The Tyranny of Facts by Joel Fishbane – Guest Blog

or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Fiction
Joel Fishbane

There’s that old proverb about writing being one-tenth inspiration and nine-tenths sweat, but I think that ratio needs adjusting: at least one of those tenths has to be reserved for the act of reading other people’s books. A good writer is a great reader. Archimedes famously got inspiration while taking a bath but he was in mathematics; my own Eureka-moment came while reading P.T. Barnum’s 1869 autobiography, Struggles and Triumphs.

Writing about the various marvels he showed at his “American Museum”, Barnum wrote briefly about Anna Swan, declaring that “she was an intelligent and by no means ill-looking girl.” The comment intrigued me. Here was a woman who was around eight feet tall and Barnum had reduced her to a paragraph that was 160 words long – 161 if you count “ill-looking” as two separate words.

The idea of using Anna’s life as the basis for a novel did not come all at once. She simply began to sweep around my head, where she eventually mingled with a short story I was writing in which an actor named Nicholas was in love with a very tall girl named Andorra. Creative evolution did the rest.

Researching Anna’s life revealed a frustrating truth: everything we know about her comes from someone else. There are no letters, diaries, or quotes. Barnum tells us she was intelligent but we have no proof for ourselves: history has robbed us of her voice. This is a shame because Anna witnessed the American Civil War, Canadian Confederation, the reign of Queen Victoria, the abolition of slavery, and the beginnings of the woman’s right’s movement (the first woman’s right’s convention happened two years after her birth). She must have had some interesting thoughts – already unique, she almost certainly would have had the perspective of an outsider looking in.

Anna was silent but her world wasn’t: there is no shortage of information about the era in which she lived. The first draft of my novel was 190,000 words, which is almost three times as long as it is now. It had been weighed down by what I like to call the Tyranny of Fact: I had tried to put every last bit of research onto the page. It was good history but it was bad fiction. And so the rebellion began.

The novel belongs to two women – Anna Swan and Andorra, the woman hired to play Anna in the movie based on her life. Any fact that helped me tell their story stayed; anything extraneous was promptly deleted. I was surprised by what I cut. In 1865, for instance, there was a fire at Barnum’s Museum and it was reported that Anna was carried to safety via a fireman’s derrick. I always assumed this story would make it into the book but the attentive reader will not find it in the final draft. Given that the book jumps from 1863 to 1871, the story of the fire became a digression. The book never suggests it didn’t happen; it’s simply a tale that now lives between the lines (or the chapters, as the case may be).

I was also saddened to cut the story of Isaac Sprague, the living skeleton who the newspapers called Anna’s “best friend.” Possible reporter’s hyperbole aside, there is something enchanting about the idea of an eight foot tall girl being friends with a man who is only 43 pounds. Yet as I edited, I found I couldn’t give Isaac a narrative role that wasn’t already being fulfilled by others. This is the harsh part of historical fiction. Isaac was no doubt important to Anna, but I exiled him so I could write a stronger book.

In the end, Anna Swan lived in the world of myth and while most myths are based on fact, they always spin off into a fictional extreme. It is appropriate, I think, that fact and fiction should be blended in the retelling of Anna’s life. Let the actual historians set the record straight; as for me, I’m satisfied that I didn’t reduce her life to a handful of pithy sentences. She was more than the sum of her measurements – and of the few words that Barnum used to describe her.

4_23 fishbane thunder of giantsFrom Canadian novelist and playwright Joel Fishbane, comes the extraordinary, out-of-this-world tale of The Thunder of Giants. Nearly 8-feet tall and hoping to build a better life for her children, Andorra Kelsey escapes to Hollywood to star in a film about Anna Swan, the giantess who toured the world as part of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum decades earlier. Their stories parallel each other as both women struggle to find tranquility in a world that sees them as anything but human. Anna and Andorra long for normalcy, but first must tackle the society that is too small to contain them. Will Anna and Andorra find love and peace? Will society see them as more than the mere sum of their measurements? This story, with its underlying themes of the ever-present issues of body image in society, captivated my heart and blew me away.

About the Author:4_23 author photo 8188251
JOEL FISHBANE is a novelist, playwright, sous-chef, actor, trivia host, amateur boxer, occasional clarinet player and general man about town. His various plays, short stories, articles, critiques and literary musings have been published, performed, honored, and otherwise applauded in Canada, the United States and Europe. He lives in Toronto and almost always wears a hat. For more information, visit

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  1. Hi, Joel;
    Considering what life is like from the POV of a giant is a challenge, doing so for a woman giant in a different time even moreso. What ended up being your best research sources? Having put yourself in the place of these two women, what do you think was the hardest for them to deal with day after day?

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