The balancing act between history and fiction: Reflections
by Ellen Meeropol
Novelist Ellen Meeropol has published five novels with Red Hen Press. In promoting her latest, The Lost Women of Azalea Court, Ellen embarks on a walking and reading tour with Historic Northampton to visit the real-life location her latest novel takes place at. She reflects on this event series the effects of its immersion in this guest post below.
I imagine my novels balancing at the intersection of the global and the individual. Big ideas of history and politics sit on one end of the seesaw. On the other end are characters with their human yearnings, faults, secrets, and desires. Both are critically important to me, so my job is to meld them. That balancing act was particularly challenging in writing my latest novel, The Lost Women of Azalea Court, which is set on the grounds of a former state mental hospital in the town where I live.
Turns out that promoting the novel, especially in my town, is also a balancing act between our history and fiction. The local historic society, in whose archives I found much of the research material used in writing the novel, offered a way to honor both the historical record and the imagination. After reading an advance copy of the novel, Historic Northampton co-director Laurie Saunders suggested walking tours of the old hospital campus, stopping at historically important sites to read short excerpts of the novel set in those places.
Historic Northampton offers popular walking tours focusing on local history and the natural world. This book-related version, Northampton State Hospital in History and Fiction: A Walking and Reading Tour, added another dimension. We gathered at the memorial fountain (“of all the tears shed at this hospital”), at the old coach house (where the dorm scenes for the movie “Cider House Rules” were filmed), and at the building that held the last patients before the hospital was closed in 1993. At times, as we walked, I imagined the ghosts of those 65,000 patients following along on the sidewalks and grassy areas.
As we walked and read, the story came alive in a different way. A way that allowed us to consider both the painful and often-shameful history, with its lofty but profoundly-failed ideals, and the role of storytelling in understanding our past and vowing — promising ourselves and the ghosts — to do better in the future.