“When did you decide to write novels?”
It’s the question I get most frequently from my readers, many of them curious and even disappointed that I’ve strayed from serious research to what they consider the “frivolities” of fiction. I have to explain to them that, in fact, I actually started out as a poet and screenwriter and only later turned to history. Even then, I was—and always will be—a novelist. “Nonfiction,” I confess to them, “supports my fiction habit.”
Ever since that day I returned from sixth grade with a strange almost-out-of-body sensation, sat down at my bedroom desk, and wrote my first poem, I knew I was a writer. I started with poetry—my first collection, completed at age 13, was grimly titled, Who Cries for the Soul of the Pigeon?—and went on to compose short stories and a film that won the PBS National Young Filmmakers Award. Fiction writing gained me admission to a college that otherwise would never have accepted me, and landed me a job as a gofer for director Orson Welles.
But along with these early successes came a stack of rejection letters that only thickened over time. Denied admission to the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I used my GRE scores to apply to a graduate program in history. That, in turn, led to bestselling books about the 1967 Six-Day War and America’s 200-year involvement in the Middle East, and to diplomatic posts and visiting professorships. I had fulfilled my dream of becoming a published writer, but only of nonfiction.
Inside, though, I was still writing stories. Poems, vignettes, novellas—I scribbled them all in the off-hours, submitted them for publication, and reeled with each rejection. My best friends urged me to stop, saying they could no longer bear my suffering. “Your fiction is a fiction,” they said.
“Even if I were a musician who never made the philharmonic and only played weddings, I’d still be a musician,” I replied. “A writer is who I am.”
So a fiction writer I remained, and eventually some of those rejections became offers. I published three novels and two collections of stories, all positively reviewed. But while my history books continued to sell, my fiction books rarely made it to a second printing. Friends still advised me to give it up and focus on what I was good at. “History is about truths,” one of them declared. “Fiction is lies.”
My response was to insist that fiction, on the contrary, is the highest truth—the truth about human nature. The truth about me.
All of my fiction writing reflects three things about me: the thrill I derive from telling a good story, the joy of drawing on the rich experiences of my life, and the deep satisfaction of exploring the human condition. A story could be an international murder mystery, for example, and reflect my service as a diplomat and undercover agent, but it will also be a commentary on betrayal, memory, and love. Fiction is also freedom. It enables me to be whomever I want—a retired gay school principal, an alien, even a tiger—in any place or time I choose.
In writing about the 16th century or cultures far from mine, I’ll often employ the tools I learned in graduate school. My forthcoming novel, Swann’s War, set on an island at the height of WWII, required research into fields as diverse as lobster trapping and cranberry farming, life on the home front, and the barriers facing policewomen in the 1940s. The highest compliment I receive as a nonfiction writer—“Your books read like novels”—is outdone only by the reaction my novels occasionally merit: “They read like history.”
Still, there is the frustration of convincing audiences that while I continue to be a serious historian, I am a no less substantive novelist. There is the challenge of proving that history writing and fiction writing are not contradictory but complementary, that my love for storytelling does not in any way detract from my passion for facts. Both stem from an irrepressible need to connect with people on multiple levels and to convey the truth as I see it. I want to share that same wondrous out-of-body feeling I experienced in sixth grade and welcome all my readers to my world.
Michael Oren is a historian, author, and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. His novel Swann’s War (Dzanc) is due out October 25.