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To Tell The Truth: Readers Embrace Golden Age Of Historical Fiction

Jonathan Lee is the author of The Great Mistake.
Tanja Kernweiss
Penguin Random House
Jonathan Lee is the author of The Great Mistake.

“Wolf Hall,” “Insurrecto” and “The Underground Railroad”: all bestselling novels, for sure, but also deeply rooted in history. As The New York Times essayist Megan O’Grady penned, we are living in a “golden age of historical fiction.” But what makes a good subject of a great book, fiction or nonfiction?

While a good biographer and a good novelist does both, best-selling author Jonathan Lee, author of the just-released The Great Mistake, says, “I've always felt that the biographer's task is in part to tell you the facts and dates of what happened; and that the novelist’s job is to make you feel what happened.”

Lee visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the fascinating but little-known subject of The Great Mistake and the latest emergence of the historical novel.

“Posterity can be pitiless and cruel and quite random in what it chooses to elevate and what it chooses to push into forgetting.”
Jonathan Lee

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. Everything… is history… eventually. There can be little doubt that these are quite historical times that we're in. And how will people remember… or more importantly, relate to our shared history of the 21st century? Jonathan Lee is here, international best selling novelist, editor and screenwriter. His last novel, High Dive, was chosen as a book of the year by The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian and others. And his new novel is The Great Mistake. Just out, now. And The Times has called it “a stunning new novel.” Mr. Lee, good morning.

JONATHAN LEE: Good morning. Thanks very much for having me on.

PRENTICE: Let's talk a little bit about The Great Mistake, and Andrew Green – A. H. Green - who I think most people don't know… yet, he may be largely responsible for the New York City that most us do know.

photo of author Jonathan Lee
Tanja Kernweiss
Tanja Kernweiss
Jonathan Lee is the author of The Great Mistake

LEE: I think you're right that not many people know him. So, The Great Mistake is my novel, as you say, that is about a real 19th century civic leader. And he ended up being murdered on Park Avenue at the age of 83. Pretty dramatic circumstances. But after creating modern New York and he was a person without whom there would be no Central Park, or a Metropolitan Museum of Art, a New York Public Library… maybe no merger of Manhattan with Brooklyn into a single city. He was perhaps the greatest creator of public space in the history of any city, I think. But he's been entirely forgotten, which is really surprising. And his only real memorial is a stone bench in Central Park that is covered with pigeon poop. And I discovered that back in 2012. And that was kind of where this story started for me.

PRENTICE: Full disclosure: having lived in New York, I know where that bench is… in a in a remote corner of Central Park. And indeed, it is covered with bird droppings on a regular basis. But I'm guessing that a few of our lives will be covered by bird droppings long after we're gone. Jonathan Lee, what grabbed my attention most recently is an essay you wrote for The New York Times titled “For Literary Novelists, The Past is Pressing,” and you write that the historical novel is being embraced again of late and reinvented.

LEE: I started writing that essay for The New York Times when I was writing The Great Mistake, when I was sort of finishing up the copyedits last year for this book. And increasingly, as I was writing, I kept discovering new examples of historical fiction that I think feel really fresh and fascinating and is being published right now. The main thrust of the essay was that I think we're living through a really exciting time for historical fiction, for writers and for readers of that material, particularly if you want to read historical fiction that feels contemporary and free of some of the cliches that have maybe been fairly or unfairly associated with the form in the past. And even since publishing the essay, I discovered that Jonathan Franzen, who has been mentioned as someone in the past who has been on the record as being somewhat skeptical of historical fiction, that he seems to be working on a piece of historical fiction. And I just saw this morning that Zadie Smith is working on a novel that is based around the 1800’s. So, I think there's definitely some kind of movement going on and it's sort of exciting to be part of that.

PRENTICE: You write, :The portraitist has always been drawn to the subject that sits still, and nothing about 2021 sits still.” And yet long after you and I are gone, someone will write… probably historical fiction about 2021

LEE: Well I'm pretty sure a lot of people are trying to write about 2021 right now as well. And sometimes it's difficult before the dust has settled. We live in such fast changing times. I think one fascinating thing is that the process of writing that historical fiction about 2021 in one hundred years or so will be so different to the process of writing my book, The Great Mistake… about this forgotten historical figure, because I was having to dig around in boxes of his diaries and letters that I was extremely excited to find at the New York Historical Society many years ago. And I think, right now, that kind of invisibility that somehow Andrew Green fell into, is almost impossible. Now, I think in 100 years, Google or some form of that will still exist. And so much of our current lives are being recorded that that would be an immediate treasure trove of information at the fingertips. And maybe it will be almost baffling, almost too overwhelming. It would be interesting to know.

PRENTICE: Can you talk a bit about how novels often can tell us much more about history than a history book?

Photo of cover of The Great Mistake
Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House
The Great Mistake was just published by Penguin Random House

LEE: I've always felt that the novels that I write, I'm trying to get under the skin of history and bring history back to life, especially forgotten bits of history. Posterity can be pitiless and cruel and quite random in what it chooses to elevate and what it chooses to push into forgetting.I've always felt that the biographer's task is in part to tell you the facts and dates of what happened; and that the novelist’s job is to make you feel what happened. A good biographer does both and hopefully a good novelist does both. But my priority is trying to capture the feelings of an era, and of individuals that made history happen.

PRENTICE: He is Jonathan Lee and the book is The Great Mistake. It is out just now. Congratulations on this wonderful, even delightful read. Also, dramatic in that it is about a significant crime, which is to say the murder of A.H. Green. It was a case of mistaken identity, one of many “great mistakes.: Jonathan Lee, thank you so very much.

LEE: Thank you for having me. This is great.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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