For the second time since I began writing fictional biography, someone said, “But how am I to know what’s true?” My answer is that the scenes are made up, the dialogue, the emotional movement, but the settings are as real as I can make them, and I don’t tamper with known facts–assuming they are recorded somewhere and that I have found them. I don’t change dates or rearrange events to my own ends, either. In the case of SANDWALK, my fictional biography of the Charles Darwin family during the 17 months preceding the publication of Origin, it was relatively straightforward, thanks to Darwin being such a frequent and thorough letter writer, available online at www.darwincorrespondenceproject.com, and their daughter Henrietta’s editing her mother’s letter collection into two volumes called Emma Darwin: A Century of Family Letters.
In the case of the Einstein book, it’s not so simple. The letters were written in German, for example, so I’m dependent on translations. And the executors of his estate were perhaps too conscientious in wanting to preserve Albert’s sainted image and destroyed much that was inconsistent with it. Consequently, for the period I’m writing about now–August, 1901-November 1901–after Mileva had failed her exams and went home pregnant to Vojvodina (Serbia) to tell her parents and the time she turned up in Stein am Rhein, Switzerland to be near Albert, letters were either never written (unlikely) or were destroyed. That means it’s up to me to figure out, based on what I can learn about her family and the cultural mores and religious values of Vojvodina in 1901, how that scene might have played with no help from actual accounts.
So, how does that work? As a novelist, I have to look to the end game. I know what happened to various family members, ultimately. I know that Mileva’s father, very successful in terms of worldly goods, owning as many as four farms in various sections of Serbia and two other houses as well, felt he had failed with his children, that they had betrayed him. I know that Mileva left Serbia to marry Albert after nearly dying, unwed, in childbirth with their first child Lieserl, that Albert never saw the baby, that she disappeared after age 2. I know that Mileva’s brother was assumed lost in WW I, but then turned up in Russia and became a professor in a university, though his fellow Serbs and family considered his abandonment traitorous. I know that her sister Zorka became schizophrenic and that she died on a bed of straw surrounded by 43 cats.
So, knowing those things, what can I assume about these people’s characters and their likely responses to Mileva’s news? Another interesting fact that seems totally out of context is that when Mileva was in residence at Stein am Rhein, Albert sent her two books. One was a book on hypnotism by Auguste Forel, the most recent director of the Burgholzli Mental Hospital in Zurich. Since nothing psychological has ever entered their letters before, what might that suggest? Mileva found the book disgusting, though she’s not very specific on that score. Perhaps because Forel was into eugenics? Or is that why he disgusts me?
That’s another problem, of course. The matter of being revisionist. I know that Forel’s work was used by Hitler, but it’s 1901 and no one knows that, yet. It’s got to be kept in mind.