BackStory: Six Questions with Bryan Harvey

Comandancia de la Plata, Sierra Maestra, CubaBackStory: Six Questions with Bryan Harvey
Author of She arrived at the mountain hideout on horseback

What inspired you to write ‘She arrived at the mountain hideout on horseback’?

I was reading Tony Perrottet’s Cuba Libre: Che, Fidel, and the Improbable Revolution that Changed World History back in February and March. When March arrived, I was at home with my family due to the pandemic and our district closing its schools. My wife and I were doing a lot of strategizing and planning at the time, so I may have projected our domestic relationship onto some of the historic scenes described in Perrottet’s book. I also kept thinking about the film Battle of Algiers and how women are often better or able at being flexible and manipulating space and cataclysm.

What is your favourite piece of historical flash? Who are your favourite historical fiction writers in general?

I think “Neanderthal” by Noa Covo is one of the best flash fiction pieces I’ve read recently. X-R-A-Y Lit published it, and it really reads as if Karen Russell wrote it.

I think what Karen Russell does in relation to history is always interesting. I think what Marlon James did in A Brief History of Seven Killings made me rethink how historical fiction can work, but I don’t think he’s necessarily a historical fiction writer. In that vein, I would also mention James McBride and Colson Whitehead and even Michael Chabon. In Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and in Telegraph Avenue he includes cameos by historical figures that weave the fiction into the history. He includes figures like Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, and Barrack Obama in those books, and you could probably isolate those scenes and they would feel something like flash fiction. Another book that comes to mind is The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth. In that novel the reader is given a glimpse at the arrival of William the Conqueror to Britain’s shores, and it feels something like a Faulkner novel.

Were there any interesting facts, details, or turns of phrase that didn’t quite make the final piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you when writing it?

The first draft or two were longer by about a hundred words, so phrases were definitely cut or altered. I don’t know if what was cut was all that interesting. I was careful not to name the characters or locations in the piece. For some reason, I felt that made it more interesting and helped me to extend the story without extending the word count. The absence of names also fuses some of the personas in play.

Tony Perrottet’s book is really an interesting look at the power of celebrity in turning world affairs. I think I said it earlier, but the book also demonstrates the financial and social networks that propped up or glued the Cuban Revolution together. The fact that Che and Fidel are identifiable without their last names but individuals such as Celia Sànchez and Aleida March speaks to a certain misogyny that is often the lens for viewing historical events, and I don’t know if it counts as research but Benicio Del Toro’s performance in the movie Che was also in my mind.

What is your favourite part of the writing process?

My favourite part might be the moment I move from an idea to knowing the idea will actually be something. I think that happens the moment I know I have the first or last line or the first or last paragraph. I sometimes know the end before the beginning, but once I’ve written the beginning or end, it’s like feeling the tug at the end of a fishing line. That moment is sometimes immediately after the idea, but sometimes that moment is years later. That’s also the moment when the story becomes smaller.

If you could live for one year in any historical period, when and where would it be, and why?

It’s a toss up among the Punic Wars, 1491, 1599 or so, 1859, 1928, 1938, 1959, 1979. I think there is a great deal to be learned about the human experience in the moments before what’s called history arrives. I guess it’s wanting to touch base with the everyday calm and stresses that precipitated the storms.

How important is historical accuracy to you in your own writing?

I’ve written a ton of basketball fan fiction, and I try not to give teams or players endings that stray too far from what happened. I will change details and defamiliarize the action on the basketball court, but I tend to not rewrite the endings. Relating that to historical fiction, I think it’s impossible not to imagine the thoughts and dialogues of historical figures, but I’m not all that interested in changing results. I’m a big fan of The Watchmen, though, but I think that’s an alternate history that converges with our timeline through its divergences. For example, the American impulses that swept Ronald Reagan into the White House do not vanish simply because a more liberal actor is elected in his stead.

Bryan Harvey’s writing has appeared in Hobart Pulp, Rejection Lit., Former Cactus, Gravel, The Florida Review’s Aquifer, The Cold Mountain Review, and elsewhere. He blogs about the NBA for Fansided’s The Step Back. He is a father and teacher. He lives in Virginia. He has many miles left to run. He tweets @Bryan_S_Harvey.

Photo of Comandancia de la Plata, Sierra Maestra, Cuba by Anagoria, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.