15 Questions with Jill Lepore

Jill Lepore may be known around Harvard as the head honcho of the Hist and Lit Department. But during her

Jill Lepore may be known around Harvard as the head honcho of the Hist and Lit Department. But during her downtime she’s been cultivating another personality: a colorful, 18th-century Scottish painter named Stewart Jameson, protagonist in her debut novel, “Blindspot.” Lepore co-authored the book, which is a parody of, and homage to, 18th-century style, with Brandeis history professor Jane Kamensky. “Blindspot” tells the story of romance and intrigue in Revolutionary War-era Boston. FM sat down with the historian for a coffee chat about time travel and 18th-century debauchery.


Fifteen Minutes [FM]: How did you and Jane meet each other?

Jill Lepore [JL]: We met in graduate school, we were both at Yale in the early nineties and we both had dogs. We met each other, I think, at the dog park.


FM: You two decided to write the novel as a birthday present for a friend?

JL: He was actually our graduate student mentor at Yale, John Demos. When an academic retires, his graduate students usually hold a conference to celebrate his work. Jane and I decided that for our piece of the conference we were going to write character sketches that were a send-up of 18th-century genre fiction. It took us a week to write these character sketches, and it was fun. So we kept going, and before we knew it we’d batted back and forth 100 pages.


FM: What was the time frame?

JL: We started writing in December and finished in June.


FM: Was it all via e-mail? Did you ever collaborate in person?

JL: It was almost all via e-mail. We decided we needed to take advantage of the fact that there were two of us, and settled on this dual-narrated single novel. I wrote Jameson’s chapters, which are a very campy version of the 18th-century picaresque. Jane wrote a sentimental epistolary novel that’s like “Clarissa.” There are several places in the novel where the characters are in the same place at the same time and both narrate the scene; when we wrote those we did that together at one another’s house. We’d share a laptop and pass it back and forth.


FM: It seems like you’re trying to reinvent the genre of historical writing to make it more relevant and imaginative, as opposed to dry and traditional. How much of your genre do you think the market can bear?

JL: I don’t know if it can bear any of it. (Laughs) The thrill is to do it. Part of the conceit of the novel is that it was supposed to be written as if it were written in 1764, and so there’s a lens through which the characters see the world that’s not entirely bearable for a contemporary reader. Most modern readers aren’t out there reading “Clarissa.” Have you?

FM: Nope!

JL: Yeah. It’s long. It seems hackneyed, because it’s the origin of these further conventions, so we couldn’t actually keep complete fidelity to the sensibility.


FM: It seems that you’re hoping it will be kind of a gateway drug into these 18th-century novels. What would you hope that a reader would gain just by reading it?

JL: I do wish that it brought people to read more 18th-century fiction and historical materials. The book is supposed to sort of make the reader the historian... it is totally didactic in that sense, not as a “gateway drug” to 18th-century fiction, but ideally to get people excited about reading history in a different way.


FM: If you could go back in time and convince one person in that period to write a diary, who would it be?

JL: Well, I don’t want to go back in time. It is very frustrating as a social historian that there are so few of certain kinds of documents. In the last history book that I wrote, which is about a slave rebellion in New York, the chief evidentiary obstacle was that the words attributed to the accused are these confessions that are referred to as “Negro evidence.” The originals were burned in a fire in 1911, so all that survives are highly edited versions of a confession beaten out of somebody who spoke another language, who didn’t know how to read and write. So I would love for there to be some authentic statement by one of those guys, but the conditions of history don’t make it possible. It’s a counterfactual.


FM: Speaking of counterfactuals, what would the reception of the novel have been if it were released in 1764?

JL: It’s just like every other [18th-century] novel.


FM: But earlier you said it was kind of faster paced.

JL: It has to be somehow legible to a modern reader. It is quite overwrought, and it’s also quite campy, but it’s not nearly as overwrought and campy as that stuff. The novel was considered pernicious; it was a new form, considered debauched, and it played on those conventions.


FM: Speaking of debauchery, did you follow 18th-century standards of bawdiness or those of contemporary American novels with this novel?

JL: Well the bawdiness is itself utterly 18th-century. In terms of modern convention, it’s probably very discreet.


FM: You have a lot of inside jokes and anachronisms. When you include an Edgar Allan Poe reference, for instance, is that just an inside joke that only a handful of readers would catch?

JL: 18th-century fiction is itself very pastiche-y, there’s a lot of cut-and-paste quality to it, and there’s a lot of lampooning. It’s not meant to be arch; it’s fine if you don’t get it. If you do, maybe it’s amusing.


FM: If you wrote a historical paper, you would hope that people judge you by your insight. How should people judge you through this work? Is it just a romp?

JL: It would be very easy to make too much of it. Yes, it is a romp. But also, because we really care about this period, it’s an attempt to get out of a kind of stalled debate in American historical scholarship between an economic interpretation of the American revolution and an intellectual interpretation.


FM: It seems like in 200 years, social historians will have a wealth of blogs, archives, and other documentation to work with. How do you think that will change the game, if at all?

JL: I think a lot of that stuff, from the historian’s point of view, is pretty noisy. Even the 19th century gets kind of noisy to me, it can be hard to sort through where real patterns are to be found. I don’t know that I think that it necessarily makes the historian’s task easier to have more stuff.


FM: If you had a question to ask Jameson or any of the people he’s modeled after, what would it be?

JL: They can only tell us what they’ve already told us. I often get that question... my relationship to the past doesn’t feel that way. I think it just comes from a different set of assumptions.


FM: So as a historian, how would you characterize your understanding of these people’s lives relative to that of their contemporaries?

JL: You usually know how it’s going to end. One of the really fun things about working on a novel was knowing how certain things ended, but not knowing how everything ended.