Today Ken Brigham is visiting Ascroft, eh? to tell us a little about his new novel, The Life and Deaths of Blanche Nero.
Welcome Ken. Thanks for joining me today. Let’s get started, shall we?
Tell us about your novel.
KB: This is Blanche Nero’s story. It is a historical novel only in the sense that, long after the fact, Blanche’s persona, experiences, and behaviors were strongly influenced by historical events that largely preceded her existence. At 15, Blanche watched her father electrocuted for a brutal and inexplicable murder. Left with her emotionally remote mother who worked as a nurse, Blanche became pretty much totally responsible for the course of her life. She did well with that charge. She became a trauma surgeon and spent her professional life at Charity Hospital in New Orleans. She did well professionally, but wasn’t good at personal relationships. Sex was good, but emotional attachments were painful and difficult. She was haunted all her life by the enigma of her father and when hurricane Katrina destroyed Charity hospital and essentially ended her career, she went to Venice, her father’s birthplace, hoping to discover more of herself and life by writing down her history and exploring the place where it all began for her father. She meets an aging count who is dying of AIDS who introduces her to his special perception of Venice and who eventually solves the riddle of her father. As the count dies, Blanche weeps for him and is overwhelmed with a new realization of who she is and the depth of her emotional strengths. So the book is the story of Blanche’s emotional and physical journey punctuated by cataclysmic acts of man and of God, eventually arriving at an understanding of who she is.
What prompted you to write about this historical event?
KB: I didn’t write about the historical event as the central theme of the book. This is Blanche Nero’s story. The importance of Italian fascism and the second world war to the story is how those events (both actual and fictional) influenced who Blanche became and informed her eventual resolution of her enigmatic life. Of course Katrina and New Orleans were also seminal events for Blanche and that material is what I could learn from multiple accounts that are widely available.
How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?
KB: The particulars of the depicted historical events are as factual as I could determine. However, as is often true of history, there are sometimes several versions. That is certainly true of Mussolini’s final days. The version I chose was the one that best integrated into the fictional story of Blanche Nero’s father and how, many years after the actual events, Blanche became collateral emotional damage of the second world war.
What research did you do for this book?
KB: Much of the work is based on my personal experiences over the course of a long career in academic medicine (e.g. med school, residency, treating critically ill patients in large teaching hospitals) and most of the places are places I know personally. The New Orleans episodes including hurricane Katrina are based on research into those events and places, mainly from material available on various internet sites. Of course, the WWII history and some details of Italian Fascism, Mussolini, etc. come from researching that period, including books and other materials. I relied heavily on materials available on the internet for the most part.
Do you use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel? Which is more difficult to write? Which to you prefer to write and why?
KB: Interesting. In fact, both kinds of characters are at least partly fictional. One can only know historical figures from second-hand (or more remote) accounts, so a lot of the character is invented by the author’s imagination. In some ways it is easier to totally invent a character, but in other ways it is easier if you have at least a framework of facts to embellish. If pressed, I’d have to say that I like inventing characters from whole cloth. That process requires thinking about human nature and the details of personality and behaviors – a philosophical exercise that can be revealing.
In an historical novel you must vividly re-create a place and people in a bygone era. How did you bring the place and people you are writing about to life?
KB: Most of the places I write about I know from personal experience and (with the exceptions of hurricane Katrina and WWII) the times are times I have known. The personal factor makes it easier, I think, to convey a sense of reality. For fictional people, I think details of conversation, behaviors, and to a lesser extent, appearances that resonate with the reader (hey, I know somebody like that) can breathe some life into fictional characters. Likewise, places, if based on real places, have to be consistent in detail with the actual place. Insertion of details that are real can help to make the fiction believable.
There often seems to be more scope in historical novels for male characters rather than female characters. Do you prefer to write one sex or the other. And, if so, why?
KB: As I have found true of real life, strong women usually make more interesting fictional characters than men. For example, I think Blanche Nero would be much less interesting as a man than she is as a woman. I see no reason why historical novels (or any other genre) should have more scope for male characters.
Thanks for answering my questions, Ken.
About Ken Brigham: Ken is emeritus professor of medicine at Emory University. He is widely published in the scientific literature and has authored or coauthored two previous novels and two nonfiction books. He lives with his wife, Arlene Stecenko, in midtown Atlanta.