Journal of Writing & Environment

Hysteria and Historical Fiction

Authors like hysteria. It makes for a good conflict. Historical hysteria against (think of any racist term you want to interject) makes for even better writing–because now we get to think we’re better than that. And of course, this is not the limits of hysteria. We’re also afraid (which can so often lead to hysteria) of diseases, disasters, and those who aren’t like us. This can be racial, species, or demographic specifc–just to name a few.

I’ve been reading recently–plenty of your submissions, but also two books for fun. I recently finished 13 Moons by Charles Frazier (yes, I’m just getting around to it), which is better than Cold Mountain–at least in my opinion. The writing is tighter and the speaker alternates between an unreliable young adult narrator and the older version of that narrator. Of course, the narrator is really always older and telling what he remembers. Does this make him more unreliable? I think so! Anyway, Frazier manages to discuss the Trail of Tears without didacticism and provides all the key features of a best-seller: violence, romance, and hero goes on a journey. I’m summarizing a lot but I enjoyed the book.

But that was an overdose in history. To compensate, I’ve moved to (more modern history) Panic in Level 4 by Richard Preston. I should just state here I love infectious diseases. The Hot Zone introduced me to Richard Preston–a science writer and a creative nonfiction writer–and I’ve since read most of his books. Earlier this year, I read The Wild Trees. You should read that too. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Panic in Level 4 begins with an introduction to creative nonfiction and how Preston moves through his process of creative nonfiction fact gathering and writing. Each chapter in the book stems from articles he wrote, mostly for The New Yorker and other such magazines. Give it a read. I don’t love every chapter–but I feel like I’m learning…and that the learning is fun!