I think it was William Styron who said that if you were going to write a novel based on history, it was a good idea not to know too much history. That's a funny comment, no doubt prompted by the controversy surrounding The Confessions of Nat Turner, as in, "How can a white man write a novel from the perspective of a black man?"
I'd suppose Styron's answer would be fiction is fiction, and history is history, fiction being accountable to aesthetic insights and commitments, history being accountable to "the facts," which he did not want to constrain his imagination.
And Styron might have gone further, arguing that the facts are a combination of selectively organized slim pickings that require the novelist's imagination to flesh out, said imagination being neither white nor black but a combination of training and an inquisitive nature.
When I wrote THE MAN CLOTHED IN LINEN, I hewed closely to the perspective of an historian t because , Nicolas of Damascus knew more about the ancient world--in fact had personally observed some of the ancient world's key personages--than anyone else.
One of his key problems, and one of mine, was the centrality of despicable people in the age of Augustus and Jesus. Herod the Great murdered his wife and three sons. Pontius Pilate was not, in my view, a mere functionary, carrying out Rome's wishes in having Jesus crucified. The Emperor Tiberius had been kept waiting so long to be named Augustus's successor that he was a querulous, unpleasant, high-handed, arrogant man by the time he assumed control of Rome.
As a novelist, it seems to me that the challenge is portraying these demons in their fullness, placing them in revealing scenes, giving them voices full of fury, manipulation, condescension, and hauteur. I don't think there is a politically correct obligation to "find something nice" to say about wicked folk, but sometimes, living imaginatively with such folk for a long time, one does find elements of vanity and vulnerability that make them intriguing and multi-dimensional.
Jesus, as I have commented before, is a difficult subject because there are at least four of him, one from each gospel. Here Styron would have not had a superabundance of available history to stymie his imagination, though, because none of the gospels conveys the man as a novel conveys a man--a person whose dailiness, whose unintended gestures, whose hidden allegiances are all displayed in full.
My Jesus, if I dare put it that way, has a choice: he can associate himself with the violent Zealots, or he can pursue a path of stern but non-violent criticism of "the powers" that surround him. The Zealots were real, historical figures, represented in his own entourage, and they had a point: neither the Romans nor the Temple hierarchy were serving many Jews, perhaps the majority of Jews, well.
As a novelist, or as an historical novelist, you keep thinking and rethinking how things "probably were," or "might have been," in tangible terms, dramatic terms. Palestine was a small place. Word traveled fast. The Romans would not have taken over after Herod the Great's death if it were not also an unruly place, a house divided within itself--one major division being that between Jerusalem and Galilee.
So you make a narrative commitment that is half-historical and half-supposition. We know Jesus was crucified. Why? By whom? What did he actually do to deserve that fate, and how might he have avoided it?
In the case of The Confessions of Nat Turner, Styron was writing about relatively recent events. Jesus' story transpired 2,000 years ago, and the only records we have about it were not put on paper until decades after his death. So this is where the imagination must enter the picture, if the picture is to have continuing life.
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