So can identify with the whining of the main character in “How Shall I Know You,” a short story in Hilary Mantel‘s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.
The woman is an author who has been “struggling with a biography” for several years.
As a biographer I was more than usually inefficient in untangling my subject’s accursed genealogy. I mixed up Aunt Virginie with the one who married the Mexican, and spent a whole hour with a churning stomach, thinking that all my dates were wrong and believing that my whole Chapter Two would have to be reworked.
Why, I can out-whine her any day. I have a whole cemetery I’m trying to untangle, and I’m sure I’m at least three years into it. And it is filled with a multitude of Smiths and Joneses and Cokers, many of whom inconsiderately passed down the same first names over and over. The Joneses prove particularly difficult, as they originate from two completely unrelated lines, or unrelated for quite a while before the Texas Revolution and not again until some time later.
And she only spent “a whole hour” thinking everything was awry? That’s nothing.
The author in the short story finds writing the truth, when it has to be uncovered, difficult.
I seemed to be pining for those three short early novels, and their brittle personnel. I felt a wish to be fictionalized.
Making up things does seem much easier than digging up facts long-buried. Often I want to just linger in the tub imagining different lives among all of those Coker descendants. The writer in “How Shall I Know You” does just that. She starts typing up exciting invented versions of the lives of Aunt Virginie and the Mexican, completely avoiding the facts associated with the original subject of the biography.
But, unfortunately, you just can’t make this stuff up.
And, I know I don’t need to.
The Coker Cemetery is fertile with true tales that should be passed on to the descendants of the residents resting there.
I’ve made it through the Texas Revolution, the arrival of German and Hungarian settlers and the Civil War. I’m getting there. Slowly.
Each nugget I discover is rewarding. In addition to the everyday stories of hardworking dairy farmers, there is a surprising bit of murder and mayhem to entertain me.
All I need is patience. And an extremely large dose of it.
The author of the author in the short story is the ultimate award-winning, best-selling researcher.
All whining privileges on my part are hereby revoked.