To author Katherine Chen ’12, historical fiction is meant to inspire more than inform. And the inspiration comes from a deep connection with her characters. “I’ve realized that I use historical fiction to write about the personal,” Chen says. Her latest novel, Joan, is no exception.
Chen began writing her fictional retelling of the Joan of Arc story in 2018. This was her second novel, following Mary B, based on the life of the character Mary Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Reinventing the tale of Joan, a historical figure who has already been chronicled extensively, would prove a tall order, but Chen was confident she could find a unique spin. It was a medical scare, however, that gave Chen a personal connection with Joan and provided the ultimate inspiration for her work.
Chen has been writing stories for as long as she can remember. As a kid, she made picture books. By the time she arrived at Princeton, she was focusing on poetry, taking creative writing courses taught by the likes of CK Williams, Meghan O’Rourke, and Susanna Moore.
After graduating, Chen worked at a literary agency for two and a half years before signing a deal for Mary B. “At some point you just consider whether you want to continue reading other people’s work and helping other people with their work, or you feel that creative itch and you want to swim off into the deep waters on your own,” Chen says.
Chen originally set out to write about Jesus Christ’s youth for her second novel. But one day, as she was combing through her bookshelf, she came across a biography of Joan of Arc. It had been an impulse purchase years earlier, and Chen hadn’t gotten around to reading it. The book caught her eye, and inspiration stuck.
Chen had already written a first draft when she was diagnosed with cancer in 2019. “I felt a sea change had essentially taken place within me, and I had to rewrite the book,” Chen says. Though her cancer was not life-threatening, Chen felt a renewed appreciation for all that Joan accomplished in her short life. The heroine only lived to the age of 19, and most of her famed actions took place within one year. “I felt like I had a closer understanding of what it means to live life fully and to leave a lasting legacy,” Chen says.
Joan was published in July. The Guardian called it “a brilliant exploration of how an otherworldly peasant girl became a leader of violent men and a national icon,” and Kirkus Reviews said it’s “an elegant and engaging work of historical fiction.”
Ultimately, Chen hopes that after finishing Joan, readers feel as if they’ve emerged from a movie theater. “You step into the light, you feel that sense of adrenaline, and you feel moved,” Chen says. Now she’s looking ahead: She has just signed a two-book deal for Random House, and dreams that one of these will be an Arthurian epic.