In the seventh of her series of interviews with women who write nonfiction, E.B. Bartels converses with historian Martha Hodes.
Martha Hodes is the author of three books: Mourning Lincoln (Yale University Press, 2015), The Sea Captain’s Wife: A True Story of Love, Race, and War in the Nineteenth Century (W.W. Norton, 2006), and White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South (Yale University Press, 1997), and the editor of a collection of essays, Sex, Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History (New York University Press, 1999). The Sea Captain’s Wife was one of three finalists for the Lincoln Book Prize, and White Women, Black Men was winner of the Allan Nevins Prize for Literary Distinction in the Writing of History. Hodes has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Charles Warren Center at Harvard University, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the Whiting Foundation, and she served as a Fulbright Senior Scholar in Germany. Hodes is also an elected fellow of the Society of American Historians and has consulted on many documentaries, museum exhibitions, and radio and television shows, including the 2010 documentary The Loving Story about the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia. She is Professor of History at New York University.
EB: Why have you, as a writer, been drawn to writing nonfiction?
MH: I became a historian as a way to be a writer, and I write nonfiction because I’m a historian. I’m drawn to the nineteenth-century United States because I want to write history that resonates into the present–hence my focus on the Civil War era, race, and racism. I love every step of the process: searching through archives, unearthing and reading documents, interpreting voices and lives from the past, and, most of all, the challenge of crafting historical documents into compelling stories. By the way, I also read fiction all the time, as inspiration for my nonfiction prose.
EB: How does fiction inspire you? Are there any particular novels that you’ve found to be particularly helpful in crafting nonfiction?
MH: Fiction writers create narrative arcs and strive for beauty and clarity, none of which is formally required of professional historians. I tend to draw inspiration from modern novels with intricate storylines and in-depth character development–a good example is Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. I’m inspired as well by works of historical fiction that are also literary masterpieces: Thomas Mallon’s Henry and Clara, about the young couple who joined the Lincolns in their box at Ford’s Theater on the night of the assassination; Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, about Frank Lloyd Wright; and Geraldine Brooks’ March, about Louisa May Alcott’s father (which won the Pulitzer Prize). It’s the interplay of documentation and imagination that inspires me here.
Let me add that I’m also inspired by literary memoirs. Two examples are Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave (the author lost her two children, her husband, and her parents in the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka) and Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World (about the sudden death of a beloved husband). Alexander is the poet who spoke at Obama’s first inauguration, and I carefully studied her laconic, evocative sentences.
EB: What do you feel you personally bring to your nonfiction?
MH: First, a love of stories. It’s eminently possible to write history without storytelling, but I care about reaching an audience beyond the academy, and storytelling is one way to do that. Second, the same as in fiction-writing, writers of nonfiction can bring our own life experiences into our work, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely. The lives of my nineteenth-century historical actors are quite distant from my own, but all my books are–in different ways–about loss and grief, a subject that’s of great interest to me.
EB: Where do imagination and creativity enter into the writing of nonfiction?
MH: Everywhere, precisely because, as a historian, I can’t fictionalize. That means I’m compelled to think imaginatively and creatively about how to craft my evidence into narrative prose without crossing the line into fiction. By “evidence,” I mean letters, diaries, photographs, newspaper reports, even seemingly mundane documents like census listings or tax records. By “narrative,” I mean where to begin and end, how to structure chapters, whose voices and experiences to place at the center, what voice to use as the author, how much to speculate, and which adjectives and verbs will best convey what happened in the past.
EB: That’s so true–writing fiction, or creating something out of nothing, is definitely difficult, but I think it’s just as challenging to create something interesting and exciting out of all the stuff life gives you. What else has been challenging about writing nonfiction as a woman?
MH: As a writer, the hardest part is precisely that you can’t make anything up. There have been times when I’ve yearned to fill in the fragmentary stories I’ve found in the archives. Take my second book, The Sea Captain’s Wife, which I wrote from a collection of family letters in the archives of Duke University. As it turned out, a crucial three years of letters were missing, making it impossible to know how the white protagonist met the black sea captain she eventually married. In the end, I could only comb the existing letters for hints and clues and offer my readers a series of possible scenarios. Each scenario was imagined–and clearly marked for the reader as speculation–but each one was also grounded in history and historical context.
As a woman, and as someone who often makes women central to the stories I tell, I’m vexed that other scholars often classify me primarily as a historian of women and gender, when I think of myself as a historian of race and the Civil War (for which gender is, of course, central). Since the publication of Mourning Lincoln this year, that has changed to some degree, and I’ve sometimes found myself the lone woman amid male authors and readers. I enjoy breaking that pattern.
EB: What is a favorite passage of nonfiction by a woman writer?
MH: In The Hemingses of Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed writes beautifully about what it means to think about whether Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson were in love: “Whatever the notion that Hemings and Jefferson may have loved each other makes us think of them as individuals,” she writes, “the idea of their love has no power to change the basic reality of slavery’s essential inhumanity. For any who fear the effects of romanticizing the pair, the romance is not in saying that they may have loved one another. The romance is in thinking that it makes any difference if they did.” Brilliant.
E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, The Rumpus, Ploughshares, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.