How I Wrote It

How Alison Pick keeps it real when writing historical fiction

The author of Strangers with the Same Dream discusses how she wrote her latest novel.
Alison Pick's novel Far to Go was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Strangers with the Same Dream is her third novel and seventh book. (Emma Lee/Penguin Random House Canada)

Alison Pick novel's new novel Strangers with the Same Dream transports readers to Palestine in the 1920s, where a group of young Jewish pioneers set out to realize a utopian dream — the founding of a kibbutz, or collective community, in the Middle East region now known as Israel.

Pick, who is also a poet, won the 2005 CBC Poetry Prize. Her previous novel Far to Go was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and her memoir Between Gods was a finalist for the B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction.

In her own words, Pick shares the creative process in writing Strangers with the Same Dream.

Travel literature 

"I received a travel grant through the Ontario Arts Council and I was able to visit Israel three times over a two-year period. The seed of this book grew from these trips. Around the same time I read My Promised Land, a book by Ari Shavit about the country. He has a chapter based on one of the first kibbutz in Israel. I remember, when I read that chapter, it seemed so novelistic to me. There was rumours of a murder, there was suicide, there were groups of young people who were highly charged and excited to be doing this dangerous and radical thing. It seemed to have the ingredients of a good novel."

The reach of research

"With historical research, one thing can lead to another and you can find yourself three years later still researching. I usually try to set strict research guidelines: I make narrow parameters and then I try to read and research very deeply within those parameters. I read about the early kibbutz movement, but I tried to stay focused on the 1920s and the couple of years leading up to when my novel was set. I went to (kibbutz) Ein Harod while in Israel and they had archives there. There were amazing primary sources such as diaries from these pioneers. They were written in Hebrew, of course, so I had to get a translator. I read these first-person diaries, plus I read some fiction and nonfiction that was set at that time."

Fiction that stays true to life

"I think it's important with historical fiction to stay true to the facts of what happened. A reader needs to trust you — you're taking them back in time and you can't make up random things around factual and political events. My last book was a memoir, and one of the reasons I wanted to go back to fiction was because it gives you more leeway in terms of the plotting and dramatic tension. Historical fiction is a great genre because you can lean in and choose an era that is already rife with tension. The reader can then bring to the reading a whole set of assumptions about that time and place. You can use that to your advantage."

Building character

"I think characters have to be nuanced. Human beings are all full of internal contradictions — so we think one thing, and then we act another way, or we want to be good but we behave badly. We all have competing parts of ourselves and so for a character to seem real they also have to have internal contradictions. I tried to apply that to all of the characters, to open up space for subtlety rather than put the characters into an easy box."

Defining literary success

"Success as a writer occurs when I'm fully absorbed in what I'm doing and I'm enjoying it. And that's where the real pleasure and success comes for me. That said it's also nice to know that your work reaches readers. I love when people say they read my book — it's nice to know that you're not just writing in the dark."

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