In fifth grade, I picked Abigail Adams from a list of American history topics because I wanted to find out what this woman had done to land herself, nearly alone, on a list of men. I soon despaired to learn that she hadn’t actually done all that much, at least not in the ways that I understood “doing.” She ran the family farm and raised the kids while her husband, John Adams, was off signing the Declaration of Independence. She followed him to France, then Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., then back to the farm. I chronicled these relocations, while thinking that I must be missing the point. Defeated, I turned in my report, aware that it was, as grandiose as this sounds, my first intellectual failure.
I’d gotten plenty of spelling words wrong before, but those were failures of memorization, not comprehension. That a life might be valued in terms other than battles won or lost, institutions raised or razed, was alien to me. The “great man” kind of history was the only kind I’d been taught, and the only kind I knew how to value.
I unlearned that lesson gradually. In another American history class I reread some of Adams’s letters and could recognize their significance: “Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no Voice, or Representation.” She was one of the earliest advocates for the rights and education of women in the United States, although neither representation nor rebellion would came to pass until long after her lifetime. I learned that beyond great deeds, what people thought or said—or sometimes didn’t or couldn’t say—had value.
Or at least, I thought I had learned this. Then I found myself, years later, waist deep in a novel inspired by the life of the eccentric French composer Erik Satie, dully chronicling actions: first he did this. Then he did that. I showed the first chapter too early, to someone in whose opinion I placed too much stock. “Is there a reason you aren’t just writing a biography?” he asked, and I cringed.
What was I writing, and why? I’d been fixated to the point of paralysis on the question of what fiction owes to history, tangled up in the impossibility of knowing every single thing about Satie’s biography, his music, let alone the entire time span of 1866–1925. Then I started asking, what does fiction offer to the historical record?
“The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like,” E.L. Doctorow famously remarked. The Satie in my novel is an act of creation, not resurrection. And yet, I can confidently tell you that it did not feel particularly comfortable to be Erik Satie. He was a prickly mix of generosity and cruelty, ambition and self-sabotage. He could be by turns a lovable prankster and a toxic misanthrope. He was his own worst victim, and the career renaissance he experienced late in his life came alongside his most extreme social isolation, when he stopped speaking to the brother who had steadfastly supported him. I thought of Satie at the end of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, when she asks, “Do you know why we have the sunflowers? It’s not because Vincent van Gogh suffered. It’s because Vincent van Gogh had a brother who loved him. Through all the pain, he had a tether, a connection to the world. And that is the focus of the story we need. Connection.”
The “great man” narrative, whether biographical or fictional, is a story about exceptionalism, not connection. I realized partway through writing The Vexations that I am less interested in the pole stars than in the constellations, and in the dark spaces between the lights. I finally started asking the questions about Satie and his associates that I hadn’t known how to ask about poor Abigail Adams. Beyond what they did, what did they say or leave unsaid, what did they feel or imagine? Who transcended the expectations of place and time, and who lived within them, by choice or force or the limits of their resources?
The characters around Erik stepped up and carried off sections of the book; I pictured them like ants at a picnic, marching away with chapters on their backs. First I wondered whether I should try and stop them. Then I cheered them on. They were full of observations about Erik, but eager to narrate their own stories, too. Suzanne Valadon, Satie’s only known romantic partner, was a force of nature. She was one of few professional female painters of the era, and the only one self-taught and self-made, without inherited wealth. The life of Satie’s sister, Louise-Olga-Jeannie, on the other hand, was a chronicle of the ways in which women were legally vulnerable; she had no way to win the courtroom disputes in which she was entangled, and which ultimately drove her to leave France and emigrate to Buenos Aires.
A recent request on Twitter for suggestions of movies about female geniuses was answered with a host of dubious nominations: Moana, Matilda, Captain Marvel. These are, as the phrase goes, strong female characters, but I don’t think anyone would respond to a query for movies about male geniuses by recommending Harry Potter. They’d respond with biopics about tortured geniuses, because that is a recognized genre, and the genre is male. I felt indignant about the lack of tortured female genius biopics, and then realized my indignation had the blurry outline of my old Abigail Adams–shaped blind spot. The “great woman” narrative (or the “sassy princess” narrative, or the “badass female warrior” narrative) is a corrective but it is also yet another way to tell the isolated life of an individual through her actions. Someone out there should absolutely make a female genius biopic about Suzanne Valadon. But when I was writing The Vexations, my admiration for Satie’s sister’s life grew to match the very different admiration I feel for Valadon, or for Satie’s music and his uncompromising dedication to it.
An answer I wish I’d had ready when asked why I wasn’t writing a biography: Novels have always been a genre occupied with both extraordinary and ordinary lives, able to illuminate living rooms and rehearsal rooms in addition to battlefields or concert stages. Adams wasn’t a politician or president; Satie’s siblings and friends weren’t (with some exceptions) geniuses. And yet they were parts of his story, the stars of their own, all in the same constellation. We live in nets, not points, of light, and fiction can illuminate the whole web.
There was much I had to learn to write this book, but there was an unlearning to be done as well: of the primacy of the great man narrative, of a kind of story, and of a kind of history, whose traditional expression would exclude me and nearly everyone I know. Some people transcend history; others barely survive it. Both are indispensable, to each other and to us. It’s a lesson I’ve been learning since fifth grade, and it finally stuck.
Caitlin Horrocks is the author of The Vexations and the short story collection This Is Not Your City. She is the recipient of the O. Henry Prize, the Pushcart Prize, and the Plimpton Prize, and her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Tin House, One Story, and has been included in The Best American Short Stories.