Historians Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore turn to writing a novel





HISTORIANS AREN'T SUPPOSED to make things up. Even at its most writerly, history weaves its story out of threads of fact. But the latest book from Jill Lepore and Jane Kamensky, two important academic historians known for carefully documenting the lives of history's minor participants, isn't a bulwark of fact at all. It's a novel.

Next month, Kamensky and Lepore will publish "Blindspot," a novel that depicts Boston a decade before the American Revolution. Packing together a romance and a murder mystery, the pair mine their own early American research to come up with a story at once about the past and about how the historian studies it.

It's not that the two, who met 20 years ago while studying at Yale, haven't enjoyed significant success in their field. Lepore holds an endowed professorship at Harvard and has been a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize; Kamensky chairs the history department at Brandeis. They have become noted practitioners of "microhistory," detailing the lives of ordinary people rather than chronicling the deeds of the great.

To prepare for the book, Lepore walked to work with the early novel "Tristram Shandy" playing on her iPod. She and Kamensky made glossaries of their favorite phrases from 18th-century literature. Their attention to language mirrored a renewed attention to the daily existence of their subjects' lives, and in the end, they found, the book helped reconnect them to their professional goal of giving voice to the sometimes voiceless actors of the past.

Lepore and Kamensky spoke with Ideas in a joint interview at the Hi-Rise bakery in Harvard Square.

IDEAS: Why write fiction?

LEPORE: I don't think we had a particular purpose going in. It really was: "This will be fun. Let's do this." . . . What it turned into - and this is the thing that most surprised me - is that it fed back into my work as an historian. . . . I'm working on Benjamin Franklin now, writing a biography of Franklin and his sister; I feel very close to both of them, as a nonfiction writer, in a way that I don't think I would have felt if we hadn't written this novel....


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