“You’d find certain archetypes that would appear no matter what. For instance, the haunted merchant’s house in New York plays off the mythology of the unmarried woman, the spinster, as does the Winchester House. Things like this would crop up unexpectedly across the country, despite their radically different places and stories and cultures.”
Dear Cora, I sat down to read this evening, but somehow my thoughts kept wandering to you, and I’ve put up my book to talk to you. I feel so queer tonight, as if something was going to happen. It’s been coming on all this afternoon. Now to make it perfect I spose that some calamity should occur. But you know I’m not very superstitious.
We all know libraries are great resources for writing. What isn’t always considered, however, is the intense power of archives for creative writers. What separates archives from the rest of the materials kept in libraries is that the vast majority of archival materials are unpublished. We can only truly know them, the stories they contain, the bits of brilliant light, by spending some time with them. Though we know archives as essential to the fact-finding part of research, not everyone sees them as essential to the creative part. But there are stories in archives, stories waiting to be told, and wading through the records for these gems is the tragically beautiful part of archival research.
Hilary Mantel, when she writes fiction, prefers to grab on a fact. A handhold, if you will. “I aim to make fiction flexible enough so that it bends itself around the facts as we have them,” she said in her Paris Review interview last week. If someone were to claim that the pursuit of the factual runs counter to the aims of fiction, she’d reply that most of human history remains unknown to us, anyway – we have only fragments of Sappho and stumps of buildings and broken statues and fields and fields of unmarked graves all over the world. So if you are lucky enough to build a human universe around any kind of factual handhold, why wouldn’t you use all you could get? To extend the climbing metaphor: just because you can, improbably, hoist yourself along a sheer cliff face doesn’t make the risk of falling any less, or the vista behind you any less stunning.
* Jeremy Allan Hawkins *
This is Strasbourg cathedral’s 1000th year, the first stone in its foundation having been laid in September of 1015 CE, and as the city begins a year of celebrations, it seems appropriate to meditate. Its lengthy tenure has seen world shaking events come and go. The cathedral survived two world wars and even some of the ordinance exploded during them. It survived the French revolution and it survived the Protestant reformation, which in another universe might have scoured its façade of all ornament. These events, and so many more, have swept past like the river sweeps past the city center and its vestiges of long-departed industry. The longevity of the cathedral, with all it has outlasted, feels almost eternal.