I have been an ardent reader and devoted lover of historical fiction for decades. And, while many authors can marry the nuances of fact and fiction, few -- in my opinion -- can blend it in a way where the reader wants to be involved from the very beginning.
Sarah Blake's recently published The Postmistress does just that. It offers an inimitable blend of World War II era history, stunning heroines and a very different look at the power of how we once communicated versus how we communicate today.
I had the chance to interview Blake about The Postmistress, how it came to be and her advice for writers.
Laura Cococcia: What was the inspiration behind The Postmistress?
Sarah Blake: The Postmistress began with an image that flashed into my head one day of a woman in a post office sorting the mail: she looks down at the envelope in her hand, looks up to see if anyone is watching, and then slides the envelope into her pocket. I was interested in trying to write a war novel that took place off the battlefield, in the lives of ordinary women, and in particular I wanted to tell a story in which the effects of war are seen in how these characters come to understand their relation to the truth and to what is right. A postmaster who doesn't deliver a letter, a war reporter who can't report a story -- these two characters evolved out of the combination of that initial image and the desire to tell a different kind of war story.
LC: What did you find most challenging about writing it? The most rewarding?
SB: It took eight years to write this novel, in part because of the seduction of research--one fact leads to another and there are so many great true stories to try and use--but also because I wasn't quite sure how to weave the stories of the three women together. I wanted to capture the simultaneity of two worlds -- England at war -- Franklin in peace -- and it wasn't until I hit upon the device of moving the narrative back and forth on Frankie's broadcasts that the stories began to work for me. That moment of discovery was the most rewarding!
LC: I always admire historical fiction authors -- they're able to weave together events from history and rich characters, as you've done extremely well. From your experience, what are some keys to success for crafting compelling historical fiction?
SB: A friend of mine who studied with Joan Didion told me that Didion admonished: when you look up from what you're writing, see what the character sees, not your room. I think one of the great challenges of writing historical fiction is to have done your research so well that it can disappear. The goal is to be able to look up from my computer and see and hear the 1940s, so that my work doesn't read as research, it reads as a world.
Of course, the more research you've done the broader your canvas can become, and it's hard to give up some of the facts or events that you might have uncovered. This is a challenge as well, to know when to hew more to the story you're writing than to the history you've studied.
LC: Of course, every reader has an individual relationship with a novel or story. Is there anything specific, though, that you'd like readers to take away from The Postmistress?
SB: I don't have any specific thing; in fact the great delight for me has been hearing from readers what they have taken away from reading the book!
LC: This one's for aspiring authors -- what advice do you have for writers looking to stay committed to their writing practice?
SB: Brick by brick. That's how I feel this book came about. Every day I would go up to my study, and for as long as I had -- an hour, three hours, five -- I would try and build the world. I tried to write something every day, something that might never make it into the larger draft, but something that might spur something else to come along, some invisible mortar. And I read all the time, studying the masters of plot and of character.