Five Questions for Author Kate Taylor

Kate Taylor’s second novel, A Man in Uniform, is an compelling detective story that uses an historical event, the Dreyfus Affair, to build a rich, character driven intrigue. Athena McKenzie-Parkin sat down with Taylor to talk history, writing and book clubs.

Athena McKenzie-Parkin: How did you first hear about the Dreyfus Affair?
Kate Taylor: I can’t remember exactly when I first heard about it, but I’ve known about it since I was a teenager. I was always really interested in history as a kid and I studied history at university, so I’d heard of it and I didn’t really know what it was, but it sounded so exotic and interesting, ‘The Dreyfus Affair.’ The first time I really studied it in any way, it was in a history course I took one summer at Carleton University about church and state in European society and the Dreyfus Affair was famous because it lead to all sorts of changes, that still reverberate in France today, that led to the complete secularization of, for instance, the French education system. Napoleon had started that process and it was finished by the Dreyfus affair. Because the church took the anti-Dreyfus side and were highly anti-Semitic, it became a way to punish the church afterwards. That was when I first studied it and was really intrigued by it because the cliché of history is kings and battles and history tends to be the story of great deeds and great disasters, so what was sort of funny about the Dreyfus affair was here was this thing that changed French society and it began with a mistake. Perhaps a malicious mistake, but a mistake and it grew into a gross miscarriage of justice. When I was writing my first novel (Mme. Proust and the Kosher Kitchen), the Dreyfus Affair appears in passing because the Proust family was split over it, such as many people in France were at the time. So I did a little more research then and became even more interested in it. And that was the point I realized there is a thriller in this. There is a period of the paper chase that lead to people realizing that not only is Dreyfus not guilty, we know who is. That period of the paper chase was like a detective story.

AMP: What is the biggest challenge when writing fiction about actual history?
KT: One of the things I needed to do was condense time a lot. The core events in reality take place over three years and my book takes place over three months. The larger events actually took a decade. One of things you do when writing historical fiction, if you are really basing it on history, is condense. And that’s a well-established dramatic tradition. That’s what Shakespeare did in history plays and that’s what Hollywood does all the time. To create drama, things need to happen quickly.
The next issue for me is how you represent historical figures. I would never want to misrepresent the characters and their roles. In my novel, two of the real historical characters are Colonel P and Major Henry, who are both real French army officers and one is the good guy and the other’s the bad guy and that is perfectly historically accurate. I made up their dialogue and actions, but their actual profiles as good guy and bad guy are true to history. That said, a historical novel is not a history book and if people want pure history they should go to history books. One is writing a novel for different reasons and it is a different way of engaging with history,

AMP: Though the setting of Paris is quite vivid, the novel feels timeless. There are large portions that seem like they could be happening now. Was that intentional?
KT: A lot of people now are reading it and are drawing rather obvious parallels to contemporary events. The Dreyfus Affair is a notorious case of human rights abuse. The lesson of the Dreyfus Affair is that one man’s rights matter – one single man’s rights. And if you don’t respect each and every citizen’s rights, you wind up eating away at the fabric of what your society stands for. France was a beacon for those ideals, the cradle of the revolution. France and the United States were the two great modern republics, the two countries that said this is about the rights of the individual. So, obviously that lesson is always pertinent. I didn’t realize until I started researching it, how topical it was. And it became more and more topical as I was writing it. Guantamano started happening as I was writing it and the Arar case here in Canada. So, the parallels kept snowballing.

AMP: Does your exposure to theatre influence how you approach writing fiction?
KT: I’ve never thought about that. The last time I wrote a dramatic scene was in high school. So I never tried to write a play. The thing about theatre that I found useful in fiction is the clichéd actor’s line, ‘what’s my motivation, what’s my motivation?’ For the actor, the job is making the motivation come alive on stage. An awful lot of fiction, both drama and literary fiction, is about human motivation. So there is a relationship between theatre and this and it’s about motivation.

AMP: Do you enjoy traveling around to talk about the book?
KT: The thing I really enjoy are the question periods after a reading. And I did a lot of book clubs for the first book and it’s amazing. They say incredibly touching things to you and they talk about the characters as if they are real people, which is an incredible vindication as a writer.

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