TSS - David Ebershoff, The 19th Wife Author Guest Post

(See my previous post/review of The 19th Wife.)

Yea! David has written a wonderful guest post for us. I asked him about his research process, fact checking, how he decides what to fictionalize. So without further ado, I turn it over to David.

First, let me thank you for giving me some space on your cool blog. It’s great to have a chance to be in touch with you and your readers. I thought I’d say a few words about historical accuracy because, as a writer of historical fiction, I’m often asked about it. On top of that obviously it’s something that interests you. While I was writing The 19th Wife I anticipated questions about this because my protagonist, Ann Eliza Young, is based on a real person who appears widely in the historical record of her day.

Historical accuracy is important to me. Although I write fiction, I work hard to be accurate. But of course historical accuracy often depends on point of view. By that I mean two people can have different versions of the same event. In fiction, the characters’ differences of opinion are often a source of dramatic tension and irony. In The 19th Wife, several narrators tell Ann Eliza’s story: Ann Eliza, of course, but also her father, her mother, her brother, her son, a 21st-century graduate student researching Ann Eliza’s life, and even Brigham Young. These different narrators allow for different interpretations of the same event or person. For example, in The 19th Wife when Ann Eliza is telling us about her unhappy marriage to Brigham, she leads us to believe that he is mostly self-righteous, stern, and humorless. But when Brigham narrates the story, we find him to be a man different from Ann Eliza’s depiction. In his own words he proves to be humbled by God, pliable, and a man who relishes wit and a good joke. I did this purposefully because if you read eye-witness accounts of Brigham you often get different interpretations of what kind of man he was. Some viewed him as domineering and despotic; others viewed him as benevolent and grandfatherly; others still viewed him as charitable and pious. When I studied his life from many different sources, I found all of these descriptions to be true, plus many, many more. So I wanted the novel to reflect the complexities of history and how opposing opinions often reveal those complexities. I wanted the book to acknowledge that the phrase “historically accurate” must always have an asterisk next to it. Through its structure of multiple narrators and primary documents like newspaper clippings and transcripts, The 19th Wife acknowledges (and plays with) the subjectivity of history.

I started my research for The 19th Wife with Ann Eliza herself. She left a large amount of material about her life, including two memoirs, several public lectures, a Congressional testimony, hundreds of newspaper interviews and articles, and an extensive court record from her divorce from Brigham Young. But one of the frustrating things about Ann Eliza is that although she never tired of talking about herself, she said remarkably little about her family. This struck me as peculiar because family dynamics are such an important part of understanding polygamy. As I was reading about Ann Eliza’s life I kept wondering about her father, who had five wives, and her mother, who knew both Joseph Smith and Brigham personally and revered them. What was it like for her to see her daughter marry her prophet and then publicly divorce him? I wanted to know about Ann Eliza’s brother. Why were his views on polygamy different from his sister’s – or were they? And I wanted to know about her sons – what was it like to be the child of the notorious 19th Wife?

I soon realized that these questions were the holes I could fill in with my imagination. Although I looked for factual details about Ann Eliza’s family, little of substance exists. In Nauvoo, Illinois, where the Mormon Church was headquartered in the late 1830s and early 1840s, I found a short autobiographical statement by her father – a one-paragraph document that inspired his story in my book. I found their family home, which has been restored, and her father’s blacksmith and wagonry. As many of you might know, much of historic Nauvoo has been rebuilt in recent years. Anyone can visit the historic homes, shops, and meeting houses where the early Mormons lived, worked, and worshipped. And so I spent several days there imagining my characters – not only Ann Eliza and her family, but also Joseph and Brigham – in these buildings and on these streets. The same was true in Salt Lake City. I don’t know how many times I visited Brigham’s home and office, the Beehive House. Sometimes I went twice a day when I was in town. I loved to imagine Brigham at his desk or upstairs in the parlor. I loved to imagine the sounds of the women’s voices and the patter of children’s feet on the runner as they tried not to disturb their father. And I tried to imagine what it was like to be outside that house –literally to be an outsider to it, as Ann Eliza eventually became. (There’s a scene in the book when she’s looking at the house from the street and realizes that although she is married to Brigham she’s not a part of his family and never will be. I could have only imagined that moment by standing outside the house myself and looking in.)

My research included reading numerous biographies and histories; diaries, memoirs, and letters; newspaper stories, court records, and other texts. I studied old photographs, maps, furniture, details of houses, of food, of clothing, and other historical artifacts. I read all the sacred LDS texts, attended Sunday services, and interviewed many people about their faith. I researched as much as I could to write the novel in a historically accurate way. But, ultimately, The 19th Wife is a novel. It is about complex people who make mistakes – as we all do. As a novelist I needed to create characters the reader would care about (which isn’t always the same as liking a character). And so I needed to make my characters real, which means they must have flaws. And one flaw that each of us shares is a perception of reality limited by our own biases. I believe that The 19th Wife is historically accurate, but I must put an asterisk next to that: sometimes my characters’ opinions aren’t always accurate, even when they are trying to be.

Thank you so much, David. I'm in awe of the amount of research you did. I love the image of you making countless trips to the Beehive House to get a feel for the place, and the amount of reading you did (really? all the sacred texts??) is truly impressive.

I'd love to have comments from those of you who've read The 19th Wife; and if you haven't, what sparks your interest about this book?



Anonymous said...

Having recently read Stewart Udall's book "The Forgotten Founders: Rethinking the History of the Old West" in which he speaks of the importance of Mormon families in settling the West, I think this book would give me more of an idea of what that experience was like - especially for women.

I appreciate historical fiction that is accurate in its facts - thanks for doing the research.


avisannschild said...

Loved this book and just reviewed it here (with a link to this guest post). I've been to Salt Lake City, although I mostly spent all my time in the library researching my own ancestors, so I didn't visit the Beehive House. I really think David did an amazing job of channelling his historical characters!