Grew and Peony. Brilliant writer. And so is Anchee Min.