Writing historical fiction about famous 20th-century people may mean that there are more records to draw on than are available for previous centuries. But it brings its own set of problems, as author Gill Paul found while working on her latest novel, The Second Marriage.
Biographical novels have long been a popular form of historical fiction, with Hilary Mantel and Philippa Gregory the standard bearers, but as novelists take on 20th-century figures they are having to confront a new set of problems – legal, moral and practical – that would not apply to subjects born even fifty years earlier. When I wrote about Jackie Kennedy and Maria Callas, and their rivalry over Aristotle Onassis, I had to grapple with several.
Let’s take legal first. While I was writing, Maria’s official website posted a notice stating that any portrayals of her must be cleared with her estate. I’m in touch with a journalist who is currently writing a biography of her and is being made to jump through hoops. Did this apply to me? My publishers’ legal teams on both sides of the Atlantic think not, because we clearly state my book is a work of fiction.
When I began writing back in 2018, there was another legal problem because Jackie’s sister Lee Radziwill was still alive. That was a major concern because while it’s well known that she had an affair with Onassis back in 1962–63, she never publicly confirmed it. It’s mentioned in biographies and contemporary press reports, but, by including it in my novel, I ran the risk of her suing for libel.
Yet she was a key element in the Jackie/Maria/Onassis story so I couldn’t leave her out. As it happened, Lee died in February 2019. You can’t libel the dead, so that was one concern I didn’t need to worry about any more.
None of the main protagonists are still around, but a few people who are mentioned in passing in my novel are alive. Should I be concerned what Jackie’s daughter Caroline or Lee’s daughter Anna will think of the portrayals of their mothers? I don’t flatter myself that either of them will read my novel, but if they do, I hope they won’t mind.
I’m not claiming to have captured the ‘real women’. I’ve painted a picture that to me feels plausible and sympathetic, but I didn’t know them personally. All the dialogue and most of the scenes are made up, and I presumed to invent thoughts and feelings for Jackie and Maria, because the narration is close third person.
The closer you get to the present day and the more famous the subject, the more their story resides in living memory so many readers will approach it with pre-conceived ideas.
In America, Jackie is still quasi-royalty, while Onassis and Maria are revered in their Greek homeland. Both women have huge and active fan clubs, so how would they react to my versions of their heroines? I decided I had to write the story the way I wanted and brace for a potentially bumpy landing.
The first challenge when I started writing was to make Maria sympathetic in early chapters so that readers invest in her story as much as they do in Jackie’s.
Most people will come to the book knowing what happened to Jackie’s first husband in Dallas, so she gets instant sympathy – but in 1957, the year I begin my story, Maria was at a stage of her career when she was routinely portrayed by the press as an unreasonable, demanding diva, an image that many still have of her today.
I wanted readers to see past the stereotype to the insecure, unhappy woman behind the scenes. I went through many drafts of the early chapters, and showed them to loads of readers before I felt that Maria was coming across as relatable and likeable, with her story able to hold its own against Jackie’s.
In any biographical novel, the aim is to shine a light into the gaps between the historical facts – and with Jackie, despite the plethora of biographies, there are some huge, gaping ones.
Why did she put up with JFK’s industrial-scale philandering? Did she have an affair with his brother Bobby after his death?
Why did she marry Onassis knowing that he was in a long-term relationship with Maria Callas, that her sister Lee had been desperate to marry him during their affair a few years earlier, and that they had hardly any interests in common? No biographer knows for sure, but as a novelist I could search for answers that felt to me emotionally plausible.
Next problem was that when you are writing about two women who were rivals, you want them to meet at some point – and there is no evidence they ever did. One biographer mentioned that Jackie went to Maria’s triumphant performance of Tosca at the Met in 1965, so I included that.
The previous year, while Maria and Ari were in New York, Jackie had rather rudely invited him to a brunch at her apartment without Maria – that went in too. Jackie’s first visit to Onassis’s yacht with Jack was an essential scene, but I moved it from 1955 to 1958 to fit my narrative.
And then I invented a few more overlaps between the women because the story seemed to need them. I always confess to such falsifications in a historical afterword; they’re unavoidable when you are trying to shoehorn real events into a narrative arc.
Letters are still in copyright when you are writing about someone who died less than 70 years ago, but they form a crucial primary resource for understanding character.
I also like reading memoirs by friends and family – but on Maria’s side she was shafted in books by her mother, sister and first husband, all of them with their own money-grabbing agendas.
Jackie’s close friends never wrote about her in her lifetime because it was a sure-fire way to get dropped. When I read Carly Simon’s recent memoir about their friendship, Touched by the Sun, at first I got the impression she had only known her slightly and was astonished to learn she was present at Jackie’s deathbed, implying a much deeper bond. Ultimately, I suspect no one fully knew Jackie – maybe not even herself.
The truth is that there is no absolute truth about any human being.
I hope that by not getting bogged down in slavish retelling of biographical facts, but by trying to dramatise key parts of their lives, novelists can achieve fresh insights into 20th-century characters we thought we already knew.
For me, the main goal is always, first and foremost, to write an entertaining story that people want to read – and, with any luck, not to get sued.
The Second Marriage, her novel about Jackie Kennedy and Maria Callas, was published on 17 September, 2020.
Find out more about The Second Marriage.
Gill has written about the background to The Lost Daughter, her story set during the Romanov family’s captivity in post-revolutionary Russia, in Stockholm Syndrome in Ekaterinburg?, one of Historia’s most popular features.
Jacqueline Bouvier on her wedding day in 1953: via Wikimedia
Aristotle Onassis: via Wikimedia
Maria Callas thanks the audience at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, 1959: via Wikimedia
President John F Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy arrive at Love Field, Dallas, Texas, on 22 November, 1963, by Cecil William Stoughton: via Wikimedia
Maria Callas at Schiphol Airport, 1973: via Wikimedia