First, Do No Harm: John Pipkin Re-visions History
“I often tell my creative writing students that the biggest challenge in writing is that we really haven’t created any new emotions in the last 2000 years, that the same things that people are experiencing now are the same set of emotions that human beings have always experienced, we just talk about them in a different way and we experience them in a different context […] so the challenge in writing historical fiction is then to figure out what the contexts were in which these experiences were encountered.”
In Woodsburner, John Pipkin’s first work of historical fiction, the Henry David Thoreau whose shadow looms large over American letters is an uncertain artist, a contemplative pencil maker, and an accidental fire-starter.
What lesson then, Henry asks himself, is his current experience awakening? He knew when he struck the match that there had been no rain for weeks. He knew the wind was strong, the grass dry, the woods asleep. These are not bits of innate wisdom; they are universal truths that transcend experience; these are the lessons that one pieces together from living. (Pg. 44.)
Thus Thoreau, philosopher, environmentalist, champion of individualism, accidentally sets fire to the Concord Woods on April 30, 1844, beginning John Pipkin’s exploration of five lives on the cusp of change. We meet a handful of Americans, each seeking a better life: an Evangelical preacher, a Norwegian immigrant, a housewife with a love of books, a playwright with a day job, and the young Thoreau, each of whom is, like their homeland, at a crossroads. So the broken peace of a New England afternoon offers us a look at America in transition. The War of Independence is at it’s back and the Civil War is on the horizon; this is a country in search of its identity.
And then a tree collapses across the line of men. No one is injured, but the fire crosses this bridge to new quarry and the flames spread to the trees flanking the men. Henry sees a dismal proof in this. Nature will not be outfoxed so long as chance is her ally. Men exhaust a disproportionate sum of energy in a vain effort to prevent nature from doing what she will: damming rivers, filling swamps, leveling hills, clearing fields, claiming land from the sea. The cities of America are the hosts of gratuitous transformation, aberrant changes that, once left unguarded, will revert to what was. (Pg. 275.)
This little-known historical event, briefly mentioned in Thoreau’s journals and cursorily covered in the papers of the day, is, in its brevity, rich soil for the writer’s imagination. Could the fire, Pipkin wonders, have compelled Thoreau to go into the woods?
Even when the wind blows away from town, the smell has so permeated carpets and curtains and clothing and living trees that the evidence of his guilt is discernable. People carry kerchiefs held to nose and mouth like bandits. The townspeople of Concord are grateful to have been spared, but their gratitude is soon overtaken by anger. Henry cannot walk the streets of Concord without suffering icy stares and hearing behind his back the angry, accusing whisper: woodsburner. (Pg. 361.)
As Pipkin reveals the events of the day, he shows us we are not so different from the people of the past. They felt, as we feel, love and fear, excitement and fatigue, hope and doubt. This is the goal of John Pipkin’s fiction: to show us, by awakening the imagination, that stories about the past have much to teach us about the present; they help us understand who we are today.
— Carlin M. Wragg, Editor
Note: This transcript has been slightly modified to enhance readability.
Carlin M. Wragg: What was it about Thoreau and the fire that first captured your imagination?
John Pipkin: One of the things I’ve always been fascinated with, especially with regard to history, are those moments in lives, particularly lives that seem to have some narrative or historical discourse attached to them because they are the lives of people who have either achieved some level of fame or notoriety, or have accomplished something with their lives, that, in retrospect, have what I like to “I was particularly fascinated by the idea of looking at a moment in the life of someone prior to when that person becomes the figure that we know him as today.”call a retrospective narrative, where you look at something and it looks as though everything that that person has done, all of their thoughts and struggles and failures, have all been leading up to one particular moment, or have been leading up to a particular accomplishment or a success. In retrospect, when we look at these lives, it’s very easy to romanticize them and to think of the romantic struggle of the artist, or the scientist, or the politician, or the adventurer, or the explorer. In Thoreau’s case, I was particularly fascinated by the idea of looking at a moment in the life of someone prior to when that person becomes the figure that we know him as today.
It’s very easy for us to think of someone like Henry David Thoreau as thinking of himself as Henry David Thoreau, the great environmentalist and American philosopher, and thinker and writer. In this particular moment, the moment of this fire, what was intriguing to me about it was not only the irony that Thoreau, someone who comes to be known as an early American environmentalist, actually causes a forest fire — that in itself is an ironic historical twist worthy of attention — but what was also intriguing to me was the idea that this happened prior to his decision to live alone at Walden Pond and begin writing Walden and begin working on the manuscript for A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
This event actually occurs at a period in his life when it seemed as though he may have been prepared to turn his back on his literary pursuits. He had tried several times to get his work published by New York publishers. He had been trying at this time to work as a teacher. He tried working as a tutor. He’d already lived with Ralph Waldo Emerson for a time and, as I mentioned, he had gone to New York to try to find publishers for his work and none of these things were working out. It seemed as though Thoreau may have turned to engineering or “This is a moment at which things could turn out quite differently and history could have moved in any number of other directions. Those pivotal moments, I always think, are rich soil for writing fiction.”to pencil manufacturing in his father’s pencil factory as his livelihood. Then this fire seems to change that. This occurs at a moment when he was at a crossroads.
I was intrigued by the idea of trying to examine that moment in a life when the future is still uncertain and though, historically, we know how things are going to turn out, there may be this driving sense that things could not turn out any other way, that he has to go on and become the person that we know he’s going to become. This is a moment at which things could turn out quite differently and history could have moved in any number of other directions. Those pivotal moments, I always think, are rich soil for writing fiction.
CMW: There are a number of characters in your book, and you were speaking a little bit earlier about how you wanted to capture the diversity of perspectives, so I wanted to ask you about the opportunities and challenges that presented themselves as you were writing from these multiple perspectives.
JP: Actually, it wasn’t part of the original plan to have multiple perspectives. In fact, the idea of writing the story from multiple perspectives ran counter to what my original idea was. I wanted to try to tell the story entirely from Thoreau’s perspective, entirely from what he experienced on the day of the fire. This fire that burns in the novel, it burns for one day. He accidentally started the fire early in the day on April 30th, 1844, and by the end of the day the fire’s extinguished.
My original vision for the book was that this created a concise framework in which to tell a story about the young Henry David Thoreau, his experience on that day, and what that may have lead to in his life. But the more that I researched the fire “…there was more than one story to be told, that it was not just the story of this one person dealing with the effects of his decisions, but that there was also a story to be told about a young nation at this time that was still finding its way.”and began thinking about not only Thoreau but also the early United States, the more I began thinking there was more than one story to be told, that it was not just the story of this one person dealing with the effects of his decisions, but that there was also a story to be told about a young nation at this time that was still finding its way, still trying to figure out what this great national experiment was all about. So that’s what gradually, over time, led me to think that I wanted to tell this story from a number of different perspectives, to see how cause and effect, and the force of history, affects a number of different lives from a number of different perspectives.
CMW: I’d love you to read a passage about one of these characters. Here, we find out how a young Norweigian boy came to America.
CMW: Can you tell us who Oddmund is, and how he fits into the story?
JP: In the course of developing the story, I wanted to represent a variety of aspects of American life in those early years of the developing nation. One of the central experiences that I wanted to try to represent was the immigrant experience, what it felt like to be newly arrived on the shores of this developing country.
I’m always amazed by narratives of early America in that the narratives are almost always narratives of success. I was trying to think about how frightening and intimidating and alienating it might have been to decide to pick up your lives, cross an ocean and land in a completely new country and start over again. So, in the case of Oddmund, I was trying to take that to an even more — I’d say extreme — level in that here is someone who arrives, who loses his family upon arriving, and who is utterly alone and isolated, so is not only an immigrant in a strange country but is also here as an outsider. For the character of Oddmund, I was trying to imagine someone who finds himself in a completely new world and is trying to find his way without any models or examples to follow, since that’s part of the narrative of the American experience, that here is a country where one can come to completely remake oneself and have complete freedom of choice; I wanted to look at just how intimidating and overwhelming that experience could be.
CMW: While I was reading Woodsburner, I was actively thinking about the difference between a work of fiction and a work of historical fiction. This is a novel, so it is a work of fiction, but there are historical elements, as you’ve just discussed, all through. Was there some element of discovery for you in the process of writing that helped you think about how to distinguish the work of writing historical fiction from the work of writing something that would be considered straightforward fiction?
JP: I think that everyone who writes historical fiction, at some point, begins to construct a series of rules for themselves; this is what they are willing to do and this is what they will not do; these are the lines they will not cross in representing history.
Every historical novelist I’ve spoken to has expressed having reached a point where they decide, “This is what I’m trying to do and this is the line that I will not cross; this is the area where I will not invent things that did not happen.”
For me, the most important thing about writing historical fiction is, first of all, to make sure that I’m telling a story, that the fiction comes first. The point for the historical fiction that I’m trying to write is “Every historical novelist I’ve spoken to has expressed having reached a point where they decide, ‘This is what I’m trying to do and this is the line that I will not cross; this is the area where I will not invent things that did not happen.’”to try to get at an interpretation of history, but one that is still relevant to our contemporary lives. I’m, say, less interested, in the kind of historical fiction that I do, in trying to create for readers what it would have been like to live in 1844. That is certainly something that I’m attuned to, and I want to represent as realistically as possible what life may have been like for people living in 1844 based on the research that is available, but that’s not the primary goal of writing historical fiction for me. For me, the primary goal is to represent the lives of people, and hopefully to enable readers to see something of themselves in these characters, or to make a connection in the relevance of history to their own lives. The centrality of the characters in representing human experience is very important to me. Whether it’s happening today, or last week, or a hundred and fifty years ago, it’s the human experience that is the most important element of writing fiction, even if it’s historical fiction.
The other thing I found in researching the novel and writing historical fiction was that I had to set up, as I was saying before, a series of rules for myself, and the first one was sort of a Hippocratic Oath of writing historical fiction which was, first, do no harm. Before I would concern myself with trying to make sure I was getting details accurate, the first thing I wanted to make sure I did was not represent things that would have been impossible, that would have been clearly incapable of a person of the time thinking or saying.
One particular moment stands out when I was growing obsessed, for some reason, over clothing, and there was a scene where I wanted to have Oddmund pick up a stone and put it in his pants pocket. I was growing just absolutely obsessed with researching the kinds of pants that men wore in the period, and I realized that men’s pants didn’t have pockets at the time so how would it have been possible for someone to pick up a stone and put it in his pocket if pockets didn’t exist in 1844? Should it go into a jacket pocket, or was there a different type of pants he could be wearing?
Right at the point where I was about to drive myself absolutely insane with overthinking the accuracy of these historical details, I realized that what was important was to create scenes that were possible, even if, to a certain extent, they might not be completely plausible. Is it possible that someone decided to cut a slit in his pants and make himself a pocket even though other people didn’t? Yes, that’s a possibility. “…I wanted to make sure I created scenarios and situations that would have been possible in that particular time, and that in writing those scenes I was also trying to draw out what the human experience would have been…”Once I reached that point and realized writing historical fiction, at least for me, is not about trying to reproduce with one hundred percent accuracy what people’s lives were like at a particular historical period, because that’s an illusion in and of itself, there’s no way that I or anyone else can know with one hundred percent accuracy what the daily lives were of people living a hundred and fifty years ago, but I wanted to make sure I created scenarios and situations that would have been possible in that particular time, and that in writing those scenes I was also trying to draw out what the human experience would have been, insofar as that experience would have been possible given the limitations and perspectives of a particular period.
CMW: In going through that process did you find that there were big differences between yourself and the people that you know in contemporary life and the characters that you were creating based on this research, or did you find more commonalities?
JP: I really felt, in researching each of the characters for this book, that I never encountered a situation where there was an emotion or an experience or a conundrum that I wanted them to encounter or wrestle with that would have been impossible for them. You know, it’s not the case — as much as we might like to think so — it’s just not the case that anxiety is a Twenty-First Century emotion. The ways that we have analyzed it and codified it, and the way that we talk about it is certainly different. I don’t think that anyone in the 1840s would have walked around saying, “Oh, I’m suffering from anxiety.” Those are contemporary ways of talking about that particular feeling. But I feel absolutely confident that people still felt something at that time that we would now identify as anxiety. People still felt the pressures of trying to figure out how they were going to make their way in the world, how they were going to feed themselves, and feed their families, and put a roof over their head, that people were still compelled by wondering what the meaning of life and the universe is, and still trying to figure out how they were going to find a companion they could spend their lives with; these fundamental experiences are unchanged for human beings.
I often tell my creative writing students that the biggest challenge in writing is that we really haven’t created any new emotions in the last two thousand years, that the same things that people are experiencing now are the same set of emotions that human beings have always experienced, we just talk about them in a different way and we experience them in a different context, and in some cases we have codified them or analyzed them or over-analyzed them, but the actual experience, the actual feelings themselves, I believe have remained unchanged.
The challenge in writing historical fiction is then to figure out what the context was in which these experiences were encountered. How did people express them? Particularly in cases where people may have felt emotions or feelings that they didn’t express because it was socially frowned upon to talk about certain problems or issues they may have been undergoing, but that didn’t mean those problems and issues didn’t exist. The more I researched and the more I tried to delve deeper into the lives of these characters, the more I was reassured that that instinctual feeling that I had, that people were dealing with many of the same issues and problems that we deal with today, the more I felt that I was on the right track with trying to take that approach to these characters.
CMW: It makes me think, as you’re talking, about vocabulary, which is something that I was curious about as I read the voices of the different characters. Were you thinking about the way that people used language at that time versus the way we use language today?
JP: That also is a great challenge for anyone writing historical fiction. There’s the decision about how you’re going to have your characters think and speak, and then there’s the decision about how you’re going to construct the narrative voice of the novel. The only sources that we have that we can go to to try to “In trying to represent actual speech we’re taking a leap of faith that people were writing in the same way that they were speaking…”estimate how people thought and spoke in a historical period is the record of the written word, especially going back to the 1800s, all we have are letters and diaries and, of course, novels, poetry and newspaper articles. In trying to represent actual speech we’re taking a leap of faith that people were writing in the same way that they were speaking, and that is a pretty big leap because even in the contemporary world we have plenty of evidence that people do not speak the same way that they write, and vice versa. For some future generation to take our written word as evidence that this is exactly how we spoke; it might be a good estimate of the way we spoke but it’s not exactly accurate.
I tried to get comfortable with the idea that there’s no way for me to exactly represent the way that people would have spoken at the time because we don’t exactly know. All that we know is from written representations of how people may have spoken at the time. What I really wanted to give was an estimate of the kinds of vocabulary and sentence structure they would have used in speech.
The real challenge was in trying to develop a narrative voice, since writing a historical novel about the 1840s is not quite the same as trying to write a novel that looks and feels like it was written in the 1840s. Those are two very different things. As contemporary readers, our ways of reading, our vocabulary, and our approach to sentence structure has changed, so if I were to write a novel that looked like it was written in 1840 it certainly would have been much less accessible to contemporary readers.
One of my primary goals is to be able to communicate with the novel, so I wanted to keep in mind that in approximating Nineteenth Century speech and vocabulary and dialect, I didn’t do it in a way that obstructed the story or “The real challenge was in trying to develop a narrative voice, since writing a historical novel about the 1840s is not quite the same as trying to write a novel that looks and feels like it was written in the 1840s. Those are two very different things.”made the narrative inaccessible to contemporary readers. In many ways, not having access to contemporary vocabulary actually helped to bring out some of the ideas that it seemed like the characters who inhabited this period may have been thinking; it forced me to find other words and other language to try to approximate the ideas that might have a concept in contemporary language but for which they didn’t have a concept in the 1800s. So you find yourself writing around ideas, or trying to express ideas, or thoughts, or feelings, in language that would have existed at the time but maybe we have a different word for now. I think that helped me create a tone for the period.
CMW: Were there any resources that were particularly helpful to you in developing the style and the voice?
JP: The texts that were most helpful, above all, were Thoreau’s own journals. You know, he began writing his journals in the 1830s, quite a while before the fire takes place, and during the period of the fire, during the couple years around the fire, he’s not making entries in his journal, so I had the best of both worlds in that sense. I could study his journals to get a feel for what his thoughts were, what his language was, but at the same time there were no entries during that period that would have contradicted anything that I wanted to say; there was a blank slate there before me.
Thoreau really gave me the advantage of having an account of daily activities and almost mundane or pedestrian details so I could get a sense of how, if not everyone would have talked about such things, at least how one particular person in the Nineteenth Century was writing about things like gardening, or going for a walk, or going to the store, or cleaning his house, or any of these small daily events that he writes about in very vivid ways. That became a rich source of material, just looking for vocabulary, looking at sentence structure, looking at his perspective and how he’s using language to describe these things. Thoreau’s journals were a great source for trying to capture a feel for what the language may have been at the time.
CMW: I noticed as I was reading that books play a symbolic role similar to the one that fire plays. Eliott Calvert makes his living as a bookseller but aspires to be a playwright. He’s not destined for greatness as a playwright, it seems, but he’s very devoted to that craft. Another character collects books, although she cannot read them. Thoreau, as we know, will become a famous writer, but he makes pencils, which are implements of writing. I felt there was a way in which the writer and the act of writing was infused into the novel, although it was a novel about a fire and putting out that fire. Was that your intention, or did this emerge organically?
JP: Some things did emerge organically, and when they did they were happy surprises. I had always envisioned Eliott Calvert, for example, as being someone who was maybe a struggling and not-quite-yet-failed artist. That, again, speaks to the idea of looking at the retrospective narrative of lives and thinking that someone who becomes a successful artist, say, always knew they were going to become a successful artist. I wanted to ask at what point does something like dedication and determination collapse into stubbornness? In Eliott’s case, he seems to be right on the cusp of being someone who has reached the point at which it’s time to give up, it’s time to put his energies into other pursuits.
I’d always envisioned Eliott as someone caught between the worlds of art and commerce. He’s trying to pursue his art so he tries to find a way of making a living that will be as close to what his artistic pursuits are, so becoming a bookseller seems to be something that is a natural choice for him. Something like Thoreau’s pencil making, that is something that comes right from historical fact. The fact that Thoreau’s father was running a pencil-making factory, and the fact that Henry David Thoreau went to work in that factory, and that Thoreau actually invented several machines to improve the manufacture of pencils, this all comes right from historical fact. That those two ideas intersect was really a happy accident as I was writing organically. There were moments where things like that began to come together. I think that in the back of my mind I was writing about particular themes that manifested themselves in certain ways, so naturally it came about that many of the issues that these characters are dealing with have a certain innerconnectedness that sprang up as the writing progressed.
CMW: I want to ask one last question and then, since our time is short, maybe we can close with a reading from another passage? The question I want to ask you is whether there was anything that surprised you in the writing process? Was there something that surprised you most that maybe you hadn’t planned on including or dealing with in the beginning but that by the end seemed necessary and inevitable?
JP: I think the thing that probably surprised me the most was how much the slow-burning love affair between Oddmund Hus and Emma came to the foreground by the end of the story. For me, when I first envisioned the character of Oddmund I hadn’t thought of Emma yet, and I hadn’t thought of making his story — I’ve heard some people refer to it as a love story — it wasn’t a phrase that I would have used when I was writing the book, or when I was first envisioning this.
In the process of writing I suddenly decided I wanted to have Oddmund also be someone who was wrestling with feelings of unrequited love. This is something that spurs him on and really directs his life. It was surprising to me that as the book developed and as things moved forward, their relationship, which really started almost as an afterthought in the early parts of the book, their relationship really began to grow and overtake some of the other stories in the book. So much so that by the end, without giving anything away, by the end at least that story itself is something that, I think, moves into the foreground of the novel.
Most of the questions that I get asked, when people ask me about the book, they don’t ask me, what happened to Eliott, or what happens next to Henry David Thoreau, or where does Caleb Dowdy wind up? People ask me, how are Oddmund and Emma doing? What happens next? Where do they go? What’s their story after the book? Those two characters emerged, not only for me, but for people who have talked about the book after they’ve read it, they seem to take center stage in way that was not at all part of my initial planning in envisioning the book.
CMW: Maybe we can close by reading one more passage? Can you describe who this character is? We haven’t yet had a chance to talk about the preacher, Caleb Dowdy.
JP: One of the early ideas I wanted to address in the book was the beginning of American Evangelicalism, and the early state of theology in this country. The sense that this was a period, not only in theology but also in philosophy, when “America was already beginning to think that it had gone wrong somewhere. People were beginning to say things like, ‘This country was once on the right track. We were doing the right things. We were living the right way and now, somewhere, we went wrong. Somewhere we made a wrong turn…’”America is already — this is one of the more fascinating things I discovered in my research — America was already beginning to think that it had gone wrong somewhere. People were beginning to say things like, “This country was once on the right track. We were doing the right things. We were living the right way and now, somewhere, we went wrong. Somewhere we made a wrong turn. We need to go back and start over again. We need to reinvent society.”
You get a number of, at this time, a number of experimental communities like Ripley’s Brook Farm and Fruitlands and a number of experimental communities where already these thinkers are saying, “It’s not enough for us to try to reshape the country through politics, or through established institutions, we need to completely reinvent everything. We need to go out into the woods and start all over again, to recreate society from the ground up.” I thought this was a fascinating idea, particularly given contemporary American history where you often hear the refrain, “Where did we go wrong? Things were better in the past.” That seems to be a recurring refrain in much of American history.
In the character of Caleb Dowdy, I wanted to have someone who begins as a Methodist minister and eventually breaks with institutional religion and is looking for a way of bringing about his own Great Awakening in the tradition of Jonathan Edwards so that he himself can try to refashion and recreate American society from the ground up. That was the character I envisioned as an adult and — as I mentioned earlier — one of the challenges in creating these characters was trying to invent a backstory for them so they were not clichéd two-dimensional representations of an idea, but that they had an organic past, that there was a way of seeing how their experience growing up, how they were raised, what they saw, and what they learned, gave the reader a sense of how that shaped them and turned them into the people that they became. This particular scene of Caleb seeing the stained glass windows being unpacked for his father’s church was one way I was attempting to get at the impact that religious iconography had on this young boy as he was seeing these stained glass windows being unpacked.
The image for this particular scene came from a story that I heard when I was in Canada a number of years ago. We were visiting a church that had these beautiful stained glass windows that had come from Scotland and I remember the tour guide mentioning in the description of how these windows were brought to Canada that they’d packed them in barrels of molasses to protect them. That kept them from being broken on the rough seas. That particular image of stained glass windows being packed in barrels of molasses stayed with me. That actually occurred before I’d even begun writing this book, it was just something I had scribbled down in a notebook somewhere and kept on the side thinking that was an image I might use one day, and this is where it seemed to fit into the story.
CMW: It’s such a great image and it’s something – I didn’t know how stained glass arrived anywhere before packing peanuts! The idea that this was the way you transported fragile objects distances, for months was fascinating and it makes sense that something like this, a little snippet of information, became animated for you in this way.
JP: I don’t know if all stained glass windows were shipped this way but at least for this one particular Canadian church, this is how they decided they would protect the stained glass when they were bringing it across the Atlantic. That little piece of information was something I just tucked away and thought, “I can make use of this someday.”
CMW: Why don’t we hear the piece of this prose about this particular image and this moment?