Isabelle Stillman: Your piece is based on the Cyril Wilcox suicide and Harvard’s Secret Court of 1920—you might call this historical fiction. What is your connection to the genre and what about this historical moment called you to fictionalize it?
Mateal Lovaas Ishihara: I’ve always loved historical fiction. As a child, it was my reading genre of choice. I couldn’t get enough of books like Number the Stars, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons: The Story of Phillis Wheatley. So perhaps it’s natural that as a writer, this genre continues to attract me. I keep a running list of historical moments I hope to fictionalize some day.
As regards Harvard’s Secret Court of 1920, this event already read like the very best page-turning fiction: the basement speakeasy, the shushed suicide, the flamboyant letter sent just a few days too late, the vindictive brother, the appalling interrogations in a closed-curtained room, the fact that the whole affair remained hidden in the bowels of Harvard for 80 years. It was all so scandalous, so appalling, so—from a fiction writer’s perspective—deliciously dramatic, that it felt too good (or perhaps too bad) to pass up.
IS: How closely have you stuck to the historical events, and how did you decide when to incorporate fact and when to use your own imagination?
MLI: I stuck extremely closely to the historical events. There was little need to veer from the truth since, as I mentioned, it was climatic enough for fiction. I also felt compelled to keep “Crossing Harvard Yard” as historically accurate as possible because I thought the true events would maintain more of their weight that way. Plus, I’m a bit of research dork. “Crossing Harvard Yard” emerges from a copious (and probably obsessive) amount of research, including a trip from my home in Southern California to the Harvard University Archives in Cambridge.
So what’s true? All the characters’ names and most of their personal details. The major plot points. The timing. Most of the two letters (I’d guess they’re probably three-quarters verbatim). More specifically, Gene really was an anxiety-ridden dental student. Crippled Eddie really did spend eight years of his life in a body cast and wear rouge to combat his paleness. Cyril Wilcox’s older brother, Lester, really did beat up Cyril’s ex-boyfriend Harry Dreyfus and likely blackmail him too. You get the idea.
Perhaps it’s easier to speak to where I strayed or embellished. The interrogation questions throughout “Crossing Harvard Yard” are best-guess formulations based on the responses recorded in the primary documents. The deans did not write down their own questions; only the students’ responses. However, it was often easy to reconstruct what the questions might have been based on the answers. I also chose to minimally edit and add to the letters for the purposes of character development and clarity. Lastly, most of the intimate moments had to be imagined. For example, Keith Smerage and Nathaniel Wollf really did have some type of romance, but how serious was it? What were their sexual lives like? What did they say to each other? No one knows.
So I would say that most of the bones in the story are true, but the fleshing out was often my imagination.
IS: The characters have such strong voices and personalities throughout the story, yet it’s very much a group narrative. Can you elaborate on your approach to character development and narration?
MLI: I’m really glad to hear you thought the characters had strong voices and personalities, as I won’t lie, that took quite a bit of revising! They weren’t always so delineated. It was tricky on two fronts. First, I personally know the characters forwards-and-backwards from my research, and from the fact that I’m writing a full-length novel version of the Harvard Secret Court story. Most days, I’m living with these guys all around me. So it was often hard to step back and figure out how new readers might imagine these characters.
Delineation was also tricky because, on the surface, the students are quite similar: white, middle and upper class, mostly queer, 18- to 23-year-old Harvard students from the Northeast. While there are obvious and important differences, it was sometimes hard to throw those into the story and not have them feel bulky. There was brief mention of eliminating one of the core characters, but that leads to your point that this is a group narrative. I very much intended “Crossing Harvard Yard” to be a group story and hoped that even if characters were occasionally confused with one another, that the whole would be greater than the sum of its parts, and that, ultimately, the very fact that they blended together would create a meaningful effect. We all agreed that eliminating a character might take away from that.
IS: Given your narrative choices in “Crossing Harvard Yard,” as well as the unique form, can you talk more about your writing process for this piece?
MLI: To be honest, I first wrote this short story on a deadline for a Suspense and Momentum Workshop. I kept trying to sit down and start a new story that had no relation to the Secret Court, the subject of the novel I was already working on, but I just couldn’t. All I could think about were Keith and Ken, Eddie and Ernest, Gene and Joe, and the suicide of their friend Cyril.
Since I couldn’t get my head out of their world, I decided to keep it in it. I chose the most climatic part of the larger historical event, and turned it into a short story. It was a bit odd for me, as I hadn’t gotten anywhere near the climax of my novel yet, and there I was writing about it in short story form. But it was fun, and I was motivated by a good deadline. To my surprise, I sat down and wrote a draft of “Crossing Harvard Yard” in one sitting. That’s definitely unusual for me. The real work came in the revising, character delineation, follow-up research, and copyright permissions.
As per the story’s form and narration, I was certainly inspired by some of the works we were reading in our workshop. The professors had actually encouraged us to borrow and play with things from those pieces. So the idea of providing “evidence” within my narrative first came from Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods. I also found inspiration for tone, POV, and dialogue in Cathy Day’s “Winnesaw” and Anthony Doerr’s “July Fourth.”
IS: The piece’s conclusion is left open-ended. What inspired you to leave it as such, rather than include the facts of the interrogations’ aftermath?
MLI: I had a teacher who insisted that most writers start scenes too early and end scenes too late. He taught that the best scenes—and stories, for that matter—are ones where writers “get in late” and “get out early.” That way, the author maintains maximum interest and suspense. The lesson stuck with me. So I’d say the ambiguous ending of “Crossing Harvard Yard” was at least partly a craft choice.
I’d also say, however, that the open-ended conclusion came about for more organic reasons too, ones I can’t fully explain. As I clacked away at my laptop, nearing the end of the story, I just didn’t feel like it beckoned me to detail the aftermath. Maybe it’s in part because historical fiction, especially the kind based on real people, is more about finding the story around and behind the known facts than just a simple recollection of them.
IS: “Crossing Harvard Yard” brings to light injustices that are still alive in our society today. How do you think literature, fiction in particular, can best confront injustice in the world?
MLI: I’m a secondary and college English teacher, so the “power of literature,” both positive and negative, is certainly something that brings out my passion. I’m also a queer feminist, so the topic is personal too. I cringe when I think of the types of books my young daughter might encounter as required reading in school, knowing so many of them not only exclude but also actively misrepresent bodies like hers, families like ours.
Much of my undergraduate and graduate scholarship focused on representations of queerness, race, gender, and otherness in children’s and young adult literature. I examined how literature, often unknowingly, reinforces societal norms, such as heteronormativity, racism, and violence against women. At its best, however, literature can address social injustices and present more expansive visions of the world—a world where characters of color don’t need to be “whitewashed” on the covers of teen novels to help with sales; where queer characters appear not as the token “best friend” in modern realistic fiction alone, but as nuanced characters in a wide variety of genres, including fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction.
IS: What authors or movements have guided you in your pursuit of socially engaged and diverse fiction?
MLI: I’m with eleven-year-old Marley Dias, founder of #1000BlackGirlBooks, when she says she’s sick of reading about white boys and dogs in children’s and young adult books. She’s pushing for a diversity quota, which is fantastic. I also think we need to consider the quality of representations within those titles too.
Much of my writing aims to contribute to the quantity or quality of diversity in literature. I often pull inspiration from academic books I’ve read—such as Cart and Jenkins’s awesome study of the historic trends in young adult literature with queer content—as well as from other fiction authors—such as Sherman Alexie, Octavia E. Butler, Junot Diaz, John Green, Jhumpa Lahiri, David Levithan, and Malinda Lo, to name a few.
Ultimately, I believe fiction has the power to reveal to readers what mere facts cannot. It can build empathy, depict injustices, and expand one’s sense of the possible. In a world of on-going injustice, that power is something I take seriously.
Mateal Lovaas Ishihara holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Iowa State University and a BA in International Studies from Middlebury College. She works as an English teacher and has taught second graders up through college students. When she’s not teaching, she writes fiction, usually for children and young adults. Her research-rich work focuses on environmentalism, social justice, and LGBTQ issues. She is the recipient of Middlebury’s Alison Fraker Prize for feminist writing. She is currently working on several big writing projects, including a historical novel for teens.