Writers of historical fiction are often asked how they strike a balance between imagination and history. The subject came up at several events at the Vancouver Writers Fest last month. Some writers leaned more toward sticking to the truth, others, toward making it up, but most seemed to agree that consistency, staying faithful to the world you have created, is what’s important.
I thought I had it all figured out when I began my research into the historical figure Morris “Two-Gun” Cohen, who claimed to have met Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China, right here in Canada. All I had to do was set the scene, imagine the emotions, invent the dialogue. What a marvelous story it would be. What an absolute gem I had stumbled upon. You couldn’t make this stuff up!
Oh, yes you could. As it turns out, Cohen was a compulsive maker-upper, stretcher of truths, exaggerator of the facts.
A pickpocket from a young age in London, England, he was sent to Canada by his family to mend his ways. Think about it. They sent him to the Wild West. It goes without saying he got into even more trouble here. When Sun Yat-sen was conducting his famous tour of Canada, Morris Cohen was doing time in a jail cell in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.
Damn. There went my story. I’m not sure how long I moped. I hadn’t yet shredded any copy or set fire to my notebooks, so it must have been a short time. But in one of those lightning-bolt moments I thought: Hey wait a minute! That IS a story.
Because Cohen really did meet Sun Yat-sen . . . a dozen years later, and in China. He led a marvelous life and told marvelous tales that were published in newspapers as the truth because they were that tantalizing tangle of real and imagined. Once printed, they became a part of recorded history, of public record.
And if Cohen could twist the truth, so could I. After all, I’m a novelist, not a historian. I’m supposed to make things up. How much I do so is up to me. As long as I’m consistent.
Since newspapers had spread his stories, I decided it would be appropriate to have a newspaperwoman as my narrator. I knew how much she’d want to get it right, even if the facts, often by way of the conniving Cohen, seemed to go against her.
When I was done writing I had a novel called Two-Gun & Sun. It doesn’t try to separate real from imagined but, in the true spirit of fiction, consistently revels in the snarls -- and adds a few more twists in the process.
June Hutton was a northern reporter and then inner-city teacher before writing her first novel Underground. Called “taut and lean, elegant and poetic” by The Globe and Mail, it was short-listed for the 2010 OLA Evergreen Award. Fiction mentor for SFU’s The Writer’s Studio Online and instructor with UBC’s The Writing Centre, June currently lives in Vancouver. Her second novel Two-Gun & Sun was published by Caitlin Press in Fall 2015. She is a member of the writing group SPiN along with Mary Novik and Jen Sookfong Lee.