As a kid I loved reading historical fiction. But I also loved myths. To me in a certain sense these two forms of writing were closer than one might imagine. We look for myth in our humdrum lives, and as a writer when there is a possibility for myth and history to intersect it’s a blessing! Nothing is pure myth, nor is it pure history, even if it is responsibly written historical fiction. You need the history. But what is there beneath the history that can animate the characters. Perhaps there is myth buried beneath all that history, or the reverse–some history behind the myth.
MYTH MEETS FICTION
So, imagine my delight when my publisher Scholastic asked if I would like to participate in writing a series called Dear America. These books for middle grade readers were fictional diaries kept by young people who were going through real events in American history. A dream come true! They asked other authors to join in. The series was a huge hit and included at least a dozen titles.
My first Dear America book was Journey to The New World: The Mayflower Diary of Remember Patience Whipple. Eventually I wrote four others set in historical times in America. The series was so popular they decided to do another series called the Royal Diaries. These books were real life Princesses who kept fictional diaries. So, I started with Elizabeth the First and then on to Mary Queen of Scots and Marie Antoinette, then several other princesses, a Japanese one, an Indian one. I was of course wallowing in the history, but alert to any mythic elements that I could wrap my characters in. Guess what? They in a sense would themselves become mythic, through their power, or their tragedy, like Mary Queen of Scots.
MYTH VS REALITY VS FICTION
However, all that changed when it came to writing LIGHT ON BONE with Georgia O’Keeffe as an amateur sleuth. Georgia herself was in one sense a kind of contemporary myth. She was made for myth and yet there was bedrock reality about her. And this brought a new kind of pressure. First of all, there are people alive today who knew O’Keeffe, had interacted with her in the art world, in her private life and elsewhere. And, then there was the era itself. I set the book in 1934. That seems like a minute ago to me. Certainly not like four hundred years before when Elizabeth Tudor was born.
Penicillin had been invented just six years before in 1928. The country was still in the depths of the Depression. Roosevelt had only been in office one year. But perhaps most important, Hitler was rising, and had actually snagged the favorable attention of some people in America who would by 1940 become known as ‘America Firsters’. Perhaps the most outspoken of these was Charles Lindbergh. Imagine my delight when I discovered that Lindberg and O’Keeffe had both overlapped with each other at the Ghost Ranch!
O’Keeffe had gone to the Ranch to recover from a nervous breakdown. I did not have tomake that up, unfortunate for her but not for my story. I stumbled across this early in my research. Three events had devastated Georgia around 1934. Her husband Alfred Stieglitz was having a very public affair with a woman, an heiress Dorothy Norman. Georgia had won a competition to create a mural for Radio City Music. Hall. She was terribly excited by this, but the wall was poorly prepared, and it began to disintegrate when she was halfway through. So, she had to give it up. At the same time memories came back to haunt her of an abortion a few years before which she had reluctantly endured at Stieglitz’s insistence. It all seemed to peak in 1933 when she suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. In the spring of 1934, after she was released, she traveled to New Mexico determined to recover.
LAND OF MYTH: THE UNREAL BENEATH THE REAL
New Mexico the land of enchantment. The land of light. The land of myth.
Charmed by this landscape she wrote a letter to a friend about a mesa known as the Pedernal. “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”
The Pedernal in Navajo is called Changing Woman, a mythical woman who was born on this mesa and was said to still live there. Each year she is born in the spring, emerges as a young woman during the summer, becomes a mother in the fall, and turns into an old woman during the winter season, only to be born again. That perfectly summarizes for me the real beneath the unreal. Or if you prefer, the unreal beneath the real. Myth shapes life and lives can shape myth in historical fiction.
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KATHYRN LASKY is the author of LIGHT ON BONE: A Georgia O’Keeffe Mystery, which has been shortlisted for the 2023 Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She’s also written over one hundred books for children and young adults, including the Guardians of Ga’Hoole series, which has more than eight million copies in print, and was turned into a major motion picture, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole. Her books have received numerous awards including a Newbery Honor, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and a Washington Post-Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award. She has twice won the National Jewish Book award. Her work has been translated into 19 languages worldwide. She lives with her husband in Cambridge, MA.