I averaged three art classes a day during my last year of high school. It was the only thing that elevated my GPA above what could generously be called alarming. I spent the majority of those twelve semesters failing a lot of classes, or nearly failing them. A multitude of reasons were at play, but disengagement and disinterest were certainly up there on the list. Core classes– history among them, and through no real fault of my teachers, many of whom were badass educators who cared deeply about their students– just failed to catch hold.
History, frankly, was suffocating. Droll. Too large in its scope and breadth to really grasp.
Decades later and I’ve written a few novels and have come to accept that I am ensnared by facets of history. That I’m absolutely enrapt by it. I’m prone to history binges. I take a great comfort in studying it, in the idea that virtually whatever we’re experiencing socially, culturally, economically, politically at a particular time, it’s happened before somewhere else – or right here – to some degree. I like the individual stories. The personal experiences that thread through the larger framework. The anecdotes. The factiods. That’s what I initially missed as a younger person, those personal elements. That’s what I find so fascinating now.
And I’m still never sure when something will grab me. Years ago I read a line in Regine Pernoud and Marie-Veronique Clin’s excellent biography, Joan of Arc: Her Story. It started wheels turning in my mind. Wheels upon wheels.
The line that absolutely snared my imagination:
“This haste, this crush of the crowd, these hundreds of English men-at-arms, this executioner—his name was Geoffroy Thérage—all for one young girl who in a high voice lamented and invoked God.”
They knew his name! Who was this guy, Thérage? I mean, could you imagine being that guy? Being the guy that actually lit the tinder stacked beneath Joan of Arc? What kind of weight– emotional, spiritual or otherwise– would such an act carry? Or had he become inured to it, just another day at the office? I was fascinated with this man, the idea of him, and it started a process that ultimately became the genesis for my second novel, Smoke City.
But first it started me on the path to historical research. I initially knew shockingly little about Joan of Arc and the Hundred Years War between England and France. I’d long assumed Geoffroy – or whoever had executed Joan – would be an English soldier. But he wasn’t, as far as records indicate. He was a French executioner, acting at the behest of fellow French clergy and politicians who were acting, essentially, at the behest of an occupying English army.
Little is known about the culture of executioners during that time. But what I was able to find out – through my own research and assistance from various historians that were willing to help me – was enthralling. Those specific elements, those details, right? Executioners were required to wear symbols sewn onto the back of their coats to denote their livelihood – a sword, a ladder – and were shunned because of it. If they were allowed to drink in a tavern with the regular folks, their mugs were usually smashed afterwards so they couldn’t be used again. Vendors used a special spoon to snare vegetables for the executioner and his family. Executioners and their families were unclean, a necessary evil.
What does that do to a person?
While 15th century France is vastly different from 21st century America, a heart is a heart is a heart.
Thérage himself was even more a mystery, though a particular anecdote seems to have survived the ages: Geoffroy was seen drunk and weeping as he ran in and out of bars on the evening of Joan’s execution. He claimed that as she burned alive he had seen her soul leave her body in the shape of a dove. He told tavern patrons that he feared he’d damned himself. That he had murdered a saint and damned himself to hell.
A historian that helped me with my research later showed me a printout of an archived bill, written by the actual Geoffroy Thérage and presented to a lord for payment. (Executioners were essentially contract workers, and presented their bills to whoever had instigated a particular execution; any items used in the event – gloves, weapons, horses – were considered unclean and destroyed, and then listed in an itemized bill.)
This particular bill was written years after Joan’s death.
The details. The stories within stories. Damned or not, Geoffroy had mouths to feed, at the very least his own. After Joan’s death, he kept executing. It’s what he knew. There were presumably not a lot of options for a potentially damned, saint-burning, unclean killer in the 1430s. You didn’t get to switch careers, go back to school.
Honestly, how do you not write about that guy?
Smoke City isn’t a historical novel per se – much of it is set in present day. But the historical aspect was vital to the book. My first novel, The Mercy of the Tide, is set in a small coastal Oregon town at the height of the ‘80s Cold War. Again, it provided ample opportunities for research, for the immersion into specific fields of study. That book required me to research stuff as varied as megaton yields of various nuclear missiles of the 1980s, educational options for deaf students in rural Oregon during the Reagan era, Native American reservation life of the 1850s, the strained relationships between Europe, the United States and the USSR during the Cold War. I seem irrevocably drawn to include some element of history into all of my books now.
In many ways it’s a little lamentable. It took me this long to see the value in history, in its cyclical nature, in its sometimes painfully obvious lessons, in its endlessly fascinating minutiae. But there’s something comforting about it too – history’s always gonna be there for us. The darkness and the light. Geoffroy’s laments and Joan’s fortitude.
History’s always there for us, waiting to be discovered.
Keith Rosson is the author of The Mercy of the Tide, Behind the Mask, and Smoke City (coming in January 2018). NPR called this Oregonian “a talent to be watched,” and we have to agree! You can meet him at upcoming events, like his Driftwood Public Library presentation in Lincoln City, OR October 10 at 4:00; his reading at the Newport Public Library October 11 at 7:00; and then back at the Driftwood Public Library on October 12 at 4:00 reading as a part of their “Dark and Stormy Night” series. Find out more about Rosson (who is also an illustrator and designer) at his website.