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About History and Fiction

My book, History and Fiction, has just been shortlisted for an Atheling (the award for critical work, given as part of the science fiction and fantasy popular awards, the Ditmars – ‘Atheling’ isn’t a full name, just as this isn’t a full explanation. Full details can be found here). This is a bit of a surprise, because the book is an expensive scholarly volume. It’s a wonderful surprise, because I was trying to do something rather special with this piece of research and obviously speculative fiction fans have seen it and noted it. Mostly, popular tellings of research are noticed by the public in awards such as this: the only other full volume in this year’s finalists is by Kate Forsyth and looks at how she, as a writer, encounters and researches the story of Rapunzel. It’s interesting reading and I recommend it. Kate’s study and mine are quite different, though, in what we do and how we go about it. The other finalists are even more different. Whoever of the finalists wins the award, will say a lot about fandom.

I’m going to talk here about what History and Fiction is to me. If you’re interested in what it is to other people, a good place to start is Sarah Johnson. If you want to see the volume for yourself but can’t afford it, some libraries have it (quite a few world-wide, but only a few in Australia) and there is an extract on Amazon. You can get a fair view of it from these places, for it’s not a long book and the academic nature of it means that the summary of its contents in most library catalogues is very detailed. This gives you several places to find out what History and Fiction is, as a book.

There aren’t as many places as there might be, for this was the book that was released just before my dire year began. Everything went on hold for most of that year. All its visibility was due to the publisher and to some supporters in the community: it didn’t get a regular push by me. While I was in hospital I kept thinking “I have book that need me to be interviewed, to write blogposts, to give talks, to wave when I mention it on panels, to chat about on social media.” When the very big life-things happen, however, none of these are possible.

I do suspect that my illness cost History and Fiction a paperback edition. I thought it had not been noticed at all, however, so this short-listing is the most amazing thing and relieves me of burdens I didn’t know I carried. I wasn’t writing the book for me, you see, I was writing it for others, and this means some of those others have seen it and used it.

There was a beginning and an ending, really. Nice clear ones. Instead of having a “everything ‘s done for publication” and then moving into a “Time to share it with the world” and then letting it fall gently to the back of my life, I got everything ready for publication, let the marvellous publishing people take over, and then slipped into oblivion for six months.

For me, the research was a big chunk of my life. Just the research. Twelve years it took, from beginning to end.

Bits of my research were funded (ArtsACT helped me get to Europe, where I could ask writers searing questions) and supported. So many writers said “Finish this book, Gillian, we need to read it” and wanted to do the interview – if I’d had institutional backing, I could have obtained a lot more interviews because writers were supportive the whole way. Nevertheless, there were vast, vast swathes that were me, alone.

This meant it couldn’t take priority when events happened. I put it in hold while I did my PhD. I put it aside when other people needed me more: when small presses said “Gillian, we need you to edit, to proofread” and when science fiction conventions said “You are our committee person!” I started it while I was still on the Women’s History Month committee, and it was what I moved to after that part of my life was complete.

Van Ikin edited it and wrote the introduction. This was a huge gift. Those last few months made a large difference to the quality of the end result. Even when one is doing perfectly straightforward research, doing it outside a scholarly environment is difficult. The scholarly environment is much maligned, but it gives checks and balances; it gives inspiration and peers; it gives resources. A different environment would have given me less independence, but it also would have given me far more resources and far less loneliness. Doing something as game-changing as this work meant I was walking on very thin ice at times. The way the book has so far been received means I didn’t actually break that thin ice. Given my health was going downhill the whole time, this is surprising. I began the resource as a normal person and ended the project in hospital. I’m thankful to be capable of so much now, but I look back and realise how extraordinary it was that I finished this monograph at all. Some of this was my obduracy, but some of it was writers, wanting to know what my results were. Writers possess vast wells of curiosity. So many of them want to understand. This need to know pushed me when I was incapable of pushing myself.

Why do I think my study was game-changing? It’s interdisciplinary. It uses historiography, literary studies and cultural studies, with just a bit of ethnohistory. I used interviews as well as textual analysis, for my public service background gave me a bit of social science background. I even have publications in public affairs and the social sciences, although they were never under my own name and I seldom admit to them. This is why the thin ice: that’s a lot of things to bring into a single study.

What I was doing was finding out what current authors do and think. How they approach history. How they research history. How history and their work combine. How to bring genre issues to the big table and talk about them. How to bring living writers into the literary discussion.

I’m not the first person to do some of these things. It’s the amalgamation that’s new. Van points out that I’m poised between several states (writer and historian are the main two, but not the only ones) and this is why my study is a bit different. Why it’s so special to me.

The work I’m doing now is easier. It’s a bit more mainstream. It’s a lot faster. It won’t take twelve years to reach results.

History and Fiction will always be special. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

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