I’ve been at work a lot this week due to it being the end of the summer holidays in Skegness, so have not had many opportunities to write. I have also been busy reading Nick Bullock’s excellent new book in time to put up a timely review on publication day (see below). However, there have been some developments that have affected the progress of The Only Genuine Jones on its road to production.
A number of years ago I made an effort to contact the living relatives of O.G. Jones himself, and the resulting email exchange proved very valuable. His relatives were able to provide vital information such as his final place of residence before his death in 1899. The individuals I contacted had no problem with Jones being turned into a fictional character (but then again he is the hero of my story).
However, more recently it occurred to me that I haven’t given all my characters such a generous treatment as Jones. Geoffrey Winthrop Young is, in fact, portrayed as naive, weak, and easily manipulated; he isn’t a bad character, but his actions result in disaster for the protagonists, even though Young has the best intentions. After doing some research I discovered that Young has a number of living relatives, and I decided it would be best to contact them and discuss my story to make sure they were ok with it.
I have corresponded with three of his surviving relatives. Although none of them had any specific immediate objections to my plans, all were confused why I had chosen to use a real historical figure as a character in this context (given that GWY is relatively unknown outside climbing circles). Their concern was that, for a relatively unknown character, the blurring of fact and fiction is going to be so nebulous that the casual reader may mistake the changes I’ve made for truth. I have of course written a comprehensive historical note explaining how my speculative history differs from reality, but I can appreciate that this might not be enough (how many readers, after all, are actually going to read the historical note?) If the character was a famous public figure, the argument goes, it would be obvious which elements were true and which elements have been reinvented.
I can understand their concerns. If I had portrayed Young as a hero, things might be different, but I have not portrayed him as a hero.
This novel has always been a bit of a risk. It’s a bold work of speculative fiction that is bound to step on a few toes, because I haven’t been afraid to take hallowed historical fact–a history venerated by generations of mountaineers–and twist it radically to create a good story that conveys the messages I want it to convey (while at the same time not taking itself too seriously). My intention is not to confuse the reader or reinvent history on a whim. I want to show what might–just might–have happened if the conditions had been right. I want to make the point that history is fluid, and that there is no one prescribed way in which things must always have happened.
To illustrate my point, I will use the example of climbing equipment. Crampons were standard equipment in the 1780s but had fallen out of fashion by the 1850s; they stayed out of fashion until the 1930s at least. Similarly, hooked ice axes were experimented with at various points in history but never took off until the 1960s. But is that the way things had to happen? It was entirely down to fashion and tradition–there are no technical reasons why front-pointing might not have been developed far earlier, if climbers had needed the technique. And as for mountaineers not having the necessary experience to take on the harder faces earlier in history, I don’t buy it. The story of climbing is one of great leaps forward by radical individuals. Plans to attempt Everest probably existed before 1900; they almost certainly would have failed, but the point is that there is no temporal paradox here. History is not set in stone. It all could have turned out so differently.
That being said, I have no wish to annoy or offend living relatives of these men and women–people whose reputations and stories I personally admire. Therefore, I have made the decision to erase Geoffrey Winthrop Young from my story, and replace him with an entirely fictional character. My depiction of GWY is at least 90% fictional anyway–I have changed just about every aspect of his life from October 1895 onwards–so it will not be too hard a wrench. My story itself has not changed and I stick by the principles to which I have adhered throughout the years it has taken to write The Only Genuine Jones.
On other matters, work is going well (albeit slowly) on Alpine Dawn, and my readers are getting back to me with the most wonderful praise on the advance copy of OGJ. I’m still on track for an October launch of the ebook edition!