On Historical Fiction, True Stories, and Not Recreating Reality
Craig Larsen on how writing a novel is like fabricating an elaborate lie
In 1968, my father—who had emigrated from Denmark to the US with his parents in 1946, just after the Second World War, when he was 15—returned to Denmark for the first time as a father himself, with his own children in tow. I was five at the time, so my memories of that trip are somewhat murky. But one instance I do remember vividly is coming across a black-and-white photograph of a gigantic man seated in an armchair with a hand on the back of two children, perhaps a little older than I was. The man was arrestingly handsome in a sort of terrible way, like Max Von Sydow, only much, much larger. But it was the exchange that followed that embedded this moment in my neurochemistry.
Who is that? I wanted to know, pointing at the photograph, which was hanging above a desk in a relative’s quiet sitting room.
My dad, who was alone in the room with me, wrinkled his brow. He knew that I was too young to hear this story, but it was one he wanted to tell. That is my uncle, he explained. My mother’s—your Mutti’s—brother.
Is this his house?
Again, a subject that Dad didn’t know how to broach with a five-year-old: He’s dead. Dad lifted the frame off the wall, brought the photograph closer. When I was a little older than you, when the war ended he picked me up and placed me behind him on his motorcycle and drove me through the streets of Copenhagen in the victory motorcade.
Dad had already told me about the war, one day when my brother and I had stumbled across a concrete bunker dug into the dunes of a beach on the cold waters of the north shore. About how the Germans had invaded Denmark; how the Danes had managed to fight back only for a couple of hours before surrendering and allowing the occupation; how Farfar, my grandfather, had been forced to steal wood from the piers to keep a fire burning during the long winters.
Was he in the war?
Not exactly. He was a member of the Danish resistance. He was one of the men who fought against the Nazis.
This confused me. How was it that he fought the Nazis, if the country had already surrendered? What did he do to fight them?
He didn’t want to let them take things from the Danes.
But what did he do? Did he kill them?
My dad had to decide whether this was something I should hear, and how I should hear it. He had no choice. They were our enemies. They came into the country to set up an airbase so they could fight the people in Norway, because back then planes couldn’t fly as far as they can now.
Did he have a gun?
Did he shoot them?
I don’t know. I think so.
Did they shoot him?
He had to hide, my dad told me. He spent the war awake—too afraid to sleep. He took something called amphetamines to stay awake. That’s why he died, probably. From being afraid. From staying awake. After the war, he developed leukemia and died.
These are the essential elements I remember from that conversation. Images of the planes buzzing overhead. This giant with a pistol in his hand, lying on a rusty cot in the dark with his eyes wide open. My dad on the back of a motorcycle weaving through the victory parade. In my mind, in my first understanding of him, this man was a hero—a tragic one.
When I pressed my dad for more, the story became more complex. My great uncle was not a nice man. When he was 12 or 13, he had been sent away from Copenhagen by his relatively aristocratic family to live on a farm in Jutland, principally because he had sadistically killed the family’s pets. On the farm, he continued to torture animals. When I was older, I began to understand that it was this tendency toward violence that had allowed him to become the hero that he was. The man who was an outcast during a time of peace became an ally during the war, though one that was used, not loved.
It was in my attempt to come to terms with the contradictions inherent in the person of this singular man decades later as a father myself—this violent man in the black-and-white photograph, who was also a father—that the story of my novel The Second Winter and the character of Fredrik Gregersen were born.
* * * *
One question I am often asked is whether The Second Winter is a “true story.” There is no simple answer to this. I do descend from giants; real-life giants who did enormous things. On the other hand, these ancestors of mine—Fredrik and his family and some of the other characters who populate the novel—are mythical constructs of my imagination, products of the stories I grew up on as well as of my own constitution. But despite the nearly impossible things they did, these were in fact real people, with real hungers, fears, weaknesses, and wants. I did not write the novel in order to capture the personality or recount the history of my father’s uncle. I invented these characters, drawn in part from family, and then I placed them into the context of Denmark during the occupation.
The war itself was real. The Holocaust was real. Young girls were pressed into prostitution to service soldiers. A propaganda machine was created to refashion these atrocities into another truth. The Nazis did exterminate millions of people because of their race and religion. Adolf Hitler lived and breathed. So did many men and women who came to the aid of the Jews or who fought the Germans for so many other reasons, some who died, some who themselves killed. When I approached the novel, I wanted to envision my characters as individuals thrust into this reality. I wanted to understand their motivations from a personal perspective as opposed to the larger societal forces that were driving this conflict between organized groups of people. At the same time, I understood that I could use this dichotomy to develop who my characters were and why they made the choices they did.
Imagine Emma Cline’s The Girls without the backdrop of the Manson killings. Cline could have created a purely fictional world where her protagonist participated in a slaughter of one kind or another. But as readers, we may have found ourselves questioning whether anyone would actually have done some of these grotesque things. What makes the novel so powerful is that Cline has inserted her protagonist into a series of events we know are real, but then has given her motivations that we don’t expect to create a metaphor and tell a personal story that confounds us. She did not attempt to document the reasons that any of Manson’s actual acolytes became his surrogate murderers. The controversy the book has generated arises in part because of the way she uses the broad strokes of the iconic atrocity to create a new character who willingly becomes a participant in it.
Readers have had a similar reaction to Fredrik’s character in The Second Winter. This is why they ask me whether he is real: they want to be able to explain him away the same way we have learned to explain Hitler into the historical box in which we have put him. They want to know whether he is an actual monster, or perhaps whether I am, as the writer who conceived of him.
* * * *
Though I hope it does justice to the winter of 1941, I don’t know if I consider my novel a piece of “historical fiction.” The story I sat down to write had little to do with armies and war—or even the occupation of Denmark in all its complexities. It describes what it means to me to be a father, viewed from many perspectives, including through the eyes of an innocent child. Fathers rape (have sex); they steal (work); they kill (protect). The iconography of the Second World War allowed me to develop Fredrik’s savagery in a way that made it more palatable than it would have been in another context, and to create characters with layers of complexity—people who could be bad and good at the same time.
Writing a novel is to fabricate an elaborate lie. The end game is not to recreate reality. It is to carve a finite, sensible universe from an infinite, insensible one, to convey a truth best described through metaphor. The beauty of a historical setting is that it provides us with cultural references and signposts we can recognize—blocks of language that a writer can manipulate to create an illusion of reality where none really exists. The Second World War, the German occupation of Denmark, the Nazi propaganda machine, the plight of the Jews—all these things allowed me to create a context in which I was able to develop Fredrik into a man whom I, at least, can comprehend. I have no idea whether Fredrik will be a sympathetic character to anyone else. But I hope that in the end he does manage to transcend the fabrication and transform himself into someone very real, even if he only lives in the ink on the pages of The Second Winter.