I feel a bit cheeky writing a review of Thom Conroy because he is a teacher of writing and I am a student (different institutions and I’ve never met him), but also because he’s writing about my blokes. Or I’m writing about his.
It’s something you do need to come to terms with, when you write historical fiction, that your characters are not, in fact, your blokes. Thom Conroy’s book, The Naturalist, is the story of Ernst Dieffenbach, who was a member of the New Zealand Company’s 1839 colonial expedition. He sailed on the Tory with The Colonel and Jerningham Wakefield, Charles Heaphy, Captain Chaffers and their gang.
They’re all historical characters (and my goodness, they are characters) and Thom Conroy has written a wonderful fictional account of how they all got along together. Which is not very well, most of the time, except for the rather gracious Charles Heaphy, who got along with everybody.
I’m a student this year, of creative writing, and I’m writing a book about the above mentioned Jerningham Wakefield, one of the more outrageous characters in Conroy’s tale. I have my first draft of 100,000 words and Jerningham has romped through them, heartily pissing off Dieffenbach, the Colonel, Captain Chaffers and even the mild mannered Heaphy. (No one, anywhere, has ever written a bad word about Heaphy. He’s one of God’s good men, everyone says so, and every story needs one good man.)
But I am writing about Jerningham and I love him very much, in the way a mother loves her son; with indulgence and exasperation and a hope that he will, one day, grow out of the booze. Conroy doesn’t love him so much. I’m glad I wrote my book before reading Conroy’s, because I formed my judgement first and when you meet a new bloke, first impressions count.
They’re up for grabs, these characters, and I’m starting to realise that using historical people in a novel is a bit like writing fan fiction. There’s no copyright, they’re been dead well over 100 years and any author can take them anywhere. Dieffenbach, Jerningham, Heaphy and co. all wrote compelling journals so there is plenty of source material, and once you get gripped by the Victorian character of these extraordinary men a kind of magic takes place – they come alive, start arguing with one another and acting up. I know Jerningham comes down at night and raids my booze cupboard.
Thank you, Thom Conroy. Reading The Naturalist makes me feel we’ve met through mutual friends, and you’ve told me a story about them in a new way, and added to my understanding of the lives of these tenacious, complex men.