Many years ago, I was nearing the end of Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex, thinking how great the book was. Eugenides had managed to write a highly original, story-rich, history-dotted novel without compromising the complexity of his characters. Then one of those characters started to drive from 1960s Detroit, across the Ambassador Bridge, towards Windsor, Ontario. When I came to the part describing a white string of lights running along the suspension cables from one end of the bridge to the other, I stopped reading.
Why stop at this very minor detail? Well, I was born in Windsor, lived there until my early twenties and I have a memory of when those lights went up for the first time and it had to be the early 1980s. What’s more, the lights were yellow, not white.
Pretty minor stuff. And after that brief pause, I went right back to the story. But the point is that these errors were disruptions; they bounced me from of the narrative.
Now, I’m probably misremembering my facts about the bridge and could be falsely maligning Middlesex. But I’ve never forgotten that feeling of being yanked out of the narrative by a mistake (if it actually was a mistake), even if I knew that I was probably one of very, very few people who would notice it.
I kept this feeling in mind as I began to write Chasing the Black Eagle. The central character, Hubert Julian, gained fame and notoriety for various aeronautical stunts in Harlem during the 1920s, including an attempt, in 1924, at a solo trans-Atlantic flight. Later, in Ethiopia, he would impress Haile Selassie with his parachute jumping and be asked to command the nation’s tiny air force.
I was fairly determined to get my facts right. Yes, I would be making certain things up. I could imagine private conversations without worrying about losing the reader, since nobody can know what was actually said. If, however, I ran into facts that were documented and verifiable, I stuck to them.
I took my research seriously. I searched through the archives of the big Black newspapers so that I could reproduce Julian’s quotes verbatim. I sought out the models of appliances that were then populating American kitchens because it wouldn’t due to have a Samsung fridge, not in 1925.
Headlines and fridge brands were easy. Unfortunately, adhering to the facts about Hubert Julian was a more difficult task. Julian had a lifelong tendency to exaggerate, to misrepresent, to lie. That so many of these fabulous tales became integral to his personal history is part of what makes him such a fascinating character. Many of his fibs have endured to this day on websites. At times, sorting truth from fiction could be maddening. For example: Did Julian really command the Ethiopian air force? Contemporary newspapers often described him as the ‘former chief of Ethiopia’s air corps’. But a search of the archival records of the British legation in Addis Ababa turned up a note in which one diplomat assures another that Julian had never held the post. If the former was a mistake, Julian didn’t try to correct it. But he wouldn’t have.
Rigid adherence to the facts turned out to be an impossible task. And besides, many of Julian’s lies were just too damn entertaining for a fiction writer to skip. I tried to let myself off the hook by having Julian narrate the most dubious stories, such as the time in the early 1930s when he flew upside down to avoid the worst of a hailstorm over the English Channel. But once I’d opened that door, my discipline slipped. For one miniscule example, I changed the date of Pancho Villa’s assassination so that it fit with my character’s timeline. I figured there was only the slimmest chance that any single person reading my book would also have an intimate knowledge of early 20th century Mexican history.
But then, this.
Bruce Geddes is the author of one previous novel, The Higher the Monkey Climbs (2018). His short fiction has appeared in the New Quarterly, Blank Spaces, and the Freshwater Review. Born in Windsor, Ontario, he currently lives in Kingston. Learn more here.