Wednesday, August 17, 2011

When Fiction Comes Up Against Reality

For the past few months, I've been doing work that would have to rank at the top of any list of interesting activities for a historical novelist. After writing two books (THE RAGTIME KID and THE RAGTIME FOOL), which featured Sanford Brunson Campbell, the "Original Ragtime Kid of the 1890s" as protagonist, I was lucky enough to obtain three big boxes of items that once belonged to the real-life Kid, who died in 1952.

Imagine my feelings, reading autobiographical manuscripts describing Brun's adventures as an itinerant ragtime pianist during the first decade of the twentieth century, and his efforts during the last decade of his life to revive ragtime music and the reputation of his hero, Scott Joplin. There were also musical compositions unknown to current ragtime enthusiasts, 78rpm recordings of Brun playing his and Joplin's music, personal effects (including his barber's razor strop), business and tax records, and extensive correspondence with prominent musicians, entertainment figures, and politicians.

Brun was known as someone who never let facts get in the way of a good story - no wonder he was such a compelling figure to an historical novelist - and so, some of his written material was contradicted by well-established information. I think what inspired Brun to tell many of his tall tales was the desire to bring Joplin the recognition Brun (rightly) thought his old piano teacher deserved. As my Brun put it in THE RAGTIME FOOL, "Well, the way I told it, that's what Mr. Joplin deserved...That's how it should've been."

Brun did tell some good stories, and told them well. He had a very engaging voice. After five years wandering through the midwest, playing bar-room piano, he decided to go home to Arkansas City, KS, to visit his high-school sweetheart. "While I had been away," Brun wrote, "the local gossips had told her all kinds of stories about me and my ragtime career, the places in which I had played and other poisonous gossip. Some of it was true..."

"I arrived dressed in a loud checkered suit; cloth-top, colored patent leather shoes with pearl buttons, a light-colored hat with a loud hatband around it, and that ever-loving loud silk shirt, together with the loud-patterned necktie, about made my ragtime dress complete. When the natives saw me in that getup, I created quite a sensation.

"I thought my girl would faint when she gave me the once-over, and my mother stood dead in her tracks when she saw my loud clothes. But I was her darling boy and my appearance was soon forgotten by her."

I was pleased and not a little surprised to see how well my fictional Brun fit with his historical profile. But now, what? Some sort of nonfiction book needs to come out of this material, probably with a CD of a ragtime pianist playing Brun's newly-discovered music, as well as transcriptions from Brun's recordings. It'll take some time, especially having to fit the work in as I write my next mystery, and probably the one after that. But it's got to be done. It tickles me that the story of the story-telling man who worked so hard on Scott Joplin's behalf now falls to another story-teller. Gonna be a challenge to sort out what's reality in Brun's accounts, and what's fiction.

1 comment:

john M. Daniel said...

what a collection of treasures you came upon, opening up the life of Brun Campbell! I can imagine how thrilled you are. And what projects this new insight will inspire for you. You're going to be a busy writer. As if you weren't already.

Keep us informed of your progress, and Long Live Ragtime.