Writing from History

From steampunk novels to heart-wrenching memoirs, biographies to political histories, writers often use the past in their work. But how do they do so? What considerations do they take into account? How much fidelity do they owe the "truth," and what kind of ethics come into play when documenting another's life? Join host Rebecca King as she talks to historians, biographers, memoirists, poets, novelists, and playwrights to dig deeper into the study and representations of the past.

image Flickr: Giulio menna

July 23, 2014

The Politician and the Poet

Writing from History: Episode #8

This episode features two experts: Derek Hirst, professor of history, and Steven Zwicker, professor of English, from Washington University in St. Louis. For decades now, the scholars have been researching Andrew Marvell, a 17th century English politician and poet. Marvell presents a challenge because the details of his life are relatively unknown, but what survives are his political texts, his poems, and the works his contemporaries wrote about him. Professors Hirst and Zwicker explain how they used their areas of expertise to bring these two seemingly-disparate versions of Marvell, the politician and the poet, together into one man.

July 16, 2014

Courting the Muse

Writing from History: Episode #7

Oskar Kokoschka, an Austrian expressionist painter and playwright in early 20th century Vienna, had a torrid affair with a woman--his muse--named Alma Mahler. When it ended, Oskar was devastated, feeling that he couldn't live or work without her. So, he did what any man would do: he had a life-size doll likeness of Alma made, which he continued to live with to inspire his work. Henry Schvey, a director, playwright, and professor of drama and comparative literature at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote a play based on this period of Kokoschka's life. He tells the story of how he first met the artist and explains how he turned the historical facts into a play.

July 9, 2014

Family Histories

Writing from History: Episode #6

Today, we consider the memoir. How do authors write about their own histories as well as family and loved ones who might very well read their book? Does time change the way we right about these stories and personal tragedies? Kathleen Finneran, a writer in residence at Washington University in St. Louis, talks about her memoir The Tender Land: A Family Love Story, which focuses on her family and how their lives are altered by the suicide of her younger brother, Sean. She considers how writing the book affected her personal grieving process and chronicles her family's surprising reaction to the book.

July 2, 2014

Pranking Emily Dickinson

Writing from History: Episode #5

So far, we've considered how authors and historians portray lived-lives in their creative or academic works, but what about creative works from the past? Can they too be "reinterpreted" in the present? Poet Paul Legault, co-founder of the small press Telephone Books and a writer in residence at Washington University in St. Louis, tackled questions such as these with his 2012 book, The Emily Dickinson Reader: An English-to-English Translation of Emily Dickinson's Complete Poems. He'll discuss how he sought to connect present readers with these works from the past by translating these beloved poems back into English, and how translation is a broader concept than simply substituting one language for another.

June 25, 2014

Untethered Histories

Writing from History: Episode #4

Historical fiction is an ongoing balance between fact and fiction, but what if the story takes place outside of reality? What if much of the story takes place within a dream? How do you keep readers rooted in time and history? Author Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, a Visiting Hurst Professor at Washington University in St. Louis, addresses questions such as these in her award-winning novel Madeleine is Sleeping. She explains why her favorite historical novels never feel "historical," and together we examine the role of time in fiction.

June 11, 2014

A Mirror World

Writing from History: Episode #3

History and fiction are sort of antonyms, so how do historical fiction writers bring fact and fiction together? How closely must historical fiction mirror recorded history? Author Marshall Klimasewiski, Senior Writer-in-Residence at Washington University in St. Louis, discusses the precarious balance writers of historical fiction must strike even when creating alternate histories. He also talks about two stories from his collection Tyrants and a novel-in-progress that follows Salomon August Andrée, a 19th century Swedish aeronaut who attempted to float to the North Pole in a hydrogen balloon.

June 10, 2014

Brave Genius

Writing from History: Episode #2

In the spring of 1940, then-unknown writer Albert Camus and budding biologist Jacques Monod quietly joined the French Resistance as they watched their beloved Paris fall to the Nazis. Decades later, after stumbling across a few lines in a biography, Sean B. Carroll, an evolutionary biologist, author, and alumnus of Washington University in St. Louis, set out to prove that these two great minds were also friends. Rooting through French archives and talking to people at the heart of the French Resistance, Dr. Carroll uncovered documents no one expected to find and illustrated the exciting turns historical research can take.

June 3, 2014

Please Burn After Reading

Writing from History: Episode #1

In 1957, Ghana declared its independence from colonial rule, and a new leader named Kwame Nkrumah rose to take the helm. Jean Allman, professor of history and director of the Center for the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis, has been studying the surprising networks that formed around Nkrumah, and in her research, she's discovered documents never meant for her eyes. She raises questions about the morality of the archival process and reveals how the NSA may change the future of history research.