Kelly Kerney's outstanding novel Hard Red Spring spans the entire 20th century in Guatemala's history through four vivid voices. Kerney, who spent a decade writing the book, talks about the difficult task of fictionalizing the past.
First, I need to confess that I do not like what we call historical fiction. Nor do I particularly like the term “historical fiction.” But, as someone who has just written a novel that explores a hundred years of Guatemala’s history, I suppose I should get used to the label. Or, more to my liking, I’d like to complicate the role of history plays in the stories we tell each other.
Too often in literature, history is either romantic background against which human dramas are played out, or a force buffeting helpless characters through a chain of events beyond their control. In reality, our relationship with history—especially for Americans—is much more dynamic. It has shaped us and we have shaped it, from the politicians we elect to the products we buy. History is not consigned to an academic bubble or a genre and it is not in the past. History is all around us, a continuum on which the past, present and the future interact constantly. Bear with me on this. I promise I’m not going to bust out any crystals. When I embarked on this novel a decade ago—a project that explores the surreal and tragic history of American intervention in Guatemala—my goal was to track this continuum and drag this history from the past. I didn’t want my readers’ hearts to merely break for the characters or even for real people who lived fifty years ago. I wanted their hearts to break for an entire nation suffering on their own continuum—now.
The study of history is tricky, not least for that fact that its two primary difficulties are antithetical: both too much and too little information. Starting with the latter, there is plenty we simply do not know. When I’m not writing, I work in a museum archive handling research requests and I can tell you that half the time what people are looking for simply does not exist, though they spend years searching. Records burn, get tossed or, more often, were not kept in the first place. Journals kept in the past were, of course, written by literate people with the leisure for self-contemplation. In the 1850s, in the early days of photography, guess what the rich people who could afford it weren’t taking pictures of: busy streets, servants, factories, markets, fairs, jails, hospitals, churches, farms and businesses. Can you guess what they were taking pictures of? Themselves. With that, our idea of the past tends to be generalized and sanitized into the lofty and romantic doings of the upper-classes: all balls, inheritances, and female propriety befitting a BBC drama. And even the working class people we do get in these shows still inhabit that world, just on the outskirts. Who wants to watch a show featuring an illiterate, drunk syphilitic who works fifteen hours a day in a rope factory?
The second problem occurs the other half of the time: too much information. If what you’re looking for isn’t very specific, you will quickly become buried in a mind-numbing amount of information. But to get the specifics, you need to engage the beast, but you can’t, because you don’t have specifics.
Both problems dogged me during the writing of Hard Red Spring. So much so that the ultimate question I asked myself daily became: how much research is too much research? Is it a waste of time to read thousands of pages, not really searching for something specific, but hoping to gain context and maybe discover something you might be able to use? Or is it more of a waste to hone in and search for something specific you know you need, yet probably doesn’t even exist? Or is it all a waste of goddamned time and just a way to avoid getting to the hard part—which we’ll talk about later.
20th Century Guatemalan history has been fairly well-documented by scholars, NGOs, and government reports. The basic, disturbing facts of America’s involvement there are uncontested, albeit little-known by the general public. But to understand the civil war (which I knew would be the focal point of the book), I knew readers needed to understand the revolution and the coup that preceded it, to understand the revolution readers needed to understand the brutal, tyrannical plantation system the people had revolted against. And even though I blocked off a hundred years—from 1902 to 1999—for the actual narrative to capture all this, I knew that to truly grasp that century and especially the motivations and actions of people that inhabit it, I needed context that reached beyond even a hundred years. With that, my study went back to Spanish rule. I leapt forward to examine CAFTA and the immigration crisis. I even found myself researching the Mayan Empire. This is what I mean by a mind-numbing amount of information. But all these eras cast light on each other—into the past, into the future—informing the narrative in vital and surprising ways. I saw echoes of the Spanish conquest in the Cold War, I saw the plantation economy recreated in globalization. This is what I mean by the continuum. Eras outside of my set time-span crept into the story as symbol, theme, fable, and anecdote, enriching the narrative.
On the other hand, there are the million details. And it was in the million details that I struggled with an absence of information. For example, what wage would a 1902 Ladino peasant make working on a small farm for a relatively fair employer? Well, first of all, a Ladino is a peculiar class in Guatemala, defined as a Maya who has cast off indigenous dress and customs for Hispanic ones. He would make more than a Mayan man in Mayan dress, but less than a worker of Spanish descent. But he may or may not make less than a Mestizo (someone of mixed blood) as well. I lost myself in the library, scoured academic papers online, pestered PhDs, and eventually finagled the email address of a labor historian who would probably know. But after I wrote the email, I reread it and realized that I sounded insane! I stepped back. What was the point of having this answer? It didn’t affect the narrative. I knew the Ladino worker wouldn’t make much. I realized that I had become obsessed with this question for a line of dialogue that could easily, so easily, be made more generic.
So, funny enough, covering a thousand years of history is not what turned out to be too much research. That, I needed. The over-research came in the details. The Writing God is a cruel god, indeed.
As maddening as this all sounds, the research is the easy part. What makes a coherent history does not necessarily make a compelling novel—and vice versa. But to succeed you have to somehow do both. All this raw material needed to be remade to serve both the history and the narrative with a simultaneous subtractive and additive process (respectively). A good metaphor would be having to carve a lovely ice sculpture of a figure, but then having to take all the chiseled away chunks at your feet and press them into an equally lovely horse beneath the figure that shows no seams. The process is thrilling and excruciating. A historical fact gets shaved down to a symbol, which then might get stretched out to a larger theme, but then six years later, I might just have to cut it—or condense it back down to a mere image in a scene. But wait, maybe the fact itself will now work with what I have. But what was it? I flail through a mountain of books, printed articles, and notes. Where did this image of a burning piano come from years ago? I think I remember and I think it would work incredibly well now, but did I really read that somewhere? Did I make it up to serve some other long-forgotten purpose? Because, on top of it all, the ice is melting…
But, lucky for you, the work is all done and I can look back on it with a slightly cheerful tone and a semi-articulateness that certainly did not exist during the process. It’s much like childbirth, I’ve heard, although this labor lasted ten years. But my pain is your pleasure. All you have to do is sit back and enjoy the feeling of your heart breaking for a nation, of me breaking it. Because, in the end, that’s the price and the point of it all: history as dynamism. But don’t feel too bad for me. On this two-way street, your pain is my pleasure as well.