Jessica Francis Kane explores the line between truth and imagination in fiction @ The Morning News.The man walked with a limp and a cane and couldn’t stand quite straight. He made his way slowly, deliberately to the front row of the auditorium in the London Transport Museum, a custom-made fluorescent yellow vest over his dark blazer.Printed on the vest were various facts and figures of the Bethnal Green Tube station disaster: 173 people killed on the stairs the night of March 3, 1943; death in all cases by asphyxiation, there were no bombs; largest civilian accident of WWII.He’d come to hear me speak on the topic, the subject of my first novel. He sat down and looked up at me on the stage. To say his expression was skeptical would be an understatement. I am a relatively young American novelist. He is Alf Morris, one of the accident’s oldest survivors.* * *My first novel is labeled as and widely considered to be historical fiction, but I can honestly say I never thought of it that way, not in all the years it took me to write it.
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Although it is based on a historical event, it was not until after the events of 9/11 that I began to think the accident at Bethnal Green might be something I could write a story about. I was thinking a great deal then about disasters, about communal loss, about how we attempt to publicly reckon and eventually commemorate tragedy. I was following in the press the demands for an independent investigation into 9/11, and as I wondered what would happen, I found myself pulling out my notes on Bethnal Green. It seemed to me there were parallels: A community had been deeply shocked and wanted an official investigation to tell it what had happened. Though the scale of the tragedies is different, in both instances a great deal of hope—for explanation, reform, even redemption—was placed in the inquiry and report-writing process. That is what interested me. The inspiration was always contemporary.read more