A marriage of minds at Cheltenham Festival

07/10/2011 by Ed Wood

Emma Donoghue and Ellen Feldmen discuss facts, fiction and fashion at the Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

Fiction based in historical fact was the topic for bestselling authors Emma Donoghue and Ellen Feldman at one of the first events at this year's Times Cheltenham Literature Festival.

Chaired by Pamela Armstrong, the hour gave much to both fans of the authors' writing and those seeking to emulate them. Donoghue, of course, is best known for her mammoth hit and Booker-shortlisted Room. Despite parallels to real events like the Fritzl case (among others), she claims: "it wasn't closely based on them at all". Instead, it is events from the distant past from which she takes real inspiration, a process she finds more difficult than the purely fictional. "It's very time-consuming and fiddly to work out what really happened," she says. Life, indeed, makes things hard. "You have to impose a lot of order on life before it becomes a story."

In The Sealed Letter, her new novel which is being published in the UK for the first time this month, that life comes in the form of the court case surrounding an adulterous wife in 1864 – and as always, reality is less conventional than fiction. "If I were making it up," she said, "I would have given her one great romance." Instead the wife has two, both with military men, at overlapping times. She was a person ignored by historians – the best kind for fiction writers, in Donoghue's opinion – that she could "resurrect in all her gritty details". In Irish society, which only introduced divorce in 1995, the ending of marriage was a powder-keg of a subject for the Dublin-born writer - "an emblem of modernity".

Feldman, author of the Orange Prize-shortlisted Scottsboro, also chose women as the central figures for her new novel Next to Love, set during and after the Second World War and examining its effects on the marriages of those left back home in America. However based in real life, she said: "Once I started to write, these characters became my characters."

The characters of Next to Love are profoundly changed by their experiences. "Every war changes society," said Feldman. Before the Second World War, "most people died a few miles from where they were born… then, suddenly, the groups had left their ghettos". What followed was a revolution in women's status, and though the powers-that-be tried to reverse the social changes through fashion ("huge Dior hoop skirts") and cookery (nine-hour recipes) that were inappropriate for the working woman, "the genie was out of the bottle".

Donoghue added, powerfully, that "feminist writing is mistakenly assumed to be all about women – it's not, it's writing that notices gender". Feldman agreed: "I don't like fiction that villainises men."

As novelists who research heavily, both authors admitted that historians don't exactly jump at the chance to praise the accuracy of their work; Donoghue said they come round eventually, while Feldman said: "I can deal with historians' disdain if I [also] get the normal people who say, ‘Yes, that's what it was like, thank you.'" Next to Love, she said with satisfaction and sensitivity, had helped some veterans talk about their experiences of the war late in their lives.

In fact, added Donoghue, "The only one thing that strikes a chill into me is when a reader says to me, ‘Oh, I found your book very educational!'"

Ironically, this witty, informative talk was just that – and a whole lot more. For Donoghue, who is now working on a book about the 1876 murder of a 26-year-old cross-dressing frog-hunter (yes really), and Feldman – whose latest is a look at the cultural Cold War via a marriage – are as informed as any historian, with the added thrust of art behind them.

The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue is published by Pan Macmillan on 13th October.

Next to Love by Ellen Feldman is published by Picador.
 

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