"There's a point where you turn the analytic part of your brain off and try to feel your way through the material, and that's when the autonomous play of association comes in."
January 26th, 2011

Ben Tarnoff Author & Historian

Ben Tarnoff is a former assistant editor at Lapham's Quarterly, and the author of the book Moneymakers: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Notorious Counterfeiters (Penguin Press). Without dispelling too many of our romantic notions, Ben related to us the pleasures and occasional pratfalls of writing history, fiction, and of those occasions when the distinctions between the two only seem to reinforce their similarities.


Do you write and research your material at the same time, as necessary questions arise; or do you just get up and write for eight hours?

Before I began writing Moneymakers, I did just enough research to put together a basic skeleton for the book. This helped me develop a structure that made the process feel less daunting. But that’s probably only about 10 percent of the total research; the other 90 percent happened while I was writing. Research is tricky. It can easily derail your process. If you become too immersed in your material, you begin to lose sight of where your project fits in. The rambling, playful aspect of research can be a lot of fun, and without its weird digressions, the writing would probably be a lot less interesting. But it’s important to try to keep a handle on it, and reconnect the research to the writing as much as possible. Ideally, the research and the writing are so closely linked that each points the way forward for the other; both have their own logic and momentum, and the challenge is synthesizing the two into a narrative that’s elastic enough to accommodate the occasional detour but propulsive enough to keep the reader engaged.

As for schedule, I try to keep normal working hours. It’s essential to sit at the desk every day, even if nothing comes out. There are a lot of days when nothing comes out. Writing is probably the least efficient way to spend your time. It’s always a surprise how difficult it is, even the simplest kind. I think my best writing comes from moments of balance: when all the ideas and feelings and fears surrounding the work magically align into an equilibrium that allows me to put words on paper. The most important balancing act is between self-confidence and self-doubt. Too much of the former means you think everything you write is perfect; too much of the latter and you can’t write at all. When I first started writing, I thought of it in pretty cerebral terms: you have a thought, you make it a sentence. But now I think of writing as more of a space than a process; specifically, a kind of emotional headspace where your personality recedes and the work emerges, and you’re trying to listen to it, to find out what happens next. I hope that doesn’t sound too magical.

I’m actually glad you describe it like that – the process of stepping back and tapping into an autonomous play of associations and language. Do you consider yourself “channeling” of some sort? John Berger once talked of “something touched in the dark,” an almost spiritual conception of composition. Is that too far-fetched?

It’s not too far-fetched at all, but I do feel a little self-conscious using those terms to talk about writing history, because we usually associate that sort of “channeling” with fiction. The book I’m writing now is fiction, so recently I’ve been thinking a lot about how much the two have in common. Both the historian and the novelist imagine their way into a world, build characters, plot a story. Sometimes we think of history as a kind of transcription: you go into the archives, extract a few facts, and transcribe them for a wider audience. But it’s not enough for those facts to be true. They need to feel true — they need to feel like they mattered to real people. They need that quality of life as it’s lived. It takes work to make those dead facts come alive, and that’s creative work, similar to what a novelist does. When we talk about bringing the past into the present, I think of it in literal terms: the historian makes the past present in the brain of the reader.

But to get back to your question, I think all creative work involves some sort of “channeling,” and history is no exception. There’s a point where you turn the analytic part of your brain off and try to feel your way through the material, and that’s when the autonomous play of association comes in. There are the obvious associations between past and present: between counterfeiters from two hundred years ago and today’s financial sector, for example. But there are other, more subtle associations that are probably just as important. I realized while writing that some of my characters reminded me of people I knew, and at some unconscious level, that helped guide my understanding of their behavior. There are a ton of those correspondences happening when you write, shaping your approach to the material, so that while you’re trying to bring the past into the present, the present – and not just the nation’s present but your own personal present – is constantly informing your construction of the past.

This brings us right around to the subject of your forthcoming book: counterfeiting in early American history. How did this idea first come about?

I first got the idea for my book when researching the Lapham’s Quarterly issue on the history of money. I was reading a lot about counterfeiting, and I came across a book that had just been published called A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States by Stephen Mihm. This was right around the time the financial crisis was getting started, so there were a lot of pretty powerful “past in the present” parallels in the story of counterfeiting and early American finance.

What are some of the convergences you found between the forces at work two hundred years ago and the economic fiasco of today?

The broadest parallel is that confidence sustains today’s economy just as it did two or three hundred years ago. If colonial Americans didn’t have faith that a bill of credit equaled a certain quantity of money — that the promise inscribed on its surface would be honored–then the paper became worthless. This is the same spark of faith that powers our system today. Counterfeiters are interesting because they trafficked in this most essential economic fuel–faith. They also reflected the logic of early America’s speculative, debt-driven economic landscape. As I write in the book, counterfeiters were the black margin to the various shades of gray that made up the financial spectrum. In antebellum America, the government didn’t print money: banks did, hundreds and eventually, thousands of different kinds. Many of these bankers didn’t have enough gold and silver to back these bills, as was required by law. So many bankers essentially became counterfeiters, trying to inspire faith in paper promises they knew they couldn’t keep. But as long as everyone accepts these bills without calling their bluff, more and more value is created, and there’s a huge hallucination of riches that everyone conspires to sustain–before it all comes crashing down.

So does knowing the past really help to avert future mistakes, or does it just make the present more interesting?

Well, clearly there’s a lot of overlap with the present here. Looking for lessons in history is fascinating, and it helps contextualize our current crisis. But to answer your question, I’m not entirely sure what practical purpose it serves. I doubt we would’ve avoided going to war in Iraq or Afghanistan if there’d been more books written on Vietnam. People who know their history aren’t immune to repeating it: Obama’s foreign-policy team has studied Vietnam to death and that hasn’t prevented them from waging a war that looks a lot like it. I think it’s probably unrealistic to think of history as playing a broader social or political role. But at a personal level, the impact can be huge. To see the continuity between past and present, to know that people who lived in previous eras were motivated by many of the same thoughts and feelings, is exciting. Maybe the only purpose of it is to make us feel less lonely, which is what any good writing does.

I would add that any art partly functions as a way to mitigate that burden. Art leads us away from fear; it reminds us that we are never alone. How does that notion fit into your conception of writing fiction?

Fiction is a tricky thing. We still think of the novel as the holy grail of literary achievement–that you’re not a real writer unless you’ve made a stab at it. I don’t think that’s fair. Nonfiction can be just as rewarding. But it’s also true that fiction lets you tell stories you wouldn’t otherwise be able to. Historical fiction gives you a little more flexibility with intangibles, the sort of details that didn’t get written down and so would have to remain speculative in a strictly factual account. In nonfiction, I find I’m trying to make things intelligible, to keep the prose as clear as possible. In fiction, there’s a lot I can’t make intelligible, because there’s always that deeper opacity to human behavior, and often the prose is less about conveying a specific content than about expressing an atmosphere or a feeling.

You talked earlier about tying to make facts, such as they are, feel true, an act that requires a sort of “channeling” of life as it is lived for real people. With whom or what are you in conversation when writing fiction?

The novel I’m currently writing is a historical thriller set in San Francisco in 1856. It’s more genre than literary, so I’ve got plenty of murder-mystery conventions to lean on. Also, it’s so tightly plotted that I’m forced to keep the wandering to a minimum. Even so, it requires a lot of the channeling you’re talking about. Those convergences between past and present become very personal, because you’re trying to create a credible universe for these characters to inhabit based on your own limited observations of human behavior. You know that essay by David Foster Wallace where he talks about the writer being the sweaty person on the subway staring at people’s faces? I feel like I’m doing that a lot these days. I can read about what Montgomery Street looked like in the 1850s on Google Books, but if I’m trying to make a character express anger or fear or surprise, I have to use my own memories of what those feelings look like. That’s what makes fiction so hard, but also so much fun, because it means almost anything in your personal past is potentially usable.