BackStory: Five Questions with Fiona J. Mackintosh
Author of Postbellum
What inspired you to write this piece?
That’s a long story. I have spent many years researching the lives of an Anglo-Tahitian royal family in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The second daughter of the family, Princess Moetia Salmon, married Dorence Atwater, the American consul in Tahiti. This led me to look into his long and complicated back story and to write an article about him for America’s Civil War magazine . During the Civil War, he was a Union prisoner at the notorious Confederate camp in Andersonville, Georgia where 13,000 prisoners died of starvation and typhoid due to the appalling conditions. As a clerk in the camp commandant’s office, he copied the names and regiments of the Union dead and smuggled the list out when he was paroled. He took the list to Clara Barton who was running her Missing Soldiers’ Office in Washington D.C. and that was the start of a lifelong friendship. That much is noted in all of Barton’s biographies. However, when I read their correspondence at the Library of Congress, I discovered there were certainly stronger feelings on his side and possibly on hers as well, and naturally this piqued my imagination. This particular flash grew out of a longer description of the train crash I’ve written for my novel in progress about Clara and Dorence.
Who are your favourite historical fiction writers (flash or otherwise) and why?
Off the top of my head, I’d say Alice Munro (always), Carys Davies’s masterful stories in The Redemption of Galen Pike, and Sarah Perry’s extraordinary novel The Essex Serpent. Gore Vidal’s Burr and Lincoln are entertaining while being rigorously accurate and evocative. And I highly recommend my friend Keith Donohue’s gorgeous novel Centuries of June, a tour de force that depicts various women characters from different historical periods.
If you could live for one year in any historical period, when and where would it be, and why?
Around 1911 or 1912. Things were becoming very interesting in both the UK and the US in terms of social change and particularly the women’s suffrage movements. And the clothes were gorgeous!
What, if anything, do you have in common with your main character?
Clara Barton was a determined and driven woman, but she was burdened by the belief that if she didn’t change the world, then no one else would. That can be a curse and is often predicated on a fair amount of egotism. I am not proud to say I’ve struggled with that self-imposed feeling of being indispensable throughout my life, though I like to think I’m learning the fallacy of it as I get older.
What do you think is the most challenging and/or rewarding aspect of writing historical flash?
The biggest challenge is maintaining accuracy within the dialogue without sounding stilted or cliched. This is something I wrestle with constantly. The rewards are being able to imagine yourself into a totally different time in history through touch, smell, sound, sight, and taste – coal stoves and footwarmers in steam trains, the smell and feel of the soot in the air, the imprisoning sweep of long skirts. It’s like time travel from the comfort of your own home office!
Fiona J. Mackintosh is a British-American writer. She won the 2018 Fish Flash Fiction Award, has been listed for the Bristol, Galley Beggar, and Exeter Prizes, and has twice been nominated for The Best Small Fictions. She received a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist’s Award in 2016. You can find her online at www.fionajmackintosh.com and on Twitter at @fionajanemack.
Image of Clara Barton by Mathew Brady, circa 1865, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.