Thursday, August 7, 2014

So...who was Anna Swan?

Anna Swan, born in 1846, stood around 8 feet tall and became a celebrity because of it. She toured Canada, America and Europe, before marrying a man who was also 8 feet tall and settling on a farm in Ohio. She plays a major role in my upcoming novel The Thunder of Giants. But who exactly was she? 

Anna Swan is only 1/3 of The Thunder of Giants; the rest of the book focuses on Andorra Kelsey, the 8 foot tall woman hired to play Anna in a film. I didn't set out to write a conventional piece of biographical fiction; I was more interested in finding a way to make history and fiction intertwine. Anna Swan lived in that world - many of the facts we have about her, including her magnificent height, are questionable because she lived in a world that dealt with hyperbole and exaggeration. Whenever history and fiction collide, we end up with myth. Myths differ from fairy tales. Fairy tales don't pretend to be real but myths are either based on reality or have some effect on the real world. No one is basing a religion around Cinderella; but the ancient Greeks built temples to Zues. So while Anna Swan is a fascinating figure, I was more interested in exploring her effect on the world decades after her death.

Friday, July 4, 2014

"She Was Probably the Tallest Girl In the World...."

P.T. Barnum
About six years ago I went through a phase where I read all the books that had been turned into musicals. I began with Gregory Maguire's Wicked, went straight through Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera, made a left at Dubose Heyward's Porgy, went a few miles with Hugo's Les Miserables, and finally ended up in the middle of nowhere with a copy of Struggles and Triumphs, the autobiography of 19th century American showman P.T. Barnum. Struggles and Triumphs wasn't the official source material for the Cy Coleman-Michael Stewart musical Barnum, but the no doubt mined it for material. I thought the book might be a bit of a slog but it was surprisingly engaging. Barnum was famous for his various schemes to amaze, astonish and occasionally humbug his audiences with Siamese twins, dwarves, wolfboys, living skeletons and other human curiosities. I settled in for an intriguing portrait of this "first purveyor of mass entertainment" (as the editors at Penguin Classics called him), already planning to move on to E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime when I was done.

And then, on Page 283, everything changed. A single sentence had the same effect as a flat tire on a road trip; it was something which forced me to stop for breath.