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Monday, August 10, 2020

An Inventor of the Past

  “Writers of historical fiction are not under the same obligation as historians to find evidence for the statements they make. For us it is sufficient if what we say can't be disproved or shown to be false.”  – Barry Unsworth


Born into an English coal mining family on this date in 1930, Unsworth said he “got out of that trap” when his father bucked tradition and became an insurance salesman.  “He saved us,” Unsworth said.  


After starting his writing career as a “traditional” novelist – producing best-sellers like The Partnership and Pascali’s Island – Unsworth switched to historical fiction and became one of the pre-eminent writers in that genre.  At the time of his death – in 2012 on the same day as science fiction writer Ray Bradbury – Wall Street Journal writer Cynthia Crossen noted:  "Mr. Bradbury invented the future; Mr. Unsworth invented the past."


Unsworth once said that he was a novelist, not a biographer, but his 17 novels – more than half of which were historical fiction – often brought real people back to life, although in terms and language he usually created.  “All my fiction starts from a feeling of unique perception, the pressure of a secret, a story that needs to be told.”   


Shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize, his 1992 masterpiece Sacred Hunger, a story of  English involvement in the slave trade, shared the award with Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient.   As for why he chose to write historical fiction, Unsworth said, “I like the condition of being an outsider, just passing through.”




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