A True Event Can Make Riveting Fiction
Glen David Gold’s novel Carter Beats the Devil (2001) opens with President Warren G. Harding gamely getting up on stage in a San Francisco theater to participate in a conjuring trick. Hours later, he’s dead. Were the two events connected? Suddenly the conjurer—the real-life Joseph Carter, a household name in the 1920s—is under suspicion.
I was intrigued. Gold had crafted his story from a kernel of truth. Harding was in good health when he died suddenly of unknown causes, aged 57, in a San Francisco hotel room. The death was one of the great mysteries of the decade. Facing almost certain impeachment and accompanied by a First Lady resentful of his philandering, could this have been a suicide or a murder?
For me, the master of turning truth into fiction is Robert Harris. All his novels draw from real events. My favorite, Archangel (1998), was inspired by one tiny, intriguing fact. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, newly opened archives revealed that a small black oilskin-covered notebook that was always in Stalin’s pocket had vanished the night he died. It had never been found. From this fragment of miscellanea Harris constructs an entire plot.
These were the kinds of novels I wanted to write. Real events, unexplained events, are a diamond mine of inspiration. Sometimes they’re no more than trivia, or footnotes—marginalia to history’s main dramas.
My moment came in 2008 when by chance I read an account of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. The event had so many strange and movielike moments that it seemed somehow unreal: Nazis turning on the charm at glittering diplomatic receptions, the giant Zeppelin Hindenburg flying over the opening ceremony, and, of course, the track triumphs of Jesse Owens, the fastest man on earth, watched by a brooding Adolf Hitler. That summer the most famous person in Germany was an African-American.
I hired an apartment in Berlin for three months to start writing and visited every location in the plot, including the stadium, several times. An author is the reader’s eyes and ears. I wouldn’t presume to describe a place without seeing it for myself and looking for as much useful detail as possible.
True events are not only satisfying to research, they lend authenticity and provide the detail that can bring a story to life—with the bonus that fiction can pull off something the history books can’t: put you inside a protagonist’s head, make you feel what he or she is feeling.
I started reading memoirs and diaries from 1936. I watched movies from that time to get an ear for pre-war speech and slang. I discovered the passing detail that the Zeppelins occasionally had a stowaway on board, and the tantalizing fact that within days of coming to power, the Nazis confiscated a six-volume dossier on Hitler from the archives of the Munich police. A dossier about what?
Slowly I put together a story that linked that mysterious dossier, the ’36 Olympics, and the destruction of the Hindenburg as it came to land at Lakehurst, New Jersey, nine months later.
In fact, the lost dossier became the secret driving the plot, what Alfred Hitchcock called the “MacGuffin,” something that in itself may be ambiguous or undefined (stolen naval plans in Sherlock Holmes stories, and so on) but around which all the action revolves. I connected the secret to the nemesis lurking in the background of the story: Hitler himself. Ian Kershaw, the most thorough of the biographers, said of Hitler that behind the politics there was nothing; the man was a ghostly, empty shell. Something about his personality and his past did not add up. A biographer couldn’t fill in the blanks, but a novelist could. The story was published as Flight from Berlin in 2012.
The news is another fertile source of material. On the morning of December 17, 2011, I turned on the radio to hear that Kim Jong-il, the North Korean despot, had died. I knew he had been in frail health for years. But it was the regime’s official statement that made my ears prick up. Kim had suffered a brief illness on board his private train, it said, brought on by “the excessive mental and physical strain of his lifelong dedication to the people’s cause.”
Hard at work until the very end, eh? It was an edifying, humbling image. An honorable death. And it was almost certainly propaganda. So what had really happened? How had Kim died? I had the seed of my next novel.
Writers often don’t make life easy for themselves… Four months later I arrived in Pyongyang, North Korea, as a tourist on an official tour. Not your usual bucket list destination. It remains one of the oddest experiences of my life of my life. I witnessed at first hand the power of a cult, and I had to be careful. Everyone was watched, including our guides. Simply asking them an awkward question could land them in hot water.
Months later, in Seoul, South Korea, I was privileged to interview defectors who had escaped Kim’s realm. They gave me something I did not expect: a profound lesson in psychology. All of them missed that dark place. All of them had found that freedom—real freedom, in which your life is what you make of it and the choices are your own—can be terrifying. Feeling free, like finding happiness, was something they’d had to figure out for themselves. I hope I have imparted some of their humanity to the characters in my story. Star of the North was published in 2018.
D. B. JOHN was born in Wales. He began training as a lawyer but switched to a career in publishing, editing popular children’s books on history and science. In 2009 he moved to Berlin, Germany, to write his first novel, Flight from Berlin. A visit to North Korea in 2012 inspired Star of the North. He lives in Angel, London.