“Why historians should write fiction”: A conversation with Ian Mortimer (aka James Forrester)

In this installment of Burning Questions, I talk with Ian Mortimer, bestselling author of The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, a distinguished historian of medieval and early modern England, and a novelist writing under the name James Forrester. Ian has written elsewhere about the potential of historical fiction as a compelling and unique lens upon the past. Here we discuss in particular the role of imagination in historical writing, whether academic or fictional: the use of language “to create senses of drama, light and dark in the narrative,” as he puts it, as well as fiction’s heuristic power to explore the motivations and characters of historical actors.

As his diverse writings suggest (here is a great one on the art of creative non-fiction), Ian is devoted to demonstrating (not just asserting) how the two genres of historical fiction and academic history ultimately complement one another. As he points out, there are 3500 professional historians in the UK alone, many of them teaching history as a public enterprise, and the historical novelist has an equally important role to play in this broader reconstruction and reimagination of the past. The conversation concludes with a glimpse at Ian’s current project, a short “ideas book” on the concept of historical change over the last millennium.

Not surprisingly, a fascinating conversation. As always, enjoy!

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