One Writer’s War with History

by Jay Ridler, Ph.D


Here’s a dialog I have more than a few times a year at conventions or lectures or at parties.

“So, what do you do?”

“I’m a historian, and I write fiction-”

“Oh! So you write historical fiction? Like Elizabeth Peters or Patrick O’Brien!”

“Well, no. I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction, per se. I may be a military historian, but I like genre fiction more than-”

“Military historian? Awesome! So you’re like Harry Turtledove, writing alternative Civil War stuff with aliens, or maybe Naomi Novik taking a historical idea and smashing it with dragons!”

“Uh, not so much, though they are great at what they do. I tend to write gritty crime and horror and dark fantasy that has nothing to do with my historical work. Folks on the wrong side of the tracks. People with crippling problems who try to overcome hard times. Kinda like when Faulkner said-”

“What! Why the hell not? Most writers would kill to have all that knowledge already so they don’t have to bother doing research. You’re wasting what makes you different and unique. That’s kind of stupid. If I had the time to be a writer, I would NEVER do that!”

“Glad to hear it. Say, isn’t that the ghost Ray Bradbury handing out cupcakes and revealing the secret of writing bestsellers oozing with nostalgia?”

“Where???”

Then I duck into the bathroom and pray for the night to end.

A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but only just.

I’ve been told, time and time again, that I should write military SF, military fantasy, historical anything. One editor rejected a story I set in a bookstore, saying that with my training I should write war fiction. The fact that I worked for ten years in a bookstore? Who cares! War is hot, baby!

With some exception I’ve resisted this external push for ten years. Why?

First, exhaustion: When I was in graduate school at the Royal Military College of Canada, me and my kin were soaked to the marrow in military affairs, historical analysis, peer review edits of scholarship, full-contact academics in the classroom, and more intellectual hi-jinx than you can shake a stick at. We were totally immersed, and I was relentless and poor, working, I kid you not, seven jobs at one time while taking doctoral level courses and doing the first early drafts of my thesis. I spent most of my intellectual capital trying to tell the story of Dr. Omond Solandt, an utterly fascinating man (you can read about him here and, don’t worry, there are UFOS in it [sort of]: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/ridler_09_12/).

Second, the need to create:  I’m a creative fella. And while I love history, and being a historian, the job is almost always telling someone else’s story. We’re supposed to keep our biases, hindsights, and other personal junk off stage. I was told the only thing I could add was my “voice,” how the story was told, but was instructed, repeatedly, that we were not “creating” the past. We were “recovering and re-creating it.” To create would be unhistorical, and downright Soviet!

I started writing fiction the same year I started my Masters in War Studies. And I did so because I was burning out, creatively. Music had been my outlet for years, but I now loved words as much as tunes. So, while drafting a paper on civil-military relations during the German Wars of Unification (for which I got an A, I will have you know), I tried writing fiction. Nothing prepared be for the titanic dread I felt before writing that story. And, like all first stories, it was a flaming pile of awful. It was called “Slaughter House Sam,” about a guy working at an abattoir and suffering from insomnia that might be a result of messages from aliens and I think there was a girl dying of leukemia in it...

So, it sucked. Two people read it. They said it was terrible, but it had a grit and drive that might be honed and turned into skill. So I tried again, blah blah blah.

For ten years, I worked on becoming a historian and kept writing fiction. It was a relief, a boon, and a joy to my brain that my short stories did not have Nazis, or KGB agents or soldiers or politicians. It was about me. My stuff. All the loves, fears, and loathings that I had to keep off stage in my scholarship. It was about pro wrestling, and comic books, and punk rock and bad girls and dumb guys and people who talked like they lived in a sitcom. It was about backyard MMA tournaments run by teenagers, and exploding fat people and broken homes and loneliness and underdogs fighting for one last chance, and morons who confused lust with love and triumphs of the spirit and luchadores and whores with hearts of gold and monsters of the id.

Fiction let my imagination breathe. It provided a canvas for me to view my own psychology. It was a door into my own heart and head. The last thing I wanted to do at 6 am when I got up to write fiction before the day started was to think, consider, apply, or use anything that smelled like military affairs. I needed more than other peoples’ lives to sustain me. Mine counted, too. 

During my two year hiatus between degrees, I ran into a quote from literary critic Northrop Frye that smacked me like a heart punch. In The Anatomy of Criticism, Frye raised the issue of history being an art form.  

 “The writing of history is an art, but no one doubts that scientific principles are involved in the historian’s treatment of evidence, and that the presence of this scientific element is what distinguishes history from legend.”

Reading this, I realized I wanted my history to be art, but my fiction to be legendary! Not in terms of immortal praise, but mythic, un-scientific, hyperbolic and histrionic instead of historic. Even if it was a subtle tale of quiet horror, realism, or poetry, the last thing I wanted was for it to resemble what I did in formal, scientific, scholarly history.

Oddly, the winds of change are blowing again. I’m finding that using the past at my fingertips doesn’t feel like a burden. In fact, ideas are blooming fast and furious about how I might use ten years of military history and meld it with the “legendary” feel I want from my fiction. I smell evolution in the future, and I’m kind of looking forward to it. More so than hiding in the bathroom when people ask what I do.

Check out Jason S. Ridler's story Last Ride of the Hell City Angels, 1959 in this issue of New Myths.
 

Jason S. Ridler is a writer and historian. Check out his novel Blood and Sawdust, which is kind of like “Fight Club with a Vampire.” (http://www.amazon.com/Blood-and-Sawdust-ebook/dp/B009YNXP9W). A former punk rock musician and cemetery groundskeeper, Mr. Ridler holds a Ph.D. in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. Visit him at:

Twitter http://twitter.com/JayRidler,

Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/Ridlerville,

Blog, www.jsridler.com