Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Living History with Sean Michaels, Steven Galloway, and Eva Stachniak

The April showers didn’t stop the crowd from gathering at the Knox Presbyterian Church on Saturday evening. I was one of a handful of folks purchasing books before the panel even began, so I clearly wasn’t the only one expecting a line-up afterwards! It’s always fun to hang out around the book displays once the festival is in full swing, anyway, to hear the chatter about the authors people have already seen and the ones that they’re excited to read. The chatter had already turned toward the authors we were about to see.


The panel kicked off with introductions from moderator Mark Medley. Each author read from his or her latest book, but Sean Michaels was the only one to put on a musical performance! His novel, Us Conductors , is inspired by the true life and loves of the Russian scientist, inventor and spy Lev Termen, who was also the creator of the theremin. Sean gave us a demonstration of playing the theremin, which is quite a thing so see since the theremin is controlled without physical contact by the performer. (Sadly, Steven Galloway, whose novel is inspired by the life and death of Harry Houdini, did not perform any magic tricks to go with his reading.)


Once the readings were complete and everyone was settled on stage, Mark Medley started the discussion by asking why the authors chose to write about the historical figures that they did. The range of answers on the panel was quite interesting—and, as my husband pointed out when we were on our way home, the seating order of the authors was also intriguing. Eva Stachniak, who was sitting next to the moderator, is likely the only one of the authors who writes “old school” historical fiction (in terms of genre, but also technique). On the other end of the panel was Sean Michaels, who said that his work is not like Eva’s: he used the story of these real-life characters as a silhouette and “filled it with fictions to let the silhouette convey things I was grappling with.” Steven Galloway, who was right smack in the middle (seating-wise), also seemed to fit somewhere between what Eva and Sean were doing with their historical characters, albeit with closer leanings to Sean.


Their answers, then, ranged from Eva’s fascination with Catherine the Great (“I want to imagine myself in this world; I want to stand by and watch her live”) to Steven’s simple answer about his interest in Houdini (“I think Houdini is neat, but I wanted to use a magician, and if Houdini didn’t work, I would have found someone else”) to Sean’s rather eloquent take on a writer’s inspiration (“Writers walk around with bulging pockets; you pick up bits and pieces that interest you or that you’re curious about—and Lev’s story was one of those bits that I had tucked away”).


The discussion then turned to invention in historical fiction, and Steven made the interesting point that the difference between historical fiction and creative non-fiction is the agreement with the reader that the novel in their hands is a work of fiction. It isn’t a biography, so they should be prepared to suspend their disbelief. In other words, there should be room for invention. Eva, who tries not to invent details, brilliantly compared her own (more traditional historical fiction) work to that of a sonnet writer: the form is already there (i.e., the historical figures, events, and facts), but she can write whatever she wants within that form. The motivations of characters and their thoughts are what she invented, but she had done so much research ahead of time that she is “confident in that world.”


All of the authors did quite a bit of research to write their books, actually. Mark mentioned the shelf full of books about Houdini in Steven’s office, and Steven explained that he didn’t reference the books while he was writing, but doing the research ahead of time makes things easier. He could have made up how Houdini did his tricks, or he could look it up. “There’s quite a lot to make up already,” he explained. He also went on to joke about the (disappointed) reactions he gets when someone asks him if a scene was real or made up. “It’s way harder to make it up!” he laughed.


Sean’s father built his theremin for him as part of his research, but he also travelled to Russia. “The main thing a writer does is conjure a continuous dream,” he said. “The vividness and continuousness of that dream takes [lots of writing] practice.” He said that his trip to Russia was a subtler aspect of research, one that helped him with the vividness and continuousness that he was seeking in his writing. He noted that he could have looked up famous landmarks and other photos in books or online, but “to describe the sunset or how it feels on the streets, I wanted [to go to Russia myself] to be able to trust my own instincts in writing this.”


Before things wrapped up and the floor was open to the audience for questions, Mark asked the panel how they would want to be fictionalized by another writer, possibly decades or hundreds of years from now. All of the authors would be happy to be fictionalized themselves. Eva made the point that by writing, you give that character another chance at life—who wouldn’t want that?—and that there might be something in your own story that you might not even realize is important. Sean would be perfectly happy with a completely fictional version of himself gracing the pages of a future book. “If a made-up version sings an interesting song, then that’s fine,” he said. Steven joked that the real version wouldn’t be very interesting (“guy goes into room alone and types for years on end”), so he declared that his fictionalized self should be “taller, handsomer, funnier, and more dramatic.”


I like the way they think.


Overall, this panel was put together quite well and the discussion gave me a lot to chew on about the relationship between history and fiction and where the author’s responsibility lies. It’s a topic that I’d like to see come up at future festival panels, too, because it can be a fascinating discussion. Each author was charismatic, and I’d be happy to see any one of them again, as well. Now, on to delve into their books…