A Bastard Art, part 1 of 4
‘Based on’ is a debased tag, signifying nothing. ‘Based on a true story’, etc. When I had my first inklings of a novel taken from the Secret History of the Mongols, I rejected the phrase ‘based on’. But what was I doing instead, what words can I use instead? Maybe a ‘version’: that sounds as if it is the same material cast into a different format, from 13th-century ‘epic chronicle’ to 21st-century novel. I searched for the right words, and I searched for examples, to help me articulate that which I desired to do. I didn’t want to write a ‘based on’, and for a while was at a loss for examples to follow. I needed those that re-tell a text, not just (and not necessarily) those that tell history in fiction.
My ideal was to imitate the Secret History’s features: not simply its events but its interests, its sensibilities, its storytelling tactics; to have the Secret History an artistic presence in my work. To this end, I’d treat it as true and sacrosanct in spite of its truth values being contested. In this ‘epic chronicle’ I see resistance to epic even as it draws on epic’s methods. Oral epic was prevalent when and where it was composed, straight history less so, although not unknown. It still tries to tell the truth, outrageously at times. But I found just as valuable its information on the way Mongols imagined their own story, what they told themselves, true or not. I cared about history, but I cared about the Secret History more. I was devoted to a text.
On the other hand, I didn’t feel prepared to forgo the freedoms I was used to in fiction of ‘pure imagination’. I didn’t know whether I belonged in historical fiction; its main template was at once too loose and too strict. Too strict, because I wanted to be in the equation. The Secret History spoke to me, and my need to hear wasn’t merely historical inquiry. It had things of great moment to tell me. In chase of these truths, I didn’t mean to describe only the past, nor renounce a writer’s right to talk about what matters most to me. I want elbow room, in fact I want to be a king of infinite space. The point was that I would interact with the Secret History, not efface myself. If these aims were contradictory, I didn’t worry too much: I believe in contradiction as a machine that can grind up incompatibles and make them work together.
To think about originality and inherited story, I turned to medieval romance. The Matter of Britain or the Arthur cycle, as popular now as ever in Arthurian novels; also, before they were swamped by Arthur, the Matter of Thebes, the Matter of Troy, from antiquity. The Carolingian cycle joined them, and these were the great story resources for romancers. People took up the Matter, retold old tales. But they were not afraid to be original about it. Back when I was in discovery of them (I hope this is behind us) I heard the line that medievals ‘did not prize originality as we do’. To say Chrétien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Gottfried von Strassburg were unoriginal in what they did with the Matter is a horribly modern mistake. We have lost the art of that common ‘Matter’; it’s make up your own plot, nowadays, and keep your hands off other people’s. Medievals held the story in common, and interpretation, exegesis, gloss were the order of the day. They wrote by their own lights, although they recycled plot. When you have a pool of writers dabbling in the Matter, perhaps you don’t feel a pressure to write the definitive version. You feel free to write your version. Isn’t idiosyncrasy encouraged? I liked the enrichment of the soil on these commons where everybody grew their own thing. I liked the knowledge of a world beyond your contribution, maintained by dead hands before you and left to future hands after you are gone. A great confused garden, joint work, where you can wander and never be bored. That sense of a commons which I found in medieval story gave me permission, somehow, to create my own patch and not be anxious about its idiosyncrasies. There was no one way to tell a story, there was no right and wrong. How unlike himself Lancelot was, yet I followed him from text to text, saintly Lancelot, bad Lancelot, indifferent Lancelot – I didn’t tire of Lancelots, when young. I know I don’t want ownership: I want to read six hundred novels about Temujin, Jamuqa and Borte, as I can on Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere. None of them remotely the same. Yay individuality.
An heir, in my mind, to medieval romance is the world of fanfiction. Here too is a Matter in common, known as canon. As Chrétien, Gottfried and Wolfram wrote in the ‘universe’ of Arthur, science fiction fans write in the universe of Star Trek or Blake’s 7. I was acquainted with fanfiction that won’t change a word of canon but goes places the base material never went. Like medieval story, fanfiction is accused of unoriginality – still today, this time. But unoriginality is what I searched for at this stage, to put in opposition to a ‘based on’. That idea of canon: that nothing in the text can be altered, It Happened as on screen, and you have to find ways to write around it – to write with and not against. This is very much stricter than a typical ‘based on’ historical novel. Yet the inventiveness in fanfiction is a lesson to the original creators, cramped by their television screens. I need not fear for invention when I say the Secret History is to be my canon. I am in the position of a fan, with commitment to a text. I didn’t want to change things ‘to make a good story’. If it’s in the Secret History, it happened as the Secret History says, whether convenient for me or not.
Neither of my models were historical in the first place. Medieval ‘Matters’ had a semblance of history or were pretend histories; fanfiction grew from another fiction. That suited. I’m writing a version of the Secret History, not questioning which portions are historical and which are not. Mine was a text-to-text affair. Like fans with canon, I had a story already told, and this was unusual for historical fiction. Even if a historical novel won’t step outside the record, the record isn’t told at story-level, whereas my source (and this is why it isn’t accepted as ‘the record’) does storify, if not in the detail of science fiction television. History, by other hands, has been made into a story (in case you wonder, there is very little record outside the Secret History for the bulk of its contents). Even in periods when you have letters and diaries to work from, I don’t suppose you have a story already told. I felt nearest to those who rewrite the Iliad, with two ‘except’ clauses: that the Secret History is a set of sketches next to Homer; and that it does align itself more with history than with epic – eyewitness history, events the tellers have lived through.
What else did fanfiction teach me? Love. Unashamed love: there is not enough love for one’s material. A critical eye? Yes, but we have scarcely begun to understand the Secret History, and to understand you have to love. Criticise afterwards. Love first. I didn’t want to rip events out of the Secret History like edibles from a carcass but to hear its music, in the parts and in the whole. Perhaps I learnt to listen to my material, to listen as if my life were at stake (because fiction has that effect), desperate to catch nuance, to see the possibilities in what is said, from that ultra-close examination of what happened on the television screen. Source criticism? It starts with the ability to look and listen with the devout attention of a fan. I believe in love as a first step. Scepticism as a first step is fatal. I learnt to love my text through fanfiction. Then there is the love directed at your work. I’ll forever be inspired by fans who write for love and not for profit – by the deep conviction found in that freedom from the profit motive. Fans write because they care, and this ethos encourages original work, bold work that doesn’t have to answer to a market. They have been the unacknowledged legislators, because some fan innovations have gone mainstream.
Originality was such a fetish with me, I’d never have given up the free invention of SFF for historical with its restrictions, if not for two things. First, the Secret History was better than a story of my own invention. It’s a story novelists want to sink their teeth into, a classic story: Temujin’s conflicts with those he most loved or trusted; the ins and outs of these friendships/rivalries over time – twenty years of saga on the steppe, before he stood with its united peoples as Tchingis Khan at forty (-odd; there is a range of dates for his birth). Yes, the Secret History is short, but it is the psychological conflicts and not the physical combats that are lavishly told. Obviously the story was appreciated in its own day for the same reasons that make it dream material for a novelist. A people’s memory of unification has its idealism of high-minded common effort, and this contrasts with the off-steppe conquests that came of unity: here is scope for a tragedy. I’d never met a story that shoved the Arthur cycle aside, to claim equivalence with that love-and-conflict classic, with its tragic trajectory. I grew up on Arthur, as you can tell, and to me, the Secret History’s story was similar, different, and equal – but not so often told in English. Why invent?
Second, I saw a unique chance, a piece of luck, one that doesn’t come twice in a writer’s life. Every writer has her territory: those concerns and questions that preoccupy her as a writer, that she tackles again and again. The story in the Secret History leant itself to mine. Since at this time I was in my thirties, mine had been existent for upwards of fifteen years – I knew what I write about, but I knew restlessly, because I hadn’t managed to say it well. The Secret History came along to help me. Wolfram and Gottfried mapped their preoccupations onto the Matter, to make it ‘about’ what they were urged to write. In them I took comfort, for they did not efface themselves; indeed romance authors were known to walk into the story and account for what they did with it in first person (or fake third). I mapped onto this matter. Me, entire with my writer’s territory, onto the text as it stood. We were a match. We were a marriage made in heaven. At every point I spotted opportunities to write what I had been eager to write, to explore where I had explored before, but with its help this time. It was half-familiar and half-strange, it was a lucky chance and a challenge, it was everything I always wanted to write, it was above and beyond my ability. The week I met this story was the most exciting of my life. I felt I had only lived to offer it my services. A cooperative venture came into view.
There is an alchemy when fans give of themselves to a canon. They call them ‘transformative works’ these days; that is right, because both are transformed. There is an originality that comes from devotion, and fan writers understood this: if you put in your heart and soul, and marry them to the material, inevitably you are both changed in the result. From my time in science fiction fandom I was not afraid to be ‘unoriginal’. I did not think a waste of time to write in a universe not of my own invention. I’m aware fan work – transformative work – attracts scorn from those unacquainted with its originality, or who underestimate the derivativeness of most art. But from my time in science fiction fandom I knew there is an alchemy in interaction. Alchemy means the output is unlike either ingredient, a thing of a different order, a quality achieved that neither ingredient seems to promise. Temujin met an alchemist, Perpetual Spring, whose Daoist sect practiced an ‘internal alchemy’, transmutation within the body, that once had been an operation with chemicals and crucibles outside. That’s a nice metaphor for what I have attempted to say about fiction, and failed. Metaphors are better, because they are interactional: you can finish them off for me.
With these encouragements I took up the Matter of the Steppe, and commenced my fanfiction on the Secret History.
Next: The happy accident. A Bastard Art, part 2 of 4