The first question readers of historical fiction usually ask is how much is real, and how much made up. It’s a fair and important question, given that that novels and films reach a larger audience than those who read books of history. How close is this story to the real story? all of us should ask. I’ve been amused by the assumptions some have made about Gutenberg’s Apprentice. One reviewer said “obviously, Christie made the whole thing up;” another lauded my historical accuracy. A surprising number turn to Wikipedia to “refute” my version of the tale. And that is the main point I want to make here: however well-grounded this story may be in fact, it will always only be my version, one interpretation, of the complex, fragmentary history of the invention that has come down to us.
Much as an author has to finally believe in her version, literally fall in love with her story, we should never lose sight of the fact that this is just one reasonably well-informed view of what may have really happened. Others steeped in the same research may and have come to very different views of the roles played by Gutenberg, Fust and Schoeffer. I based my view on contemporary accounts from the 15th century of Schoeffer as a gifted typographer, as well as his own documented conversations with the Abbot Trithemius that he had invented something key at a point early on in the Bible’s production. Others have doubted the veracity of Trithemius’s account, but I am not among them.
What I will say is that I have been a journalist for thirty years, and am therefore a stickler for facts. Anyone who’s been fact-checked for a long magazine article knows that you have to double- and triple-check every assertion you make. Many have also asked me why I didn’t simply write this book as nonfiction. The answer is simple: there’s not enough proof on which to build a nonfiction book. Thanks to invading armies and bombs and the natural reticence of medieval people to conveniently document their actions for posterity, reading the Gutenberg record is like reading tea leaves. There are some facts; there are the books; the rest is inference. The journalist in me built this story on fairly solid bedrock; I spell out all my assumptions and sources in a detailed Historical Note on this site (under “Gutenberg Bible”). Unlike a lot of novelists I admire, I didn’t put it in the back of the book, which was long enough already. It lives in perpetuity online—that’s one nice gift of the digital world to the age of print.