It’s one thing in fiction to change a little bit of history to fit your story plausibly inside it. But what happens when you change whole, vast chunks of it? On one hand, you’ve got the “alternate history” genre. But on the other hand, you may have a voice whispering in your ear, asking you if you really think you’re going to get away with that, when everyone knows how things really went. Michele Lang knows of this whisper, because in writing Lady Lazarus (which recently garnered a coveted starred review in Booklist), it was right with her the whole time. Here’s how she’s dealt with the whisperer.
I first read the poem “Lady Lazarus” as a literal-minded freshman in college. I knew it was supposed to be an extended metaphor for Sylvia Plath’s suicide attempts and her fraught relationship with her father, but I preferred to read it straight up, as a revenge anthem of a Jewish woman who returns from the dead to kill the Nazis who had murdered her.
I liked my interpretation way better. I mean, how can you read lines like these:
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air
And not consider the possibilities for mayhem? Even better, what if this girl, who could die and die again, had some way to stop the murderers before they killed anybody else?
I wanted to write that story for myself, wanted it bad. My parents are both Holocaust survivors, and to me the poem “Lady Lazarus” was an exercise in fantasy, the ultimate “what if.”
But such ponderings are fraught with danger. As an interviewer pointed out to me recently, the Holocaust is the third rail of historical fantasy — a million volts of energy humming there, don’t touch it or you’re dead.
I’ll be honest with you. I was afraid to write this book. The seed of this story stayed dormant in my mind for many years. It took a lot of writing, and a lot of living, before I had the guts to try to write Lady Lazarus.
Before that, I did everything I could to avoid touching that third rail. Magda Lazarus, the girl who refused to stay dead, kept following me as I moved to Boston, to Buffalo, to Connecticut. As I developed my writing muscles, I tried to satisfy her with a story set in a different, less challenging place. I tried writing her story set on another planet (really!). In contemporary New York. And all the while, she kept whispering, “No. You know where I belong.”
I didn’t want to go there, the nightmare country where my parents come from. But Magda Lazarus herself insisted. I didn’t pick this story, it followed me into the dark alleys of my mind and pinned me against the wall. It wouldn’t let me go until I wrote it.
My book Lady Lazarus is essentially about the power of our individual choices to change our lives, and consequently the world. To write Magda Lazarus’s story, I had to choose to face my own fears head on, and imagine a world in which magic could serve as a countervailing force against evil.
At bottom, I was afraid to write about the war because it wasn’t my story to tell. I didn’t want to hurt my family by leaping across the wall of fire they had passed through at such a cost to survive.
In the end, I had to weigh my fears against the raw need to tell this story. And the story won. I resolved to write this book if I could, and to fix my commitment I told someone in my family, someone I adore, my decision to write Lady Lazarus.
“You can’t write about that!” this beloved person instinctively said. “You can’t stop the whole war. Maybe you can save a little village, but you can’t stop what happened. It’s wrong. You can’t.”
At the time, I couldn’t articulate the well-thought out considerations of alt-hist pros like Debra Doyle and Jim Macdonald (see the Making Light post that Scalzi linked recently). People in other quarters have implied to me that a topic like World War II is sacred, and a mere genre writer like myself should not sully the real-life history with my imaginings.
But what about Sylvia Plath? Quentin Tarantino and Inglourious Basterds? This is my third rail, dammit, and I have the same right to hit those million volts as everybody else.
I wish I’d had the presence of mind to say to this dear family member, “The question ‘what if’ is the basis of all creative thought. My imagining a different past doesn’t trivialize what actually happened, it explores the ways in which all of us can transcend, or not transcend, the evils that beset us. Asking ‘what if?’ doesn’t negate the lives of Grandpa Gyula, Grandma Tosca, and all the others. It is a way to honor them.”
But none of these noble sentiments came up in our conversation. It’s as simple as this: saying “you can’t” to a writer is like waving a red cape in front of a bull. And Magda Lazarus, the apparition who haunted me and who wouldn’t stay dead, insisted I choose to follow her into the fire.
And, well, here we are. Here she is.